Hovering, Rising, Floating
On the choreographed ephemeral in the work of Katrin Wegemann
“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.” 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.”
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.” 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. 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. 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.” 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.”
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.”
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.” 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.
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.” 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. 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.” 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.” 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.“ The aim of all these big projects, in an enclosureless time, is the simulation of the now impossible imaginary security sphere.” 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.
 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. //  Comment by the artist Gerhard Hahn in an unpublished e-mail interview, March 2010. //  Transl. from Oliver Herweg and Axel Thallemer: AIR / LUFT. Einheit von Kunst und Wissenschaft. 2005, p. 7. //  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. //  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. //  Transl. from: “Signier den Himmel!” In: Herweg and Thallemer, pp. 97 – 105, 101. //  Transl. from: “Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung,” in Herweg and Thallemer, p. 183. //  Ibid. p. 183. //  Ibid. p. 183. //  See ibid. p. 183. //  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. //  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. //  Opening speech by Anna Koch in the gallery ARTPLOSIV at the exhibition POIESIS I Katrin Wegemann, March 25, 2011. //  Translated from Peter Sloterdijk: Sphären 1, Blasen. Frankfurt a.M. 1998, p. 18. //  See ibid. p. 24. //  Ibid. p. 24.