Sandra Peters: Modifikation—stetig steigende Steine
Solo exhibition catalogue
When Peter Friese invited Sandra Peters to develop a site-specific work for the Kunstverein Ruhr in Essen, he can hardly have suspected what awaited him. For the artist’s intervention affects not only the perception of the architecturally defamiliarized space but also the institutional foundations of the Kunstverein. Peters began with a detailed analysis of the spatial and contextual circumstances. In the end, she decided to start out from two existing free-standing, adjacent square pillars that support the ceiling and are structural. The place thus establishes the fundamentals; the artist responds to it, takes into account its various peculiarities, and develops her site-specific installation from it. For her two-part, monumental work, Peters first had bricks made from clay according to extremely precise construction drawings at the Golem brickworks in Sieversdorf, near Frankfurt an der Oder; they feature various shades of reddish brown. Bricks can be seen as standardized, more or less uniform modules with which repetitive structures and ornamental series can be produced. The Potsdam preservationist Roland Schulze then lay the bricks around the two existing pillars in the Kunstverein Essen, which causes these supports to disappear. The height of the room, 3.2 meters, corresponds to the height of the sculptures, which extend precisely from floor to ceiling. They suggest a compact, self-contained volume, even though the brickwork is merely a shell-like cladding around the pillars, separated by several centimeters.
With the restriction that it applies only to their form, the resulting sculptures can be described as columns, since they are upright constructional elements of round cross section. In Essen, however, they do not really function as supports—and that is unusual for columns. In addition, they lack both bases and capitals; each consists solely of a shaft. The patterns of these architecture-like constructions correspond to a geometric, ornamental idiom of forms. They are articulated as two subtly rhythmic structures in a centrifugal movement: layer by layer, the brick structure shifts a few centimeters horizontally so that the sculptures look like winding, twisted columns. The one form seems like a smooth surface around which thick ropes are coiled, while the other suggests a twist drill. Because of their upward dynamic, both columns seem to spiral through the floor and ceiling of the Kunstverein as if they penetrated the volume of the building and continued through it. Like dissimilar twins, the columns form a polarity, which invites comparison to the other similar yet different structure. Because of the reddish brown material of the brick and their highly artificial ornament, the column-like sculptures seem like foreign bodies in the simple white exhibition space, only seemingly integrated architecturally, which vexes and challenges the perception of the viewers.
Examining Sandra Peters’s work more closely, it is possible to read precisely and grasp intellectually the process of layering the individually laid bricks. The sculptures thus illustrate their own genesis, which would scarcely be possible with an artwork made from a single stone, a piece of wood, or lumps of clay. The act of making it is immediately contained in it—indeed, it is an essential component of the work. Even the poetic title the artist has chosen suggests this quality: Modification—Constantly Climbing Stones. Fired clay tiles or bricks are normally used not so much for sculpture as for architecture. Both these arts have essential features in common, however: they create volumes and space. Sandra Peters’s works can be called “architectural sculptures,”11On this term, see, for example, Markus Stegmann, Architektonische Skulptur im 20. Jahrhundert: Historische Aspekte und Werkstrukturen (Tübingen: Wasmuth, 1995). since they unite sculptural and architectural qualities. “Architecture begins where one brick is carefully laid upon another.”22Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, quoted in Otto Kapfinger, “The Art of Building in Brick,” in Kunsthaus Bregenz and Edelbert Köb, eds., Per Kirkeby: Backsteinskulptur und Architektur; Werkverzeichnis / Brick Sculpture and Architecture; Catalogue Raisonné (Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 1997), 20. This famous dictum by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe can be extended to the art of sculpture in Peters’s case.
Apart from, say, Henry Moore, who constructed a wall relief for the Bouwcentrum in Rotterdam in 1955,33Eduard Trier, Figur und Raum: Die Skulptur des XX. Jahrhunderts (Berlin: Mann, 1960), fig. 190. there appear to be few sculptors who work with bricks. The artist who probably comes first to mind in this context is Per Kirkeby of Denmark.44Kunsthaus Bregenz and Köb, Per Kirkeby (see note 2), 20. From 1965, the artist developed autonomous architectural sculptures in which he practiced laying bricks as a fundamental form of sculptural design. There are, however, several significant differences from Peters’s work in the Kunstverein Ruhr. The sculptures in Essen are conceived for an interior, whereas Kirkeby primarily worked outdoors. In addition, several of his works since the 1980s could be called “real architecture,” with specific possibilities for functional use. Moreover, unlike Peters, he does not produce precise construction drawings, only cursory, intuitive sketches.55Stegmann, Architektonische Skulptur im 20. Jahrhundert (see note 1), 145. This implies that the forms of the sculptures are not based on adopting specific historical precedents, even if the individual parts allude to elements of classical architecture. As far as his connections to the history of architecture are concerned, Kirkeby works only with “vague reminiscences, avoiding direct reproduction.”66Ibid., 146. This last distinction is particularly important to their different views of the practice of sculpture, since Peters refers to a specific historical model in her work in Essen.
It is no coincidence that her work necessarily evokes associations of traditional brick architecture. In 2004, Peters discovered the Schloss Cecilienhof in Potsdam, near Berlin, and was immediately fascinated with this unusual building. In 1912, Kaiser Wilhelm II commissioned the architect Paul Schultze-Naumburg to build a residence for his oldest son, Crown Prince Wilhelm, and his daughter-in-law, Crown Princess Cecilie. The couple wanted a romantic castle in the Tudor style; this typically English style of country house was developed in the late Gothic period, in the sixteenth century. Schultze-Naumburg was thus sent to England, Wales, and Scotland to study the stile. The architect then constructed the castle in Potsdam’s Neuer Garten between 1913 and 1917, with brick walls, gates, oriels, projecting gables, and decorative half-timber construction. Particularly striking on the roofs of various heights are the fifty-five chimneys of reddish brown brick, some of which have bases and capitals and resemble small columns. Such filigreed chimneys with splendid ornament are typical elements of the Tudor style, although on the Cecilienhof no two are alike. The large number of chimneys earned the castle the ironic nickname “Schornsteinakademie” (chimney academy).77Harald Berndt and Jörg Kirschstein, Schloss Cecilienhof: Tudorromantik und Weltpolitik (Munich: Prestel, 2005), 10. Peters took numerous photographs of specific examples in Potsdam and chose two of them as the exact models for her brick sculptures in Essen, although she dispensed with the bases and capitals of the castle chimneys.88Another artist who has worked with chimneys is Lothar Baumgarten. In 1983–84, he examined the varied typology of chimneys of houses and palaces of Venice and published them in 2006 as black-and-white photographs in his artist’s book Air. These imposing volumes possess their own architectonic idiom, which is articulated very self-confidently above the roofs of the lagoon city. The poetic Italian names for the various types of chimney alone testify to the artfully evolved wealth of their forms. Baumgarten wrote enthusiastically: “They are at once fantastic miniature buildings and masterpieces of the art of engineering fire.” “Horns, trumpets, trombones: their festive chalices rise into the blue of the Adriatic sky like so many fanfares.” See Lothar Baumgarten: Air, exh. cat., Museum Kurhaus Kleve (Düsseldorf: Richter, 2006), 114 and 113.
On the one hand, the association of the chimneys in the Kunstverein Ruhr is partially undercut, since the two sculptures are located indoors and extend from ceiling to floor—both qualities that do not apply to the chimneys on the roof of a building. On the other hand, knowledge of the origin of her models—that is, of the former historical context—makes it difficult to see Peters’s works as merely autonomous, self-referential forms in the sense of a display of pure visuality. The original historical context from which they derive is particularly important to the artist. Her basic enthusiasm for traditional ornaments, patterns, and architectural elements is not based solely on an interest in complex, artificial structures but rather on the question of the possibilities for “translating” them into the context of her own art.99Sandra Peters in conversation with the author, March 2009. This translation of a historical architectural element into a modern exhibition space is more than a simple transfer, more than a mere shift in context. Peters’s artistic praxis can rather be described as a specific form of transformation (reformation) or, even more precisely, as a deconstruction.
The term “deconstruction,” which derives from poststructuralist literary theory, has an aspect of con-struction as well as an aspect of de-struction; hence the term defines the double gesture of affirmation and critique that is characteristic of deconstruction. In the present case, that means: on the one hand, Peters reconstructs, like a preservationist, the architecture of the bricks and thus preserves their traditional form and emphasizes their sculptural qualities. On the other hand, she dismantles both their substructures and their crowns; moreover, she strips them of any functionality, since in the Kunstverein they serve no architectonic purpose. This kind of deconstruction refers not only to her approach to historical chimneys but also to the institutional principles of the Kunstverein that establish its identity. This becomes clear when we turn back to the architecture of Schloss Cecilienhof and the modernist debate over ornament.
The imitation of the English Tudor style when building a castle during the first third of the twentieth century corresponds to a late historicism in architecture that can surely only be read as the expression of a conception that may look picturesque today but was ultimately deeply reactionary. Crown Prince Wilhelm and Kaiser Wilhelm II were famously conservative in their politics as well as their taste. For the crown prince and his wife, the late historicism of Schloss Cecilienhof appears to have represented a kind of ideal space for the primordial, far from modern urban life. For such a utopia intended to restore the old order, the goal was not an active or even revolutionary progress but rather an aesthetic rebirth of the past, a memory of an earlier historical moment that was supposedly unspoiled.
For the architect Paul Schultze-Naumburg, this adaptation of the Tudor style was rather unusual, since he preferred to see his architectural briefs resolved in a national style grounded in the Volk. He first advocated the so-called Heimatschutzstil (homeland protection style) and built numerous manors and villas after the First World War in a basic style that derived from the architecture of Prussian country homes around 1800. The Neues Bauen (Modern architecture) and International Style movements of the avant-garde, by contrast, were vehemently opposed by Schultze-Naumburg, and the Bauhaus in particular was a thorn in his side. As the most famous art and architecture school of the twentieth century, the Bauhaus made strict functionality and formal objectivity its design ideals, employing steel, glass, and concrete. The light-filled, cubic architectural volume with clear, white surfaces was intended to assert its pure construction, at the same time negating gestures of power and status. The legendary Weissenhof housing development in Stuttgart in 1927, with buildings by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and Hans Scharoun—to name just a few—was rejected by Schultze-Naumburg in no uncertain terms. Filled with outrage, he described this important manifestation of modern architecture in Germany: “Oriental flat roofs were replacing gabled homes.”1010Paul Schultze-Naumburg, quoted in Peter Adam, Art of the Third Reich (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1992), 32. At the exhibition Entartete Kunst (Degenerate art), which opened in 1937, the architect welcomed the climax of the National Socialist struggle against modernism. As early as 1928, he had established the cultural and ideological principles of this extremely cynical and slanderous exhibition in his book Kunst und Rasse (Art and race), which was published in Munich.
Whereas historicism had excessively celebrated ornament in every possible stylistic appropriate as a means of decoration and show of status, modernist architecture viewed it as an expression of decadence, superficiality, and masquerade. Not only in the 1920s but already at the beginning of the twentieth century ornament met with intense rejection at times. In his famous essay “Ornament und Verbrechen” (Ornament and crime) of 1908, the Viennese architect Adolf Loos argued for a strict lack of decoration, especially when designing facades.1111Adolf Loos, Ornament and Crime: Selected Essays, trans. Michael Mitchell (Riverside, CA: Ariadne, 1998). As an opponent of historicism, Jugendstil, and the Wiener Werkstätte, he preached ascetic restraint and simple design. His publication was a broadside of moral, economic, and cultural historical arguments against ornament. Much like the Bauhaus later, in both theory and practice he argued for a functional, purist, yet thoroughly elegant modernity.
This evolution influenced not only architecture and the design of everyday objects but also the view of modern exhibition architecture. The history of modernism is closely connected with the evolution of the museum and gallery space. This cultural ideal has undergone enduring changes, especially since the end of the 1920s. The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the former Provinzialmuseum Hannover, the Kunsthalle Mannheim, and the Folkwang Museum in Essen played important roles in this.1212Mary Anne Staniszewski, The Power of Display: A History of Exhibition Installations at the Museum of Modern Art (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998), figs. on pp. 19, 60, and 65. Alexis Joachimides, Die Museumsreformbewegung in Deutschland und die Entstehung des modernen Museums, 1880–1940 (Dresden: Verlag der Kunst, 2001). Walter Grasskamp, “Die weisse Ausstellungswand: Zur Vorgeschichte des ‘white cube,’” in Wolfgang Ullrich and Juliane Vogel, eds., Weiss (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer-Taschenbuch-Verlag, 2003), 29–63. For the first exhibition at the American museum, in 1929, the earlier practice of hanging works close together and filling the entire wall was abandoned in favor of a spacious arrangement of works in a single horizontal row—an approach that can be found sporadically even earlier from the end of the nineteenth century onward. More importantly, however, the rooms in New York were stripped of furniture, plants, colorful wall fabrics, and any sort of ornament. Art was no longer supposed to be presented in a cluttered bourgeois living room of the nineteenth century, with all manner of decoration. Rather, a paradigm shift in exhibition design created surroundings as neutral as possible: puristic architecture, closed off from the outside world, empty and free of ornament, with bright uniform lighting, smooth plaster, and, above all, white walls.
The image of this ideal space, “more than any single picture, may be the archetypal image of twentieth century art.”1313Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space, rev. ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 14. Brian O’Doherty’s legendary series of essays on “ideology of the gallery space,” published in 1976, was the first critical reflection on the profound importance of the white, seemingly neutral exhibition space and its aesthetic, cultural, and economic influences on the perception of modern art.1414As early as 1970, Theodor W. Adorno referred to this briefly in his Ästhetische Theorie: “The suspicion must be kept in mind that artistic experience as a whole is in no way as immediate as the official art religion would have it. Every experience of an artwork depends on its ambience, its function, and, literally and figuratively, its locus.” Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, ed. and trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 350. The white cube possesses a restrained yet very specific aesthetics, the expression of specific social values and interests, and has a kind of symbolic definitional power. His analysis of the white cube as a by no means self-evident framework for viewing art—no matter whether it is a gallery or a museum—clarified the conventions of exhibition as well as its social functions. Over the course of the twentieth century, as O’Doherty shows, the white cube evolved into a leading, “unique chamber of esthetics.”1515O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube (see note 13), 14. The institutional critique of the 1970s and the Contextual Art of the 1980s and 1990s changed nothing fundamental about this.1616See, for example, Johannes Meinhardt, “Institutionskritik” and “Kontext,” in Hubertus Butin, ed., DuMonts Begriffslexikon zur zeitgenössischen Kunst (Cologne: DuMont, 2002), 126–30 and 141–44. Even if certain artists in the 1990s turned the white cube into an “ambience”1717See, for example, Christian Kravagna, “Ambient Art,” in ibid., 8–11; Stefan Römer, “Eine Kartographie: Vom White Cube zum Ambient,” in “Dream City”: Ein Münchner Gemeinschaftsprojekt, exh. cat. Kunstraum München, Kunstverein München, Museum Villa Stuck, and Siemens Kulturprogramm (Munich: Museum Villa Stuck, 1999), 43–52. aimed at entertainment and services, and several museums, such as the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus in Munich now prefer very colorful walls, the white, empty, no-frills space is still the prevailing paradigm and hence the dominant model for making art public—no matter whether one chooses to welcome or lament this.
When Sandra Peters now transposes ornament from a late historicist context to a modern exhibition space, it is not without a certain irony. Although the building that houses the Kunstverein Ruhr was originally constructed as part of a commercial arcade, the institution conforms—in its architecture, interior design, and self-image—the ideological guidelines of the white cube, which once opposed everything that historicism, its bogeyman, embodied. The artist is thus deconstructing not only the chimneys of Schloss Cecilienhof, as described above, but also the institutional principles of the Kunstverein. On the one hand, Peters uses the space, on which she is dependent, and thus affirms it. On the other hand, she calls it into question by confronting it with her brick sculptures and their ornament as adapted to late historicism. Precisely because the two reddish brown brick sculptures and their old decorative forms seem so strange, so perplexing, almost displaced in this cool, white space, they clarify the white cube, with its antithetical aesthetic and ideological implications. Reflection on artistic practice makes it possible to sensitize the viewer not only to the aesthetic perception of sculptures and their history but also to the critical perception and significance of the white cube. Sandra Peters’s intervention is thus both a work about the historical structure of the chimneys of Schloss Cecilienhof and a demonstrative grappling with the Kunstverein as a more or less archetypically modern space to exhibit art.