New Correspondences for Old Patterns

Peter Friese

Sandra Peters has designed an elaborate and at the same time clear installation for the exhibition space of the Kunstverein Ruhr on Essen’s Kopstadtplatz. She clad the two columns within the space with round bricks produced and burned specifically for this exhibition and whose most distinct feature is their spiral-like distribution, reminiscent of a double helix. At first glance, one sees that these columns are two solidly masoned and grouted structures that reach from the floor to the ceiling. One or the other chance passer-by or visitor may ask him- or herself what these twisted columns actually stand for; what special meaning or function they have in the context of the building or even in themselves.

The artist was inspired to create this installation by chimney stacks in the Cecelienhof castle in Potsdam, whose somewhat Oriental-looking, “courtly” spiral patterns have now been carried from Potsdam to Essen. The spatial transfer of these ornaments, their emergence at another site, and thus the creation of a new frame of reference are in fact the artist’s motivation to tackle such an elaborate activity. Indeed, in her work, Sandra Peters deals responsibly with spaces, forms, patterns, and contexts, which she translocated and as such makes us aware of in a special way.

One cannot deny it: the two prominent brick columns are strikingly assertive and dominate an otherwise empty exhibition space. Even if one does not know the origin of the spiral motifs or by whom and with what intension the imposing cylinders were so carefully assembled in the middle of downtown Essen, they are capable of attracting the glances of curious chance passers-by. The strong impression of space created in this way, which is perceptible from the square through the large display window well into the evening hours as well as in the space itself in close proximity to the installation, is not necessarily connected with prior knowledge in order to be lodged in one’s mind as a powerful image that stimulates associations and thoughts.

This fact is important to the extent that it is indeed a very conscious and precise placement of two symbols in which the first, initially purely visual impression counts. It can form the beginning of an aesthetic examination of these sculptural as well as architectural elements that is more than merely acknowledging them. There will undoubtedly be passers-by who cast only a brief glance into the space only to continue walking by shrugging their shoulders. But in this slender catalogue accompanying the exhibition, the issue is not fleeting glances but a form of lasting perception in which the senses and reason embrace to form a reciprocal relationship that is capable of unearthing more than an indifferent registering of two unusual columns clad in brick.

One could also formulate it as both a question and a claim: can these two cylindrical structures become the point of departure and center of an aesthetic raisonnement or a corresponding debate? One such more intense examination sets in at second glance, when that which one sees starts to correspond with other, already familiar images and concepts that have been stored in one’s memory. Thus what this is about is connections and analogies that sometimes seem to ensue automatically and can also arise unexpectedly and without having consciously sought them out.

One possibility for making a connection lies in the similarity of the masoned cylinders, in particular in the Ruhr region, with old industrial structures, especially with the towering chimney stacks that can be seen from downtown Essen in the northern part of the city. The meandering Potsdam brick cylinders form the counterpart, as it were, to the in part landmarked monuments to the industrial age that can be found in many places in the Ruhr region.

In terms of form, this measure also deliberately takes up a white column at the space’s window. And if one looks outside from within the exhibition space, there are suddenly distinct parallels, previously not foreseeable, to the by nature vertical and round trunks of the sycamore trees growing on the square in front of the space.

One can for this reason extend these relationships and correspondences so far, because when contemplating an object, feedback maneuvers, comparisons, and analogies are laid out in the framework of our movements of thought like a playful exchange, and for the most part also function in this way.

By implication, even the masoned columns of the pergola on the square can be related to the two tructures by way of their material and their color. In addition, a wisteria grows on the pergola’s framework that, as if commissioned to do so, is/was in full bloom for the opening of the exhibition. On closer inspection, although climbing in a different direction, its by nature spiral windings also correspond to the two structures in the space.

And so the inevitable happened: after the shop to the right of the Kunstverein’s exhibition space was vacated during preparations for the project, one suddenly discovered therein a white spiral staircase, an abstract ornament that assimilates and complements the canon of the vertical spiral windings.

There are in fact a large number of surprising “chance” correspondences that did not arise until Sandra Peters began developing the exhibition. She did not deliberately seek them out or bring them about; rather, they seem to have already existed at the respective genius loci of both of the sites conjoined in the installation. (Perhaps there is also a wisteria growing in the garden of the Cecilienhof castle . . .) The similarities that can be fathomed in this way ultimately become recognizable aesthetic elements within the exhibition—or at least concomitants that occasionally cause us to marvel. Viewed this way, in an artistic sense there is no such thing as “chance,” but rather at best only coincidences that, once they have been recognized, one can become aware of and implement. If the impressiveness of the masoned columns was already the base criterion, the density of the webs of relationships that has developed in the viewer’s mind can now become the supporting mental foundation of the entire exhibition.

Skeptics may perhaps regard these fanned-out considerations to be hairsplitting or farfetched. Yet under certain circumstances, when one leaves them to their own devices, such complex interrelations and processes, which are the basis of all perception, become a specific, in our case “aesthetic” experience. Namely when as accumulations, connections, and functioning webs of relationships they reach consciousness in order to allow something new and unexpected to develop in our minds.

The fact that in Peters’s exhibition these and other kinds of references become perceptible has less to do with the formalist subtlety of an excessively good-willed viewer constantly on a quest for them, and more to do with the special circumstances under which an exhibition can be viewed. What in the process reaches our imagination is not the chance juxtaposition of analog forms, but something dynamic that is only capable of being imagined in the viewer’s mind. And this does not announce only chance exterior similarities, but a gradual shift of our perception, and ultimately of our Self.

I do not only see the things before me and notice certain parallels here and there, but I see and while doing notice myself as someone in the act of seeing, as someone who enables something to arise in his own mind. And: I at the same time begin to reflect on the conditions of the possibilities of such experiences, occasionally to even cast doubt on them. That this can sometimes be accompanied by surprise or marvel is in this respect conducive to the thing (that is, art), as my awareness and the period of time I remain in the space or on the square has automatically been heightened and my initial “normal” examination has changed into aesthetic raisonnement.

On the one hand, as soon as we enter the space with the two columns, we are already in the middle of the action. We are not only present before and in the midst of the two columns in our thoughts, but also physically. To use Merleau-Ponty’s words: we have an exemplary experience of the corporeality of our perception, which to a large extent influences and shapes what we see. On the other hand, all of what we see also indisputably takes place as a fantasy and a game in our mind: the impressions and associations accumulate, trigger other images, and blend with them. At the end of our examination, we return to the material points of departure: to the two prominent columns with their patterns that have traveled from Potsdam to Essen and which in an excellent way are capable of not only shifting given contexts, but also giving rise new ones.

Perhaps even the concept of the spiral with its form winding around a center and, just the same, potentially progressing is the adequate image for such a transcendental movement of thought, which one can justifiably refer to as “aesthetic experience” and which the viewer him- or herself may experience as changeable.

Sandra Peters: Modifikation—stetig steigende Steine, ed. Peter Friese

Exh. cat. Kunstverein Ruhr, Essen

Essen: Kunstverein Ruhr


pp. 12–15