Ursula Maria Probst: Here Space Becomes A Counterpart

Elisabeth Grübl’s space-defining works, along with her methods for installation and sculpture, aim at a broadened approach to the medium of photography, for it is space that forms the actual material, also in her photography. Visitors entering one of her installations will find themselves in a place whose production goes beyond a space defined merely in a physical or phenomenological sense. In her photographic works, space is more than a field for viewing or imagining; it arises from a spatial design concept and from specifically selected views. Different than photographic realism or direct photography, Elisabeth Grübl makes diverse interventions through perspective deskewings. In her interventions, she retains the frontal view of the room as an expression of a relational exchange between the photographic framing and the spatial extension. The moment a photograph is taken also describes in her work the relationship of the photograph, as an indexical medium, to its referents outside of the image. In contrast to staged photography as a simulation or construction of reality, and different from a focus on information and representation, her concern is with implementing photography as a space-defining medium.
In her photography series Studio Krumau (2006), Elisabeth Grübl took shots of the studio in Krumau during her studio study. In a frontal view, from the midpoint perspective, she directs the camera at all four walls of the very high room. Visible in these takes are the traces of other artists who have used the studio before her: paint left on one of the compressed wood surfaces affixed to the wall; pottery boxes; an empty drawing table. The photographic takes show the indexicality of artistic production processes in the interstitial state of a before and after. The room becomes optically comprehensible as a space of artistic production through this inductive process. The spatial proportions are deskewed by the take from the middle perspective, which at the same time creates an opening. Through this perspective, the bonds that have come into play between space, perception, and technology are communicated more intensely. Photography’s basis in genuine time runs up against a recording track. The space thereby forms a category that visualizes a sequencing of non-simultaneousness, in contrast to a sense of time that describes successive events: Elisabeth Grübl stretches the medium of photography into a polylogue. Her affinity to a minimalist treatment of form and structure is shown in her selection of view, which also applies to visual components ranging from intentional light distribution to the progression of architectural perspectives. At the same time in her photo series, Studio Krumau (2006), Elisabeth Grübl produces moments of absolute clarity with regard to the transient elements of our existence.
In Elisabeth Grübl’s photographs, we meet with a complex questioning of the transformation of places into spaces, unlike the condition of a space reserved for the consumption of art and “understanding everything in one glance.” The place is already there, before reflection about it occurs, as we have been told by Aristotle, who assumed that everything has its place, claimed in Physics: Book IV . In other cases, place was considered abstract, immaterial, and ideal; otherwise, one would not be able to use sweeping concepts such as topos or situs. Sculpture in a broadened field – or as the American art historian Rosland Krauss specified, in an “expanded field” – does not refer to already existing places. The site-specificity associated with this first of all pointed to marked-out and defined places that did not exist. The philosopher Martin Heidegger referred to the site-defining properties of visual arts in his essay, “Art and Space” (1967). Aside from her sharpness with regard to concepts of place and space, Elisabeth Grübl finds precise photographic methods in the realization.
The site of the photograph O.T. (2006) is a metro station in Budapest; it recalls the aesthetic of those transitional spaces that the French anthropologist Marc Augé described as non-places. Beginning with this concept, Augé’s contemplations lead him to propose an “ethnology of loneliness.” In the photo, one sees a metro station in which people abide in a state of waiting amidst the hustle and bustle of the metropolis. Their social relations are determined by anonymity. The shot of these people, waiting at the platform, has the effect of a freeze frame in a staged performance; in fact it is about an actually occurring situation. In contrast to the staged photograph, such as those we know from Jeff Wall, for example, Elisabeth Grübl’s shot is taken of an everyday situation. Her view selection, which transforms a non-place into a spatial landscape, is determined by an analytic distance. If the view was not predetermined by a distance, the room would not be visible in this way.
Questions of the definition of social space and physical space are juxtaposed here. While the physical space forms an objectification for the analysis of material relationships and their mutuality, social space becomes relevant for the description of social relationships and for understanding our spatial relationships. The sociologist Pitrim A. Sorokin was one of the first to develop the concept of “social space,” when he differentiated between social and geometric space: social space defined itself through the relationships between people or groups of people and also through their non-relationships. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu developed this concept further; social space for him is a relational arrangement of people in a permanent organizational battle, a social-scientific abstraction.
The laser installation, Scanner (2006, together with Manfred Grübl), through the projection of a vertical red line that moves slowly back and forth, probes a predefined field in the room. Bundled light scans raw cement walls at places such as underpasses or cement barracks. This scanning of the space is designed as a subtle intervention and refers, with its continuous progression of the line, to the processuality in the production of space through relationships and distances. The installation translates the way in which the borders between real and imaginary space overlap in our perception, into a spatial language. The discourse on the productive view and the changes in our definition of space through today’s media and devices here receive further components through the confluence of spatial experience, seeing and visualizing, performativity, and receptivity. A situation is therefore consistently presented in which an unmediated “understanding” of space is brought into play. Thus, a dialectic of seeing is generated which changes between surface and depth, visibility and invisibility, presence and absence. At the same time, an individual space is created in contrast to a generalized, “normative” space.
One must clarify the meaning of this step. The Minimalists, with their objects, had left illusion behind and made space itself a topic. The Land Art artists went outside and worked with the materials of nature. The photograph O.T.-Ostia (2007) by Elisabeth Grübl shows the seaside beach at Ostia near Rome. In one of the contour lines of a cube constructed from long metal poles, a person stands with their back to us, facing the horizon, gazing into the open sea. The metal construction, a relict from summertime beach life, forms a geometric grid based on the image perspective, and, through sections and distances, creates spatial coordinates that are in turn set in relation to each other. Again, there is a compositional affinity of the photographic image to Elisabeth Grübl’s minimalist sculptural approach to reality. At the same time, she counters the shrinking of space in our perception and our consciousness. Different than in space, which Michel de Certeau defines as “dynamic,” here we encounter place as “static.” Certeau states in his book Spatial Practices (1988), that, while the location is comprised of monumental constellations of fixed points – corresponding with Michel Foucault’s “emplacements” – his space is a location that is caused by something happening. It is created through activity and being negotiated, for example, the activity of walking on or entering into. Although, according to Michel de Certeau, telling a story requires its legitimization and justification, still he defines both as forms of appropriation, which can transform places into spaces and spaces into places. Certeau understands the transformational potential of spaces as being tied to reality. Elisabeth Grübl defines her Practices in Space (1980) likewise along a dualistic schema. The photograph O.T.-Ostia shows traits of removing and arranging. The expression “removing” here is used in an active and transitive sense. Removing includes, paradoxically, making the distance disappear, that is, the distantness of something. The act of consciously being in the world is a spatial, visual-synoptic act that refers to the way in which reality behaves relationally. Space here becomes a counterpart.
The Studio As Spatial Sculpture and Conceptual Photography
“The basis of this work is the artist’s studio. All that is contained in the room, including, artwork, materials, and furniture, is compacted into a cube. When finally everything has been stacked into this sculptural form, the entire workroom is empty aside from the cube and an entirely changed spatial situation appears. As a result from this process, a photograph is created in each case.”
The method is easily understood; the strategy is complex in its design: in the studios of other artists, Elisabeth Grübl uses their materials, tools, everyday objects, and all of the existing things in the studio, as well as the stored artwork, work in production, all help to realize a cube in the middle of the room. The concept follows the different situation accordingly for each room. Every object found in the room, without exception, is used within the cube and, according to the physical traits, integrated sculpturally. The texture of the objects’ usage gives way to a reduced and precisely advanced design concept, which shapes, nuances and contours into a cube. Furthermore, the objects, removed of their function, correspond to each other on an abstract level, allowing for the launching and projecting of one’s imagination.
In Elisabeth Grübl’s artistic practice, visual and spatial parameters of perception are often closely related to each other. She is a spatial thinker: her construction of the sculptural cube is completed parallel with the destruction of the studio’s existing syntax as a working and living space. By means of overcoming, removing, and abstracting, she proclaims what is concrete in the room, through the placement of the cube and, translated into the medium of a conceptual photograph, demonstrates a structural decisiveness in the form of the frontal view. At the beginning of this studio series, she stacked the objects found in the room towards the wall; latterly, she built a cube to stand in the middle of the room or at the wall. The relation between space and objects is intensified through the juxtaposition of emptiness and compactness. The phenomenological aspects of a minimalist project are therefore expanded by this view of a material language that is derived from the ‘studio’ situation. With the cube, Elisabeth Grübl questions a basic convention of modernist reality. Yet her cube is not hermetically sealed: it allows for a concept of difference.
To describe the experience of what it is to enter a room that has become a spatial installation, I can think of no better comparison than that of the fleeting moments, a state lasting a fraction of a second, of suddenly pausing and fully concentrating on familiar processes of perception. One becomes a witness to the intensity of physical perception in a spatio-temporal continuum of sensory perception. The fascination is founded in a physical perception; rationality quickly regains control. In the sculptures of the studios the spatial coordinates are reversed and let us sense the room intensely, for a moment.
According to Brian O’Doherty’s legendary essay, first published in 1976, “Inside the White Cube,” the white cube is the only meaningful convention in the life of art – a view that has been overcome, as Elisabeth Grübl shows with her spatial structures. The cells of the gallery and the museum, are shifted again into the center of her artistic intention with this series, indeed, in a multitude of ways as interventions. This turns over the conventions of the ‘exhibition’ and the associated social functions that accompany such interventions. Every experience of an artwork is tied together with its ambience, and with the location of its realization. In her sculptures, Elisabeth Grübl attempts a crossing in a literal sense: she uses another artist’s studio – thus, an-other space which is mostly inaccessible to the public and for which the artistic interventions of other artists is taboo. Here she realizes a site-specific work that simultaneously refers in a double sense to the context of a spatial definition. In this regard, first a phenomenological concept applies, according to which the location does not precede its space, which lay at the base of the spatial concept in mathematics in physics. Conversely, space first opens up through the location, which then allows the things to take on a life form in practice. This space, cleared of the things’ living environment, is a space infused with meaning that belongs to a particular world. The ambiguity lies in the concept of clearing, which can be understood as a reference to the specific trait of art vis-à-vis that of familiar things. The sculptures correspond with the environment, with the surrounding space, insofar as they are the objects that are based on production in the space, and no difference is made between used objects and artworks, but instead an understanding between familiarity and trust materializes. The representational potential of the sculpture depends on the existing objects, and the resulting room-sculptures do not follow the logic that the artistic work semantically charges its surrounding; instead, through it another context is produced, which at the same time makes one aware of a structural element of art. The critical potential of site-specific art is not denied through this instance; it rather receives a more precise definition and purpose. At the same time, through the further inclusion of photography, an interwoven correspondence between the work and the observer is set into motion – in the sense of the French poststructuralist Jacques Derrida. A homogenization of the space as cube here confronts a “differential” space. As a “differential” room, the spatial structure preserves the traits that would not have worked through the filter of a homogenous room. At the same time Elisabeth Grübl designs such a differentiated network of relationships, that it creates a space inside that can be recognized in relation to the outside.
Commonly, art studios form manifestations of individual artistic production or, as soon as they are made accessible to the public, serve as instruments of self-staging. In contrast to the white cube exhibition space, the studio is never a neutral presentational space, but instead primarily a place of production and contemplation. The artist Gustave Courbet once used his studio photo in the function of a business card, and Bruce Naumann undertook “Mapping the Studio,” in which he shot video of his studio at various times of the day. In 1998, Naumann painstakingly listed the material collection of his studio, from coffee cups to paintbrushes, paper, video cassettes, and horse saddlery. Elisabeth Grübl’s project, however, does not have the characteristics of a disclosure. In contrast to the studio as the site of creative production, as a place of retreat or as the auratic space occupied by myths and genius ideas, she is able to bring in a discourse that has until now been neglected in the question of the studio. What happens when the atelier as spatial structure becomes a central topic? This view of the studio operates with certain spatial and temporal parameters and reveals its borders. The temporary installations can be entered and in the medium of photography, they continue on. A more exact view of the stringent frontal shot refers to further questions and references. How can sculpture and space be thought of differently? How is sculpture to be thought of when transferred into conceptual photography? The conceptual photography of Elisabeth Grübl is characterized by an interventionist treatment in the coding of specific artistic processes with aesthetic media, materials, and traditions of conceptual and minimalist structure. Her artistic process of stacking up all of the objects and artworks found in the studio of the respective artist, follows an abstraction in the design and integrates questions of originality and authorship. For, the original state of the studio can hardly be inferred at the end of the process. With this Elisabeth Grübl develops a site-specific form of artistic production, which attempts to shift our patterns of reception from the common representational forms through a transfer.
rom this, one could derive, in the sense of the spatial theorist Henri Lefebvre, that Elisabeth Grübl confronts the concept of social space, through the complexity of the cube, with a formal intensification. Different spatial concepts, which tend to be a system of verbal or conceptually formed characters, produces a sculptural body that redefines the relational networks in the room. And at the same time, through its derivation from that which is living, perceived, and conceived, she releases corresponding impulses and resonant effects. Similar to the usual artist portraits, Elisabeth Grübl creates the portrait of the studio situation. With her studio series, which she realized during stays in Frankfurt and Shanghai, but also in Vienna, she also created individual portraits of the artists, who are indeed absent in the frontal shots.