Shining by Absence means as much as ‘present absentness’ – something had previously existed, but is now no longer there. This involves a precise moment that is ultimately hardly perceptible and thoughts that flash through the mind, that come and go. All the things I know but of which I am not at the moment thinking – 1:36pm; June 15, 1969: One of the most frequently quoted word works by Robert Barry serves as the inspiration for this group exhibition. The seven artists are dealing with the theme of absence and transform that matter into poetic and frequently ironic ways in installations, pictures or objects. While Barry is one of the avant-garde artists who first dismissed the classical notion of the ‘work of art’ at the end of the 1960s, the young generation (Becky Beasley (*1975), Ulla von Brandenburg (*1974), Anne-Lise Coste (*1973), Raphael Danke (*1972), Aloïs Godinat (*1978) and Annette Ruenzler (*1968)) developed their own formal language to describe things and phenomena that are not visible at first glance. They evoke a field of tension between objecthood and immateriality in their work. In the process, they reveal the gaze into the peripheral, the ephemeral and the latent – whereby language is a central element. Objects and text pieces arise that articulate an attentive process of thoughts or associations. Producing a sense of frail, ethereal encounter in which the experience of the observer almost relates to the spiritual. Michael Fried calls this moment a religious concept of grace: Presentness is grace. All seven artists address a temporality in which the transience lingers – in the space or in unspoken illusions.
Robert Barry (New York, 1936) – like Dan Graham, Douglas Huebler, Joseph Kosuth or Lawrence Weiner – is one of the most significant protagonists of American conceptual art. The artist created a name for himself with his spatially oriented wire or nylon string installations. Barry was already extremely uncompromising in 1967 when he pushed his work to the limits of the immaterial and the invisible. At the beginning of the 1970s, the artist began to work almost exclusively with the medium of language. In the process, Barry believes that the concepts liberated from any syntactical context are not art on their own but refer to continuative concepts that are communicated by means of language. One of these concepts is the exploration of spatial experiences and dimensions, which Barry imparts in such forms as “word spaces” – like the wallpieces, floorpieces or window pieces. For the exhibition in Barcelona, the artist has designed a site-specific window piece.
The work of Becky Beasley (Portsmouth, UK. 1975) moves between sculpture and photography. In the process, the artist examines the relationship between objects and their physical reproduction in photography. The artist regularly seeks the resistance to language in her work. For instance, the exhibited wall sculpture Figure + Letter (A-E), 2008 is a series of geometric wall objects that are built upon the basis of the title “Picture + Letter A” to “E.” This involves five hanging shelves made of American walnut – black and solid. Each object is based on a wooden slat of 90 cm, which is divided into two or three different parts and equipped with brass hinges. The almost serial principle and the reversal of letters appeal to the viewer as a form of indecipherable. By looking carefully, looking through the space and gaps, looking for connection, shapes and associations in order then to participate in the radical deconstruction, these silhouettes shine as narrative structures in which the narrative arises through a silent, partially inscrutable eloquence.
Ulla von Brandenburg (Karlsruhe, 1974) works with a multitude of media such as film, illustration, installation and performance. Inspired by historic iconography of the late 19th century – the transition to the modern age – the artist creates a diverse work. In her films, the artist refers to the form of the Tableau Vivant. Paradoxically, style and movement are reversed here: The frozen image of the Tableau Vivant is embedded in the temporal experience of the film – and results in a moving motif. The 16-mm black-and-white film Geist, 2007 shows an entity shrouded in a white sheet, distorted and viewed through a glass ball that stands on top of a pole in the garden of a historic estate. Is this a phenomenon of the ghost – or is it a spiritual assumption, an apparition that is not bound to the physical body? The almost floating entity in the background appears to be a transpersonal or even transcendent spirituality. A recipient can be read somewhere between the striking quality of a séance and self-mocking scepticism. This is not physically present, but its echo still resounds in the work.
Anne-Lise Coste (Marseille, France, 1973) is well-known for her radical approach, in which the creative potential of her art is articulated in the spontaneous gesture and what is directly said, written and painted. Coste opposes the standardization of art and uncompromisingly points out the fleeting nature of the moment in her works. The drawing ddddd, 2009 is reminiscent of a (music) score – a strictly arranged compilation (composition) of the letter “d.” The artist uses the script as a visual code, as well as a contextual medium, in order to raise philosophical-existential questions in a playful, lighthearted way, to send emotional messages into the world and to vent her rebellion against the existing political conditions.
At the foreground of the works by Raphael Danke (Aquisgrán, Germany, 1972) is the association to the “absent” or the “fleeting,” which the artist primarily captures through his special collage technique. Danke applies on a great variety of motifs and literally causes the figures to disappear from the selected models by means of cutting them out. The illustrated bodies are removed and the remaining colour and surface elements nested – up to the point in which a new, often surreal-appearing composition is created. The five black-and-white collages shown in the exhibition belong to a series of works that have each been named for one of the fallen angels. The ballerina Margot Fonteyn served as the model for these pictures. The defenceless and faceless dancers on the compositions leave a loss of physicality behind. Gravity has been taken away from them; they trigger memories of the dying swan, slowly fading away.
The spatial installations, objects and wallpieces by Aloïs Godinat (Lausanne, Switzerland, 1978) are frequently created in situ and are based on the strategies of appropriation. They are intended as symbolic representations of upheaval, revolutions and destabilisation. Déchirure (Gilbert & George, 2007) belongs to the series of the Déchirure works. Déchirure can describe the violent act of tearing up found and collected picture material – in this case, an exhibition poster by Gilbert & George – but the expression also simultaneously means deep lacerations. Godinat attempts to take a new look at the picture by fragmenting and examining conventional images as well as sound elements. With Untitled (2005-2008), he now also transfers this principle to what is audible: The object stands in the room in a tilted position: It is a standard loudspeaker box, which has been placed in this position by means of a black wooden wedge. The box plays the sound of a repeating drum roll, which is “torn” by an abrupt stop. The beats rise in intensity, volume and frequency respectively – only to break off suddenly just before the apparent climax. The tension builds anew. The viewer, or the listener in this case, becomes involved in a dialog of fulfilment and non-fulfilment, in presence and absence.
Wrong Idea, Try Again, 2008 by Annette Ruenzler (Speyer, Germany, 1968) is a type of wallpaper, a drawing that is loosely fastened to the wall. The patterns are inspired in everyday household objects, the ornaments of which are underscored with a poetic text line (Wrong Idea, Try Again). The sentence, which has been cut out, allows a glance at the wall behind it. An uncanny, almost ghostly mood overpowers the lightness of the curved paper spreading onto the floor. The bizarre, surreal objects are reminiscent of the surrealist movement. The works of the artist portray a merging between a concrete (tangible and visible) realism and a magical realism (hallucinations, dreams) so that a “third reality” – a synthesis of the realities to which we are accustomed.
With thanks to Office Baroque Gallery, Antwerp, Galerie Johanna Kamm, Berlin, Galerie Sandra Bürgel, Berlin, Sorcha Dallas Gallery, Glasgow, Art: Concept, Paris, Galerie Francesca Pia, Zurich.