Texte | Prof. Dr. Michael Schwarz | Kunsthistoriker


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Michael Schwarz
Brigitte Kowanz: In the Mirror of the Light – The Beholder

For over thirty years now Brigitte Kowanz has occupied herself with artificial
light, its principles and its possibilities in terms of both narrative and design.
In her early works she inquired into light as light, studied reflection, the effect
of shadows, the luminosity of the medium, themed the ability of light to not
only create spaces but also make them vanish. And she has discovered
forms that allow the physical laws of light to be grasped, that remind us that
what we actually see is light, and in her recent works shown that we the
observers can also become part of the experimental set-up in her works. Her
entire oeuvre in all of its phases and constellations was recently the subject
of a large retrospective at the Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig
Wien, accompanied by a thick catalogue. Museum Ritter is now showing
above all her works with neon and mirrors and in this way granting a glimpse
into the artist’s ways of working and her artistic strategies. With the exhibition
of her works on the ground floor of the museum, the luminous messages in
her works become immediately legible. But does this alone make the works

We experience spaces through their boundaries, their form and size convey
themselves above all via the floor on which we stand and by the corners. For
this reason every change in the floor surface or in a corner also has an
impact on the experience of the space – not only in exhibition galleries. At
Museum Ritter the floor space is opened up by the tetrahedron that forms
Dedicated, a neon piece which, thanks to its semi-transparent mirror,
repeatedly reflects the lettering and expands the existing space into an
infinite, virtual space. This work was preceded by Exit in 2006, which has not
been exhibited here. Both of the works open up the space with their radiant,
overlapping, multiplied images of precisely that space. Works arise from
works, and so the corners of the floor can be traced back to the corner lights
that Brigitte Kowanz created in 1987 and in the following years, in which she
first themed the exhibition space as a perceptual space. In those years a
number of young artists turned their attention to the light experiments that
had been conducted on the American West Coast in and around the Art and
Technology Program at Los Angeles County Museum. In particular James
Turrell had already worked since 1967 on removing the boundaries of space
by means of light in his Projection Pieces. These works produce illusions,
they are meant (initially) to deceive, to make us believe the corners of the
room have been cut open, that every wall bears a shining mural – so as then
to belie the deception. Brigitte Kowanz does not overwhelm. She shows the
elements, materials and underpinnings of her work. Right from the outset we
see what we see: an interaction between the virtual interior space of
Dedicated and the reflections of the surrounding space. Only later do the
questions arise.

Yet another work in the exhibition refers back to an earlier group. The latest
work on show here is entitled Whatwhy and refers back to the artist’s Morse
code objects in the latter half of the 1990s; at that time a number of Brigitte
Kowanz’s works were concerned with the underlying principles of our
information society. In order to arrive at knowledge, she says, we require
tools that can encode what has been experienced and then decode that once
again. She devoted herself to the code to which Samuel F. B. Morse –
American inventor and Professor of Art, Painting and Design at the University
of New York – applied himself when in 1837, he constructed the first Morse
telegraph machine from scraps of wire, left-over metal and a clock, and with
that created the foundations of modern data transfer by means of a binary
code. In works such as Morsealphabet [Morse code] or Licht ist was man
sieht [Light is what we see], Brigitte Kowanz translated the Morse code with
its acoustic intervals into visual signs. Her new piece, Whatwhy, is as simple
in form as it is suggestive in its effect. In order to show the characters
extending out into space, two concentric neon tubes have been mounted on a
likewise concentrically polished stainless steel disk, such that the light
produces a seemingly spatial web of light and shadow that extends outwards.

The majority of the exhibited works are displayed as picture objects on the
wall. As pictures they grant a gaze into spaces beyond the exhibition space,
past the light of the lettering into a mysterious darkness. Point of departure is
almost always neon lettering, which presents words such as Viceversa or
Extension and thus names what is to be read: a light sign that is doubled, that
is multiply reflected before losing itself in a black picture space. Rainer Fuchs
has spoken in this context of a triad of light, language and mirrors which, […]
combined with each other, push the potential for self-expansion and mutual
interpenetration close to the infinite. This extension into the infinity of the
picture space is achieved through mirrorings and counter-reflections which
allow the lettering gleaming on the surface to become smaller and smaller
until it disappears there where the beholder sees himself shining out from the
darkness of the picture object.

Mirrorings have a long tradition in light art. Not every example that could be
named is relevant in artistic and conceptual terms to Brigitte Kowanz’s mirror
objects. But nevertheless they form the backdrop, as it were, without which
the historical and contemporary context of the work would be
incomprehensible. László Moholy-Nagy’s Light-Space-Modulator from 1930
picked up for the first time on the theme of the viewer over whom the light
reflections and shadow forms from the kinetic object glide – while he himself
remains in the dark as the observer of a spectacle. The light objects created
by Nikolaus Schöffer, Adolf Luther, the ZERO group or the Groupe de
Recherche d’Art Visuel (GRAV) 30 years later even demanded an
autonomously moving viewer when the luminous sculptures themselves
rotated. In the 1950s and 1960s two parameters in particular of light art were
laid down on a broad basis: the dualism of projection and reflection, and
motion – either as the movement of the object or as the movement of the
observer. Artists such as Olafur Eliasson, Mischa Kuball and others have
continued to work along both of these parameters. This has led in an
installation like Remix/Broca II (Letters/Numbers) (2007) by Mischa Kuball – a
work that relates to Broca’s area in the brain, the region that controls the
motor action of speech – to an experience of time in the perceptual space of
the projection that is induced by means of acceleration and deceleration.
When compared to such projection and reflection spaces, the differences to
light art in the tradition of kinetic mirror objects à la Moholy-Nagy become
quickly apparent. Point of departure for Brigitte Kowanz’s works is language
as writing or sign. The handwritten concepts rendered in neon for her light
objects […] display their meanings in spatial appearances and signalize their
instability and dynamism in the experience of the viewer confronted with a
permanently shifting and never unequivocally graspable scenario.

What still must be discussed are the two floor objects, Eins unendlich and
Unendlich eins [One Infinitely and Infinitely One], which as so often in Brigitte
Kowanz’s work are conceived of as a diptych. The result is a dialogue that
perpetuates the mirror theme in the neon-and-mirror-based works in the
current exhibition, and once again poses the question of the bounds of space:
infinite or one? Quite indistinguishable from one another, the cubes stand like
dioscuri in space and shine with identical brightness. Likewise the signs
fragmented by the mirrors appear identical – although the meaning invested
in them could not be more different. As he approaches, the viewer recognises
at a certain point in front of the objects two quotients: 1 / ∞ and ∞ / 1. Far
beyond any philosophic questions, I see them as holding the key to
understanding the artist’s entire oeuvre, but especially the mirror pieces
exhibited here. I had maintained that the experience of boundless space was
possible in them, a picture space in which the work (more precisely: the
designation of the work) takes a step back. In this infinity the work takes the
viewer with it – if he allows it: 1 / ∞. For everyone else, the neon/mirror
objects remain what they also are, which is to say objects made of various
materials – unattainable: ∞ / 1.

Light creates spaces – picture spaces as well as real spaces. The beholder
moves in this space generated by the light objects. Light space must always
be thought of as dynamic and must constitute itself above and beyond a
possible ‘void’ as ambient and possessing atmospheric qualities. Drawn by
light reflections, words slivers and mirrored fragments of space, the viewer
approaches the work and finds the spot from which the word, the phrase or
the sign can be read – so as to lose himself precisely at that moment in the
work. But perhaps he finds there, where it is darkest, an answer to the
questions Whathowwherewhowhen.

Übersetzung aus dem Deutschen: Malcom Green

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