Light, language and mirrors are the basic motifs of the works Brigitte Kowanz has installed in and around the Austrian Pavilion at the Venice Biennial. She blends these motifs together to create spatial situations and observational perspectives in which interior and exterior, architecture and environment, reflect and seemingly permeate each other. The thematic centre of the space constructed inside the courtyard forms a concentric, reflective strip of light with two encoded series of numbers that contain chronological benchmark data for the internet – namely, the date it was first presented at CERN, 12 March 1989, and the date it became available worldwide, 6 August 1991. These dates are depicted in Morse code, which represents the first standardized method of transmitting language based on binary elements and the speed of light, and hence, the foundation of all post-analogue, digitalized communications systems such as the internet. This piece also provides what might be called a biography of the World Wide Web, whose encoded form reveals its historical origins, as well as its foundations.
In the development of Kowanz’s own work, in which the artistic visualisation of the intangible, ephemeral and unlimited qualities of light plays a major role, her exploration of the internet as a communications technology based on light means expanding upon and clarifying the references to light and language in her oeuvre. What do these references consist of now, and in what historical contexts of art and ideas do they spring from? Which ones guide them?
One of Kowanz’s original motivations for working with light and language had to do with the blurred limitations of neo-figurative painting. In the paintings she produced in collaboration with Franz Graf in the early nineteen-eighties, she veered away from contemporary mainstream painting. Her themes were the role of the painting per se and of the practice of painting as it relates to space and perception. By using transparent picture supports and fluorescent colours, the traditional concept of the picture and of the act of painting was literally dissipated. The pictures were often painted on both sides and hung in the middle of spaces; their appearance altered when the lighting did, or when viewers looked at them from different angles. They created a changing, phosphorescent kind of three- dimensional, perceptually related painting that also contained object-like and linguistic elements. Apart from their art historical allure, their lucid dynamics and geometrical, angular figuration recalled the virtual world of video and computer games as components of real life and defined ‘painting as a process of creating spaces with surfaces, corresponding to new ways of life’.1
This transformation of painting, or triumph over it, has its foundations in the avantgarde that was critical of tradition and painting, and in its reception by the neo-modernism of Minimal and Conceptual Art. It was not, therefore, linked to the neo-Romantic modernism so often cited in those days, but to its constructivist, analytical, language-related counterpart and the history of its influence. In this context, the geometricisation of pictorial motifs, the integration of language and signs, the spatialisation of paintings and the transition to installation were important steps. Combined with the everyday culture defined by media, and the philosophical trends of phenomenology and post-structuralism, with their theories of perception and signs, avant-garde tradition opened up new ways to branch off from static, hermetic notions of the picture and to accent the active role of the viewer in a new culture of accelerating images.
The scenario conjured by Paul Virilio in the mid-nineteen-eighties of the transition ‘from the esthetics of the appearance of a stable permanent image – present as an aspect of its static nature – to the esthetics of the disappearance of an unstable image – present in its cinematic and cinematographic flight of escape . . . whose duration is purely retinal’,2 referred to photography and film, but it also posed new and unusual challenges to painting and object-related art.
The predominance of the instable could also be seen in the deconstruction of paradigmatic certainties in contemporary philosophy and its self-reflective approach. The fact ‘that philosophy comments upon itself, meaning, it adheres to its classic texts’, which is grounded in the ‘knowledge of all the dimensions of the conditionality of everything, as well as insight into thought that conspires against truth’,3 or, to put it another way, in the knowledge that ‘[anything different] is understood . . . according to the standards of a worldview that is accessed or developed through language, that is always reforming itself and can’t be linked to any kind of timeless, ultimate validity’.4 Just as Manfred Frank establishes causality between fluctuating knowledge and methodical self-reflection here, Jean- François Lyotard also coupled his conclusion about the end of the great masters’ narratives with his definition of philosophy as ‘discourse that has as its rule the search for its rule (and that of other discourses)’.5
These kinds of claims reflect a fundamental interest in the framework surrounding the discipline of art, which was also characteristic of neo- avantgarde art in the nineteen-sixties and seventies. Their ways of reflecting upon media were also symptoms of a transition and the self-affirmation and legitimation that went hand in hand with it. ‘Media reflexivity [is] . . . the kind of characteristic . . . that first fully unfolded under the conditions of its critical relationship to the traditional definitions of genre. Thus, in the nineteen-sixties, there was an explosion of productions that had separated themselves from the traditional definitions of genre and, by freely dealing with each aesthetic media, brought attention to aspects of them that had not been noticed before.’6 Juliane Rebentisch applied this conclusion in particular to hybrid forms of art that operate with theatrical, cinematographic and audiovisual references, as well as to installations that ‘subvert the objectivist ideal of the moment in which a work of art is suddenly understood’,7 and thus imply temporality, movement and mutability in relation to production and reception.
Continuing the tradition of reflecting upon media, Brigitte Kowanz concentrates on the topics of visibility, perception and the production of meaning – i.e., the most fundamental parameters of art possible – in her luminous, language-related artworks. For her three-dimensional works that trespass upon the boundaries of painting, she uses light and language as materials in order to examine their specific qualities and the ways they function.
From using empty bottles or bottles full of paint as light sources or projection surfaces, to illuminated chandeliers, or spotlights that project their internal works via reflective mechanisms, all the way to sandblasted glass objects with screened light sources that inscribe imaginary spaces of light and shadow into real space, Kowanz created a broad spectrum of works defined by light in the nineteen-eighties and nineties, whose forms and apparatuses always focused on light itself as a perceptible guarantee of visibility.
The choreography of space, light and language now at the Venice Biennale has its forerunners, for example, in the sandblasted light and glass-defined installations she made in the nineteen-nineties; she was already making use of mirrored components then. Here, the intangible and the imaginary were implemented in the form of real, experiential structures, or else the concept of light (Lux, 1998), visualised as Morse code, provided a self-portrait. This led to three-dimensional scenarios in which the real and the virtual overwrite each other and intertwine, for the purpose of intensifying the process of perception and making it explicitly experiential. This is not about the metaphysics of light, nor about a kind of auratic and mysterious twilight or illumination. Rather, the physical causality existing between a source of light and its projection makes transparent the relationship between real and imaginary space, as well as their relationship to the viewer. Replacing the essentialist definition of space and body identity is the experience of a hybrid, destabilised space whose coordinates are subverted, along with a viewer who, when confronted with the vagaries and transitions surrounding him, can experience himself as a contingent subject. Contingency, in the form of various aggregate states, also distinguishes the glass and its material quality, which basically consists of a fluid, hardened mass that never comes entirely to rest. In its diverse glass receptacles, the flood and flow of light has a congenial transmitter.
Although Kowanz began with visualising light in wordless form, she began in later series to implement language and numerals in luminous scenarios. Those works whose content deals with the speed of light embody a way of verbalising light, in the sense that they represent the scale for visibility. The pieces are linear and scaled objects whose length also assigns a number to the time that light requires in order to travel a given distance. These works capture the unimaginable and unobservable in attractive and precise forms.
By depicting the one within the other, the artist succeeds not only in using light, but also in exposing it to language, while at the same time guiding language to illuminate itself. Here, she can assume that there are analogies between light and language that not only affect its ephemeral character or its intangible, immaterial ‘nature’, but most particularly its comparable role in the processes of perception and significance, as well. In the same way that light falls upon things and thus slightly recedes from notice, so signifiers overshadow the signified, leading us to believe that they are the things they are merely marking and signifying. Kowanz’s works outline an attempt either to break through, or to make it possible to experience this cycle of internalisation, forgetting and confusion within the processes of perception and recognition, meaning, the recollection of what has been internalised.
In their synchronicity, the discussion of light and the illumination of language lend form and visibility to the immaterial and intelligible. Because Kowanz does not simply make light and language visible and recognisable, but rather turns it into visibility and thus into consciousness, the work is defined as a kind of trap, depicting what is ordinarily overlooked. Precedents for these kinds of systems can be found in concrete or visual poetry, in which the form of a text and its meaning converge or are made to back each other. Here, language also basically ‘does’ what it ‘means’. A significant example of this is the piece titled Licht ist was man sieht (Light Is What We See, 1994), which exists in a variety of languages, linguistic systems and materials. Here, the light that describes itself also simultaneously identifies the act of perception. One is told and shown what one sees. The work is self-referential and describes itself, yet it also identifies the role and existence of its observer at the same time. It doesn’t vanish into light, nor is it simply made visible in it; rather, the piece never ceases to remind us of the ‘message’ of its own luminosity, as well as our perception of it. It simulates a semantic short-circuit, in which truth contains epistemological dynamite. Plug and cable are not only contextual, functional elements of the work, but also formal ones, affirming the piece’s relationship to the outer world. In this context, it also seems important that the visible stream of words is caused by the flow of electricity, and hence, by an external source of energy. Since this work exists in different languages and forms, it’s also about the contextualism of each text.
With her reception of concrete and visual poetry, Kowanz joins not only a literary tradition, but also a development in art history that has been going on since modernism, in which the ‘iconisation of language’ and the ‘lingualisation of art’8 intertwine. Beginning with the Cubist, Surrealist and Dadaist collages and their sound poems, and moving through Constructivist typography, this primarily becomes visible in language-centred Conceptual Art, in which the art discourse itself can seem to be art, as well as in concrete poetry, which goes beyond the purely literary. In the Austrian context, Heinz Gappmayr in particular represents this tradition, as both an artist and a theoretician: ‘Through signs we distinguish its empirical perceptibility on the one hand, and its conceptuality on the other. The written word is, after all, nothing more than a series of straight and curved lines on a certain surface in a certain space. . . . This ambivalence can be seen in concrete poetry. . . . Both the identity of sign and concept and their differences paradoxically appear in concrete poetry.’9 Gappmayr captures the simultaneity of identity and the difference between the appearance of a term and its meaning, which is made recognisable precisely through the poetic convergence of the concept and what is conceived. Through this simultaneity, language gets entangled in automatic reflection that has undergone an alignment of the analyses of society and power in structuralist and poststructuralist linguistics, or in the works by the Wiener Gruppe and Peter Weibel. In his call to make the relationship between language and society a theme of art, rather than the relationship of words to each other, Weibel referred to Oswald Wiener, who perceived that one of the Wiener Gruppe’s tasks was ‘that we . . . [were] not just interested in the relationship of words in certain linguistic situations, but also in controlling specific situations through the use of language’.10
Kowanz translates the tradition of concrete poetry into the luminary and imagistic, into something object-related and installative. Using language and light, she guides us in perceiving specific conditions for perception, using mirrors to do so as well. The mirror, too, is a reflective medium, literally and symbolically, which serves the processes of visibility and recognition, while simultaneously striving to disappear from the gaze and consciousness. If one looks at oneself in a mirror, one will usually lose sight of it; but if one concentrates upon the mirror, one’s own image, one’s own gaze into one’s own eyes, one’s own sight of oneself, threaten to slip away.
In the medium of the mirror, the mutual illumination of language and light discovers the possibility of exponentiation, because the two-way relationship gives way to a three-way relationship with new perspectives. In the mirror, the fleetingness and immateriality of light and language can become an image, which, in turn, can lead to an image of the mirror itself. In mirroring the self, it becomes a representational trap for perception, because it creates an opportunity to get sight of one’s own body as if from outside, i.e. to correct that blind spot that inhibits both self-perception and the perception of perception. Yet, the reflecting mirror is not only able to repair this flaw, but can create a practically ebullient, repetitive image of reality, because the idea of the infinite and boundless can be factually visualised in the mirror that reflects itself. In the same way that they seem to expand space and architecture, mirrors also make it possible to visually remove the limits of concrete poetry, or to poetically visualise the limitless. They spark real fireworks of interactions, not least in order to create a mirror image of the role of the viewer and of perception itself.
In the ambiguously titled Light Space at the Biennale, with its continuously and infinitely reflected strips of Morse code, the act of gazing into a mirror recalls the sitelessness of the subject in the telematic society and points out that the Euclidean vision of both the world and space has dissolved under the conditions imposed by the mediatisation and the virtualisation of reality. The artist has already dealt with telematic atmospheres in earlier works of art. For instance, Another Time (2003) and Another Place (2003) comprise mirrored writings in light, which refer to the dynamic, deconstructed determinants of time and place. They also perpetuate her early paintings’ characteristic connection between changing light and the changing experience of the work, clarifying that the appearance of an image is also a function of perspective and changing light. One perceives the act of altering the field of one’s own vision as something that creates perspective and brings with it perspective, or, in other words, it is an interpretive event whose results are always inevitably preliminary and dependent upon place.
The work titled Wir schwimmen in der Linie und tauchen sporadisch ins Mosaik (We swim in a line and sporadically dip into the mosaic, 2002) also refers to the ‘interpenetration’11 of real and virtual space, citing a line by the media theoretician Vilém Flusser in the form of a mosaic-like patchwork of Morse code signs. The piece is about media reality and its influence on our behaviour. Kowanz visualises the content of the sentence by weaving its linearity into a mosaic-like all-over, into which the gaze is involuntarily immersed without being able to spend much time in it – as if one is zapped sporadically through the virtual world of visuals and information, while adapting one’s behaviour to its flickering turmoil. Besides noting its transportation possibilities as a data highway in a mediatised, high-speed society, the aforementioned resonant concept of the internet as a maritime place, an ‘ocean of possibilities’ or a ‘fluid sea of data’, on which one can ‘surf’ or ‘dive into’, is that major linguistic ‘metaphorisation’ historically derived from the contrast between mainland and ocean: ‘Whereas land – the element best suited to humankind – could be considered the sphere of the real, the ocean was synonymous with the unknown, with that what might be present. The curiosity about the strange and the unknown was the impetus that allowed us to dare to leave the familiar world and venture into the new. With every expedition, every journey of discovery, however, the supply of places and things that had once been impenetrable and inexplicable, strange and mysterious, was reduced. . . . The question . . . is, if this process doesn’t repeat itself in . . . the development of the internet. . . . The strict contrast between the real and the virtual seems to disappear, as the contrast between land and sea did before.’12 In a town like Venice, where there is always the omnipresent spectacle of land being reclaimed from the sea which in turn is continuously urbanised this general comparison takes on a tone specific to the locality, which also resonates in Kowanz’s looping, wave-like, scripted illuminations.
Her mirror-image-like visualisation of the internet, close to the waters of this city of lagoons, creates a sense of infinite, boundless space. It’s inside the actual space of the inscribed virtual space that changes and expands the perception of the space’s given conditions. This experience of generating and modulating space by moving in front of this mirrored piece can be understood as a reference to the user function: ‘The crucial experience that every user can have in the internet is that his activities create space, yet this space can also disappear again due to inactivity. . . . The development of the internet contributes to the notion that space can no longer be understood as a given constant, as a vessel or framework inside of which social activity occurs. Instead, social practices allow for the understanding of what’s been created. Thus, one assumes that there are spaces that have not always existed, but instead, have been produced through action and communication.’13 Seen in this way, Kowanz’s work reflects the mechanisms inherent in the internet; it contains its portrait of the web in the encoded form of its historical basic data, as well as in the mirror-like, metaphorical appearance of its ideology of space. Yet, along with this, as well as with access to continually more information and connections, comes an increasing loss of control over one’s own data and how it is used. As it vanishes into infinity or the fathomless, and refuses to allow the eye control over fixed spatial coordinates, it is as if the mirrored space is beginning to reference a withdrawal from one’s own coordinates and one’s own ability to determine oneself, necessitated by the internet.
In her work for the Biennale, Kowanz also applies the meaning of the reflection and the mirror-image to the relationship between interior and exterior space. Her addition of mirrors to some of the exterior walls not only visually delimits the outdoors, but also makes it appear as if it penetrates the building, expanding the ambivalence of the term Light Space to include the entire spatial scenario. Like the inside, with its ephemeral, delicate illuminated writing that seems to extend the mirroring effect, the space outside also becomes ‘light’, losing its physical and material certainty and weight.
What can be claimed for the mirrored piece about the internet inside can also be said about the mirrored exterior: ‘[N]ot only do real and virtual spaces exist next to each other, but many others inside these spaces also exist next to each other, overlaying the boundaries between the virtual and the real in many different ways. These are hybrid spaces of the kind that are becoming more and more difficult to tell apart, because they are increasingly blending into each other; even though they have borders, they are constantly dissolving, only to be rebuilt elsewhere. They are vagabond borders that are no longer firmly fixed in one place.’14 Thus, the exterior piece is also an expanded portrait of the installation inside, since the design for the exterior façade is reflected in the themes of space and perception on display indoors. The automatic reflection initiated by the works in the wake of this media-reflective approach seems to converge, like the limitlessly reflective spaces, in a kind of inevitable chain reaction within the self-reflection of perception.
In the infinite vastness of the mirrored images and spaces, viewers themselves are also multiplied. Just as others do, one catches a glimpse of oneself from the outside, recognising oneself, with enlightening insight, as one among many: ‘[T]o see oneself through the eyes of others, to take the attitude of the audience toward oneself, is, however, nothing more than a way of distancing oneself from oneself, the prerequisite for self-reflection. Assuming the behavior of an audience toward oneself means that one watches oneself play a role; consequently, it means understanding that this is not a natural given, but a product of one’s own subjective creation. In other words, the ability to take this kind of distant stance implies a consciousness of performance.’15 This reflection upon the self, discussed here by Juliane Rebentisch in the context of her Aesthetics of Installation Art, is subjected to yet another differentiation in Wolfgang Prinz’s cognition theory, since Prinz also employs the concept of the reflection metaphorically: ‘In the context of self-recognition and self-reflection, one also encounters a metaphorical use . . . that applies to social rather than physical mirrors. Others serve as mirrors for the self. Individuals may then come to understand themselves through mirroring themselves (and their actions) in other individuals (and their actions) – that is, by learning to understand as how their conduct is perceived, understood, and appreciated by others.’16 Vilém Flusser gets to the heart of the notion that perceiving the self in the mirror as a stranger among strangers can lead to self-knowledge: ‘In the mirror, the subject objectifies himself, becomes an object outside of himself, in order to return to himself again. The mirror, therefore, is a dialectic tool: it alienates, in order to overcome alienation.’17
Kowanz activates this knowledge-producing function when, by mirroring the self, she builds a trap within the mirror, in which perception itself becomes perceptible. Precisely through the infinite agglomeration and interlacing of light, language and mirror, Kowanz creates the kind of distance in this space that can give the viewer some clarity about his own role in the processes of perception and interpretation, and shows us the central parameters of this kind of art: precision and the dissolution of boundaries, meticulous definition and reflective openness as neighbouring criteria that determine, relativise and interpret each other.
1 Robert Fleck, ‘Dem Videotod zu entkommen, sich zu neuem Leben zu erlösen – Die psychisch-biogenetische Historienmalerei von Brigitte Kowanz und Franz Graf,’ in Brigitte Kowanz / Franz Graf, exh. cat., Galerie nächst St. Stephan, Vienna; Galerie Thaddäus J. Ropac (Salzburg and Vienna, 1983), pp. 50–55, here p. 52.
2 Paul Virilio, ’The Overexposed City’ , in Lost Dimension (Los Angeles, 1991), pp. 9–28, here pp. 25–26.
3 Manfred Frank, in Florian Rötzer (ed.), Denken, das an der Zeit ist (Frankfurt am Main, 1987), p. 110.
5 Jean-François Lyotard, ‘The Tomb of the Intellectual’, in Political Writings, Bill Evans and Kevin Paul Geiman, transl. (Minneapolis, 1993), p. 21.Originally published in Le monde, October 8, 1983.
6 Juliane Rebentisch, Ästhetik der Installation (Frankfurt am Main, 2003), p. 81.
8 Wolfgang Max Faust, Bilder werden Worte. Zum Verhältnis von bildender Kunst und Literatur. Vom Kubismus bis zur Gegenwart (Cologne, 1987), p. 10.
9 Heinz Gappmayr, ‘Die Poesie des Konkreten’ (1965), in Opus – Heinz Gappmayr. Gesamtverzeichnis der visuellen und theoretischen Texte 1961–1990 (Mainz, 1993), pp. 44f.
10 Quoted in: Peter Weibel, ‘Kontext- Theorie der Kunst’, in Weibel, Kritik der Kunst – Kunst der Kritik (Munich and Vienna, 1973), pp. 65–69, here p. 69.
11 Markus Schroer, Räume, Orte, Grenzen. Auf dem Weg zu einer Soziologie des Raums (Frankfurt am Main, 2006), p. 253.
13 Ibid., p. 275.
14 Ibid., p. 274.
15 Rebentisch 2003 (see note 6), p. 69. Here, Rebentisch discusses the ‘theatricalisation’ of the viewer, which Michael Fried, in his continuance of Rousseau’s critique of acting, and in his own critique of the concept of perception in Minimal Art, still attacked as the alienation of the self. She defines it in contrast to Fried, ‘also as a figure of aesthetic self-reflection’ (p. 70).
16 Wolfgang Prinz, Open Minds: The Social Making of Agency and Intentionality (Cambridge, MA 2012), p. 49.
17 Vilém Flusser, ‘Minkoffs Spiegel’, in Vilém Flusser, Lob der Oberflächlichkeit. Für eine Phänomenologie der Medien (Schriften, vol. 1), Stefan Bollmann and Edith Flusser, eds., 2nd rev. ed. (Mann- heim, 1995), pp. 227–232, here, p. 227.