Margareta Sandhofer: The Studio
The studio of an artist is a special place. No one studio resembles another, it is highly individual. It reflects both the finished and unfinished work, the working process and even the ideas, the habits, the living conditions of the artist.
The studio is primarily territory and, above all, intimate:
“The studio is my home. In no other place in the world do I feel as much at home as in my studio, which in turn can be everywhere. This is why it is a space I guard, one that is accessible to only some people.”1
Honoré de Balzac depicts the studio of the legendary painter Frenhofer as a mythical place, as the mysterious setting in which the genius creates the artwork as an inexplicable phenomenon belonging to a transcendental world.2 Rainer Maria Rilke confers a positively sacrosanct character on Auguste Rodin’s studio in his
description.3 Sarah Thornton refers to the studio of Takashi Murakami as thoroughly organised machinery that is operated with the sole aim of ultimate efficiency on the art market.4 Despite this, Murakami’s studio remains shrouded in a mysterious mist. If, in the older depictions, the mystery lay in the brushstroke, in the gesture and colour, or in the genius of modelling hands, it now exists in the perfect symbiosis of calculation, digital computing device and precise execution.
Even if today’s studios appear totally at variance with Balzac’s account, the mystery still remains: the mysterious site of ingenious creativity. This too, as not everyone is given the chance to frequent such a sheltered place; one gets to see what has its origin there that is later seen in the exorbitant framework of the gallery or museum, or presented at auction for fantastic and sometimes inexplicable prices.
So studio visits are a highly coveted proposition in the event catalogues of festivals, art weeks and the like. Visitors are urged to move with care, to deport themselves respectfully and reverently in front of the artwork. One is, after all, intruding upon a space shielded against the outside world, a stranger, if unacquainted with the artist. As the birthplace of art, this protected space of the studio is a sensitive area, charged with unfathomable contents, locus of the muse, locus of intuition and imagination. Throughout the centuries, the studio has endured as a locality with cult character.
Elisabeth Grübl breaks with this myth of the studio and secretly carries out a subtle attack on the whole mechanism of the art market. Since 2007 the artist has been pursuing her series of compaction: she collects all the objects to be found in the studio of another artist and piles them into an orthogonal block. The prior order is radically subjected to another system, the abstract law of the invariable reduction to a cuboid. The objects are not arranged according to aesthetic criteria but instead according to volume, mass and statics. Elisabeth Grübl’s intervention subjects the studio to a transformation, capturing it in a codified sculpture. The final work is a braced thicket in the form of a compact block, a mathematical construction, in its concreteness realistic and yet absurd. Wondrous art creation is reduced to questions of linear coordination and their physical and measurable relation to each other, packed and relocated inside the cuboid. The multipartite cosmos of the artist, their mythical world of wonder, is bent to a rigid rationality. Since 2021 some 22 such sculptural works have been created.
Elisabeth Grübl is also a stranger in each respective studio, like every visitor, but she does not manoeuvre herself with the required caution. She, the artist, penetrates the foreign domain, usurps it. She claims the territory as her own. (Even when the territory has been relinquished to her in happy expectation and anticipation).
The work always demands an in-depth approach to the respective spatial situation, a reassessment of the positioning of the block, which should usually be freestanding in the space, only sometimes being positioned against a wall for static reasons. The only stabilisation aids are ropes and cords.
The compactions of the studio inventories are the radical consequences of Elisabeth Grübel’s approach, which, in her interventions in museal institutions, subverts, outflanks and inverts the same with relish. Now her subversive strategy has been relocated from the place of art representation to its place of birth. She shifts the relationships of artwork, space, light and working conditions, and packs the whole in a compact construction. Anarchy is the principle: furniture, utensils and even artworks become building materials without value judgement. The objects remain themselves, only the relationship to each other is a different one. The previous arrangement is deconstructed and disintegrated, a new arrangement dominates the space monolithically and absolutely. The now visible emptiness of the space confronts it as a paradoxical physical counterpart. The representation usually cultivated in the art world is turned into its opposite.
The artist is no longer in possession of their art. In part this is no longer apparent, no longer presentable and no longer saleable. The objects are deprived of their function, the artist is deprived of their studio, and thus of their ability to work, and degraded to a visitor or a guard in what was once their very own studio. The artist and art are suspended, order prevails in their place. Consequently, the viewer is also suspended – or somewhat challenged.
Artistic production is brought to a standstill, its development is reversed. All traces, everything that had happened in the studio before, the sequences of time and activities that had been legible are short-circuited and brought to a point. Time is condensed into a moment in immobile statics. The studio is compacted into a geometric time capsule standing alone in the emptiness of the space.
Elisabeth Grübl photographs her intervention and numbers them chronologically. The photograph of a compaction, particularly in the austere central perspective of a frontal view, is more than its documentation. In its aesthetics, which braces the volume in the surface, this standstill is intensified into monumental rigidity, space and time are frozen. The principle reverses once again, the moment becomes duration.
Elisabeth Grübl’s intervention is an inversion of the previous situation, shimmering in multifaceted ambivalence. She has curated an exhibition that cleared up and incorporated art. The studio with its function has withdrawn into itself and hermetically sealed itself off from intruders. Art creation has imploded by virtue of an ordering system that nihilates art. With the reduction of art to the most mundane objectivity, the question of the relevance of art and the artist is immediately raised. Viewing Elisabeth Grübl’s compactions, we areconfronted with a construction of reality that simultaneously exposes reality as a construction.
The adapted studio appears ascetic and emptied of its meaning, at first sight the coherence of meaning is taken to absurdity. We encounter a pinnacle of minimalism, a cuboid in space, whose regularity is disturbed only by the structure that the shape of the objects dictates. It is a disturbed minimalism. The aesthetics lies in the action, and namely in the radicality of the action. The presence of the art lies in its obvious absence, its existence is a question of perception. It is about perception of space and spatial conception as aesthetic moments of ‘world creation’.
Just as the art in the sculpture eludes into the interior, the path to this abstraction is just as inapparent.
Elisabeth Grübl merely presents her executed work as a temporary intervention along with the corresponding photograph. The previous objective expansion, the myth studio, is temporarily compacted into an impenetrable arrangement that conveys no other narrative other than interlocking, total stringency. The artist thus positions her secret in the place of the other secret, mercilessly superimposing upon it. Is the myth of the studio now cleared up or exponentiated?
1 Béatrice Dreux, p. 138. in: Elisabeth Grübl, Vienna, 2012
2 Honoré de Balzac, The Unknown Masterpiece, first publication 1831
3 Rainer Maria Rilke, August Rodin, first publication 1913
4 Sarah Thornton, Seven Days in the Art World, first publication 2008