A world in wax
by Stephan Trescher
Wax is a substance with no shortage of uses. Its applications range from illumination to nursing. It insulates and it soothes; it lubricates and heals. It goes into ointments, salves and creams; into candles and flares. Even earplugs, from Odysseus to modern German Ohropax. But do it uses include art? As encaustic, wax has been part of the painting process since antiquity, and to this day it is used to fashion death masks, votive figures and scenes of the Nativity. No less familiar is its supporting role in sculpture for maquettes and models, and in the cire-perdue or lost wax method of bronze casting. But what is virtually unknown is wax itself being the stuff of art.
Inge Gutbrod's achievement is to have released wax from the constraints of its hitherto supporting role and thrust it into the limelight. The place where her upgrade of this 'unbefitting' material to the status of main protagonist is at its most apparent is also where she makes her most daring leap of the imagination. She has taken it where one would least expect it – into the realm of architecture.
Wall, Gate and Tower
The first of Gutbrod's architectural sculptures was her 1995 Wachs-Haus, and it was here she established the method that she has applied to all her architectural pieces since. Industrial sheets of paraffin wax measuring 11 5/8 inches by 7 1/2 inches (49.5 cm x 29.5 cm) are mounted onto a grille made of fine strips of iron with narrow flanges. The panels are assembled from the ground up and the sheets are affixed to the frame by means of iron prongs crossing the strips, the sheets being carefully incised (by hand, an arduous toil) so as to create an exact dovetail. The result is a closed surface of white wax, criss-crossed by the rectangular lattice of black lines that constitute the frame.
In Wachs-Haus two long panels and two narrow panels are conjoined to a ceiling panel of the same construction, thus enclosing a rectangular space, which, by means of a slot resembling a door on one of the narrow sides, may even be entered. The door is what transmutes the piece into architecture, opening up–literally–a new dimension to the spectator. What was a rigorously geometric figure of wax has gone from being a bulky sculpture to being a room of its own. What was an inner hollow bounded by an outer envelope has left the confines of the imagination and become a dwelling, endowed with both interior and exterior.
This perceptual shift will only take effect if the spectator actually avails himself of the opportunity and steps inside the structure. While they are all clearly accessible, it is intrinsic to Gutbrod's pieces that they are far from identical in the degree of access they afford. Wachs-Haus, for one, demands its observer squeeze through one opening providing both ingress and exit, making it cavelike, with a corresponding sense of both homeliness and danger. Tor zur Welt on the other hand, is so demonstrably a portal to the world beyond, so very right to stride through, that an observer wishing to tarry awhile beneath its arch will require no small measure of willpower to do so. The greatest scope for both lingering and looking comes in the tall form of the piece entitled tower. With its four doorways facing each other, it is in every sense the most accessible of the three.
This is exceeded only by the piece named mobil, where the architectonics have mutated into merely a residual potential of being architecture. Five wall-panels in a set which, depending on their deployment, take up position as screens to partition a room, as a loose maze or as a closed cuboid. Mobilis also the piece where the resemblance to traditional Japanese architecture is at its most apparent. Traditional shoji screens – panels of rice paper spanning wooden frames – are both portable and translucent, enabling a space to be partitioned with great flexibility. Visually too, they resemble the work of Inge Gutbrod, in their grid of black and white. It is from this repetition of identical forms that the works attain their austere power. When they completely surround the spectator, ceiling and walls, they can – as well as generating a sense of calm – be quite overwhelming. But the factor that most influences how the works will be perceived is the quality of available light in the exhibition space. Light determines what colour the paraffin wax will take on and the degree of its transparency. The semblance thus, is now the warm shimmer of those alabaster windows found in mediaeval churches, now the fibrous filigree of Japanese rice paper, now even the interior of an igloo. The quality of available light will also determine what features come to the fore in the sheets of wax themselves. Whether it is the irregularities, streaks and air bubbles trapped within, or the smooth glossy wax surface. This opaque luminosity lends an ethereal quality to the space, extending to any visitor to it. With light suffusing from all sides, anyone coming into this space will be flooded in waxen light, will feel as if enclosed in gleaming cotton wool.
Into the Great White Open
But with her wax edifices the focus of Inge Gutbrod's attention is not restricted to inner space alone. In her large scale project my world she takes on the guise of our society on the hoof in order in her own terms to challenge it. She mounted three temporary installations of three of her architectural pieces together at the airports of first Nuremberg, then Omaha and concluding in Glasgow. Transient spaces, such as these, proved an apt setting to exhibit the rooms of wax, which thereby took on a freight of symbolism. Tor zur Welt became in actuality a portal to the world, tower both the control tower found at every airport and the turret icon of her hometown of Nuremberg, and the closed white sanctuary of the Wachs-Haus became the end of the journey around the world. This transient exhibition of art paralleled the passage of humanity through these places of transit; the only thing to endure was to be the after-effects of the work. For unlike the airports the sculptures are also objects of transformation, junction boxes for the mind, as it were. They contrast the unabated functionality of their surroundings with a »purpose free« space and can jolt the passenger or spectator from the mundanity of travel timetables. Moreover, the spectator is in a position to ponder the conceptual link between the triple locations of the installation. This most unlikely itinerary of Nuremberg – Omaha - Glasgow, well off the beaten flightpaths, exists in the imagination alone. It is thus in some senses superior to those flights that have become humdrum.
Water lilies in series
Walking surely comes to us more naturally than flight, and so it was that in go to pot Gutbrod laid a path in slabs of wax that led back towards nature, culminating eventually in Seerosen. Both works employ sequences of repeated identical units. However, whereas the components that make up the gleaming garden path are manufactured, the discs that constitute Seerosen are each individually cast by hand. The fact that at first we don't notice the rigid uniformity of shape is doubtless down to the greater latitude given than in go to pot to chance and the natural world in the formation of the piece. Though the discs are fettered to one another by virtually invisible nylon thread, and likewise firmly anchored to the floor of the pool, they are nonetheless relatively free to drift around the surface, their overall shape is in perpetual flux. The shimmering white discs also become ever greener during their occupation of the water, playing host to algae and moss. Their total dissolution in the course of a longer installation in the open would be inevitable. But perhaps because of the decomposition, the life of the pond took the work of art as most practicable substitute for nature. It was jostled by fish and provided an admirable perch for frogs.
Clearly, despite the clean geometric perfection of the formation, the image of water lilies is inescap-able. Even considering the fact that, set as they are in bright greens, the white wax discs take on a pink tinge, it is nevertheless surprising that the eye accepts them without a murmur. Amongst the foliage, no one would take them for, say, a fleet of floating beer mats. One thing more remains noteworthy, even at the risk of stating the obvious. The water lilies of Seerosen float in water. This alone sets them apart from others of Gutbrod's work, which largely operate on the playoff of tension between their apparent visual levity and the actual solid mass of their material gravity.
Come into the parlour
The category between the heavyweight monumental sculpture weighing tons and the delicate petals that float is where to ascribe the »pieces of furniture«. Where the others discuss the correlation between architecture and nature, these latter works more clearly function as autonomous sculpture. If the objects appear utilitarian, it is merely in the memory the viewer carries away. Which is why the set that Gutbrod created for the exhibition entitled Tisch-Kultur (table manners) remains untitled. If one does think, while contemplating this piece, of the title of the exhibition, the inescapable association is with a table and benches drawn up alongside. Although the seams tell us that this has been assembled from sheets of paraffin wax rather than cast as one unit, the piece comes across as one contained, solid whole. Here the term disguise bobs up. Both in the sense of a coating around an already extant piece of furniture, and in its other meaning of masquerade and camouflage. Once again the substance of wax suggests that there has to be something concealed beneath the surface. The conviction that the gaze can penetrate beyond the alabaster-like surface is unshakeable, and yet the eye cannot bore deep into the wax. It is impossible to tell if there is another form located be-neath the skin, if at its core the sculpture hoards a hollow, or yet another material, something softer. Tending towards organic form rather than rigid geometry, but no less ambiguous are Inge Gutbrod's vases and vessels of wax. This throng of displays in cabinets and on shelves sets a myriad associations loose. Bicycle handlebars and the handles of tools, banisters and balustrades, and goblets, pears and phallus. Always arrayed in sets, the shapes of these pieces by turns suggest their creation on a lathe or potter's wheel, then again kneaded or poured into being. One becomes aware of the malleability of the material. Of how one form metamorphoses into another as if organically, of how there is a steady flow of shifting shape, as if the wax were – in a chameleon manner – choosing its own form. This variation of the vases harks back to the works in series in Gutbrod's oeuvre. But these vessels are much more clearly recognisable as 'pure' sculpture, through their underscoring of haptic quality and because their range of grey tones drowns out the transparency of the wax.
In blurred and les vitrines de la bourgeoisie Gutbrod takes a road in the opposite direction. She invokes an enormous sense of space with her 'illusory vases', although these window installations consist of nothing more than paper silhouettes of vases combined with a semi-opaque veil of tracing paper. The artist has distilled elements out of her works of wax and applied their effect onto very different materials. Gutbrod has not only created a perfect illusion, in blurred there is also a further close allusion to Japanese Shoji. The paper walls are installed here as a pseudo-architectural element, and constructed such that they slide from side to side, fake vases, frame and all.
Dance the Gerhard Richter
The next step forward in Gutbrod's research into transparency came about by means of another installation piece. Tiles, sited over the work area of a kitchen shows us tiles of wax. Time was in Germany the detergent bottles came with a free flower sticker for the house-proud Hausfrau to enhance her kitchen. And these tiles are crying out for those stickers. Oh, but are they? Take another look, the colour comes into its own. These squares of wax need no squeezy bottle stickers; they wear better colours of their own. The numerous greys evolve into reds, yellows and or-anges, and nothing is as it was before. Since the sheets of coloured wax are fundamentally more opaque than those of their wan antecedents, they were unable to attain their full effect as floor or wall pieces. Which led directly to the next development. Come and have a closer look ...! was to be the first of Gutbrod's lightboxes. Conceived as a Janus-headed work with aspects »by day« and »by night«, the piece shows us two very different faces. By means of a motion sensor, it is the spectator's own approach that triggers the light. Even in its unilluminated state, the bas-relief-like irregularities and swirls within each individual tile are astounding to the viewer. As are the deep harmonies of the opaque surfaces. With the light there is not only a quite different spectrum of colour, but also vivid graduations of tone reminiscent of watercolours, which animate each tile. This immediately draws these glowing images closer to the or-ganic and yet highly structured watercolours of Paul Klee than to perhaps the geometric pieces of Ellsworth Kelly or Gerhard Richter. Which should not distract us from the fact that Inge Gutbrod's lightboxes are their own achievement. They meld the inner structure of their organic source material with the rigid geometry of her wax architectural pieces. They transform the cold flat light of fluorescent tubes into a glowing, radiant honeycomb mosaic, whose concentric indentations often appear to posses their own lightsource. This cross of sculpture with architecture is a painting in light, and stirs memories of both ecclesiastical windows and of a discotheque floor. It tilts our reality and our world, just a little. Walls become windows, the floor beneath our feet flies up the wall. So let's dance.
dialectics of translucency
by Stephen Wright
Transparency has good press these days. As an underlying principle of good governance, rule of law and freedom of expression, transparency enjoys the status of a self-evident value. Who, after all, would contest a notion that seems virtually synonymous with sincerity and truthfulness? Political rhetoric is full of praise for transparency - and rightly so, for after all was it not Glasnost, that particularly Soviet brand of transparency, that brought an end to the opacity of the protracted Stalinist gloom? And where transparency is held in esteem, opacity is held in contempt. In both the private and public spheres, opacity resonates as synonymous with deceit, cheating and underhandedness, whereas transparency is associated with fair play, openness and probity - with the attitude that "we have nothing to hide". But imagine just for a moment a world of perfect transparency; a world where transparency was not merely a regulatory principle, but had finally triumphed over opacity; where everyone lived in glass houses. Such a world, which may not remain science fiction for much longer, given the rapid development and implementation of surveillance technologies, would be literally unliveable. The powerful fictional accounts of dystopic transparency imagined a half century ago by novelists like Orwell and Huxley have in many respects been outstripped today by what some authors refer to as the "biopolitical" mindset of our advanced democratic states. One might, broadly speaking, describe this ironic development as the "dialectic of transparency": to allow democracy to emerge and flourish - that is, to break with concealed privilege, endemic corruption, and the sort of cronyism which thrived behind a thrall of opacity - transparency had to be institutionalised; all-too-effective a tool, transparency soon became an end in itself, and we are now all potential victims of its success.
Is there not some alternative to this paradoxical dialectical identity between transparency and opacity? What about the undertheorised concept of translucency? Not as a wishy-washy compromise between two binaries but as a different way of visualising relations in the public and private spheres? In one respect, of course, translucency does stand somewhere between opacity and transparency; but in another way, it is entirely unaligned with them, and offers a viable third way for mediating the opposing imperatives of intimacy and disclosure. Translucency is essentially fuzzy, approximate, a sort of "rough ground" upon which one can gain a foothold, as opposed to the sheer and icy slipperiness of transparency or the treacherous gloom of opacity. A pragmatic concept upon which the sort of distance constitutive of human relations can be founded.
It so happens that translucency is the very material that Inge Gutbrod has been working with for the past two decades - roughly, that is, since the time that the crusade between transparency and opacity became a commonplace of political discourse. It may seem incongruous to approach Gutbrod's work from a politically discursive perspective, given her essentially formalist approach. Yet it strikes me that an artist's choice of material is always historically overdetermined, and though not necessarily the outcome of a conscious choice, it is the object of pre-reflexive knowledge: in other words, it just seems to "work" or to "fit" in some historical juncture, though it would not in a different setting. I would wager that in making translucency her historical material, Inge Gutbrod is revealing - somewhat obliquely, even translucently, as it were - her own ideal both for the mediating relations between subject and object and for intersubjective transaction.
To assert that Gutbrod's "material" is translucency is by no means to deny the obvious fact that her primary artistic resource is paraffin wax. In the materiological sense of the word, wax is indeed her "material" of predilection - the stuff of the majority of her artworks. Of course, it just so happens that translucency is the outstanding visual characteristic of wax - at least in its solid state, which is how wax appears in Gutbrod's artworks. But I am also choosing to use the notion of "material" in the Adornian sense of the term, referring to the historically determined scope of meanings of a given form of appearance. In asserting this, I am not taking issue with Pia Dornacher, Hans Gehrcke, and Hans-Peter Miksch, the three curators of the artist's three-tiered exhibition, who have written that Gutbrod has steered clear of current art fashions such as the problematics of gender. Their observation is entirely accurate - Gutbrod's aesthetic is form-driven, not issue-based. Yet, what are gender politics about if not the struggle for determining the criteria for who defines truth in our society? In other words, a struggle that can be described in terms of transparency and opacity, or perhaps - and far more effectively - using concepts of translucency. I believe that an intuition of this kind is immanent to the work of Inge Gutbrod.
The hypothesis strikes me as all the more plausible in that much of Gutbrod's work over the years has had a decidedly architectonic bent - walk-in structures made of steel-framed rectangular wax blocks or what might be described as "archi-sculptural" forms, including hand-crafted, bulbous wax spheres, pierced only by small orifices, which viewers can peek through at the diffuse light within. Architecture is of course the spatial embodiment of intersubjective relations: how close can we get to whom? How far are we kept from what? This concern with intersubjectivity is explicitly inscribed in Gutbrod's aesthetics: "My work always has a haptic as well as a visual side," she points out. "It is meant to be touched, and ultimately I don't mind if it is damaged in the process." Translucency as an architectural principle implies an overcoming of high modernism's obsession with transparency, which may ultimately explain some of Gutbrod's choices, including her decision to "collar" one of the pillars in the upstairs portion of her Neumarkt exhibition with rings of wax, stacked one upon the other all the way up to the ceiling, drawing attention to the architecture of the site by integrating it into her work's form. Psychoanalysis has taught us to recognise the extent to which architecture and architecture-related forms are structured by the subconscious; but it has shed light on how we should actually look at architecture - the meaning itself is forever yielding to the opacity of the object or, conversely, vanishing into the transparency of the signifier. Gutbrod's translucent objects maintain this dialectic in tension, in an attempt to architecture to itself.
However, it is above all for another reason altogether that I see translucency as the key to what might be referred to as the prevailing "structure of sentiment" in Inge Gutbrod's work. And that is the contemplative nature of many of her recent installations. There has been a definite shift from her use of wax per se toward a focus on diaphanous colour. I am thinking in particular of the recent installation entitled wärmestube (2001-06), a back-lit composition made up of dozens of translucent wax tiles, shown in the Heidelberg portion of the exhibition. Producing a 1960s style psychedelic effect, the work gives off a warm, almost flamelike sensation, whereby each tile's coefficient of colour and translucency gives visual rhythm to the overall composition. From afar, one has the impression of an entirely flat surface; upon closer scrutiny, it turns out that the play of translucency is produced by the different thicknesses of each tile, invariably thinner in the middle.
Precisely because her work is essentially form-driven, translucency could in sense not but be Gutbord's material of predilection. In the words of Russian Formalist Viktor Chklovski:
"To render the sensation of life, to feel objects, to experience that stone is stone, there exists what is called art. Art's goal is to give a sensation to the object as vision and not as recognition; art's device is the device of singularising objects and the device that involves obscuring the form, increasing the difficulty and duration of perception. The act of perception in art is an end in itself and must be prolonged; art is a means of experiencing the becoming of the object, what has already 'become' is of no consequence for art."
Though Gutbrod's work is perhaps more immediately concerned with contemplation than with perception as such, Chklovski's aesthetic theory helps account for what is ultimately at stake in her work. According to Chklovski, artistic language is a sort of ostentatious visual dialect whose vocation it is to trigger the awakening of renewed perception. The object's artistic use can be observed and measured by the strangeness of its form - "difficult, rife with obstacles" he asserts, but never quite opaque - which is perceived as unusual by comparison with an ordinary object: form is thus the distinctive feature aesthetic perception, and transparency its ultimate foe. At the core of Chklovski's system, one encounters the opposition between emphatic perception and acquired habit - an opposition that is determinant in Gutbrod's work as well, particularly in terms of her engagement with the architecture of the exhibition space. Habit is the depleted form of perception that has become mechanical, almost algebraic. The stultifying of perception leads to myopia with regard to the object; instead of "seeing" it, one merely "recognises" it, perceiving it in a habitual way. The function of art, by contrast, is to revitalise perception of the object, to wrest it from habit in order to bring conscious experience back to life. The artwork must unleash a sudden awareness of the surfaces and shapes of the object and the world that has been recharged with some of its original freshness. The work only rises to the status of aesthetic experience once it manages to provoke a renewal of perception in the viewer; as Chklovski goes on to say, the work succeeds if and when it "creates a particular perception of the object, creating its vision rather than its recognition."
One might persuasively argue that it is the brittle nature of wax, as much as its translucency, which can best be recognised to be at the heart of Gutbrod's aesthetics - a possibility emphasised by the artist's decision to use an image of broken fragments of mauve wax on the cover of her catalogue. But it seems to me that translucency itself is a fragile state, always liable to succumb to encroaching opacity on the one hand, and to the lures of transparency on the other. Such are the dialectics of translucency and, in effect, of Inge Gutbrod's work: caught between radiant knowledge (heuristic openness) and cloudy obscurity (enigmatic closure).