MARIANNE LANG – HOUSE IN THE OPEN
Thoughts on an Exhibition
One time there was a picket fence
with space to gaze from hence to thence.
An architect who saw this sight
approached it suddenly one night,
removed the spaces from the fence,
and built of them a residence.
Trans. Max Knight
HOUSE IN THE OPEN, by Marianne Lang, is perhaps not that architectural wonder described by Christian Morgenstern, made up exclusively of in-between spaces.
It is a humourful observing, playing with the in-between spaces and the demarcation of boundaries to which Ms Lang’s constructs owe their thanks. In this game no architectural bodies are shown; instead, building frames are replaced by organic matter; by rampant plant growth sprouting out of recesses and alcoves. A house which normally consists of “a roof, of walls with windows and doors”1, no longer exists. Ms Lang has transformed observation into creation, literally letting whole buildings disappear under an abundant layer of plant growth. She has eliminated the static construct of spaciality. Organic growth now creates a structural body suggestive of a building – the shell has been enveloped. The title House in the Open does not denote a particular architecture per se, but much more examines how nature reclaims man-made constructions. It reflects on forms in organic growth, whilst humorously conjuring up the motif of man’s longing for a harmonious life in the country.
At the same time the works appear as a winking reference to the contemporary fashion for green architecture; the tendency of creating not only sustainable concepts through the greening of wall facades, but also vertical gardens. A good example of a green designer is Patrick Blanc, a French garden architect, with his living walls created for Jean Nouvel or Herzog & de Meuron.
Ms Lang also uses the title House in the Open as the name for her exhibition in Galerie bäckerstrasse4, for which she collected both individual and series of work spanning the period 2012–15. These works deal with the thematic tension between nature and architecture, using the space in-between as a common point of departure, i.e. as a hyphenated connector.
THE IN-BETWEEN SPACE
THE BRITISH PHILOSOPHER and mathematician Alfred N. Whitehead propounds in his book Process and Reality the theory that the cosmos is made up, not of inert insensitive matter as, for hundreds of years the propositions of René Descartes had led us to believe, but of complex interrelated and interwoven processes and relationships.2 The whole of the cosmos, from hydrogen atoms to the consciousness of mankind, is influenced by a structure of becoming, by processes and relationships, which in turn continually cause new processes. In his observation of living organisms and their surroundings, he concludes that “Life lurks in the interstices of each living cell.”3 Even if Whitehead didn’t intend a metaphorical interpretation of his words, a theory of interstices can nonetheless be formulated as the space where the actual processes of life take place.4 He himself states that, “life is a characteristic of ‘empty space’”, that it is first the empty space – the interstices – that constitutes life.5
It is in the small cracks, crannies, crevices, chinks, nooks, notches, gaps, furrows, ruts, holes and pinholes where life takes root, occupying – to give it a name – walls and surfaces in almost ornamental forms. The interstices can literally be interpreted as being between spaces or between time(s). In its temporal meaning it refers to a gap between two processes, the interval between two blinks of an eye. In its spatial meaning it describes an empty space between two bodies, an intermediary space, which separates and joins at the same time.
The in-between space as an empty space, but also as a transitory in-betweenness, as a demarcation for differentiations manifesting an initial connection, is being introduced in an exhibition. At the same time metaphorically and poetically “a culture of interstices” is being sketched in delicate lines as a means of fathoming the possibilities of the medium of drawing. Looking at the word “fugue” we see it has two meanings. It not only entails the concept of the in-between space as a division between two parts, i.e. materials, but also carries the extended connotation of the fugue in music. A fugue is sung in parts. In a fugue a theme is introduced and then successively repeated at various intervals and in different modes. In musical terms this is aptly designated as an “exposition”, where the motive once established is again and again repeated in numerous variations. By varying her graphic techniques Ms Lang draws her artistic theme through her exhibition from pencil drawings to engravings, from tearing and gouging to fire-branding.
MS LANG’S WORK is based on her observations of nature; by this we mean the processes of growth and adaptation, the exploration of survival strategies in precarious living habitats, the records of weather phenomena and the interaction between man-made and natural spaces. Concentrating on the marginal aspects of nature, she dedicates her work to those plant growths and creatures which thrive in tiny grooves and dents, pushing themselves through the darkness of a crevice to the surface. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel writes that “The plant brings forth its light as its own self, and being torn from light sends out its tendrils back towards it … it takes its specific fire and strength from it.”6 It is plants such as ivy, the modest wallflower or the diverse mosses and lichens which have caught Ms Lang’s interest and whose stages of growth she extensively examines in the medium of drawing.
Naturalistic representations of “weeds” are gouged out of laminate board – paper, in its original lichen-like forms, is scratched and chafed open, the rectangular shape of bricks is pressed into paper, and the floral structure of so-called ice-flowers is engraved into glass. But it is not only plants that are heliotropes [sun-following organisms] reaching from darkness to light; insects such as moths are also invariably attracted to light. In her series Illuminated, Ms Lang, using the element of fire – so fatal for moths – burns her drawings into paper. These “brandings” are then arranged as organic displays or condensed into swarms. In her block of works Buchdrucker und Kupferstecher (Bark Beetle Printing), the artist reproduces in plaster the symmetrical tunnellings of bark beetles, sculpting their chewed trails through bast fibres. The hatching system of a pest is morphed into an ornamental piece to be later transferred to the gallery as a decorative element.
It is all about open spaces; spaces we don’t think about, which we don’t recognise as such and that become filled with life which we don’t notice, and when we do we fail to appreciate. The space in-between is the hallmark of all of Marianne Lang’s “drawings”. It is a (re-)fuge for life, a free zone for creative practices where interstices are not only motive and structure for her artistic works but also a metaphor for social coexistence. It is a symbol for striving towards the light in the manifold variety of its meanings. The theme of House in the Open is re-examined at the end of the exhibition. This time as a sculpture. Ms Lang uses everyday commercial wooden slats to construct a shelter invoking both a camping trailer as well as a garden trellis. The dream of a house in the country is doubly evoked: on the one hand, an imaginary trip into our yearned-for concept of “nature” and on the other, the idea that climbing plants will very shortly have overrun the slats. The Laube (Arbour, 2015) is an absurd hybrid, indicating just how the ambivalent borders between nature and our cultural enclaves are being dissolved by means of the unlimited freedom that mobility avails, and an invoked self-determined freedom of our self-sufficiency.
A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN
SINCE MARIANNE LANG first started working as an artist she has been experimenting with the construct of spaces – the interaction between private and public, interior and exterior domains and their respective modes of perception. She sets up a backroom as a “partition between the real and the construed world”7 (2008); she deals with conceptions of her own living space (2009) and experiments with the now classical interior decoration of house plants (2010); with designs on wallpaper (2011); with patterns in parquet flooring (2011); with windows as partitions between interiors and exteriors (2013) and just recently with the double functioning of curtains (2016). She delves into themes posing questions in the realms of architecture, society and the arts and analyses the parameters of spatiality as defined by physical as well as psychological perceptions.
Ms Lang had already started her break with the conventional definitions of space as early as 2011, in her exhibition Zwischen Dach und Boden (Between Rooftop and Floor) and at the KHG Gallery in Graz, where she introduced an angled woodenslat roof, not as an end statement of an architectural piece, but as a connecting element between floor and ceiling. In 2012 she focused on the conventional building elements of the classical family home with her work On the Brick, where she first drew different types of bricks and then stacked them in and on pallets made of pasteboard. The title being a pun on “on the brink” – on the point of falling into the abyss – whereby Ms Lang signals a subtle unease with the dream of owning one’s own home. Martin Heidegger, in his short writings Building, Dwelling and Thinking, etymologically defined “space” as a place cleared or freed “for settlement and lodging”. “Space is in essence that for which room has been made, that which is let into its bounds.”8 The enclosing of space is achieved by the constructions of fences and walls. Vilém Flusser writes that the German word “Mauer” (stone or brick walls) comes from the Latin munire meaning “to shelter”. The outside wall provides shelter from the threats of nature and potential intruders; the inside wall encloses those held within its confines; “the prisoners of the house, to ensure their safety”.9
As early as 2012 in her humourful work The Fence Marianne Lang broaches the issue of the ambivalence between enclosing and demarcating, protecting and imprisoning. She draws a life-sized wooden fence, randomly attaching and rolling it out in a room. This interplay between interiors and exteriors is also present in her earlier works such as Scalation (2010), where Ms Lang constructs roofing shingles out of pasteboard – creating a simulated roof to a scale of 1:1, and bringing this (drawing) into an interior space.
MS LANG mainly focuses on the piercing and interleaving between internal and external spaces; spaces which encompass the realms of both mankind and nature. The in-between space is not an unimportant aspect of this analysis, but in the geological age of the Anthropocene, what can still be called natural?
In the last few decades mankind has become the dominating power of change on Planet Earth. Human activities have “changed the planet not only globally, but also to such a significant and long-term extent, that these changes will also be felt in the distant future”10. For years now an energetic discussion has been going on as to whether the term for a new geological era, with man as the subject – the Anthropocene Era – should be adopted. The idea being that mankind is no longer, as was the case for centuries, the observer in the wings, watching nature from a protected vantage point. No longer is there a safe place where mankind can run and hide. No longer is there a place where mankind can escape the damage he/she has imposed upon the natural scheme of things or escape from the powers which he/she has set free.11 The borders between the environment and the subject, the walls between nature and the culture of mankind have fallen or, as in Lang’s drawings, become transparent.
The way we think about nature, space and architecture is shaped by the way we think about boundaries. A few years ago the Spanish architectural theoretician Beatriz Colomina stated in her essay “Battle Lines” that the horizon is a boundary, and that this “horizon is an interior”. She quotes Heidegger, who states that the horizon is not that at “which something stops but, as the Greeks recognized, that from which something begins its presencing”12. The horizon defines something which is enclosed; it marks a limit to the space of what can be seen, or, as Colomina expresses: it organises this visual space into an interior. The horizon makes the outside, the landscape, into an inside. How could this happen? Only if the “walls” that enclose the space cease to be thought of (exclusively) as solid pieces of material, as stonewalls, as brick walls.13
The borders, which separate the external spaces from internal spaces and which thereby define them, have become dissolved. Space becomes the “enclosure” of the field of vision delineated by the horizon.
Ms Lang’s Double Sights are not simply to be seen as drawn renditions of photographic double exposures. Her works do not only show the merging of external and internal perceptions, like the reflection on both sides of a windowpane, but also show how the exterior forces its way into the interior, displaying a mutual overlapping and penetration of elements. The dissolving of classical boundaries and the successive fusion between private and public domains become manifest in her drawings. Double Sights are analytical reflections dealing with the status of boundaries in our Web 2.0 [social-document-sharing application] era in which we freely disclose our intimate lives and private spaces, where, more and more, our private and fundamental civil rights are being corroded away and limitations are becoming an effect of the media.14 Upon first sight the works appear to radiate a quiet and poetic atmosphere but at their core they carry a highly political volatility.
Houses have again and again been seen as an extension of the body, with rooms or the walls of a room as the uppermost layer of the skin. Taking away the walls of the room would be equivalent to exposing our innermost vulnerable being.15 In Double Sights, not people but their frames of reference are visible. It is the individual who is “the space in-between”; the interface where there once was a boundary; that non-definable passage between interior and exterior; the place where drawings are conceived.16
1 Vilém Flusser, Häuser bauen. In: Ders., Medienkultur. Frankfurt/Main 1997, pp. 160–163, p. 160.
2 Cf. Alfred N. Whitehead, Prozeß und Realität. Entwurf einer Kosmologie (1929). Frankfurt/Main 2006, p. 58.
3 Whitehead 2006, p. 206.
4 Isabelle Stengers thinks that these thoughts of Whitehead’s, together with the uniqueness of human societies, speak of a “Culture of Interstices”. Cf. Isabelle Stengers, Thinking with Whitehead. A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts, Cambridge 2011. Cf. Didier Debaise, The Living and its Environments. In: Process Studies 37/2 (2008), pp. 127–139.
5 Whitehead 2006, p. 105. “The conclusion to be drawn from this argument is that life is a characteristic of ‘empty space’ and not of space ‘occupied’ by any corpuscular society.”
6 Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Werke. Neu ed. Ausg. d. Werke v. 1832 – 1845. Bd. 9. Enzyklopädie d. philos. Wiss. im Grundrisse 1830. T. 2. Die Naturphilosophie. Frankfurt/Main. 1974, p. 412.
7 Johannes Kubin. Quoted from: http://www.mariannelang.at/hinterzimmer.html, 25 September 2016.
8 Martin Heidegger, Bauen Wohnen Denken. In: ders. Gesamtausgabe. I. Abteilung: Veröffentlichte Schriften 1910–1976. Band 7. Vorträge und Aufsätze. Frankfurt/Main 2000,
p. 145–164, p. 156.
9 Flusser 1997, p. 161.
10 Christian Schwägerl, Anthropozän. Vom Gehalt einer neuen Idee. In: Landschaft. Konstruktion einer Realität. Köln 2015, pp. 340–345, p. 341.
11 Cf. Bruno Latour, Sharing Responsibility: Farewell to the Sublime. In: Bruno Latour/Christophe Leclerq (eds.), Reset Modernity! Karlsruhe 2016, pp. 167–171, p. 170.
12 Heidegger 2000, p. 156.
13 Beatriz Colomina, Battle Lines. In: John Welchman (ed.), Rethinking Borders. Minneapolis 1996, pp. 51–64, p. 51.
14 Cf. Colomina 1996, p. 52.
15 Cf. Georges Teyssot, Water and Gas on All Floors. Notes on the Extraneousness of the Home. In: Chiara Briganti/Kathy Mezei (eds.), The Domestic Space Reader. Toronto 2012, pp. 147–150, p. 148.
16 Cf. Hans Belting, Bild-Anthropologie. Entwürfe für eine Bildwissenschaft. München 2001, p. 12.
CONTRARY TO ALL APPEARANCES
Marianne Lang is interested in the construction of living spaces. She analyses spatial acquisition by man and nature, each respectively in its own form, at times drawing interesting parallels particularly between “pests” and “weeds”. Ms Lang’s preferred medium is that of drawing but she is also well represented in the fields of photography and installations. Here, too, the use of graphic tools plays an important role and it is here that her subtle analysis, complemented by a fine sense of irony, is at its best. Ms Lang’s (re)arrangement of room elements opens up and creates fictive spaces which, emerging from walls, bring to light a bewildering interwoveness in her installations. It is through the manipulation of materials and proportions that she undercuts – at first without our noticing – our habits of perception.
In her current series, Double Sight, as well as in Haus im grünen (House in the Open), Buchdrucker und Kupferstecher (Bark Beetle Printing), hideout and Fellimitat (Imitation Fur), Marianne Lang examines the process of perception in the realm of interpretation. She achieves this by exploring the well familiar as well as the unspectacular in the realm of spatial acquisition: a raised hide in a forest clearing, views from windows, glimpses into flats, climbing plants on facades, the tracks of bark beetles left behind on tree bark – but as is often the case, a first impression does not suffice when it comes to Art. The raised hides, photographed in an idyllic forest clearing, seem quite normal – but who would want to climb these cardboard-tubing constructions fastened together by adhesive tape? The artist combines scenes in her drawings of looking-in and looking-out into one unique picture – but where does this place the observer?
In the poetic drawings of the series Double Sight, apparent diametrical lines of vision are equally superimposed, creating seemingly multiple exposures. The first assumption, that the work represents a realistic and richly detailed depiction – supposedly of a reflected image – is wrong. In fact, the depicted locations have nothing to do with each other: “inside” is the studio flat of the artist in Vienna; “outside” is the view from the parental house in Styria. Not only different locations but also different sequences in time – in the past and in the present – impressions both experienced as well as remembered bleed into each other so that the drawing becomes a search for formal correspondences; for “discombobulations of thoughts that are borne out into reality”1; enabling us to interpret what we see. It will not be long until “augmented reality glasses” feed computer-generated pictures onto our view of what is real. This superimposition of worlds will cause us to perceive new “double sights”, and certainly, after an initial “cybersickness”, will establish new parameters of perception.
Evolution has always favoured the use of artifice, based on the fact that what we conceive as being real depends on contextualisation. Sketching camouflage colours onto a shelter, Marianne Lang uses pasteboard as the medium for her object art hideout. Here, ultimately what is important is the idea and the visualisation thereof, and it is this which very quickly leads the artist to dismantle her raised hide – to prevent remorphing by rain. What does become obvious is that nature can well rid itself of the trappings of mankind. To note here is that the Häuser im grünen (Houses in the Open) are uninhabitable. The buildings themselves have been erased and are replaced by abundantly growing ivy. It is the shape of the ivy that suggests the existence of former structures. In reality, without the frame of the building providing support, the plants should have collapsed upon themselves. Correspondingly, just like the house and hide, the hunting trophy is also no more than a sham; so too is Fellimitat (Imitation Fur) in reality a cut-out piece of parquet floor branded with
Perception is always interpretation. And interpretations do vary. This is an important point to acknowledge in respect of politics, to which contemporary art is often dedicated. Moreover, the way in which we look at images creates its own possible realm of perception. As the philosopher Lambert Wiesing2 states: the picture itself, apart from the material upon which the picture has been created, is set free from physical reality – it doesn’t age, it doesn’t change, and it presents things, which can only be seen. Viewing in a zone freed from “physics” enables the observer to distance him/herself. The observer is given an open space wherein reflecting upon perception becomes possible without at the same time becoming the object of reality: “Whoever dives into a picture will not resurface. Just the opposite: I see, I dive in and I am gone”.3
1 Arno Schmidt, “Sind wir noch ein Volk der Dichter und Denker?” (1963), in: Bernd Rauschenbach (Hg.), Arno Schmidt. Das große Lesebuch, Frankfurt am Main 2013, p. 140.
2 Vgl. Lambert Wiesing: Das Mich der Wahrnehmung. Eine Autopsie, Frankfurt am Main 2009, p. 228.
3 ibid., p. 228.
MARIANNE LANG explores space through drawing and carefully examining extant architecture. She steers our attention towards special building characteristics by interweaving different spatial domains: interior with exterior, private and public.
The inspiration for Ms Lang’s work may be a specific idea that had simply been waiting for the appropriate space – letting the artist then bring it to life; or it may be the spaces themselves that inspire Ms Lang’s work. In the latter case, the works take their form from a concrete space and for an exact location.
With her work Fertigparkett (Pre-finished Parquet, 2011), the artist takes her inspiration from a parquet floor, creating a spatial object by drawing an extension of the herringbone pattern on paperboard.
In other works, the artist transposes the drawing of a floor plan to the scale of 1:1; superimposing this onto another room, and by doing so interweaving different spheres – inside and outside, personal and public. Through her drawing Marianne Lang taps into actual spaces and existing architecture. She varies and experiments with techniques – an engraving tool is used to draw or to scratch ice crystals onto panes of glass, in Kristalline (Ice Crystals, 2011), a soldering iron is used to burn depictions into wood veneer, Fellimitat (Imitation Fur, 2013).
In her series Schattengewächs (Scandent Shades), working on and into the actual walls themselves, Marianne Lang here too chooses unconventional forms of “drawing” in response to extremely varied spatial situations: her own studio, an exhibition venue, her own living room, and in her artistic intervention at the Albertina Museum. The conceptual inspiration for this work was climbing plants, which are often used for facade greening. Unlike plants which require growth supports, these so-called self-clinging plants, like ivy or Virginia creepers, have tendrils or specialised vines with which they attach themselves to surfaces, enabling them to shoot upwards. Little by little, the plant’s rampant growth engulfs the building it is growing on, redefining the original architecture.
Picking up on this characteristic of rampant growth, Marianne Lang lets various elements in her wall series interact with each other by bringing her Scandent Shades to the interior of the building where she sets them free. In sgraffito technique, using a linocut gouge, the artist scrapes and scratches climbing plants and their contours into plaster: just like the adhesive pads of climbing plants, so too Marianne Lang – both working their way into the uppermost sections of walls.
Ms Lang progressively overlays and successively engulfs original wall surfaces as she allows her drawings to unfold. The design becomes implanted in the plaster, whereby the underlying layers are exposed – set free. Old coats of paint and other building materials once hidden now become visible and determine, as much by accident as by design, the appearance of the wall-drawing: a patch of red is suddenly visible over here; over there an embedded wooden board (knothole included) and even further along a scribbled pencil mark.
The wall series tells the story of the building. It also invokes the memory of a climbing plant that had perhaps once been growing here, and which, upon being torn away, had taken pieces of the wall with it. The drawing that remains is a residue, a shaded remnant.
In her intervention in the Albertina Museum (2013), Marianne Lang also feeds into the past of the Habsburg Staterooms, which have remained unlived in since the family’s departure. The rooms now seem to be under the same spell as was Sleeping Beauty herself. Scandent Shades explores the numerous floral ornaments in the vestibule, the Hall of the Muses and the adjacent rooms and galleries; on walls, on floors and on the decor.
A further characteristic of a climbing plant is its wild growth – it easily spreads out of control – growing up edges and corners, over windows and over roofs, consuming virtually any obstacle. By having her drawings break out of their frames the artist addresses this aspect of uncontrollable growth. The stucco borders in the Albertina were claimed by Scandent Shades – growing up walls, along pillars and even popping up on the walls opposite.
A drawing by Marianne Lang does not remain static within its frame. It is the depiction of a process, whereby somewhere along the way, the artist consciously pauses, stops and brings the whole to a definite end.
ON MARIANNE LANG’S: CURTAIN
The Curtain series (2016) uses silverpoint on primed canvas and measures 150 x 120 cm. Each depiction reveals a drape – a transparent curtain accidentally or not drawn aside and, due to the fact that the curtains are ruffled and have folds, the flat in the image is probably a rather old-fashioned one. The modern-day paradigm of clarity and simplicity seems to have passed this imaginary interior by. Perhaps we are looking through a window. The view on and through the canvas – out of the window – contains a surreal sensory illusion: it is only through the sheer curtain material that buildings, perhaps a city, become visible. What is recognisable, and solely through the veil of the fabric, are the high-rise buildings, not however through the actual window, which normally provides a clear view from behind the privacy of a curtain. What are we looking at?
When observing Curtain, a window opens up on the white wall. However, in a gallery, spaces are not welcome due to the desire to maintain the institutional, pure white cube – freed as much as possible from interference. This is also the case in Pompeii, where rooms in the atrium, the so-called cubicula, were also often without windows. The only source of light in the atriums of ancient Italian bedrooms was through the door. However, there were windows: frescoes, and these were painted on the wall alongside depictions of mythological stories. In the House of Jason a fresco, dated ca. 50 bce, features a painted framed window above the legendary Greek figure of Phaedra. There is also an elegant red curtain, which is ruffled and pulled to the side of a window that looks out onto an expanse of blue.1 This window offers an illusory view – perhaps this is purely decorative or it might even be a symbolic means of escape for Phaedra. It could also serve as a means of viewing another world as a field of projection for the inhabitants of the house and a reflection of the times they lived in.
A PICTURE. A WINDOW.
SINCE ALBERTI’S De pictura, a treatise on painting written in 1435, the window has symbolised a new order through geometry and a central perspective. The artist’s wooden frame-like construction, built to help in securing perspectives, resembled a window; in effect, the picture itself was seen as a window. The perspectives of the vanishing lines make the surface of the picture clear; the picture becomes an illusion of depth, with the picture frame serving as its window frame. This form of illusionistic Renaissance picture remained popular up to the nineteenth century and was also adopted in photography, until Édouard Manet, and subsequently the Impressionists from 1860, once again made the picture surface opaque. The picture becomes blind. Even Claude Monet’s, La capeline rouge, Portrait de Mme Monet from 1868–1878 is flat, even though a window and a curtain painted with loose brushstrokes are visible. In cubism the objects even seem to jump out of the painting. In Robert Delaunay’s, La tour aux rideaux (1910), the two white curtains, with dark shadows in their folds, which are gathered at the side in the foreground of the picture, spring forward, opening out in a theatrical manner and charging to engulf the Eiffel Tower as if in a cloud of dust. In the twentieth century, modernist visual arts began to isolate the motif of the window, interpreting its meaning and existence: lines of vision are disconcertingly turned, interior and exterior are exchanged. Without background architecture or landscape views, as in Marcel Duchamp’s Fresh Widow (1920) and La Bagame d’Austerlitz (1921), the picture becomes deconstructed; or abstracted as in Henri Matisse’s Porte-fenêtre à Collioure (1914) or Ellsworth Kelly’s Window (1949). In conceptual art the motif is shown as an installation, as in Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Windows (1965) and Gerhard Richter’s 7 Standing Panes (2002).
The window is deconstructed into its individual sections, which strengthens the interpretation of its symbolic meaning as an opening into another world. Nevertheless, the elements of the window in the above-named works completely uphold the motif. Curtain, however, shows a detail of an image, as if a computer program, like Photoshop, had been used to zoom in on it. Nowadays, we are all too used to seeing details of images, magnified on a screen, whereas in the twentieth century a detailed image represented consciousness of composition and construction. The possibility of removing a section of a photo and creating an empty space as in Curtain, where the empty space has been cut out of the canvas, has nowadays also become common. The job of completing visual aspects of the window and the view is left to the public. A mental zooming out enables the observer to recognise what has been cut out of the picture and what has been hidden.
A CURTAIN. A WORLDVIEW.
THE SISTINE MADONNA by Raphael, 1512–13, one of the world’s most famous paintings, was presented in a theatrical mode² using the artifice of a green sky-like curtain. The heavy, plush material causes the fine curtain rod to bend somewhat; many rings are needed to free the view of the Madonna and Child along with the cherubs’ heads in the background. The right curtain is gathered exactly as one of Marianne Lang’s Curtain(s), and the close observer will recognise a building³ in the background, towards the right edge. The curtain divides the picture not only from left to right, but also from now and then, as well as the foreground from the background. The composition of Curtain, in contrast, remains ambiguous. The curtain, as a material, may be realistically drawn – just as Pliny the Elder describes how the painter Parrhasius painted a curtain in such detail that his contemporary and rival
Zeuxis called for the cloth to be lifted so that he could view the picture better.4 But in Curtain, neither a curtain rod nor window elements are visible; everything remains fragmented, an intimation. The foregrounds and backgrounds are, likewise, pure interpretation; spatial depth exists only as a result of the viewer’s imagination. The city behind the curtain could be a view from a window, but perhaps it suggests a surreal fantasy – a dream vision that irritates our habitual way of looking at things. The curtain makes looking through the window into another reality its theme, but it also symbolises a shade for visual privacy, blocking the actual viewing of truth, of the future, or of the end goal. The curtain must be pushed aside in order to see more clearly.
The representation of a curtain in the seventeenth century: The Holy Family with a Curtain, 1646 by Rembrandt, was seen as being revolutionary, as it marked a major departure from the aesthetics of reception. For the first time, the curtain is placed in front of the picture, both a trompe l’œil, and a duplication of what was at that time the norm – as curtains used to be hung in front of pictures. In addition to this, Rembrandt could well have wanted to impress his public with his ability to paint so very realistically. The family has been captured within a gold-painted frame, behind a painted curtain revealing a humble living space. Rembrandt has created a very theatrical staging for his depiction of Mary, Joseph and the Child, placing them in his time and setting them on a kind of proscenium [forestage]. To the rear there is a high, arched window recess blending with the shadows of nature – the representation of the space is unclear – just as in Curtain – we are at once both inside and outside. The frame, the curtain and the door construction demonstrate a doubling of the picture as a clear surface, as a window into an ideal future. Where exactly are the observers looking? On a dual worldview, in which the members of the Holy Family are just as poor as the people amongst whom they are living, and where privileged observers may well lift the curtain.
ONE OF MARIANNE LANG’S drawings shows delicate transparent fabric both to the right and left of the picture’s edge. A familiar sight as may be seen in any older-type building (perhaps in Vienna). The sheer curtains simultaneously conceal and reveal the view of the windows in the building opposite. The window through which one is looking is reflected by that at which one is looking. An empty space is left in the middle of the picture. The “empty space” is a term used in literary theory5 that was transferred to the world of visual arts by Wolfgang Kemp6 where it represents a form of integration of the observer into the area of the picture itself. An unidentified, free zone – the blank – gives the on-lookers the opportunity of taking part in what is happening in the picture. In Curtain, this empty space (blank) is obvious: the observer is the person, who is looking onto/through the canvas. But what is being looked at? A primed canvas, an empty homogenous surface, enframed by a delicate curtain? Empty, smooth surfaces are omnipresent in our times. We flip open our devices where an undefined, empty surface ready to be filled with pictures and windows awaits us. Present-day windows, upon and through which we are always looking, are surfaces in the form of touchscreens, windows in Windows or other programes and monitors, empty surfaces, where if we push the curtain aside, views into virtually infinite picture-worlds are revealed. The screen is the new window to the world. The person in front of the picture(screen) becomes an implied person in the picture(screen) itself, a Rückenfigur [a figure seen from behind], who is looking both out of and onto the window, a repoussoir.7
Rückenfigurs [looking out of a window or at a landscape] are often to be found in the paintings of artists of the Romantic period.8 Also new was the open window which found great acclaim as a motif, as a symbol for the then zeitgeist. This is well illustrated in Caspar David Friedrich’s View from the Artist’s Studio (right window) 1805–6 and the concurrently produced View from the Artist’s Studio in Dresden on the Elbe (left window), in which the artist places the observer in the role of the figure at the window. These two works show neither a stunning landscape nor an especially interesting interior. They show open studio windows, whose simplicity and unpretentiousness captured the pulse of the time; the yearning of the Romantic period. Curtain does not portray an interior or a landscape either. Instead, it portrays many windows in the imagined foreground of the picture, on the level of the observer and shrouded in the background. Many windows and many views: an analogy for us – either as bent figures sitting at the screen, at the most commonly popular and most current window; or walking incessantly, absent-mindedly and blindly through cities, gazing intently at the “little window” held tightly in our hands. We longingly look into another world, with many programe-windows opened, overlapping or alongside each other. The architecture in the background of Curtain could be a metaphor for the virtual buildings which surround us today.
MS LANG manages to combine most successfully her choice of drawing materials and content in her works. She experiments with unusual techniques, such as pyrography, intarsia wood inlay on paper, scratch work and also silverpoint or white chalk. Each chosen technique and its motif harmonises in an impressive way. The meticulously produced drawings, each executed in its own method, create an enigmatic effect. In the case of Curtain, Ms Lang works with silverpoint, which has the fascinating characteristic of light grey lines darkening over time into deep anthracite. These drawings leave no room for mistakes as erasure is impossible. Each correction would only disturb. The realisation of the four works in the Curtain series demands great drawing skills along with the ability to work very slowly whilst, through contemplation, becoming immersed in the drawing. The silverpoint is firstly and very delicately drawn onto the canvas, as if it were – just like the content of the drawing itself – a veil. The strokes slowly become monochrome fields and shaded nuances of the realistic-looking curtain fabric, filling a drawing with the formidable size of 150 x 120 cm. The artist’s methods are not dissimilar to those of Caspar David Friedrich: Friedrich’s drawings are sepia on paper, in greyish-brown ink, carefully and meticulously applied to successfully achieve the desired exchange between light and shade. His drawing technique, too, is laborious, demanding painstaking care and patience: it took Friedrich three years to achieve his six views from his studio, only two of which have survived.
WINDOWS create a connection between the exterior and the interior, the familiar and the unknown, without completely breaking the connection between the two. Friedrich’s sober representation of the window as the threshold between near and far posed the ideal metaphor for unfulfilled yearning. Being inside, one yearns for the faraway, outside. Curtain is also a nostalgic picture of yearning: something concealed behind a curtain arouses curiosity; revelation through concealment attracts attention. The goal of longing is, however, defined through the not-pursued, the obscured. The houses in the city behind the veil don’t appear to be the object of desire. The longing is directed at that which is in-between, that which remains free, the undefined.
In René Magritte’s, Éloge de la dialectique (In Praise of Dialectics) 1937, we are presented with a surreal illusion that plays with the perception of architecture and a view from a window: the view through a window into a room to reveal yet another building. The window is open and, exactly as in Curtain, a lacy drape drawn in perspective brings the eye to an interior, to a room, which opens up a view of a building – exactly like the one upon whose façade we are looking. It is a mise-en-abyme, a picture appearing within the picture of itself: when we open a window, we see innumerably more waiting to be opened. Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest and Google Image-Search demonstrate just this. Like two mirrors placed opposite each other where double images are infinitely reproduced, we are standing in front of a somewhat uncanny place, always being challenged to search further and further afield. It is a climactic ambivalence of the relationship between interior and exterior in which the person seems to be non-existent. Magritte also works against the rules of logic in his paintings. The view through a window into a room reveals a building: one is looking simultaneously into and out of a window.9 “This is how we see the world – we see it outside ourselves, and yet the only representation we have of it is inside us.”, 10 writes Magritte, whilst demanding from the observer, as in Curtain, a theoretic, dialectical discussion between the interior and the exterior; between the near and the far; the I and the others; yesterday and today; reality and imagination; the picture and the expectation.
THOMAS DEMAND’S room-spanning installation, Saal (Hall, 2011), in the Städel Museum’s Metzler Hall, in Frankfurt, is symptomatic of a room without openings: the walls, which in the end have no windows to challenge us, are hidden by a curtain. The artist photographed a paper model of a curtain which had been set up in a studio and using a transferring process printed the picture on a textile wall covering of synthetic fibre. The printed fabric was then wrapped over a frame and fastened to the 240m2 walls by means of magnets. This curtain cannot be drawn back; it is a double trompe l’œil, without real fabric – not even the photograph was of real fabric. This artwork is deceptive, tricking us time and time again, just as countless pictures on the internet do. The installation may equally be seen as a surrealistic interpretation of the present, or as an interpretation of longing: No more windows, no more pictures, please. Draw the curtains!
Curtain also breaks with the rules of logic. The view is that of a white wall not unlike a window in an exhibition hall – in the “white cube”, which, mostly, just as in the previously mentioned cubicula in Pompeii, has no openings except for the doors. Looking past a curtain which is not modern (through the primed canvas – a white surface) could symbolically be seen as a representation of modern art. The contemporary interpretation that Marianne Lang’s Curtain, 2016, demands could well be the metaphor of our time. Where are we looking? At our present? At the future, which we as yet cannot fathom? This future that is filled with window panes – Windows; views – Outlooks; surfaces, screens and images; yet it is still obscured.
1 See: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Phaedra_letter_MAN_Napoli_Inv114322.jpg, 4, August 2017.
² Wolfgang Kemp: Rembrandt: Die Heilige Familie oder die Kunst, einen Vorhang zu lüften, Frankfurt/Main 1986, p. 28: “To convey pomp, ceremony and grandeur, curtains in pictures were a favoured means of portraying people or holy figures. Painters in the southern Netherlands and Italy both concurrently used this image.” In the fifteenth century, in Early Dutch painting, windows and doorframes play a prominent role in the composition of pictorial space, e.g. Madonna with Child, diptych by Hans Memling, 1487. Curtains as well as windows are also key elements in the Italian Renaissance, e.g. Madonna with Child, (The Gypsy Madonna), Titian, 1512.
³ A tower – the primary attribute of Saint Barbara.
4 See: Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, Book 35, p. 64.
5 Wolfgang Iser: The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett, London 1975. In novels the blank denotes the place where the narrative form changes. The reader must bring various elements into relation and concretise the text him/herself. For Iser a prime example of this is Ulysses by James Joyce.
6 Wolfgang Kemp (ed.): Der Betrachter ist im Bild: Kunstwissenschaft und Rezeptionsästhetik, Berlin 1992.
7 Repoussoir comes from the French: repousser, “to push/drive back”. An object placed in the foreground of a picture is represented as oversized and dark. This is seen as a technical trick implying depth. In the Romantic era the picture itself doesn’t create a depth perspective; it is made up of a flat fore- and background.
8 Sabine Rewald: Rooms with a View. The Open Window in the 19th Century, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2011, p. 3.
9 See also Marianne Lang’s: Double Sight, 2013–15, pencil on paper, 150 x 110 cm.
10 René Magritte: “Die Lebenslinie”, in: André Blavier (ed.): Rene Magritte. Sämtliche Schriften, Munich 1981, p.108.