Chapter 3. On the threshold of the visible
Tuning-2 brings together nine especially commissioned sound installations and an exhibition which traces the connections that have run between music and formal experiments in the visual arts from the beginning of the last century to the present day.
This chapter comprises works which quite literally vanish into thin air. Space here functions not just as a neutral backdrop but as a full-fledged actor, as capable of illuminating an object as it is of muffling it or carrying it away into the shadows. Whether they mimic their environment or merge with it, these works require the active participation of the viewer, demand an effort in order to be perceived. The works of Florian Pumhösl (b. 1971), Alighiero Boetti (1940–1994), Liz Deschenes (b. 1966), Daniel Knorr (b. 1968), Sarah Charlesworth (1947–2013), and Isa Genzken (b. 1948) have been brought together in a total installation that invites viewers to attune to subtle differences in their forms and features and to consider how their field of vision is marked and organised—what is included in it, what is excluded. Is visibility an inherent property of things, or a quality imparted to them by the viewer?
The logic of the development of modernism exposed the conventionality and insignificance of pictorial norms, and led gradually to the laying bare of the painting itself—reduced first to a monochrome surface, then to the state of a simple stretched canvas. With time, the impulse to eradicate any traces of objectivity or imitation of reality only increased. Importance was increasingly attributed to the various ways in which art might be «framed”—formally, linguistically, sociologically, institutionally—everything, in other words, that lies outside the frame yet makes artistic experience possible. Invisibility, absence, emptiness—these are points of departure, zones of uncertainty and indeterminacy, of an open and endless generation of meanings. Invisibility, of course, can signal intentional concealment, but by the same token it can signify a gaping absence, draw attention to what is repressed or silenced, to what can be perceived only peripherally, to what exists only as an unsteady afterimage or eludes our attention. Invisibility inspires confusion, upsets and reconfigures our habitual, normative conditions of perception. Finally, invisibility creates situations in which the observed object returns the gaze we direct at it and begins to look at us.
It is precisely their own reflection that viewers of Liz Deschenes’s Shift/Rise #32 (2011) are confronted with. Moving about the hall, catching, from various perspectives, their reflection and that of the objects surrounding them in the flatness of the mirror, viewers materialise the very act of seeing and at the same time awaken ghostly images of the work—a photograph, taken without the participation of a camera.
Florian Pumhösl’s series of deceptively simple plaster reliefs (2016–2017) was created for the reconstruction of El Lissitzky’s Room for constructive art, designed in 1926 for the abstractionsts’ show at the Dresden International Art Exhibition. Almost a hundred years later, this interior was reconstructed according to a single remaining photograph. Pumhösl set himself the task of thinking up what might fill such a hall today. Though at first glance, his reliefs might seem almost primitive, each of their lines refers to the historical context of a century ago. The four plaster compositions along with the intentionally omitted one (the reliefs are numbered I—V) serve as points of intersection for the formal and historic, for the abstract and the maximally concrete. The work of art, Pumhösl insists, cannot be closed in on itself or on its artistic means, whatever the declarations of the modernists may be.
Sarah Charlesworth takes up the theme of the imaginary and the visible in her series 0+1 (2000). Though they appear at first as black and white sketches, these works are in fact full-colour photographs. In as far as all the objects in the series are shot against a white background flooded with bright light, the boundary between figure and background is almost imperceptible. The threshold of visibility thus becomes the centre of attention, though Charlesworth is also interested in the threshold of entry into world visual culture. It is precisely for this reason that the subjects and images selected are entirely commonplace—the Madonna and Child, the skull (a symbol of the transience of earthly life in Dutch still-lives of the seventeenth century), the pagan goddess, the seated model, the grid as organizing principle of modernist art.
Alberto Boetti’s Lampada annuale (1967) is a lacquered black box with a glass lid, its insides covered with metal, and a huge bulb fixed in the middle. Minimalistic in form, the object seems a part of some perplexing scientific device, the leftover of a mysterious experiment. Hidden deep within the box is a clock mechanism. Once a year, this mechanism selects a moment at random during which the bulb will flash for eleven seconds. It only takes viewers knowing that this object might unexpectedly awaken in their presence (even if the likelihood of it is negligible) for the deceptive simplicity of the device to take on a peculiar, almost magical aura, and for an event invisible to the majority of visitors to provide an impetus to new interpretations.
Daniel Knorr’s Capillaire (2015) is formed of several acrylic tubes containing samples of a wide variety of poisons: brugmansia (a poisonous tropical shrub, a type of Datura), belladonna, arsenic, spotted hemlock, etc. If we see the building as an organism, and the exhibition space as one of its organs, then these tubes become analogous to blood vessels. The poisons that have found their way here are of an ambivalent, flickering nature. In Ancient Greece, the term «pharmakon» could denote medicines and potions as much as it could poisons. An analogy more pertinent to our times might be antibodies, which are at once signals of possible disease and necessary to its cure. Just as throughout history, poisons have served as both means of miraculous escape and of doing away with opponents, so Knorr sees in them at once a means of biopolitical control over the body and a way of evading it.
From the late 1970s to the early 1980s, Isa Genzken created oblong, curved wooden sculptures—ellipsoids and hyperbolas constructed according to complex computer calculations. In doing so, Genzken did not simply, to borrow Alexander Pushkin’s phrase, verify the harmony of the universe through algebra, but straightforwardly polemicised with the tradition of minimalism: choosing a deliberately whimsical form, Genzken invited her viewer into a game of visual association by including this premeditated, invisible emotional layer in her work. As Genzken herself commented: «I would like people to talk about ellipsoids — ‘It looks like a spear—or a toothpick—or a kayak’—I laid the foundation for this associative moment from the very beginning.» The aerodynamic form of her objects can make them seem industrially produced, though in fact they are all handmade. This exhibition displays a life-size blueprint for one of Genzken’s ellipsoids, made around 1976 with the help of a computer programme that visualised accurate, mathematically verified calculations and allowed for their transformation into sculpture.