The art of Peter Kogler lies in creating architectural intermediate worlds; this is true of his creation of interior spaces as well as exterior walls and particularly of those areas of a building where exterior and interior are visually linked, as in the case of transparent glass façades. These architectonic interworlds are real and fictional in equal measure. In their ambivalent tectonic structure—which incorporates the specifics of a space or building, while at the same time seemingly rendering them powerless—they are transformed into allegorical spaces whose complexity is initially disguised by their seeming easiness to read. They are spaces that, according to Kogler himself, become “emotionally charged”.
If one examines the concept of these virtuoso spatial settings that Kogler has developed in the past twenty-five years, it is evident that in his works he has taken up motifs and intensified processes that were of defining importance to the last century. In Kogler’s symbolic spaces, filled with multifaceted codes, an arc of connection can be traced from the current potential provided by digital information and communication technologies back to Expressionist film-set architecture, which provides an important source for the artist. Kogler filters and concentrates elements from cinema, and combines them with elements from Minimal Art and Pop Art, whose seriality and lapidary symbolism likewise play a significant role in his works. The true dimension of his work, however, can only be fully grasped when his works are seen in relation to urbanism architecture, media, and visual appreciation of space, and when the contradictory feelings of fascination and aggression-charged anxiety that Kogler’s spaces trigger can be experienced.
Kogler has been influenced by the Expressionist films Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari (1919) by Robert Wiene and Metropolis (1928) by Fritz Lang. In Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari the canvas constructions of the sets, with their cubistically distorted perspectives and their highly stylized black-and-white contrasts create a threatening atmosphere.(1) Kogler has constructed a postmodern version of these spaces in his digitally created interior scenarios, for example at the Wiener Secession (1996) or in Kunsthaus Bregenz (2000).
Kogler’s interest in Expressionist film-set architecture became apparent very early in his career. His cardboard objects decked with black charcoal, from the early eighties, alternate between human and architectural-geometric bodies and emanate an expressive archaism that is mask-like and threatening, yet at the same time naïve. These are the counterparts to Kogler’s earliest motifs designed on the computer.(2) During the late eighties, Kogler developed his repertoire of symbolically highly charged motifs that still shape his work today: the tubes, the brain, and the ants. At the same time, the artist developed his serial, digitally generated repetitive patterns, which he combines in different arrangements and transfers to paper via screen printing; he then uses these to cover walls or whole rooms—some of them often built specially for his works. The technoid approach that comes to fruition in the motifs, their serial arrangement, and their electronic production ties in with the concepts of Expressionist cinema. In Metropolis, for example, the “Geometry of the Masses” (Lotte H. Eisner) is created, on the one hand, by the robotically dynamized human masses and, on the other hand, by the architectural structures of the city through which Fritz Lang directs his groups of people: steps, squares, the façades of cuboid tenements in the workers’ downtown, blocks of skyscrapers uptown amidst which siren-like factories loom up in a pyramid formation of massive tubes.(3)
In their historical differentiation, the film sets of early modernist cities and the spaces created by Kogler are revealing. The buildings in Expressionist films make use of the formal advances achieved by modern painting and architecture, while at the same time transforming them, using the medium of film. Techniques of direction, camerawork, and lighting endow scenery and models often made of cheap materials with the appearance of a city that is at once both real and fantastic. The “Moloch” symbolism of the modern city—namely dynamism and movement, which, against a background of social misery and radical structural faults in society, acquire overtones of fear and trepidation(4)—is created using a formal vocabulary that makes great use of abstraction, of graphics, and of contrasts of darkness and light. One could say that, through abstraction combined with film techniques, aspects of modern virtual spatial concepts were anticipated. At the same time, these film architectures laid the foundations for extending painting into three-dimensional space: something that was developed from the forties onwards.
In the eighties, when Peter Kogler began to extend painting into space by means of digital techniques, he did it precisely and innovatively. In this he was part of a tradition that for some decades—in Action Art, Pop Art, Minimal Art or conceptual and media art—had already been transforming the work of art into a setting for a performance. In consequence, the audience itself became the protagonist. In his spatial productions Kogler uses techniques drawn from graphics and painting, whose striking effect is based on the fact that, using a computer, he can vary the concatenation and progression of the base modules of his symbols and can dynamize them in a way that is similar to the processes of film animation. The most important thing for Kogler is that he sets the space itself in motion through his constructions and surfaces. The use of moving images, such as video projections and computer animation, is then merely a second step that he carries out later. Kogler’s spaces can expand or shrink in a virtual sense. They suggest the never-ending transformability not only of form, but also of material used. The powers that set this transformation in motion do not divulge the principles they are based on. Inner worlds and outer worlds seem to intertwine or turn each other upside down.
Kogler transports his audience into an ambivalent state. In their attempt to locate themselves in his spaces—contrary to the illusion of the cinema, which differentiates structurally between the audience and the screen—they are constantly pulled hither and yon between real architecture and fictive architecture. In the convolutions of material, extant, actually constructed architecture with figurative, immaterial architecture—which are often constructed according to entirely different, often diametrically opposed, principles—Kogler leads the rational directly into the fantastical, and vice versa: a schizophrenic situation that is accompanied by a mixture of fascination and unease. Psychologically, this means that the observer must internalize the division; both worlds, virtual and real, must be recognized and tolerated.
Kogler evokes a certain tension with his art, which has its references in the present-day world of ideogrammatic symbols characterized by the visual interface of the World Wide Web. The endless transformability and virtualization of the symbols, images, and spaces implied here are a reference to the way that the digital has completely pervaded public and private spaces and to the increasing fusion of the two areas that it is causing. In the widest sense, Kogler’s works deal with these current forms of urbanism, which are manifested in the “double-existence of ‘buildings’ and ‘information bodies’ and of perceivable yet defeated cities and unperceivable yet victorious non-cities”.(5)
If the city fantasies of Expressionist films, with their black-and-white play of light and shade, represent an expression of “modern fear” (Nan Ellin) that emerged from the formation of the industrial and commercial cities, then Kogler’s morphed architecture suggests the “postmodern fear”, which Ellin discerns in connection with “postmodern urbanism”. Referring to Michel Foucault, she highlights how the ways in which power is exercised are becoming increasingly covert, thus making any form of resistance more difficult: “Whereas the plaza—or place (in French)—was the quintessential public space until the nineteenth century, today’s place-lessness renders the exercise of power more elusive. It is everywhere and nowhere, assumed ubiquitous, or alternatively, assumed absent.”(6) Tentative interactions in so-called public spaces that are in fact monitored go hand in hand with internalized self-discipline. In his works, Peter Kogler intensifies the fascination and the powerful flip-side of this contemporary experience of urban spaces that is both mediumistic and real, and he succeeds in showing them off to us in all their ambiguity.
1 Lotte H. Eisner: Die dämonische Leinwand (1955), Frankfurt am Main 1980. The creators of the buildings and images in Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari were the production designers Hermann Warm and Walter Röhrig, and the painter Walter Reimann. Peter Kogler is the source of this reference.
2 Peter Kogler, Exh. cat. Galerie Krinzinger, Innsbruck, 1985.
3 Eisner 1980 (see note. 1), p. 225.
4 Nan Ellin (ed.): Architecture of Fear, New York 1997, pp. 19ff.
5 Martin Pawley: “Auf dem Weg zur digitalen Desurbanisierung”, in: Christa Maar and Florian Rötzer (eds): Virtual Cities. Die Neuerfindung der Stadt im Zeichen der globalen Vernetzung, Basel, Boston, and Berlin 1997, p. 28.
6 Nan Ellin: Postmodern Urbanism, New York 1996, pp. 170ff. (The title of the current essay is borrowed from Nan Ellin, whose chapter “Themes of Postmodern Urbanism” contains the subtitles: “Form Follows Fiction”, “Form Follows Fear”, “Form Follows Finesse”, and “Form Follows Finance”, pp. 156–82.