Rainer Fuchs: Seeing Made Visible
In Elisabeth Grübl’s room installations, videos, and sculptural interventions, perception and interpretation play a central role as work themes. The basis for her art is not a display of static objects in space, but rather, a concept of surveying space and reality that refers to the dynamics and contingency of perception. Through formulating a work concept that corresponds with this dynamic of perception, foregrounding transitory and changeable elements, Grübl reacts to the fact that perception is not a purely physiological act of mere registration of facts, but instead, includes an interpretational process with specific intentions and conditions in which physiological and ideological, physical and intelligible elements continually configure one another.
In her works, the act of interpretation functions as the hinge that not only sets the subject and object of observation in relation to one another, but also includes the interpretation of perception itself. Substantiating other things through interpretation and sharpening awareness of the value of interpreting this process—Grübl provokes this interpretation mechanism by including the role of the observer and the process of perception as part of the content of her work. In this context, when speaking of the “gaze” as the representative and navigator of consciousness, this always means the observer’s body as a socially conditioned organism, from which, and also in reference to which, perception and interpretation simultaneously mirror and generate socio-cultural dimensions. The phenomenological view of the “body,” still claimed by authors such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty as an absolute, invisible-to-itself, and invariable point of reference for perception 1), or the perception psychology influential in Minimal Art, which imagines an always autonomous, observing subject, and thus an Archimedean body outside of history, as it were, have long been deemed history. In the meantime, these types of views have given way to insights that evaluate the social status of the subject, the subject’s diverse social markings, as decisive factors in the act of interpretation. Grübl’s work is relevant and meaningful in this context because in opposition to the supposed neutrality of perception and the spaces for it, she integrates specific institutional, socio-cultural, and public-oriented motifs and situations into the work motif.
The room installation entitled 10 000 Hz provides a paradigmatic example of this, and serves here to begin a loosely chronological view of the theme of perception in Grübl’s work. Perception analysis and spatial definition appear related to one another in this piece, which comprised a room laid out with a red carpet, visible through a glass pane but inaccessible and filled with a high frequency sound from a sinus tone generator. From the outside, one saw a space with intense red, and a high tone as a correlating signal, as though color and sound were synchronizing with one another and offering comment.
This room installation was Grübl’s contribution to an exhibition by the sculpture class of the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. Her work falls out of the framework of the object-centered sculpture concept taught there. Reflected on here through differentiation and exclusion, in a literal and transferred sense, is the fact that a work can never be perceived outside of its context, and that right from the start it is tightly wound in a dialogue with it and comments on it. Making something visible and audible and simultaneously removing it from direct accessibility and inspection could be experienced as mutually strengthening and defining moments. Distance, as a condition for reflective perception, gained a type of audio-visual sensorial intensification through this work. Not only did one see the space from a restricted position, but also the sound was muted, rendering an imagination of the actual volume inside as practically self-evident. The experience was similar to that of seeing: one didn’t simply hear something, but hearing itself as an inherently broken phenomenon became perceptible as a theme. Although one saw/heard the objects and sounds only in “perspective-based nuances,” they evoked “an awareness of a whole.” 2) Thus, it was possible to realize that the “pretension of perception… [is] not a contingent quality of certain things, but instead, a structural characteristic of the awareness of perception …” 3), as perception “consistently pretends in deed more than it can achieve based on its own nature.” 4) Through Grübl’s action, what are on display here, so to speak, are the traps of perception we have been speaking of, namely, overlooking the difference between the actual dimension of a matter and its perceptibility.
The interior of the room, which can only be entered in our imagination, serves to sensually charge the energetic movement potential. The red carpet as an object of utterly intense light swings and the sinus tone as the translation of an air current, which is audible due to its speed, represent processes of energy transformation. The physical principle according to which energy does not disappear or get lost, but instead, at most changes its state and thereby can also stimulate the senses differently, is transposed here to the area of art. It lends the glass panes the function of a seal and defines the space as a container holding a dynamic, which, however, is not related solely to the world of physics. The carpet as a symbol of power as a consequence of traditional feudal social images with clearly defined rules for distinction and exclusion can be considered a quotation rife with history, which also alludes to the social and time references of this space as part of the art world’s hierarchical systems for evaluation. Seen in this way, the space becomes a stage for itself, an impression that is intensified through the clear separation of work and beholder, viewing space and art space.
The interplay of view in and enclosure with stage-like props is also illuminated by those installations with Venetian blinds controlled by movement registers that modulate the spatial impression of the beholder in that when closed, they divide the room or when open, make it visible. They are moved in a reaction to the movements of the beholders and channel the gaze. When these Venetian blind-like room dividers are covered with a layer of mirroring foil on one side, then we see ourselves and our own seeing in them. Alternately closed and open, the Venetian blinds transform the room into a stage-like ambiance, but in that sense are also agile in that they remind us of the regimenting of seeing, of normalized and controlled perception as a common, usually subliminal experience.
In a multipart installation in the Galerie Zeitkunst, Grübl carried out subtle shifts in the space: cleared off shelves became a sculptural object corresponding with a white floor object wrapped in tulle and an area of the wall framed with thread. Subtle connections were created between architecture and sculpture. The architectural elements gained a sculptural identity, while the sculptural motifs achieved a type of architectural presence. Transparent materials and textile threads as work materials testified to the balancing act in our consciousness between material presence and the perception of it as a fleeting process.
With the video also shown in this exhibition—of a line wandering across the screen—the artist, in collaboration with her brother Manfred Grübl, marks the start of a series of media works that stage the measuring and sounding out of things and spaces as a metaphorical analogy to the human gaze. In several of these videos, black vertical and horizontal stripes wander across several monitors with white screens, as though they have broken through their borders and steadily pulled through their “empty” insides. These scenes appear as symbolic interpretations of the gaze, which successively measures out the surroundings and forms an idea of it from the continuity of the view. “Sense perception … presents itself as a continuous interpretation of new sense data in light of the previous data, without any gaps in this process for a simple, unmediated given thing, but also without the self-tautologizing idling of mere sign immanence of an idealistic epistemological theory.” 5) Like visual metaphors of this mechanism, the virtual stripes unwaveringly carve out their path across the screens; the gaze glides like an interpretational probe across the room. Because the medially staged movement is an artistic and technological fake based on precise instructions from apparatuses and data material, this also casts a characteristic light on the perception of environmental reality as an information-led interpretational process.
The dialectic of discovery and concealing, or its exposure, that is finalized in perception characterizes Grübl’s entire œuvre. This thematic shifts to the foreground in those videos in which mobile white surfaces are superimposed, in part, on pictures of spaces and persons. In the work Scan, these surfaces wander as mobile censors over portrait depictions, sounding them out. The individual personal characters of the portrait subjects remain hidden from the sliced gaze. What show themselves are anonymous facets of human identity, which resemble one another and appear interchangeable, analogous to the monotone recurrence of the white surface. Grübl’s work does not promote this normalization, instead, on the contrary, she makes it visible, opens our eyes precisely to those mechanisms that consciousness is constantly subject to, and which uninterruptedly form it.
Grübl also applied this technique of dynamic cross-fading in video images of public space that were already characterized by movement dynamics. The persistent, monotone recurrence of the block over the video projections of lively exhibition openings, leads us to believe that these events are fundamentally interchangeable and repetitive secular forms of ritual processes. The looped fades additionally disturb the gaze of the moving images through another, uniform monotone movement. One must simultaneously follow several overlapping movements; the pictures thus force us to control and observe our own seeing. Here, withdrawing the whole from view, fragmenting it, causes the perceptibility of viewing.
In the works mentioned, Grübl refers to new possibilities for surveying the space and the body, such as electronic scans with light, rays, and computer technologies. She used these scientific-medical observation procedures, which based on their unwavering analytical precision, evade and relativize common conceptions of visibility and thereby, in their own way, identify observation, perception, and reproduction as contingent representation and knowledge processes dependent on (technological) historical conditions. Such technologies represent a stringent and delegated gaze that aims to penetrate spaces and bodies and draw images of otherwise invisible structures and details. At issue are viewing apparatuses that simultaneously generate observable images and also, in doing so, form the ideal referential motif for an art that along with the perception of others, also shifts the perception of self in the “field of vision,” consequently making “seeing” visible.
The interplay of encoding and analyzing reality, which characterizes the works with the literally illuminating censoring surfaces, is also at the center of the video Code. Here, the black bar forms of the barcode system cover the picture of a moving human mass and appear as its synchronization. As a motif of coding, of concealing, and as a normalized system, the barcode deals with language as indicator and catalyst of social power and control as a—for its part—flexible parameter. “Norms and regulative controls are tied into social contexts, are stabilized and developed through specific institutional control mechanisms such as linguistic markings … as well as through the corresponding, pre-arranged acts of conditioning (internalizing a language culture), but … in the end, they are not absolute, set data … It (the social interpretation practice, RF) is not set as an absolute or established, but instead, should likewise be conceived as dynamic, first dynamically stabilized, relatively, in the interaction context.” 6) These thoughts read as though a description of Grübl’s work. They also define the perception of reality as the interpretation of socio-cultural interactions transmitted to the beholder, whereby interpretation is, itself, already part of these interactions.
A different and further form of visualization of concealing in the context of moving motifs can be found in one hour elevator, a video in which the passengers using an elevator are filmed for one hour. The passengers stand, for the most part, in the blind corner of the camera, and are not visible in the picture; yet having observed the scenes of entering and exiting, we know that they are present. As the site of action, here the elevator takes on the role of the permanent shifter of the movement oscillating between two poles.
Elisabeth and Manfred Grübl have also related the sounding out, marking, and visualizing of space to the urban space as a public territory. Buses, with blue lights inside that string together the space, its inhabitants, and users and thereby contribute to the functioning of public life, were inserted as a performative sculpture in Innsbruck’s nocturnal space. They are already available, but commonly overlooked indicators of the public realm, which were made visible through intervention. Comparable to medical means of contrast that make available structures recognizable by coloring the organs, the lucidly impregnated busses steer our view of the commonplace and submerge it in a new light. The Grübl siblings realized another possibility for marking urban space and making it visible as a network by producing and distributing silver plastic bags with their names imprinted on them, and having them circulated by the carriers. With these actions in the urban environment, they latched onto everyday processes with their re-stagings of real elements, pointing out not only their own socio-historical relativity, but the relativity of the performative process itself: “The act that one does, the act that one performs, is, in a sense, an act that has been going on before one arrived on the scene.” 7) This general observation made by Judith Butler in the context of gender-specific performative practices, can also be seen with reference to the Grübls’ performances in public space mentioned previously. “When the actions that we carry out already go on for a long time before individual subjects appear on the social stage as actors or protagonists, then the characteristic of performative action comprises triggering a repetition, a re-staging of cultural discourses and signs, not original creation or production. That which is made discursive and identified as ‘new’ or ‘original’ is, therefore, located in the repetitive transformation of what exists, which is revealed as a specific relationship of similarity and difference.” 8) This concept of difference is characteristic throughout Elisabeth Grübl’s work. It culminates in the ability to make perception itself observable —during the perception of the other.
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 relative constancy of its own, and the continual absence of capable objects … the depiction of objects in perspective, for its part, is instead understood only in that my body contradicts every variation in perspective.” (Maurice Merleau-Ponty, quoted in German by: Lambert Wiesing: “Philosophie der Wahrnehmung,” in: Philosophie der Wahrnehmung. Modelle und Reflexionen, Lambert Wiesing, (ed.), stw 1562, Frankfurt a.M. 2002, p. 49. (own translation here).
2) Edmund Husserl, quoted here by: Lambert Wiesing: “Philosophie der Wahrnehmung,” see Note 1, p. 55. (own translation here).
3) Ibid.
4) Ibid.
5) Klaus Oehler: “Über Grenzen der Interpretation aus der Sicht des semiotischen Pragmatismus,” in: Zeichen und Interpretation, Josef Simon, (ed.) stw 1158, Frankfurt a.M. 1994, p. 67.
6) Hans Lenk: “Interpretationskonstrukte als Interpretationskonstrukte,” in: Zeichen und Interpretation, see Note. 5, p. 49.
7) Judith Butler: “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory,” in: Performing Feminisms. Feminist Critical Theory and Theatre, Sue-Ellen Case, (ed.), Baltimore/London 1990, p. 277.
8) Doris Kolesch, Anette Jael Lehmann: “Zwischen Szene und Schauraum. Bildinszenierungen als Orte performativer Wirklichkeitskonstitution,” in: Performanz. Zwischen Sprachphilosophie und Kulturwissenschaften, Uwe Wirth, (ed.), stw 1575, Frankfurt a.M. 2002, p. 347.