Franz Thalmair: Between the lines
Here, there, right there, over there, above, below, in front of, behind, left, right, everywhere, anywhere, nowhere, somewhere else... Within the group of verbal signs that indicate a space, a resting place, or a direction, the two adverbs of location inside and outside take on a unique position. When a speaking subject uses the words here and there to formulate their own position at a concrete place within a spatial outline, then the terms right there and over there assume the same position as the premise for negating the previously determined location: not-here and not-there. By measuring a space above, below, in front of and behind, as well as a not always readily comprehensible right and left, with the goal of narrowing the perception thereof, then everywhere, anywhere, nowhere, and somewhere else dissolve the thus construed parameters of spatial cognition. Yet the words inside and outside behave differently: they do not refer to a subject or object; they do not determine any standpoints within a spatial context; they do not manifest, nor do they transcend, anything or anyone – they are abstract. For, inside and outside have the basic common characteristic of referring to a whole: on the one hand, to the enclosure of the inside; on the other hand, to the openness of the outside. On one side, on the other side, on one hand, on the other, inside, outside: both are categories that could not exist without their respective counterpart – a likewise mutual and ambivalent relationship that is identified not only at a verbal level but also at a line of separation that is constantly being redefined: sounding out the borders of the space.
This task of negotiating the diverse borders between inner and outer space, is one of the central topoi in Elisabeth Grübl’s work, which encompasses video, video sculpture, installations, sound arrangements, text interventions, and “language-objects.” This becomes evident in inside_outside, an object that is as reductive as it is ambiguous, with which the artist gives both verbal and spatial expression to her ideas. A total of thirteen milled wooden letters, painted in a dark, matt blackboard paint, are employed by Elisabeth Grübl in order to force the semantic intensity of the two terms outside and inside. In contrast to their German-language equivalents außen and innen, the word composites in English carry the intrinsic component -side and thus also refer to a greater extent to the mutual spatial relationship of the verbal signs. Again: on the one side; on the other side; on one hand; on the other; in-side, out-side, inner, outer.
Character for character, with no distance between the smallest semantic components of the written word, the first seven letters form outside – the part of the object that Elisabeth Grübl mounts onto the wall as background. The moment of intensity that is already apparent in the immediate sequencing of the text characters is continued in the application of six additional letters. The word inside overlaps the word outside and ultimately results in a text object whose elements are not only compacted into a spatial unit, but are tied to each other also on the level of content. There is also an inherent moment in the work inside_outside, since “the difference between language and other semiotic systems lies in the fact that language translates space into time. Every spatial structure must transition into a temporal sequence. The asymmetry between the objects’ volume and the temporality of their representation becomes apparent.” [1] In inside_outside, Elisabeth Grübl counteracts the dissolution of the generally multi-dimensional human perception of space through the linearization of linguistic signs in that she returns space to the text characters. The two levels of this layering – the background of the outside and the foreground of the inside – are driven into two directions: outside pushes through the wall into the outer room; inside grows to the inside vis-à-vis the observing subject; both concepts simultaneously drive toward and away from each other. In the interface between the two, there appears to form an infinitely thin membrane, which creates an oscillation in the relation between the words as a spatial border.
The idea of imagining the border between two spaces as an area with the potential of being infinitely thin, or one that adapts to the changing parameters and needs of spaces – be they physical, corporal, technological, medial, social, but also political-geographic as well as, and not least, aesthetic spaces – like a flexible skin, is a concept Elisabeth Grübl reiterates with the sound installations kI. A diffuse sound hovers in the air. It reminds us at first of far-away crickets chirping in an oppressively hot rural environment, simulating for the listener the passing of time as a rattling of chains, spiking the volume to make oneself heard and finally removing oneself again with a last act of chirping. Filling the space is a coming and going of sounds, the variations of which are hardly perceptible, with changes introduced at most through short moments of silence. To the same degree that the sound comprises the soundscape of Elisabeth Grübl’s exhibition between the lines, it also escapes perception in a way that makes it impossible for the visitor to locate its origin from inside or outside of the art space. What began with the text object inside_outside – not merely as a work, but above all as a meta-linguistic commentary on her own artistic practice – Elisabeth Grübl locates in the installation kI on the level of auditory perception: “While we can only communicate about perception in other contexts, art communicates through perception. Perception on the other hand generally requires form (in the processes of producing and observing alike) as that which can be perceived. It is the object of perception.” [2] The presentation of the sound source and thus of the visualization of kI on a commonplace building scaffold whose upper surface reaches almost to the ceiling, contributes for its part to expanding the immaterial audio arrangement as well as creating volatility in the exhibition space. The scaffold forms itself into an over-dimensional, deictic sign, literally providing a pointer to the object producing the sound, which – despite the over-dimensionality of the overall display – hides itself again the moment the cue is given. Here the technical device is located; above is the origin, the source; the sound is everywhere and nowhere and covers everybody who enters the art space with its imperceptibly thin membrane.
With the inclusion of observers, listeners, and – in a general sense – subjects for the extension and completion of her art, Elisabeth Grübl also operates within the exhibition display, which she has designed for the sound loops fII fIII fIV. A generously sized pedestal made of untreated MDF board not only acts as a space for the artist to accommodate the technical playback devices, but also serves as a seating area for visitors who may use headphones to immerse themselves in the infinite loops of the three interrelated sound pieces. The intention is no longer to merely display the methods and tools with which the repetition, variation, and modulation are created; and it is no longer about how this repetitive process is experienced, since “the loop knows no process; the loop does not let it come to that. One can enter into it at any time without having missed what has been played, and one can leave the loop without missing what is to come. The loop is a space in time.” [3] The subject here is space. The subjective inner world of auditory perception through headphones, through sound-cocooning in the presentational form of fII fIII fIV stands in contrast not only to the installation of kI, which plays sound into the open exhibition room and forces the visitors to become a community of listeners. This inner world of perception also stands in contrast to the encasement, which as a social space of voluntarily connected listeners is imbued with the character of an object. Ultimately, the sounds function as a connecting element between the listening subjects who use the space. The principle of contiguousness that has one and the same source in its application in the sound pieces through variation and modeling, is mirrored finally in the neighborliness of the subjects’ common act of listening. As an infinite loop, the threatening, staccato-like drone and a hum similar to a flying object in fII fIII fIV form three closed-loop systems that are complete entities – sound spaces – in communication with each other; yet also the pedestal functions as a space which allows listeners to become a community.
Since its emergence in the 1970s, installation art is ascribed the ability to both substantiate subjectivity and to an equal degree, also to dissolve it. By bringing into play the body, as well as time and space, visitors to Elisabeth Grübl’s video installation scan have the ability to experience phenomena such as the fragmentation and disembodiment of the self based on first-hand knowledge, even if the methods used to create the directness – altering relations between space, observer, and object, or focusing on environments – are used by the artist with great caution. The potential for self-discovery results from the fact that installation art works with two different types of subjects: “the literal viewer who steps into the work, and an abstract, philosophical model of the subject that is postulated by the way in which the work structures this encounter.” [4] Similar to the way in which the text object inside_outside expresses itself both as a work and a meta-commentary on one’s own art production, the video work scan is a minimally immersive work that can be read at the same time as a commentary on the effects of the dissolution of the subject in society at large. On the screen, a strip of video moves slowly from top to bottom and back again while the rest of the image remains white. After the face of a person is scanned in this way, the next one appears on the screen and is subjected to the same horizontal scan. This apparently analytical gauging process continues as a looped – and thus a time-based – process. The observer can no longer put together a complete picture of the physical characteristics of the persons featured in the portraits, the simultaneous reconstruction and deconstruction of an abstract and model-like subject. If one had watched carefully during the descending movement of the scan and noticed the individually prominent elements of the portrait, one would have again forgotten all of the intervals of the scan at the latest beginning with the ascending movement that retrospectively reconstitutes the individual images. In Elisabeth Grübl’s video work, scan, the methods of repetition, both with their serial, mechanical, and standardized production processes, as well as with the choice of image content, take a position “against the essentialist laws of originality, uniqueness, and completeness of the work,” [5] similar to the way in which they counteract the accompanying law of the brilliancy of the author.
The positioning of the video work scan, which Grübl places on an existing elevation in the art space of the exhibition between the lines, shows an additional conceptual affinity to the exhibition display of fII fIII fIV. While the artist had a pedestal made of MDF board for her sound work, the video work scan, in contrast, is displayed on an existing element in the spatial structure. The more visitors take up the space on this elevated level and gather to watch the scanned faces, the more the border between artwork and viewer beings to dissolve – coincidentally, in the everyday situation of special proximity. Again: fragmentation of here and now through the contiguity of the observed and the observing subject.
In contrast to the dissolution tendencies that are thematized with the installation of the video work scan, at the center of untitled, interactive installation is the activation of the same human body. Elisabeth Grübl (together with Manfred Grübl) installs for this arrangement four common and functional massage mats parallel to each other on the wall. The standard, dark-gray colored objects that are operated by users via remote control, appear to correspond with the shape of the human body. The four mats with their respective four massage zones for the shoulder area, the torso, the bottom, and the calves, have been conceived by the artist for their presentation in the art space not only as object-like readymades, but also to be used by the observers as an interaction. The more subjects massage their own bodies – in various body regions and likewise different rhythms – the more sound is created and the more the work manifests a changing sound landscape but also results in an intensified perception on many levels: the intensified self-perception of the users through the stimulus of their own bodies, the perception of the other users, who create sound when they operate the mats, and finally the perception of the objects themselves. In untitled, interactive installation, many of working methods that came into practice in Elisabeth Grübl’s exhibition between the lines, for the sounding out of the spatial borders, come into play again. The artist reactivates, for example, the social space, for which she has already created a base with the exhibition display of fII fIII fIV. With the sound stage that is created by the visitors, she also works counter to the diffuse sounds of the installation kI and leaves the authorship to the sound space of a community.
The reflection on spatial borders which Elisabeth Grübl began on a linguistic level with the exhibition between the lin­es through the intensification of the two adverbs of location inside and outside, has most recently taken on both a literal and figurative direction with the photographic work go to the left_go to the right. Also with this work, the verbal meaning of left and right is suspended via the overlapping of letters in favor of the text form; here, too, the artist arranges the letters in sequence and, by layering the text elements, condenses the idea on which the work is based: and also here the spatial structures become temporal structures. In contrast, however, to inside_outside, the reading / observing subject is no longer presented with evident spatial borders; rather, the subject is asked to react to the two commands go to the left and go to the right. The options that Grübl offers may appear limited at first sight. Yet, showing that linguistic, spatial and finally also sociopolitical action cannot be reduced to the simple mechanisms of yes/no and zero/one, the artist presents the ambiguity of the two adverbs of location: do left and right indicate the direction from the perspective of the speaker or the listener? Is the decision to move one’s body in one or the other direction related to a goal? Does the photographic work on a nameless modernist building, go to the left_go to the right, seek a way out of the existing social order? Or are left and right to be understood as categories of real-political orientation? “The text is plural,” writes Roland Barthes, and thus differentiates “work” from his discursive process which leads beyond the static object character of art: “That not only means that it has multiple meanings, but that it is also the completion of the actual plural of meaning: an irreducible (and not merely acceptable) plural. Text is not the co-existence of meanings, but rather the passage, a crossing over: it therefore cannot fall prey to interpretation, no matter how generous, but rather only to an explosion, a dissemination.” [6] The questions that Elisabeth Grübl calls up with her work are just as plural as the possible actions that it offers. They are possibilities that open up at every location: here, there, right here, over there, above, below, in front of, behind – left and right – everywhere, anywhere, nowhere, somewhere else...
[1] Karin Wenz: Linguistik/Semiotik, in: Stephan Günzel (ed.), Raumwissenschaften, Suhrkamp: Frankfurt am Main, 2009, p. 211.
[2] Juliane Rebentisch: Ästhetik der Installation, Suhrkamp: Frankfurt am Main, 2003, p. 90.
[3] Diedrich Diederichsen: Eigenblutdoping. Selbstverwertung, Künstlerromantik, Partizipation, Kiepenheuer & Witsch: Köln, 2008, p. 18.
[4] Claire Bishop: Installation Art. A Critical History, Tate Publishing: London, 2005, p. 130.
[5] Sabeth Buchmann: Wiederholung ist nicht, was sich wiederholt, in: Sabeth Buchmann, et al. (ed.): Wenn sonst nichts klappt: Wiederholung wiederholen in Kunst, Popkultur, Film, Musik, Alltag, Theorie und Praxis, materialverlag und b_books: Hamburg und Berlin, 2005, p. 72.
[6] Roland Barthes: Vom Werk zum Text, in: Charles Harrison, Paul Wood (ed.): Kunsttheorie im 20. Jahrhundert. Künstlerschriften, Kunstkritik, Kunstphilosophie, Manifeste, Statements, Interviews, Hatje Cantz: Ostfildern-Ruit, 2003, p. 1164.