Man kriegt was man sieht: Peter Kogler in Lisbon

Jean-François Chougnet, 2009

Whilst working on the text for the catalogue of the exhibition in Vienna and seeing through the preparations for this new phase of the exhibition, in Lisbon, I was struck by an apparent paradox. Although the course steered by this artist has since the outset been rigorous and consistent, commentators and critics have associated him with digital art and at the same time with decorative art: this association with decorative art seems wholly mistaken. If we need to look for Austrian references, we should turn to Adolf Loos, the author of Ornament und Verbrechen,1 an essay dating from 1908 in which Loos stigmatises ornamentation: “ornamentis no longer a natural product of its culture, and therefore represents backwardness or even a degenerative tendency.” Loos considers that “ornament is no longer organically related to our culture, it is also no longer the expression of our culture. The ornament that is produced today bears no relation to us, or to any other human or the world at large. It has no potential for development.” “‘Ornament’ was in former times an epithet used to mean ‘beautiful’. Today, thanks to my whole life’s work, it is an epithet used to mean ‘of inferior value’”, he concluded in a collection of his essays published in 1931. To confine Peter Kogler’s work to digital art would also be reducing its importance: even though Peter Kogler is adept at using video and synchronised projections, what interests him is not the technology, nor effect for its own sake.

Peter Kogler’s concern seems to be to work on the fringes of decorative and digital art, in order to gain a critical perspective on the proliferation of images. Since the 1980s, at the cutting edge of painting, sculpture and graphic design, Peter Kogler’s pieces have brought the viewer into the image. By arranging on the walls synthetic motifs drawn from a universe borrowed from electronic culture (tubular forms, lines of ants, capsules, bulbs, software-generated graphs…), the artist seeks to transform our perception of space. When he uses painting, at the frontiers of abstraction, his approach blurs with architecture and results in ephemeral décor.

Peter Kogler has been using repeated and combined digitalised motifs since 1980. In 1986, for his contribution to the Aperto, formerly the experimental section of the Venice Biennale, he produced a series of portraits on canvas that resemble caricatures (untitled, 1986; acrylic, silkscreen print on canvas). This series has found its natural place in the show in Lisbon. In the catalogue for an exhibition at the Galerie Krinzinger in 1988, he offered a number of slogans parodying some of the clichés of contemporary thought — not without a nod to the modus operandi of the American artist, Lawrence Weiner, one of the key influences on his work — “Man kriegt was man sieht” [what you see is what you get] is another offering from the same text. What can we call what you “see” in a space conceived by Peter Kogler? For Peter Kogler, motifs such as ants, the convolutions of the human brain or pipes, are not in themselves abstract signs, they prompt the desire for a narration or an interpretation.
Initially attracted to performance (he likes to tell the story of his public appearance upside down in a 1979 exhibition at the Nächt St. Stefan Viennese gallery), Kogler is perceptibly drawn to involving the human body in his research. At the heart of his artistic practice, since his earliest works, we can observe a persistent interest in generating “things” which acquire their autonomy because they can take on different meanings. Pipes and hoses clearly imply containers and content.

The convolutions of the brain which fascinate him refer to the grey matter on the outer edge of the brain, the cellular substance containing the neurons, where electrical in- formation is received, processed and incorporated, prior to issuing a response, the point of reception and emission.
Ants are the prime symbol of the organisational model. Kogler is interested in ants as archetypes, fictional characters, positive or monstrous, from a species regarded by specialists as an example of successful resistance to evolution. The ant-covered wallpaper designed for the exhibition allows the image to dress itself in, to “cover up” several meanings: it can itself cover up anything, but it can also be covered by works or other paper. Image, but also architecture. It’s a skin which shows something to the outside by covering up something from the inside, an overlapping pattern of interior and exterior.
Much has already been written on Peter Kogler’s all-enveloping wallpaper, such as that to be seen in Kassel, at documenta 9 in 1992, in a residual space left free by Bruce Nauman’s representatives in the entrance hall of the Fridericianum; or at the Secession in Vienna, in 1995, in a complete return to architecture; or that at documenta X, in 2007. Peter Kogler searches for a space in which signs shed the character of images, but produce an effect which is elusive. As he himself has joked, this has made him for many commissioning museums the ideal artist to install in a stairwell. In Lisbon, he has successfully internalised the complexity of the building designed in the 1980s by Vittorio Gregotti and Manuel Salgado and conceived an environment on a large scale. At the Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien (MUMOK) in Vienna, in 2008, the cubic space led him to conceive disintegrating crystals. In Lisbon, a network of pipes attaches itself to the highly designed space of the museum galleries, inviting the viewer to plunge into the depths of the structure.