2. December 1999 – 15. January 2000

Herwig Kempinger (AT)

Theme of Focus: ABSTRACT 1999

„Contributions to a Discussion on a Kind of Abstract Sculpture“
An Interview with Herwig Kempinger, by Maren Lübbke

M.L. I would like to begin with a question directly related to this picture catalogue (booklet), since you have decided not to show any pictorial material – although that is the purpose and intention of the picture catalogue – but to only include text. Why?
H.K.: My work doesn’t lend itself too well to reproduction. And I have always seen this as an advantage – even if this may sound funny – because I believe it is a good thing that a piece of work can only be shown in its true presence. I don’t like the quick leafing-through. Although being able to reproduce a work of art well may be practical. But I don’t begin my work with this in mind, it just ends up that way – they end up being hard to reproduce. And anyway, I like the connection that exists between my work and these abstract exhibitions – it is very interesting to only be able to get an impression of a piece of work, for a change, by reading about it.
M.L.: You decided to show a series of your works at the exhibition, which are two-dimensional in their formal appearance – independent from whatever of the room may reflect itself in the work. But you normally react in your work, to a great extent, to the situation of the room, which cannot be portrayed in just a photographical reproduction in a catalogue. I thought that this might perhaps also be a reason why you decided not to show the pictures in the picture catalogue. Or is the installative thought instilled in the two-dimensional work itself as well?
H.K.: When a piece of work functions properly, then it changes a room, if it doesn’t function properly, then the room changes the work. It is interesting to be able to transform rooms with slight alterations and take them to another level. Even the pictures – which in this case have a clear limitation – in contrast to an arrangement in a room, in which one is initially prepared for a room situation – do so, when mounted on a wall. You just do it differently every time. As if you had a certain number of elements at your disposal, which are put together differently according to a given situation – and which function onto themselves and deal with the room in a certain way. That is, if one would like to call it that, an installative character, but I wouldn’t typeset it that strictly.
M.L.: To come back to the pictures: they are a piece of work that develops into a sculpture through mental proximity.
H.K.: That applies to all of my work and isn’t just a specification of the group of work that I will be showing.
M.L.: Perhaps we can now define the term ‘sculpture’, which gives your work another meaning: for it appears, to begin with, a little strange that an artist should come up with the idea to take away a sculpture’s three-dimensionality and transform it into a two-dimensional structure. I am aware that sculptures nowadays in no way have to definitely be bound to the 3-dimensional realm – the representatives of conceptual art, at the latest, have proven that sculpture can manifest itself in forms other than the traditional structural forms – in the mind, for example…However, you don’t follow a conceptional purpose and challenge the viewer to think, but are concerned with the moment of evaporation and have once used the term ‘water vapor’ – as an ideal sculpture.
H.K.: I am pursuing a personal problem, for I have discovered long ago that three-dimensional works can never be optimally presented. There is a different room situation every time, a different lighting situation, one can move around, in short: one is dependent on the given circumstances in a given room, and they are usually not very ideal. That is why I move three-dimensional objects by means of photography into the two-dimensional realm, because in this two-dimensional area I can control the parameters. Ultimately, I became more interested in – and am interested in to this day – the fact that the two-dimensional surface is the contemporary form of space. One can assume that the perception of the world or reality today mainly passes through the two-dimensionality of the media: TV, film or, in the past few years, through the internet – the computer. Thus we take up information about our environment, our social surroundings first and foremost two-dimensionally. Furthermore, what made it interesting for me to work with two-dimensional space is that space has in a certain sense become an anachronism, because it is exactly that which we have the least of – an endless resource which has become a privilege, which only a few can afford.
M.L.: You have opened a referencial relationship, that includes social and even critical phenomena..But in the end the purpose is still to open a transcendental space?
H.K.: Which is of course a purely imaginary one.
M.L.: Really? That isn’t necessarily clear to me. If you photograph a white surface on which shadows appear, that at first I do not even see until I let my glance wander, only then does a tangible space open up – even if only fleetingly. Or do you mean imaginary in the political sense, in terms of developing even societal conditions?
H.K.: If you look closely, then the space in my work is naturally purely imaginary. It is not illusionistic, it is an imaginary space. I always try to avoid a form of illusionism. That is why there is no perspective or anything similar – these common classical aids that help create space on a surface. The space is indeed imaginary, for it exists only in your mind. The surface remains in reality a surface. We could also, of course, say that everything that the brain perceives and records isn’t imaginary at all, but that is another topic…
M.L.: Okay. In this context, painters like Marc Rothko come to mind. Although he works with a completely different medium – do you see yourself as working in the same line of thought?
H.K.: All these labels are only interesting for the discourse, for the work itself they play absolutely no part – if we are dealing with painting, photography, film, or anything else, it doesn’t matter. Of course I believe that as an artist one can only work with one vocabulary, which upon coming across disagreement, supports its ‘arguments’ with what is happening at the moment and with what has already happened. One is concerned with it, because that is simply the area in which one works. One could just as easily say that influences originate from a certain formal process, or from certain music that one has heard, from certain places one likes to visit or from books that one has read. Oftentimes the work is however in contrast to all these things. I know many people whose work is very limited, but who, for example, love unbelievably opulent music. It is not always the case that someone who works sparingly lives a frugal life – it is often the exact opposite. Otherwise one wouldn’t be able to stand oneself.
M.L.: Would you say that there is an absurd streak in your work? On the one hand, you use the medium of photography – as an objective medium – but on the other hand digress from what is said of photography, and that is that it is a copy of reality.
H.K.: That isn’t quite correct. Everything you see in my work really exists. I can only use the tool in ways other than it was meant to be used and the underlying characteristics of the tool: that something must have been in front of the lens, to have been brought onto the picture…
M.L.: That is true. Although you drastically digress from photography’s documentary character.
H.K.: I just concentrate my attention on very simple elements…
M.L.: If I understand correctly, then it is more a concrete work than an abstract one.
H.K.: I still believe that there is no such thing as abstract photography – as a strict term, although these terms are boring anyway, really so boring.
M.L.: I am less concerned about questions of style than with the thought: is there a picture that portrays reality – not in the sense of its authenticity but in connection with the question – whose parameters are decisive in making a picture realistic. A painted picture is always put together out of abstract surfaces, even if it appears realistic in the end. I am rather more interested in finding a way or line of argumentation that would resolve the categorisation of abstract versus real. And not because I find categorizations fundamentally useless, but because they allow new parameters in the perception of pictures to be brought into the discourse.
H.K.: One can of course pursue this to absurdity: the nicest holiday picture is really an abstract arangement of molecules, that have arranged themselves in such a way so that we see Mama and Papa in the water. In the end, it depends on the distance of the eye of the beholder from the object. But I don’t know if this method of seeing things is very meaningful, because then one inevitably ends up in a kind of physics, that doesn’t exactly make the approach to art or to a particular work any easier. On the contrary. In the field of art it is more meaningful to see as big structures and connections as possible, instead of dividing them into smaller and smaller parts. The thought, “How do I even look at a picture?” distances you from that which you are looking at – very fashionable in the past 20 years. How do I perceive art, how do I look at something, how do I see something. The process becomes more thematicised than the thing itself – which was also at one point interesting and completely legitimate, but one can then not wonder if the original object of contemplation is left standing or disappears. What is really interesting in this respect was already said in the first half of this century – for example of Wittenstein. What we are experiencing now is the embellishment of the then fashionable icing over.
M.L.: Aside from the discourse theory: The “Troubled Walls” are therefore clearly asking the viewer to let their glance wander?
H.K.: Continuations of perception or interruptions.
M.L.: That only reflect the picture? Or what about the surroundings?
H.K.: The picture should identify itself as picture, it has to declare itself, but should also engage in a kind of interchanging relationship with its surroundings.
M.L.: Formally the procedure is thus: you seal off the surfaces, and place thick glass in front of the photograph so that the surroundings are mirrored in the picture. The room continues endlessly. There are no bounds.
H.K.: But there is a limit.
M.L.: There is a limit in that the thick glass brings about an almost tangible character.
H.K.: Exactly, through this hermetic sealing it defines itself clearly as something distinguishable from the background.
M.L.: In your work, are you primarily concerned with the breaking up of certain perceptual categories, with the creation of a new or specific perceptual experience? Or would you – especially with the backgrounds of your arrangemental work, in which you, for example, worked with the corners of a room (Brigitte Huck spoke enlighteningly of the “turning inside out” of the perception of the room) – also say that that is a statement on the White Cube and all that which clings to the room? Are you also trying to comment on a certain exhibitional situation, or more precisely formulated: are you criticising institutionalism?
H.K.: I am mostly interested in changing a given room situation with the least amount of ‘operative’ measures, with very small or with the least possible amount of interference, to turn something familiar into something unfamiliar. In some arrangements the corners of the rooms were very suitable, because that is an area that has never really been used in art. The corner is somewhere where there is no place for art. On the other hand, one can produce extraordinarily many things there, because right there the room defines itself as a closed space, one can break it open right there. My work is necessarily always a kind of attitude towards that which a visitor of a certain institution expects, when he enters a room. I found it interesting, while working with the arrangements that concentrated on the corners of rooms, that they ignore the part where art usually takes place: the first glance falls into empty space. But the white wall, this empty space, was very much a part of it. A clamp is stretched and one cannot tell whether that which is inbetween doesn’t belong to it, but it naturally becomes part of the whole. In the moment when we place things in areas where normally no artistic creations are expected, people do not see anything at first glance – they look around and think: the room is empty.
M.L.: But you don’t see yourself in this context as being in the same category of artists who would like to criticize institutionalism with their work?
H.K.: Perceptual experiences are far more important. I can, in the moment where I think of what I’m doing, only place myself in the position of the viewer. I can’t place myself in the position of the institution, or better: I could, but that doesn’t interest me. I am much more interested in the individual who walks in there to look at it. That is the position I can identify myself with; I know it well for I am constantly in that situation. It is simply closer to me. This may be a na?ve approach, but I can come to grips with it, because it is familiar to me. I have to know the positions with which I deal with very well. I have to know of all the possible disappointments or expectations, so that I can deal with them. I don’t work for an institution, I work – I’m saying this naively now – only for those who look at the things I do. And this shorter path interests me a little more. I don’t really care about the institution. Institutions are a little like what garages are for cars. But if you drive at 160 kmph on the highway, you wouldn’t be thinking of the garage, either.
M.L.: I have seldomly met an artist who says he works for the viewer. I am aware of the theory of receptional aesthetic in the way art history has developed it, but most artists – at least those I have met so far – would say they work for themselves, or they work because they have a mission to fulfill, which mostly isn’t connected with the viewer directly, but follows so called “higher goals”.
H.K.: We are all observers. You are familiar with this yourself. We are constantly going to museums and gallerys, and it isn’t that the artist is never an observer. The artist is more of an observer than an artist. That is a very familiar role. In the end, it is the instance with which one has to deal with. An institution is something impersonal. It has a certain status in society, which says: art does or doesn’t belong in a museum or gallerys should be commercial or informative. We can discuss this of course, but to be honest it really has nothing to do with my work. That is just too distant for me.
M.L.: Would you say that you take on a romantic attitude with your work?
H.K.: Where did you get that idea, that there is a romantic attitude? Where is the romantic element?
M.L.: Oh boy…a romantic attitude would maybe be one about a process of internalization. It came to my mind because your photographs are perhaps about the attempt to create a boundless room, a room that has endless width and depth and in which one can fall into or disappear.
H.K.: Does one disappear in it? I think one is thrown back at oneself. Each picture is a kind of interface, where part of you goes in and something is thrown back out. Ideally both differentiate themselves from each other a little, so that the original structure is slightly changed (altered).
M.L.: If it is about erasing the boundaries of a room, about width and depth, and also about eternity, about a transitional process (see the cloud motive in your work) and the topic of self-evaporation; and you try to help light, in its elements but not in its tangible appearance, back onto itself – then it has less to do with dematerialisation (that too) but more to do with a spiritual attitude, that I now find more or less spontaneously romantic.
H.K.: I find how you have interpreted this as romantic rather interesting. I would never have thought of that. Yes, it’s true of course: it is about thoughts of disappearing boundaries, of clear delimitations, of spatial emotions without clear bounds. It irritates or bothers me when someone says this or that begins here and ends there. And then one walks to the other side and it still begins here and ends there. These clear definitions of space, that encompasses the three-dimensional object, bother me. One can say this surrounding is ideal, that one isn’t, but in the end it has nothing to do with it. I am interested in the opposite: how do I manage to eliminate these boundaries. If it were possible to create a sculpture without clear boundaries in space, I would probably do it. It just isn’t technically possible yet. Therefore all my two-dimensional pieces of work are actually nothing more than contributions to a discussion on a kind of abstract sculpture. Contributions to immateriality, that are unfortunately only able to be realised through material things. And that’s why it is perhaps better to talk about the exhibition, because in this way one is able to get closer to the picture than if it were printed in a catalogue. Maybe that is romantic. I don’t know. Maybe this running after things is romantic. Because at the same time I know that these attempts on a surface, these two-dimensional propositions can always only be, like I said, contributions to a deliberation. These are just thoughts thereon. What does romantic even mean?
M.L.: If I were malicious, I could say: a romantic attitude is one that passes concrete circumstances in life by, an unwordly attitude. In respect to your work, I could say: if a spacial demarkation succeeds, then that is a take off to another dimension.
H.K.: And if one would interpret it affably?
M.L.: Then I would perhaps say: a romanticist does not cling on to things. And in respect to your work: Taking off to another dimension isn’t a bad thing.
H.K.: Would you call an artist like Turrell a romanticist?
M.L.: Perhaps. Or actually maybe not. For although I admire Turrell very much for his arrangements that free you from concrete movements in a room, and where the light physically disturbs your whole body’s usual movement mechanisms – the afterpictures bother me; those that you take with you out of the arrangement and that literally show you that you have been subject to an optical phenomena that can be traced back to irritations on the retina.
H.K.: What we’re talking about then is something quite different. Apparently it is always about a discoursive process. That one sends something out and – like I have briefly mentioned before – something comes back, that changes us a little, influences something. It is more about a discoursive topic, in that one does not fall into a known bottomlessness; instead, something comes from the other side. That is the ideal case in a work of art. If the information that comes back at you shakes your structure a little off balance, pushes you a little out of the position you’re usually used to. That would be ultimately the ideal situation, be it intellectual or emotional. Nothing better than that, but unfortunately happens seldomly. That means, the examination of a work of art is actually always a very personal one. Because when one looks at it, one naturally changes it completely. Maybe this whole view is unbelievably romantic.
M.L.: The romantic as a form of self-referential sharpening of perception. One looks at something’s appearance and the room opens. And in that I can test my own perception or it gives me something else back. That would then be the process, that takes place in that room…
H.K.: And when you leave, is all of that gone?
M.L. Maybe you will leave and continue thinking on a different kind of level. Either you think: wow, that gave me a special kind of kick, that was – so to say – transcendent; or you take it to an intellectual level, after the motto: what photography is capable of doing these days?!
H.K.: And where is the area of transcendence in that?
M.L.: Distancing oneself from the material? Or rather: drifting into space…?
H.K.: That word is so strained. When I hear transcendence, I always see meditating yogis or something before me. That doesn’t interest me at all. But yes, if it takes us away from the material – great! The material is only important as long as it is a vehicle – a means of transportation for something else. I reject material that is of primary significance. I can agree with you in the sense that, if transcendence brings me away from the material character.
M.L.: What is your experience with working with the computer? For with the latter, there is no tangible material anymore – only abstract data.
H.K.: I like the computer, because you can do everything with a certain calm and composure. You sit infront of it and have all the time in the world, you can save if you want to continue working at a later time. What is scary is the endless number of options, and that you can always delete things or simply just do it differently. That is a problem one has to learn to deal with. But at some point you calm down. And stop making decisions that are usually made with a finality. Criteria like good and bad become different. And I find it rather comforting that all that is just saved bytes, and that one can continue moving in the direction of immateriality.
M.L.: It is interesting that you have decided to work with a clearly decipherable motive, of all things, in your computer work: clouds. In photograhy many things lead to ‘nothing’, ultimately, to create volume – and at the computer you scan in clouds – a real classical motive! – in order to work on them digitally. If it were vice versa, it would sound a little more logical, more understandable…
H.K.: It is interesting – everyone always thought the earlier works with light in the late 80s, that are simply dark and light, would be easy to do on the computer. Then I tried it…and funnily enough: it never worked. It was always too calculated. The disruptions were missing that made it more interesting. It became too perfect, seemed unbelievably smooth to me. The work that is done with the camera and light can never be achieved with such perfection. They just work better. It looks completely different. This small difference was important to me.
M.L.: What was the motivation behind the cloud motive?
H.K.: There too it is about temporary volume. The cloud is for us the quintessence of the temporary, it is there and then gone or completely changed. I found it enticing to work with something like that, with something so fleeting, which one can still bring into a shape. And at the same time it is very important to me too – and this is a political moment we haven’t spoken of at all yet – the concept of beauty. I know that this is the ‘unword’ in art. Under no circumstances can it be beautiful. That is something that interests me very much, not just in art, but also in our life in general. In products, that often look unbelievably sexy – they often have a kind of seductive beauty that I find exciting, and I find that exciting in art as well. Interestingly enough it was the Americans, mostly, who dealt with the concept, perhaps because the longing for it is more manifest there. In Europe it is an ‘unword’, that should not come up in relation to art. That is something that is always in the back of my mind, something we should not forget. But maybe that is also unbelievably romantic.
M.L.: Right, beauty in art is actually not even discussed, is considered taboo. Beauty is at the most a category, that one can use to describe the love of self and egocentricism in society in the late 90s, the aestheticising of life. In the sense of: does the shape of my fridge still fit with my momentary lifestyle, and does it match my surroundings (and that includes the scene in which you move as well). But in my art discourse, the term beauty – making it physical in a picture – doesn’t appear any more. In this respect it seems logical to work with the picture of clouds on the computer, and also to escape the accusation of naturalism.
H.K.: I never leave there. I think I have never done a work that doesn’t directly have to do with what can be found or seen behind this door. I don’t actually know why, but it is so. The most essential thing is that the computer remains invisible. I really believe that is the decisive Manko in the most part of computer art. That it is always explicitly seen as computer art, which is completely meaningless. It isn’t about the tool, but about the thing itself, and that is exactly where the possibilities of the computer lie – that one can work with it without seeing it.
M.L.: On the one hand, the problem with the computer is that, as a medium, it is placed very firmly into the foreground, that’s right. On the other hand, it seems to me, the fact that one can create relatively good pictures relatively fast with the computer, that funnily enough do not last for very long, is also problematic. And I am still not clear if it is because the medium is still not being dealt with professionally or simply because an artistic piece of work must oftentimes identify itself as computer work straight away… working with this medium is evidently not a matter of course yet. It can’t be avoided, it must always identify itself. It actually only becomes interesting when the computer-generated picture no longer places such importance on the medium itself.
H.K.: If it gets a certain matter of course like everything else and doesn’t just come with a label, if it becomes just a tool, an instrument in the creation of pictures. If how to do these things isn’t a secret science anymore. We are already on the way there. Just as with the work on the internet. The internet is a priori not of quality yet and most of the work doesn’t function either; one asks oneself why it is in the internet if it can be printed in a catalogue. Here, too, one must learn how to use this medium naturally with its specific possibilities.
M.L.: Even if your work is about dematerialization: doesn’t it worry you that your work may lose specific qualities through the use of technical media? The cloud pictures, especially, appear very opulent, as if they express the wish – in contrast to the extreme reductionism that usually accompanies your work, although they stay true to your theme of the demarkation of volume – to bring back a bit of nature into the picture.
H.K.: Water, for example, is something wonderful. I watch fewer sunsets than this surface in constant motion. If one can achieve something like that in the field of art, that would be fantastic – a surface, that constantly remains the same but is never identical, which one can stare at for hours, because something is constantly changing and something is constantly happening, and yet not very much. I believe it changes you a little. Seen in that respect, water surfaces are very subtle precursors to the TV picture. An analogy can still be found in the white static – propably the best program. But in the way in which nature is presented to us – and with that we return to the beginning of our conversation, when we were talking about the mediatized perception of reality: one often sees wonderful landscapes or cities in movies, but the camera clips only give a certain perspective: this part is cut out and that part is left out and so on. In the mediatised world, nature is always portrayed as ‘bigger than life;’ and when you are really there, then everything is all of a sudden just ‘life’. That is why, for me, the computer stands between the camera and the picture. That’s how I can interfere with my creations. Nature itself is actually always disappointing.