Martin Prinzhorn: The Autonomous Space
Every artistic representation ultimately deals with the fact that appearance, which engenders space, triggers a concept of space. Images emerge through spatial content and fullness and in these images, experience is represented. With such insights, nineteenth-century theorists attempted to offer a more precise definition of classical art and its relationship to nature. Here, space becomes an abstract concept found somewhere between physical and psychological planes or occupies both at the same time, but in any case, it is the site of the artistic simulation of extra-artistic experience. The great achievement made by German aesthetic theory at the time—by Hildebrand, Schmarsow, and Wölfflin—which is still not given appropriate recognition today, was to include the young science of psychology into aesthetic thought, and thus create a program that could, at certain points, abandon the dichotomy of form and content, since both collapse in a mental construction. Just as the border or the form of an object refers to its volume, in 1893, Hildebrand thought it must be possible to arrange objects in such a way that they evoke an idea of the body of the air surrounding them. 1) He subsequently asked how to arrange these objects so that they produce a continuum and do not simply remain fragmentary. The single object becomes a structural component: its position in a void is determined both by the general development of the spatial concept as well as its particular ability to trigger or influence our concept of space. Where these thoughts lead to is the complete dissolution of the autonomous object, which can no longer stand outside of that context that defines the physical / mental space.
In the twentieth century, the autonomous object returned, and paradoxically, most explicitly in American abstraction: there, image and sculpture also had to discard their context, their fixed position in space, in order to still charge the concurrently eliminated figurative content of the works with meaning—although not from the outside. In the end, however, the psychological space surfaces once again, after reduction has led to the monochrome image or the non-transparent geometric sculpture. It now imposes itself more strongly than ever before. In Minimalist and Arte Povera works it is precisely the external lack of a mimetic figurativeness that creates a point at which the reductive transparency is reversed and becomes a kind of barrier behind which space opens up as though a huge and uncanny site of projection. The space returns as the stage for a new dramaturgy, 2) in which the object once again dissolves, becomes an installation, and allows the border to disappear between sculpture and architecture, just like the one between figure and abstraction. At one point in this development, we can begin to inquire again where the very space is that allows for the possibility of a void and is not simply the locus for a projective construction. It is, then, not about the reconstruction of an autonomous object, but about whether there is, even, a concept of space outside of an all-encompassing installation; an empty stage, either before or after a show, and perhaps not even meant to be walked onto: The Hildebrandian air without objects
Elisabeth Grübl, in her installation works, which were in part created together with Manfred Grübl, thematizes space in a different way, by exhibiting it explicitly in various, consistently minimal interventions: spatial openings are closed off using transparent membranes or glass, so that the observers have no actual access. Through this exclusion, the experience becomes one that diametrically opposes the character of dissolving as described above. Here, space does not allow itself to be perceived or understood as the expansion of the object or observer contained within it. In a work such as O.T. (Nichts, No Thing) from 1998, a thin, green plastic foil is affixed to the door frame leading into the gallery space, which allows a view into the colored room, yet it still signifies exclusion, and does so even more strongly than a closed door, since the threshold is tangible, as it were, and our view is drawn toward something unreachable. Based on our patterns of perception, space is always something penetrable; it is a part or extension of us. In this piece, it is granted something static and body-like. A further aspect of the work is a 20,000 Hz sine tone in the stairwell. This, too, supports the shift in perception: the synaesthetic verbal image of a sound that can fill a room is given a new, stronger, and somehow literal meaning in this context because together, the acoustic and the visual levels appear to produce a tactile experience. The viewers are bracketed between two senses, as it were, in order to simulate a third, and to produce what is in fact physically impossible. Here, space is not inaccessible, removed from our view as in a minimalist sculpture. It is visible and, at the same time, object-like.
This difference can also be shown by an earlier work from 1992, in which the artist simulates a huge cube by stretching its edges in the room, as cotton yarn. In an installation from 1997, O.T. (L/M/S), the door frame is closed off with a transparent white material in such a way that the opening is fully integrated into the wall. Images are thus produced whereby different perspectives that open up into three-dimensional experience are projected onto a two-dimensional surface. Again, this creates the impression that space is not something that one can walk around in, and thus change one’s sensory experience, but rather, something that one can walk around.
Space does not actually become a solid object, such as a Rachel Whiteread cement sculpture, but rather, retains its transparency and only leads us astray at the level of perception. In an installation at Vienna’s Secession, the space is divided at a height of about one meter by a second, carpeted wooden floor. The newly produced spaces can both be looked into from outside, although the lower part lies fully in darkness. Here, it not a membrane that actually forbids our penetration into the space, instead, the floor that is placed counter to the room that we can walk into, no longer functions. In contrast to the works of Acconci from the 1970s, the aim is not to change or question the spaces used for art by breaking the neutrality through an uncanny moment. Here, the dysfunctional element causes something to materialize that once again cannot be experienced, but instead, is generated only through the moment of exclusion. Again, this is underscored by a tone, which in its uniformity allows the emptiness to freeze. The Secession’s entire architecture is brought to a state in which relations between interior and exterior, inaccessibility and accessibility, physicality and immateriality, dissolve into various ambiguities of perception.
Another strategy to manifest space as an independent mass, beyond its function, can be found in the interactive installations in the Galerie Mezzanin (1997) and Galerie Anhava (2000). Here, it is important to keep in mind the architectonic characterization of the modern space, as drafted by Mies van der Rohe and others: through the reduction of the ceiling height, the transformation of windows and many more changes, space has been adapted or even subjugated to humans. It becomes controllable and no longer has the pre-modern era’s sacral characteristics. In her installations, Grübl at first seems to strengthen the aspect of control: the exhibition space is separated by vertical blinds, which open and close when activated by motion detectors. What ensues is unpredictable, and thus the control held by the people present in the room turns into its opposite. The expansion and reduction of the room leads to an excess of control, so to speak; suddenly, it is as though the space has a life of its own, which turns around the relationship, making it seem as though the space reacts to us, in a way that restricts our actions. The effects of this supposed intentionality are very similar to the effects in other works: space is not just a mere carrier or receptacle for objects or persons; it is not a void awaiting the appearance of something, but has a life of its own. In the later version of the work, a third level is added: here the blinds alternate among three states: open, closed white surface, and closed mirrored surface. Through the additional state of illusion, the relationship between physical and mental change is again manifest and both definitions of space are addressed simultaneously.
The independent dynamic of spatial quality is also the subject of a new work (0.T. 2004), in which a long space is probed by a laser, whose beam first in point formations extends into a horizontal line, and then reduces to a single point again. The work is installed in an existing, static space; however the probing, stretching, and condensing again make reference to something that is not simply emptiness, dependent only on its environment, but instead something that can even take on materiality when the artist leads our perception to this knowledge.
In her works, Elisabeth Grübl once again takes up art’s wavelike play between object and context, the physical and mental levels, content and form, and interior and exterior—but from a new perspective. Looking at the development of theory and practice from the nineteenth century to the present, these issues have always begun with the object and how it is situated—at least in the visual arts. Attempts were made to make the object autonomous, or to contextualize it in architectonic or mental space. When Hildebrand postulated an antinomy between inherent and effective form, what he addressed was exactly this contradiction between a measurable, natural form that is independent of its environment, and a form perceived only in a specific context, in certain relationships of light and perspective. In her works, at first Elisabeth Grübl shows the effective form of spatial emptiness and air. But by resolving the one side of this concept of form, she consequently refers to the other, to the empty space as an inherent, autonomous form. The interplay is expanded by an important dimension as not only is an object surrounded by air, but the air, too, can become an object, surrounded by other objects—or, perhaps, not.
1) “The body is not merely one of a number of outer objects … its constancy is an absolute that is first given a base by all sorts of Adolf Hildebrand, Das Problem der Form in der bildenden Kunst. Strasbourg: Heitz Muendel, 1893.
2) Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood.” In: Art Forum 1967