Artists: Barnaby Hosking (GB), Judith Fegerl (A)
Barnaby Hosking and Judith Fegerl investigate the perception of natural or supposedly natural phenoma in the force field between aesthetics and epistemology. Both artists de- and reconstruct aesthetic regulation systems, undercutting the image-systems they analyse by introducing their own output, feeding it back into the system. This interplay of feedbacks and interferences between medium and perception, between the medial and the mental apparatus, points to our ways of worldmaking,(1) to the question of how our realities are constructed. Hosking’s references are to the artificial beauty of landscape painting, Fegerl’s to mathematical models of space and time. Both focus in their works on visual systems that are instrumentally supported, Hosking on optical systems such as the mirror, Fegerl on the apparatus of scientific images. While Hosking works extensively with explicit references to art, Fegerl explores the limits of science and art as systems; the differences between their aesthetic strategies are thus clearly recognisable. Each in their own way reflects the fact that perception occurs in the asynchronous circuit between perceiving subject, medial coding and an exterior which we are tempted to call “reality”.
In the three-part installation Die unsichere Kurvenschar (The Uncertain Array of Curves), Judith Fegerl works with the mathematical sign systems and forms used to describe spatial and temporal processes. The work plays on the fundamental epistemological desire of modern science, the mathematical description of natural processes with the aim of a total recording of the world. The central motif of Fegerl’s work is the mathematical symbol for infinity, the so-called lemniscate “∞“. On the one hand, this symbol points to a sphere of indeterminacy, to that which is unbounded and unimaginable. One the other hand, like every other sign, the lemniscate derives its referential function from its reference to something that is, in reality, absent. The “∞“ symbol has long exceeded its symbolic function within mathematics and logic, and has become a cultural cipher, a carrier of poetic and escapist projections and charges. Here, this polysemic sign serves as a model for aesthetic variation, for variations on the semiotic coding of the supposedly separate ontological categories of space and time.
In Temporal Deflector, the first installative part of the Die unsichere Kurvenschar assemblage, Fegerl stages a “locochronometric” system. The artist groups sixty magnetic coils in a circle around a compass and controls the coils at intervals, so that the compass becomes, perforce, a chronometer of linear-metric temporality, of a mechanically generated “infinity” – monotonous, synchronised, repetitive. The measurement of space (the orientation of the compass) converges with, and converts into, the measurement of time in a metrical hybrid. The two categories, understood in classical physics as separate, become a spacetime continuum. The “locochronometer” thus produces an “enforced infinity” (the title of an earlier work of Fegerl’s), which the artist explores further by means of motivic development in the second part of the installation.
In sine anima, Fegerl offers a mechanically generated, artificial sound continuum, strikingly simple in terms of its aesthetic structure. A motor-run mechanical sound generator attempts to produce a pure tone of persistent volume and pitch, a constant, “infinite” sound. Yet the acoustic element is not the only significant level of the piece. Sound, as an aesthetic event, is juxtaposed with its semiotic translation: the graphic representation of the pure tone, with its sinusoidal waveshape, creates one half of the infinity symbol “∞”. Fegerl explores the transition from one medium into another, from the semiotic into the realm of objects and back again. She enquires into the role of mediality in the process of perception; mediality is not understood as distance or dissociation from an authentically experienceable reality, but rather as a “mediosphere” or “stage for enactment” (Inszenierungsbühne) (2). Perception and medium are indissociable. Mediatisation is the condition for perception’s reflection on itself, from which follows the question of the observer’s standpoint.
In the third piece, Lemniskate protuberantia,Fegerl condenses the process of intermedial translation into a sculptural work by modelling the infinity symbol in fur. The cipher for eternity is thus carried over into three dimensions and presented as half object, half creature. The fur object is reminiscent of a white rabbit, a creature that can shift between different levels of reality, as we know from Alice in Wonderland. It can suspend the conventional orders of space and time, connecting and merging both times and spaces, both the imaginary and the real.
Fegerl’s approach can be understood as the transmedial development of a motif. Abstract signs are transcribed into the spatial-material, the acoustic into the graphic and vice versa. The transcription process itself constitutes an “asynchronous circuit”, in the sense that it is not directional and does not follow any causal or “synchronous” logic. Rather, one piece leads to the next, with each implicitly participating in the other. Fegerl, not unlike the figure of the rabbit in its mediating and translating capacity, connects diverse medial and semiotic levels. The fur object is no more real than the symbol which precedes it, and vice versa.
Barnaby Hosking confronts the viewer in his video installation Black Flood with a zone of aesthetic indeterminacy. The video shows a seascape at night. One sees the movement of the waves and the simultaneous, successive rising of the water level. This “threatening” scenario has a foreboding character, provoked by vague visual events. Hosking initiates a way of seeing which is more imaginative than perceptive, as the viewer is unwittingly tempted to “read into” the darkness of the light-projection – a close-up of water and oil, filmed in an aquarium – and to see in it a seascape. This enterprise makes of the viewer an observer of his or her own seeing, with all the uncertainty that entails. Hosking cites the topos of landscape, the tradition of natural beauty, in order to deconstruct associated notions such as authenticity and unmediated experience.
The projection surface, the size of a cinema screen, is a section of black carpet, a material that absorbs more light than it reflects, actually generating darkness. The use of black carpet as a silver screen creates a connection between absorption and reflection, darkness and visibility in such a way as to modulate the conceptual connotations of “light” and “darkness”. Beyond dichotomous oppositions, darkness is staged here in its constant dialectical relation to light. This exploration of the interplay between seeing and not seeing, knowledge and indeterminacy, allows darkness to appear as something other than the absence of light, which, at the symbolic level, implies the absence of knowledge, clarity and insight. The seeming lack of seeing calls seeing’s attention to itself, and the recursive perceptual loop generated by this partially inverted cinematic scenario reverses the immersive effect of cinema, restaging darkness as a space of possibility.
Hosking also investigates the contingency of visual perception with reference to the representation of landscape in Claude Mirror Sun 8. This work does not aim for immersion, however. Landscape in an almost miniature format is presented here as one of three modules. The viewer stands before a mirror, a landscape painting and a case covered with black velvet. Set beside each other, each of these elements is of equal size. The first element, the case, points to the loss of visibility. Enclosed in the darkness of the box, the mirror is incapable of reflecting. The deep blackness of the velvet, which protects the mirror from outside influences, evokes the concept of absolute darkness. The second part of the work, a so-called Claude mirror, which painters in the eighteenth century used in order to look at the sun, inverts the canonical metaphors of light and darkness. Here it is precisely the reduction and fracturing of light’s intensity that makes it possible to look into the light. The third element confronts the viewer with the image of a landscape, a representation of a sky with a darkened sun – an image that could only be seen and painted through the filter of the Claude mirror. The formal equation of case, mirror and picture relativises the ontological hierarchy of object, medium and image.
Perception appears in the aesthetic-systemic circuits of Hosking and Fegerl as a continuum of interferences, producing both resistance and resonance with regard to the perceived exterior. Perception, in all its contingency, is not merely directed to an exterior, in the sense of a rigid dichotomy of subject and object. Rather, media, or more precisely medial systems, acquire the status of the “real”, constituting reality through their feedback to perception. In its direction of perception, the medium does not only carry out the representation of reality, but becomes an apparatus for the constitution of reality. Perception, consciousness and “reality” cannot be considered in isolation from each other, but are – have always been – constituted at their mutual interface. “At the border of the real, which is the actual, the movement of describing experience is encountered in its radical nominality. The more necessary its descriptions are to it, the more successful it appears to be, the clearer it becomes that no image can be made of the real.”(3)
Text: David Komary
Translation: Deborah Holmes
(1) Nelson Goodman, Weisen der Welterzeugung, Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp 1984.
(2) Hans Ulrich Reck, Flügelschlag der Sehnsucht, Ein Versuch über das Ephemere und das Denken, in: Heute ist Morgen, Über die Zukunft von Erfahrung und Konstruktion, Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz 2000, S. 185.
(3) Ibid., S.181.