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