Hovering, Rising, Floating

On the choreographed ephemeral in the work of Katrin Wegemann

Frank-Thorsten Moll

2011

“Every work is not in the first place a product, not a work that is, but pre-eminently genesis, a work that is becoming” Paul Klee
The most dominant and at once most invisible of all the media with which Katrin Wegemann works is air, which she makes visible with the aid of balloons, and lately also with soap bubbles – a strategy that inevitably provokes thought about an element that because of its formlessness and tastelessness was long inaccessible to scientific analysis.

Even though spirits and gods of the air feature significantly in almost all myths in human history, science puzzled long and hard about how this elusive element could be conceived in words and theories. In 1811 Georg Christoph Lichtenberg ascertained, in the manner of the Enlightenment, that one could “convince oneself [of the existence of air] immediately, with the palm of one’s hand, or with any fan, and in a thousand other ways.”[1] A defiant testimony to the rationalist aspiration to accept no part of nature as inaccessible to rational understanding. Two hundred years later, air still remains a mystery to many people, and moreover a medium that “unexpectedly turns out to be strong, erratic and highly sensitive.”[2]
This paradox of strength and sensitivity, indispensability and evanescence, has fascinated and attracted the creative spirit of artists throughout history. The ascension to heaven, understood as a transcendent aerial maneuver, is a creator of meaning and community in both Christianity and the nature religions. But it was only in the 20th century that this subject was enlarged upon to the extent that “air was not only depicted, but deliberately used as material.”[3] Having worked for millennia in stone, wood, metal, pottery, later glass and membranes such as leather, artists now adopted air as subject matter and expressive medium in the applied, visual and performing arts. In the 1960s the student protests coincided with the “pneumatic movement”, an undogmatic attempt to counter the traditional social conventions of building and dwelling through the use of air. Air art also became more significant as a subsection of kinetic art and reached its early highpoint in three important exhibitions. The first was Structures Gonflables at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris in 1968. The Philadelphia Arts Council followed in the same year with Air Art, and the Jewish Museum in New York with Inflatable Sculpture in 1969.[4] The precursors of this movement played a significant role in all these exhibitions. The same names kept on recurring: Leonardo da Vinci, Marcel Duchamp, Yves Klein and Piero Manzoni.
Even in the 1960s air art was already pointing to the far-reaching potential of stagings, which took a widespread anti- or post-object tendency into account. Probably the most well known of these comes from the French artist Yves Klein.

On November 27, 1960 Yves Klein – Judoka, member of the mystical Rosicrucian Order and self-proclaimed “painter of space” – overcame gravity. He jumped off a wall in Nice into the greatest possible human freedom and revolted against the limitations placed on us by gravity and non-bearing air. Klein called the work Leap into the void – it was his attempt to get to the heart of human hubris in the face of the laws of nature. For many of his admirers, Klein’s jump opened up a spiritual space, a neutral zone, in which one was empowered as a viewer to pay attention to one’s own perceptions.[5] The leap into the void, which was recorded and halted in the medium of photography, was an entirely new beginning – wasn’t this what modernism had always propagated? Katrin Wegemann, in her still young work, often translates Klein’s hovering into that of an artwork, frequently coming close to Andy Warhol’s Silver Clouds (1966). In this work Warhol took possession of the medium of air “as we experience it: three-dimensional, changeable, ephemeral.”[6] His Silver Clouds hung like a herd of sheep on the gallery ceiling. He deliberately used industrially produced balloons, which as a mass product were then a suitable expression of the upbeat protest of the 1960s.
Katrin Wegemann too uses balloons to accomplish the feat of grasping the ungraspable and wresting form from the formlessness of air. And Marcel Duchamp’s Air de Paris, which consists of a glass vial of trapped Parisian air, or Piero Manzoni’s balloon into which he blew his own breath, are also less concerned with the occurring form than with the process of its occurrence. Manzoni was convinced that form was a misapprehension and that “the essential meaning of pneumatic works [was] not form, but becoming.”[7]
All the above-mentioned works are linked by their transient, inconclusive and ephemeral character.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude exaggerated this gesture at documenta 4 in 1968, when they flew a 5,600 Cubicmeter Package, a giant “cigar” of Trevira, air and helium. “Ropes tied the air into a huge package that swayed and fluttered in the breeze. To alter perception and give the invisible form – since Duchamp air has seemed the ideal material for this.”[8]

Katrin Wegemann’s latest works are more intensively involved with floating balloon-objects. Their presentation in playful experimental setups shows the ascent and descent of helium-filled bodies – mostly as allegories of becoming and ceasing to be. Schweben (Hovering), an installation with five barrels and 40 white helium-filled balloons concealed beneath a black cover which is rolled back by a winding machine, is one such “didactic play” about rise and fall, coming into being and passing away. As if she had harkened to Manzoni’s now historical demand, Katrin Wegemann shows the processual as an essential part of her work. What is an artistic process? When does it begin and when does it end? These are the questions Katrin Wegemann consistently asks with her balloons. Sometimes they are black, bulging and static, sometimes white and guided by chance, and recently they were silver and set in motion according to choreography.

The art-intrinsic reference to the air artists of the 1960s probably falls short of an explanation for how this concentration on the balloon could have come about. According to the dictionary a balloon is a “non-self-supporting, gas-tight mantle which is filled with gas and has no self-propulsion.” We may ask ourselves what exactly propels a balloon if it does not do so itself. Naturally it is the gas rising within the mantle, but our relationship to balloons has always been affected by something more subtle. This is the belief, or suspicion, that “higher powers” are at work here. In the case of the earliest experiments with hot-air balloons by the Montgolfier brothers in pre-revolutionary France it was the triumph of reason that was assumed to be the “mover.” Nevertheless the first balloons were incorporated into glittering festive ceremonies at the royal court, and very soon art began to show an interest in these flying objects. “Richly decorated aerostats blazoned acts of state and court celebrations,” and “engravers made pictures of the event in advance and offered them for sale prior to the ascent in order to raise the spectators’ suspense.”[9] The extent of the enthusiasm for balloon flight was shown in the prevalence of balloon motifs in the applied arts and fashion, in the decoration of watches, snuff boxes and lamps and in the patterns of fabrics and wallpapers. The balloon became a spectacle and diverted the masses until well into the 20th century – in theatrical effects, night flights, illuminations, firework displays and acrobatic stunts.[10]
Daniela Martinova has observed that despite all these more or less bizarre and entertaining accompanying phenomena the balloon must at all times have been seen as a “promise of freedom hovering lightly on the horizon of the European Enlightenment,” as the “physical proof of how human reason and the scientific observation of nature literally rose above the adversities of the existing world.”[11] It is possibly this ambivalent quality of the balloon, which has to serve both as a symbol of the Enlightenment and as a funfair attraction, which reverberates in Katrin Wegemann’s work today. Observing the visitors to her last exhibition opening more closely, this could be seen in the chuckling enjoyment of some and the thoughtful gaze of others.

Similarly to the Baroque balloon flights, which were not only staged like dramas, but also found their way into the theater, Katrin Wegemann’s artworks are increasingly shown in minutely planned performances. If it is true that balloons give air form, then in her choreographed “balloon flights” Aufsteigen 4 (Ascending) (2011) and Aufsteigen 8 (2011) she goes a step further and gives form not only to air but also to time. The balloons ascend symmetrically on threads attached to motors, which pull them back down again at given intervals. The concept of symmetry seems ideally suited to creating a bridge between science and art. For if we take symmetry as a criterion of beauty, as artists both ancient and modern have done, the aspiration of modern science to symmetry appears to be the same search for beauty as that of art.[12] The balloons that Katrin Wegemann uses in this work are mirrored silver, so that a fascinating play of symmetrical movement and mirroring of the viewers and surrounding space occurs. The installation throws back a distorted image, and the viewers both create the image of the artwork and become themselves an image.

Katrin Wegemann turns away from balloons with the installation Treiben (Floating) (2011). The work’s essential element is a scoop that swings back and forth between two trays of soapy water. “Through the movement – the back and forth – soap bubbles are formed that drift through the air until they burst on the floor, ceiling or walls.”[13] Like a metronome, the oscillating scoop gives form to time and space; the soap bubbles straddle time and make the in-between visible. Doesn’t this scene remind us of our own playful experiences with soap bubbles? For Peter Sloterdijk this childhood memory is worth a closer inspection. For children the burst bubble is like a lost hope, but still no reason to despair, rather an inducement to further attempts. “There is a solidarity between the soap bubble and its blower that excludes the rest of the world.”[14] For the philosopher the soap bubble a child plays with is a symbol of the loss of our security sphere. At the moment of birth we lose the protective enclosure of the womb, a loss that calls back to us throughout our lives and makes us susceptible to the promises of the welfare state, the global market, the mediosphere.“[15] The aim of all these big projects, in an enclosureless time, is the simulation of the now impossible imaginary security sphere.”[16] We encounter this enclosurelessness in almost all of Katrin Wegemann’s works, no matter whether the balloons are stationary and demonstrate their space-displacing sculpturality, whether they choreographically ascend and descend or whether, filled with helium, they float to the ceiling and only limply sink down again after a while. Mischievously and agreeably tongue in cheek, they always show us the transience of all being.

[1] Transl. from Georg Christoph Lichtenberg: “Begriff von der Luft”. In ibid: Lichtenberg über Luft und Licht nach seinen Vorlesungen herausgegeben. Vienna and Trieste 1811, pp. 1 – 2. // [2] Comment by the artist Gerhard Hahn in an unpublished e-mail interview, March 2010. // [3] Transl. from Oliver Herweg and Axel Thallemer: AIR / LUFT. Einheit von Kunst und Wissenschaft. 2005, p. 7. // [4] See John A. Walker: Glossary of Art, Architecture & Design since 1945, 3rd. ed. 1992. Can be found at http://www.artdesigncafe.com/Air-Art-Sky-Art, as of April 2011. // [5] Cf.: “… a neutral zone where one is inspired to pay attention to one’s own sensibilities, and to ‘reality’ as opposed to ‘representation.’” www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yves_Klein#The_Void, as of 16.01.2011. // [6] Transl. from: “Signier den Himmel!” In: Herweg and Thallemer, pp. 97 – 105, 101. // [7] Transl. from: “Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung,” in Herweg and Thallemer, p. 183. // [8] Ibid. p. 183. // [9] Ibid. p. 183. // [10] See ibid. p. 183. // [11] Transl. from Daniela Martinova: “Der Ballon”. In: Bodo Michael-Baumuk (ed.): Die Kunst des Fliegens, Malerei-Skulptur-Architektur-Fotografie-Literatur-Film. Ostfildern-Ruit 1996, pp. 39 – 41, 40. // [12] See Joachim Schummer: “Symmetrie und Schönheit in Kunst und Wissenschaft”. In Wolfgang Krohn (ed.): Ästhetik in der Wissenschaft. Interdisziplinärer Diskurs über das Gestalten und Darstellen von Wissen. Hamburg 2006, pp. 59 – 76, 59. // [13] Opening speech by Anna Koch in the gallery ARTPLOSIV at the exhibition POIESIS I Katrin Wegemann, March 25, 2011. // [14] Translated from Peter Sloterdijk: Sphären 1, Blasen. Frankfurt a.M. 1998, p. 18. // [15] See ibid. p. 24. // [16] Ibid. p. 24.

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Metamorpheus

On the performative sculptures of Katrin Wegemann

Friedrich Weltzien

2011

Four criss-crossed pistons work in rhythm. Driven by an electric motor, each of their movements pumps a little air into a black balloon. It expands and expands, its rubber skin tightens, becoming shiny and reflective with the increasing tension. The surrounding space is reflected in its spherical surface and transforms the world into an anamorphosis.

In the distortion of the visible, the transfiguration of visibility, the giant black sphere recalls Odilon Redon’s flying eyes, a superimposition of Montgolfiere and eyeball which the French symbolist devised in the 19th century as the paranoid image of a technical revolution. But this Montgolfiere by Katrin Wegemann doesn’t take off. It takes in air to full capacity, then the pistons pause and the balloon slowly loses its contents. It breathes out. Finally the pump resumes its work, and the skin becomes taut once again. Breathing in and out lasts 24 hours.
Leviathan in hibernation
If the sculpture Atmen (Breathing) were a lung – it is after all a sphere of almost two meters in diameter – what a huge creature must posses it. A capacity of more than five and a half thousand liters, double that of a blue whale. A leviathan! But also a slothful giant, who only needs one breath a day: perhaps a giant in hibernation. There is a suspenseful quiescence here that is distinctive of the work of Katrin Wegemann. During hibernation the metabolism slows down, all living processes are reduced to a minimum, the body temperature sinks, movement is limited to the most necessary. Time is not halted, but delayed. While outside the sun rises and sets, the dormant creature is removed from time. Time beats a different rhythm in the belly of the cave.
Time is elastic, like the rubber skin of this balloon. It can expand and contract; it moves, as the ribcage does in breathing. Time is itself a living being. The actual material that Katrin Wegemann works with is not rubber and air, not piston and motor, not reflex and range – her actual material is time itself.
This is an important difference from the use of balloons in modern art history. As early as 1784 the Stuttgart-born automat-maker Johann Carl Enslen produced a number of so-called “aerostatic figures” made of ox gut, sculptures that he filled with hydrogen to make them fly – only a year after the first spectacular flight by the Montgolfiere brothers. But the balloon only really arrived in art after the Second World War. In Japan the artists of the Gutai group experimented with containers made from synthetic material which they filled with water, smoke or air. During the Gutai Sky Festival in 1960 they floated reconnaissance balloons carrying artworks above a department store in Osaka. Otto Piene further developed sky art in the large and popular “Rainbow” which flew above the stadium for the opening of the 1972 Olympic Games. Since the 1960s “inflatable sculptures” have become part of the repertoire of land art, for the most part. But while these predecessors largely took effect outdoors, Katrin Wegemann primarily uses her work to explore architectural interiors. In her case the event is more the process of inflation than flying.
She gives the viewer of her “performative sculptures” an experience that is not dissimilar to hibernation. The exit from time, the distension, the retardation, the negative acceleration, as physics calls it in its own kind of poetry, are all comparable, but the work is in no way sedative. Just as the anamorphotic distortion of the space in the reflective surface of the black sphere causes it to appear in a new light, the extension of time in the slowing down of the breath allows us to experience its passing. The transformations of form, the metamorphoses that underlie all Katrin Wegemann’s sculptures, also have something dreamlike in their slowness. In this respect Morpheus, the bringer of dreams – in Greek mythology he is the son of Sleep, Hypnos, and the brother of Phantasos, the maker of forms – doesn’t seem a bad patron. For he doesn’t lull us, doesn’t make us helpless and inactive, but stimulates and stirs and opens doors of perception. Sleeping leviathans are no rarity with Morpheus.
Body apparatus
As with Redon’s phantasmagorical blend of technology and biology, with Katrin Wegemann the apparatus also symbolizes a physical process. This affinity to the body, the corporeality of her artistic language, the indispensability of the body as the requirement for making and experiencing art, is the second criterion and leitmotif of Katrin Wegemann’s work. Air plays an important role here. Not only in the breath does she take up the phenomenon of distension and discharge, systole and diastole, but also in the processes of growth and maturity.
Another aspect through which she refers to human physiology is temperature. The core human temperature is 37 degrees Celsius, and not only that of humans, but also of all the higher mammals. If the temperature sinks by only a few degrees, we freeze; if it goes above 40, our body proteins begin to curdle and we don’t survive for long. And what happens at 37° C? Katrin Wegemann looks into this question in Schmelzen, 37°C (Melting, 37°C), for which she was awarded the Mart Stam Prize of the Weißensee Art Academy in Berlin. A festively laid table with uniformly white plates, cups, cutlery, cakes and jugs of cream beneath a soft lighting. There is no tablecloth, but black-painted wood gives the white table setting a ceremonial air. The chairs are neatly aligned, the cakes still untouched, the coffee cups empty, the plates and cutlery apparently unused: the party hasn’t started yet.
And yet something happens the whole time. The lamps above the table provide heat rather than light, and the entire setting is made of white chocolate. Very slowly, over the days, for the duration of the exhibition, the supposed porcelain begins to sag. What happens after a while to a real cream cake at room temperature, namely the alteration of its structure and an increase in viscosity, also happens here to the sugar bowl and teaspoons. The warmth of life causes the festive splendor to dwindle. The carefully crafted form gradually dissolves, melts and becomes amorphous. Must art perish under the body’s own conditions?
The elegance of entropy
In a later work Katrin Wegemann makes use of a similar principle. Auflösen, 37°C (Dissolving, 37°C) shows an arrangement of white-chocolate cubes on a black metal heatable tabletop. The blocks can be seen gradually collapsing; gaps fill in, forms begin to merge, differences disappear. It is no coincidence that the cubes remind one of a model city: rows of houses and streets, alleyways and squares. Is it going too far to make an association with September 11, 2001 in New York? I think not, because what most stunned and alarmed me as I watched the events on television was the slowness with which they proceeded following the terror attacks. It was heartbreaking to see how the collapse wasn’t sudden, like a stroke of lightening, but had a duration, an awful duration, while the seconds seemed never-ending.
The comparison with the collapsing Twin Towers shouldn’t be labored, as it wasn’t the artist’s intention. But it allows something to be identified. The work involves sagging, bending, sinking, tipping, flattening, leveling (to the ground), ruining. It shows how the temperature of vitality induces an entropic process. The techné, the spirit, the wit of the human genius differentiates, defines forms, sharpens contours and takes decisions. Nature – or the natural run of things – melts these down occasionally and dissolves what we had so keenly analyzed.
The elegance of Katrin Wegemann’s art lies in not taking sides in this game of differentiation and dissolution. Her vision is not a horror scenario that sees the world receding into the leveled indifference of a white noise. And she doesn’t call for a technocracy to preserve the products of the mind from their destruction in the acids of life. Instead she draws attention to the poetry and beauty that come about through the interplay of forces that don’t necessarily have contradictory effects. The contradictions in Katrin Wegemann’s works do not intend a dualism, a dialectics or an exclusive either–or. Movement, vitality, becoming – all arise only through the play of unequally directed dynamics, from asynchronous rhythms, from the push and chafe of things in their surroundings.
Self-activity and trust
This becomes particularly clear in Reifen (Ripening), from 2010. A white balloon is inflated by a four-stroke pump. It distends to a size of about 90 cm. Then the internal pressure overrides the locking mechanism. A blowback of escaping air detaches the balloon from the pump and causes it to dance slowly and elegiacally through the space, but not in the hectic spasms of children’s party balloons. Because of the sheer size of the object, its inertia gives it a ponderousness in which it seems to explore the space before sinking to the ground, giving out a last sigh and finally coming to rest as a limp empty shell. The movement reminds one of a fruit ripening and falling from its bough. Ignoring gravity – perhaps like a polyp under water – this curious fruit seeks its own place, before the cycle comes to a provisional end in the death of the hero and starts over again.
But maybe the title also alludes to the car tire (German reifen “ripen”, Reifen “tire”, translator’s note), pneumatics, the rubber material, mobility? Mechanics and biology are no opposites in this sculptor’s way of thinking – they are complementary, no, they are the mutually dependent foundations of art. Both variables need one another; playing alone is boring, and it is interplay which ensures that the unexpected can emerge, tension can arise and something new can develop. Metamorpheus, the image of the ability to change forms as if in a dream, only comes about at friction surfaces, in fusion, through the equalization of pressure. But it is not an immediately recognizable image; it is not epiphanic or abrupt, but can only be seen in the permanence of change. It is not the tipping point that is significant, but the fact that the search for Lessing’s “fruitful moment” makes us blind to the breathtaking beauty of the breath.
The experimental configurations of Katrin Wegemann’s installations should be seen in this spirit of art as a temporal being – not eternal, outside of time. The artist sets the parameters; she defines the framework and determines the initial situation. How things proceed is dependent on the interplay of technology and material, environmental conditions and the viewer’s behavior, the time of year, atmospheric pressure or the amount of rain. A considerable degree of trust in the possibilities of these performative sculptures is needed. And this trust contains the political and social dimension of Katrin Wegemann’s art. It too is a dimension of the leviathan.
If the secret of the almost irresistible poetry of these works lies in the sensuousness of their composition and the gradualness of their action, their optimistic conception holds a message that gives them a relevance that goes beyond the pleasure of experiencing them: no violence. We cannot break or dominate the forces that impel us, but we can direct them, softly, as with a dance partner. The art of Katrin Wegemann encourages me. Sinking, rising, breathing in, breathing out – the age-old guide to happiness.

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STONES YOU CAN SEE THROUGH

Premiere in jozi art:lab

Charl-Pierre Naudé

2011

STONES YOU CAN SEE THROUGH
INSCRIBE 180 DEGREES
KING EAST
SPAT OF WEST

WORLDS WITHOUT INTESTINES
BRINGING FORTH WORLDS
GLASS-BLOWN DANDELION ROCKS HOVER INSIDE THEIR TRANSPARENT
WATCH ENCASEMENTS
IT IS TIME
FOR MUSEUMS TO WALK WITHOUT THEIR COFFINS
TO WATCH BOLDERS RISE FROM DEATH LEAVING SAVIOURS ASLEEP
SPAT OF WEST
KING EAST
SMALL MOVEMENT AND BIG MOVEMENT
QAIL EGGS IN GOD’S POCKET
BECOMES NINE PLANETS IN THE BREATHED UP BOOK
THE BALANCE DIVIDES ITSELF
LIKE JUSTICE LIKE A FLOWER LIKE A BITTER TWIG LIKE SPITTLE
ATOMS EGGS ADRIFT
IN AIR THE SPECTRAL DINOSAUR STIRS
LIGHT BONES FROM HERE
LONG NIGHT CAP OF DNA
SPLITS OFF INTO SLEEPWALKING BROTHERS
SOAP ASTRONAUTS ALREADY INVISIBLE
IN THEIR DISAPPEARING VISIONARY CAPSULES
ICARUS OH
WHERE DID THE FEATHER CUSHIONS OF THE CHALLENGER GO?
ECTOPLASM
THE WORLD IN MATHEMATICAL PYJAMAS
DOESN’T THINK OF THE BOX SUIT
TILL IT STIRS IN DEATH
TILL IT RISES FROM MIST
FROG POND
CELLULAR
MOMENTS CAST IN IRON
PORT HOLES
BEADS
CAST IN WINKS
RAIN DROPS
BALD HEADS
LEVITATING SAINTS
WEIGHTLESSNESS IS ALLUVIAL GOLD
THE BUTTERFLY CATCHER
WAVES 180 DEGREES
BRINGING FORTH WORLDS
WITH NOTHING
BUT WINGS

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Presentation speech for the GWK Young Artist Award

Susanne Schulte

2010

Katrin Wegemann creates “performative sculptures,” works which differ from classically chiseled or carved static pieces in stone or wood, in that they carry out processes in their own idiosyncratically consistent slowness. They are objective correlates of something that never becomes visible because it only exists in the mind of the subject; performances of durée (Bergson), duration, and the individual and unrepeatable experience of time, which is impalpable even for the experiencing self.

These performative sculptures have metaphorical titles such as Breathing or Dissolving. This too indicates that they are not concerned with material and fixed forms, but with a quasi-organic process. This does not have to do with the imitation of natural occurrences or the antithesis between organic and artificial, however. At issue is more the experience of the breath or dissolution as that of a subjective quality of time, which no chronometer can represent. Katrin Wegemann does not depict nature, but constructs artifacts that are analogous to natural processes. She subjects these to parameters and disappears from her works as an individual. She is “only” active behind the scenes. She selects the materials, has the technical apparatus built and defines the conditions under which the sculpture does – what it then does. The performance is left to parameter, chance and circumstance, is left to itself. The artwork is undone as a work, it is free of an author’s handwriting. Neither can an authorial act be discerned, in the strict sense of an intentional artistic statement. These aleatoric sculptures are free of messages. So they are open to the observations and projections, and thus the experiences of time and self of those who patiently approach them and their processes. Consequently, what the works communicate is the incommunicability of the inner world. They make us aware, in the direct encounter with them and the attempt to express and describe this, that the subjective experience of duration and its qualia, of how-it-feels, cannot be conveyed. There is a limit – which, by virtue of these performative sculptures, one can experience sensuously, not painfully as in real life – to the communication of the self with the self and with others, and there is neither criterion for nor guarantee of its success. Inner life is elusive; it is vital and fulfilled as consciously lived duration. The artistic pleasure that Katrin Wegemann gives us is a paradigm or stimulant or foretaste of this durée, of this “real life” – as sweet and fragrant as white chocolate.

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Time’s Ornamentations

Occurrence and materiality in the work of Katrin Wegemann

Dr. Knut Ebeling

2009

Art begins where I light a cigarette. Would you like one?”

Marcel Duchamp

an offer that Katrin Wegemann obviously couldn’t refuse. But in the same motion with which she accepts Duchamp’s offer she turns the statement into its opposite and interprets it differently from the chain smoker’s probable intention of short-circuiting art by the comparatively banal activity of lighting a cigarette.

Wegemann takes the statement literally and Duchamp at his word1: her art begins exactly where natural processes do, for example the burning-down of a cigarette or of candles. Or the melting of ice. Or the crystallisation of sugar. Or the slow descent of balloons. Floating, trickling, burning – some examples of the natural processes generated by these sculptures, or by the sculptural temporality that is the actual aesthetic occurrence in the work of Katrin Wegemann.

These processes can sometimes be of entrancing simplicity, such as Mein Freund (My Boyfriend) (2004): Wegemann directs a jet of water into the snow – it looks as if someone is peeing onto the white surface – which melts away as soon as the water touches it. The jet burrows into the pristine mantle of snow and forms a dark hollow. This development – including the formation of filigree crystals at the edge of the little crater – sets a process in motion in which the hollow becomes larger and larger, until the jet of water stops and the hole in the snow is filled in once again. In the end the snow is as pure and virginal as it was at the beginning. Only the video recording reveals what has happened over the past fifteen minutes.

Fifteen minutes in which a natural process occurs; but it could also be fifteen hours. As for example in Eisschrank (Icebox) (2008), Wegemann’s most recent work, which stages a melting process: a block of ice is built at head height into a transformer cabinet. It soon begins to thaw, and melts drop by drop into a drain beneath the cabinet. Because the melting process is slow, the slightly convex surface of the ice alters to reveal various visual effects, which can also be seen on a monitor. These effects are as unique and irreversible as the time within which they occur, yet Wegemann is not solely concerned with visual occurrences in time; her subject is time as occurrence.

This theatrical quality of time was brought out by chance in the unpredictable progression of the Eisschrank experiment: at a certain point during the night the dripping ice broke out of the transformer cabinet and shattered like a mirror on the floor. This “event” was not filmed or otherwise recorded, however (a pleasant surprise given today’s mania for documentation), a “scandal” which shows that Wegemann is barely interested specific events within time. Her work pursues a temporal concept that is not aimed at individual points in time – such as the moment of breakage, for example. For her the entire thawing period is singular and unrepeatable. This non-recording in fact shows better than any other work that Wegemann does not produce spectacular occurrences, but is interested in the steady, imperceptible expiration of time as duration. This gives her work the serenity of a gently flowing river or the meditative quality of a sunset.

The philosophy of time as prolonged duration – as opposed to a duration as a point in time – was developed by Henri Bergson. Bergson is the philosopher of duration, the long while, the extended, meditative conduits of time in which we live. He conceived of a “living time”, la durée, with its own tempo, flowing sometimes faster, sometimes more slowly and continually becoming. He contrasted (inspiring, en passant, artists and writers such as Marcel Proust) this irreversible, unrepeatable and indivisible duration to the quantitive, scientific view of time which had rapidly asserted itself during the 19th century. And in 1889 Bergson attempted to view all things “sub specie durationis”, i.e. from the point of view of la durée, duration.2 This duration of experienced time brings forth Bergson’s “intuition”, a consciousness of time that like the works of Katrin Wegemann “returns to pure duration.”

The problem with duration, however, is its non-portrayable subjectivity. Time perceived is as fragile as an impalpable memory; it slips between the fingers like the sand in an hourglass. Bergson, for this reason, keeps coming up with images and comparisons for the intuition of duration. And it is at precisely this point, where the philosopher repeatedly trips on his tongue, that the eloquence of Wegemann’s works takes effect. Instead of invoking linguistic comparisons and metaphors, she can materialise “living time as duration” in natural lapses of time, in whose materiality duration is, even more than with Bergson, as his best interpreter Gille Deleuze put it, “a ‘transition’ and a ‘change’; a becoming, but a becoming that lasts and a change that is itself substance.”3 In short, Wegeman solves the problem of indiscernible duration through a simple device: she visualises the constant, impalpable flow of time through the materiality of the natural processes that occur within it. Her best works lead to a materialisation of time, which coagulates into ornamental forms. They are a mise en scène of lasting becoming, of substantive change.

This becomes clearest in Zwei (Two) (2008), which consists of two automatically revolving candles whose wax is collected in a basin of water. While the droplets initially float free on the water, they soon clump together to form little wax islands. Like lava, these islets materialise time; they show the development of a new form within a particular duration. But in contrast to the popular German ritual of fortune-telling with molten lead – in India hot wax is also poured into water and the resulting forms interpreted – Wegemann’s experiment excludes any agency of the human hand: the wax ornaments are intended as neutral figures of time, not the result of human activity in time.

This strategy of excluding a characteristic artistic signature and trusting to natural development recalls the tradition of autopoiesis, the emergence of images from within themselves, which since the Romantic period has sought to combine the creative power of nature with that of humankind.4 How can natural laws be directly harnessed to produce images? The human hand is excluded because it only contaminates the purity of these “self-acting” processes. An autopoietic operation renounces control over the evolution of the work – although this renunciation is part of an artistic strategy. In place of artistic decisions, chance products come into being which have more to do with material properties than artistic volition. They are the effects of mechanical, mathematical or chemical reactions whose results cannot be predicted exactly.

There is a long tradition of autopoietic procedures from the Romantic period to the art of anti-form. Kant held the view that a work of art – in order to bring about the required mode of disinterested good will in its viewer – should look as if it had arisen from nature. Romantic art theory gladly took up this theme. In the early 19th century August Wilhelm Schlegel required his fellow artists to simulate natural processes in the production of their works – not to work from nature, but like nature. Paul Valéry wanted to replace being with doing, and Paul Klee occasionally spoke of witnessing the origination of his images, rather than being responsible for every single detail. For him the emergence of art was more similar to the growth of a plant than the netting of a pre-existent idea.

The idea of artistic creation as an organic process of growth that cannot be controlled intellectually is also found in Ludwig Klages’s concept of the “cosmogonic Eros” and Henri Bergson’s elan vital. It is an idea that was importantly influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche’s opposition of the Apollonian and Dionysian principles. Nietzsche’s re-evaluation of the uncontrollable Dionysus became the theoretical underpinning of the autopoietic process, a tradition that goes up to Jean Dubuffet’s assertion that even beauty, which Nietzsche still assigns to Apollo, can only be found in fallibility, fallacy and material idiosyncrasy.

Wegemann now gives this tradition a new twist: not only does she make the product of this natural self-expression visible, but above all the process. In her work the generation, duration and formation of processes analogous to nature become sculptural form. Such formations – of an island of wax, for example – allow the viewer to experience the pure duration of the emergence of time’s ornamental figures. Yet this duration is not experienced, as Bergson will have it, interiorly to consciousness, but exteriorly to it. The inwardness of la durée is exteriorised by these works into the world of appearances. Wegemann constructs time machines that like the first hour glasses or chronometers measure time materially (but not quantitively). The running of the sand or the melting of the ice illustrates an archaic ur-time, previous to quantitive time, that transforms moment into matter. Finally we need to remember that the quantitive measurement of time is a recent invention that is as naturally occurring as mathematical numbers or zeros.5 Wegemann’s archaeology of time returns to the time before its quantitive measurement; like natural history it “turns the clock back” until every point in time has been dissolved in a natural or archaic duration.6

This duration can last fifteen minutes or fifteen hours – or even several days. In Donnerstag schneit es (There’ll be Snow on Thursday) (2007) a natural element appears in the title, but it is more of a metaphorical reference to the process of gentle falling generated by the work: here the snowflakes are as large as balloons – in a corridor of the Düsseldorf Art Academy 250 white balloons were carried by helium to the ceiling, whence they floated to the ground over the next twenty-four hours. A more placid, gradual and poetic motion than this artificial snow can hardly be imagined.

Wegemann’s simulation of a natural process not only referred to the institutional space in which it occurred, but also to the institutional ritual which took place here: the balloons were released on the first of a series of open days; on the second day they began to sink and flutter through the building like oversized snowflakes; on the third day they sank to the floor, where they were either taken away or burst; on the fourth day they had vanished, like melted snow.

Other works too inhabit a winter world – and remain true to the archaic medium of ice. Here Wegemann is less concerned with the element itself than the processes that occur with it. This is shown by Eispalast (Ice Palace) (2003), Fensternetze (Frosted Windows) (2005) and Scheibenkleister (Pane Paste) (2006), which also play with the suggestion of frozen water. The earliest of these works creates this impression through ordinary wallpaper paste spread onto two banks of windows, down which it dribbles to look like frozen ice. The work from 2006 covers the panes of the Wewerka Pavilion in Münster with paste to form a gelatinous mass, which when dry peels away like a second skin. Fensternetze also makes an icy impression, but while Eispalast and Scheibenkleister use wallpaper paste, in Fensternetze candy floss is inserted between double glazing, where it gradually disintegrates because of the humidity, leaving tiny sugar crystals on the windows like fern frost.

For natural simulations of this kind Wegemann always seeks out particular spaces, which are then used like the terraria or glass cases of scientific experiment. An artistic experiment is carried out within a delimited laboratory,7 and as with a scientific experiment the parameters are set within which the material reacts freely. And as with a chemical reaction the substances can sometimes come together, despite identical parameters, completely differently, creating a “change … that is itself substance,” as Deleuze said. The sugar crystallises differently at different humidities; the flow of the paste is affected by the temperature.

These tiny differences and minute turbulences are central to Wegemann’s work, as her experiments apply above all to the visual surface of the generated process: material for her is its purely visual appearance. This shows, as Bergson would say, that material “has nothing interior, nothing hidden, i.e. that it does not conceal or confine, that it possesses neither force nor virtuality of any kind; that it is entirely surface and at any moment that which it appears to be.”8 Unlike the scientific experiment, Wegemann is only interested in the visual effects of material reactions, in the ornamental debris that every rendezvous between differing natural materials leaves behind – even in the beauty of the ash which must have dropped from Duchamp’s cigarette.9

[1] On the logic of literalness see Rainer Metzger, Buchstäblichkeit. Bild und Kunst in der Moderne, Cologne 2003 // [2] Henri Bergson, Essai sur les donnés immédiates de la conscience, Paris 1889 // [3] Gilles Deleuze, Le Bergsonisme, Paris 1966 // [4] See Friedrich Weltzien (ed.),Von selbst. Autopoietische Verfahren in der Ästhetik des 19. Jahrhunderts, Berlin 2006 // [5] See Henning Schmidgen (ed.) Lebendige Zeit. Wissenskulturen im Werden, Berlin 2005 // [6] See Siegfried Zielinski, Archäologie der Medien. Zur Tiefenzeit des technischen Hörens und Sehens, Reinbek 2002 // [7] See Henning Schmidgen, Peter Geimer, Sven Dierig (eds.), Kultur im Experiment, Berlin 2004 // [8] Henri Bergson, La pensée et le mouvant. Essais et conférences, Paris 1934 // [9] Knut Ebeling, Die Asche des Archivs, in Georges Didi-Huberman/ibid., Das Archiv brennt, Berlin 2007, pp. 33–184.

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ROOM COCOON

Arne Reimann

2006

The basic structure of the Wewerka pavilion at the Aasee in Münster consists of reduced columns, a roof and dominant circumferential glass walls, which offer a view into as well as through the room. The exhibition space of the Kunstakademie Münster which is unaccessible for visitors, but having them look at it from outside, the artwork ‘Scheibenkleister’ enabled them to experience it as an architectural object.

Katrin Wegemann’s concept of the site-specific installation, shown from August 18 to September 10, 2006 interacts with the significant architectural condition of these glass walls.
In the beginning of the exhibition a milky, just slightly translucent layer of wallpaper paste coverd the glass surfaces. Having experimented with the processes of standard wallpaper paste a transformated mode of function was added.
In the first two phases of work the artist applied the paste firstly thin, then thick to the glass walls by hand and roughly spread it over the whole surface. Every time the slowly moving, dripping fluid had dried, she added another layer, until the entire glass was covered with several uneven layers. In the third phase, visible to the visitors, water started to diffuse from the paste and at the edges of the windows the dried areas slowly began to come off. Finally, in phase four, the paste partially peeled away towards the middle of the center of the room and fell off, thus piece by piece revealing again the view into and through the pavilion. The shed, dehumidified parts lay on the floor of the exhibition space like peeled off skin, shrunk, ripped and rolled up. The work transformed itself from an installation encompassing the whole room to a floor sculpture.
The transformation process of the wallpaper paste inside the room was also perceptible on its outside: The clicking and cracking noises emerging from the pavilion suggested a mysterious movement behind the windows. As the installations own rules were defined by its material’s process-related alterations, the shrinking movement of the paper paste layers produced an audible tension. The inside – which for a certain time had not been visible to the outside – now sealed itself off against the outside in an almost private atmosphere. Katrin Wegemann’s work of the past years shows her interest in spatial boarders, the segregation of inside and outside, the threshold between public and private. Intersections which ‘Scheibenkleister’ emphasised once more, actually rendered visible: At the opening of the exhibition, all windows of the pavilion were completely covered with paper paste, yet gradually they opened up during the course of the exhibition. When finally all layers of paper paste had peeled off in a mixture of organic, inorganic and physical processes, the visual result reminded of a ‘skinning’. Leaving the artwork to develop on its own, without any further engagement on her side, Katrin Wegemann undermined the understanding of an artwork being able to receive perfection only by the artist’s hand. The natural shrinking process of the paper paste created a sculpture in the making, with a life of its own, conditioned by its material and the situation of the weather.
By means of this ‘inward skinning’, Katrin Wegemann brought out the room’s periphery, by the use of tight-fitting paper paste layers she let its volume become apparent. While peeling off, the internal mould of the pavilion separated itself from the glass walls. The ‘white cube’ imploded – slowly.

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