Peter Kogler, Daedalus-like in the 20th century labyrinth

Ami Barak, 2000

Appearances notwithstanding, Peter Kogler is one of those 20th century artists with an extremely enigmatic approach. At first glance, he might be regarded as one of the first people to have used a computer-a leading player, therefore, in the new technologies of image making. As with Hamish Fulton, whose work wouldn’t exist were it not for walking, Peter Kogler would be opus-less were it not for the computer. But it is not computer technology which makes his work as sophisticated as it is. One thing is certain, a fortiori: that by making use of it, his simple, basic manner turns its input into one of the most essential contributions to the history of the present day. In all his works, Kogler is forever setting the record straight and essentially dealing with the motif in space. Form in its repetition and use in the place, together with the straightforward manipulation of materials and their presumed modernity, represent the keys to this Austrian artist’s approach.
From the historical angle of the twentieth century, two traditions have an ongoing knock-on effect, and lay claim to the supremacy of radicalness. One is Cézanne-inspired deconstruction involving the dismantling of the painted object; the other, the Duchamp-inspired attitude which focuses on the criticism of the object as a ubiquitous target in the modern environment. In this spirit, Peter Kogler has developed a very apposite work which constantly takes into account the parameters of attitude and event while at the same time totally retaining its formal independence. This straightaway denotes a conspicuous sign of freedom and a marvellous understanding of the challenges of the twentieth century.
For the purposes of this analysis let us consider the ingredients of Kogler’s method and approach. Since 1984, the artist has been sticking with the tools offered by computer-assisted drawing programmes. But more is required than a grasp of these means in their elementary expression, as Sherlock would say to his dear Watson. Throughout these years, vocabulary has not changed but the imagination has been in no way hampered and the arsenal has become constantly more varied. Like an artist such as Maurice Denis, who, in his day, declared that everything in painting is reduced to a circle, a square and a triangle, the same may be said of Kogler, who has constantly demonstrated that with one and the same point of departure it is possible to go very far with a noticeable fondness for tubes and piping.
Markedly influenced by American minimalism of the 1960s and 1970s in its formalist philosophy, the recurrence of certain themes is closely linked with the physical anatomy, such as the brain, the human face, the skeleton, and x-rays. All this in some way brings us to this local history and, in particular, to the preceeding Viennese variant of Actionism, caused him to take a stance, with a rare maturity, in that antithetical in-between area of «I love to hate you too». But with Kogler, detachment holds sway, turning him into one of the freest and most independent figures on the Austrian scene.
Once the vocabulary used has acted as a motif and produced a theme, the artist subsequently transfers them to a medium which will be used to occupy the space. This transfer is made principally by silk screening. Whether it involves canvas or paper or, alternatively, the flexible plastic of inflatable tubing that we have had a chance to see more recently, the development of the motif in the place and the organization of space manage to create a work which is no longer simply and traditionally related willy-nilly to the wall or the floor, but rather incorporates these factors by regarding them as inherent to this overall idea. The work can only exist in its space and this is dependent on the place. As a result, the statutory passage of the motif in space is effected with consummate ease and means that Kogler is a leading figure in the work/exhibition set of issues and thus also in the issues to do with work/event-that major aspect of the art of the century that has just ended. Traditional picture rails are abandoned but walls are nevertheless not done away with. The viewer is no longer a passive, contem- plative figure, but is rather prompted and pushed to come to terms with him/herself and fashion a circuit in this labyrinth, in a literal and figurative sense, and blaze a trail among the changes of the contemporary world, as symbolized by the artist and his emblematic language. This same viewer is also encouraged to learn, on the job, the language of the artist who, like developers of computer systems letting their beta test be corrected and approved by the man in the street, feels like an actor in this spectacle of the world.
I well remember the 1995 Secession installation where the place gave the impression of being turned inside out like a sock. A piece of scaffolding with the precarious equilibrium of a game of spillikins surrounded the onlooker, threatening and attracting him at the same time. The whole area of the place was covered with wallpaper which reproduced the unstable but non-chaotic jumble of the tubes which, rather like joists, accentuated the place in a comprehensive way. In Freud’s city, this feeling was quite familiar. In this hall, built to the scale of a central railway station, the visitor found himself, at a given moment, facing the mirror screen of a computer in which he was «reflected» the same as in a funfair mirror. The onlooker’s face remained the same while the entire surroundings became twisted and distorted as if they were being shaken. So the parable became all the more arresting. In the world of spectacle, being remains a constant while the environment goes through continual metamorphoses; in these ceaseless changes, balances merely become more unstable.
Kogler displays and clads, while at the same time juggling with the key references of modernity. The artist knows very well how to involve this understanding of the modern thing, its constantly renewed topicality and its incorporation in mores, and he proves as much at each event. We still have memories of his activities at Documenta IX in Kassel. There he operated around Bruce Nauman’s installation, the latter apparently keen to be the hub of the entire exhibition. The public headed, as if magnetized, towards this central spot without really bothering to see what was going on around them. And yet the simple basic architecture that encircled Nauman with this printed circuit-like pattern-it was actually a line of ants-has remained imprinted in people’s memories as powerfully as the turning, exclaiming heads of the American artist. The labyrinth idea has become above all else a metaphor for the inextricable complexity of the world, while retaining the symbolic value of its origins.
Children venture merrily into a maze. But when mazes are complicated, excitement gives way to confusion. When Peter Kogler plays the labyrinth game he confronts us with a path going the wrong way, from the exit towards the entrance, and in this way we know that it is not a matter of getting lost but of finding one’s way.
Peter Kogler has taught me two essential things: first and foremost that there are many ants in the brain. But if we had to imagine electrons we might naturally think of hymenopterans, which might be black or red like the twentieth century’s factions. As a result of real in situ work and the serial escalation of the entire space, the artist not only convincingly changes the nature of a place but he also «loads» these installations with social meaning.
Nowadays, more than at any other time in history, we know that it is the brain which, over and above any symbolic value, best represents the challenges of the present-day world-the challenges of the material world every bit as much as those of artistic work. Artistic activity is linked with the desire to control the environment, and to understand it so that an emphasis highlighting the challenges will act as a nature study. Representing the world has, from time immemorial, meant appropriating it. In his art, Kogler regularly switches from figuration to abstraction. But even when the motif is abstract, he is at pains not to do away with all connection with figurative representation. And this, incidentally, works in both directions. When abstraction is involved, the advantage is not exclusively that of visual purity. In our world, the real is nothing other than exchanges of accounts-which, moreover, explains the persistence of abstraction in art. It takes on the best descriptive role of the contemporary economy and its tense tides. It is evident and understood that the economic system is gradually divesting us of any power to represent the world. The competitiveness of the signs which are proliferating everywhere is stripping the cultural arena of its preeminence and what is left over for the artist in the guise of representation is action. This in turn explains the need of artists like Peter Kogler to choose and organize, to produce independent units in space which function in a different way from traditional sculpture, caissons and boxes, and to pool means of production such as silk-screening. Kogler produces a relationship to the world by making use of different media and processes, and he accordingly helps us to decipher the present order of things.
The curtain, too, has become a distinctive trademark of Peter Kogler’s work. The choice of this surface medium is undeniably associated with two salient reasons. The first has to do with the fact that the cloth is no longer canvas and that the end purpose, as object, is diametrically opposed to that of the surface media of classical painting. The curtain hides and separates and its presence in space lends it a status halfway between picture and sculpture. It is associated with the wall but detached and its folds refer back to a notion of volume. The other important detail is the technique used by Kogler, which, in this very precise instance, is no longer printing but weaving. The motif appears as the result of a technological process where the computer plays a primary part, but this time around, new technologies assist the supplier. The artist merely offers it the concept and the «design» like an industrial creator. But we are not in the realm of the decorative arts any more than we are in the realm of enlightened craftsmanship. The artist’s position remains the same with regard to the diversity of media and techniques. He creates a work which will be in space and which will fashion a place by incorporating it as a sine qua non parameter. Kogler’s curtain is now part and parcel of twentieth century art in the same way that Carl André’s floor plaques and Sol LeWitt’s wall paintings are. In the final analysis, we could say that it is the outcome of one and the same radical tradition, pursuing it and offering a no less flexible variant. Just as minimalist works make references to architecture as place and the onlooker, in his relationship to the work, does not regard these places as connected with architecture, so the curtain is, primarily, an architectural element above all else. Peter Kogler’s position in relation to art is akin to that of Diderot, who contrasted attitude and method, and what is mastery and what is technique, maintaining that art is arrangement. An availability given form and a form produced through language. In this sense we can find no contradiction between what is new and what is continuity. Continuity only comes through in the new. The curtain doesn’t replace the picture but it calls it into question. Its function is purely symbolic and in practical terms it only separates an imaginary scene. I would say, furthermore, that the curtain in Kogler’s work is perforce ideological. For it is not a matter of an object and it is not a matter, a fortiori, of a ready-made. The curtain is to all appearances part of a middle-class aesthetic. But the way that this Viennese artist has found to justify it, by introducing the discourse on material, space, and spatial ideology means that the object has changed status and significance, and has become different. It is now part of a different history, incorporated within art history, and a hypothesis of language, whereas previously it had a day-to-day use. The curtain has thus acquired a different value. Through this curtain, the artist expresses a cultural opinion. But at the same time he transcends his own opinion. And this is what is interesting and this is what makes the artwork complex. We have the values which it represents, the past which it incorporates, and the rest. In the oeuvre as a whole, certain motifs have become distinctive signs which readily identify Kogler-for example, the tangled tubes which form a scaffolding-like structure, and we are not sure whether its extreme precariousness pre- or postdates the collapse. This abstraction, which is not really an abstraction, because it is in conformity with the world of construction, and thus of architecture as a last resort, changes the walls of each exhibition venue where Peter Kogler is on view. In a kind of horror vacui, the wallpaper takes possession of the verticality of the walls. The eye may pass through, but only the better to get back to itself. The being is confronted with the idea of danger and building site, but also with power. What is involved there is not exactly a hodge-podge, but the usual order is not there. The tangled structure is effective, but for the needs of the cause it is even sophisticated. We know that it is complex, but also that it is intentional and this particular dimension is eminently aesthetic. We stay at the scale of the place, but we are propelled by the strength of the very idea of construction and building site towards the outside, towards that feeling already encountered in films showing the building of huge skyscrapers, with workers like tightrope walkers perched on girders at dizzying heights. It is also worth remembering that modernity has its references, and these are undeniably the Eiffel Tower, the canvases of Fernand Léger, who makes plentiful use in his iconography of this motif of scaffolding, and, last but not least, that monument to the glory of twentieth century culture, the Pompidou Centre in Paris. For those agin it, this building calls to mind an oil refinery, an industrial-looking construction with all its pipes and tubes exposed for all to see. Where applicable, and against a black ground, the pipes and tubes can turn into a tracery of fibres as you see in microscopic imagery, and in this way the onlooker plunges into a kind of abyssal freefall from very high up towards the very small, rubbing shoulders en route with the details of the matter used. Kogler here interprets the next world of virtual reality in the same way that the new technologies are showing it to us, in the prototype version. This familiarity with the intimate structures of the object, be it very large or infinitely tiny in the version of the Austrian artist, reveals to us an aspect of the real which was not available prior to the forced march of technology towards a closer and more intimate understanding of matter. For us, consumers, these changes which are becoming commonplace at a very brisk rate cannot remain inconsequential at the level of our vision of the world and our grasp and understanding of it. In his implicit way, the artist draws our attention to our renewed relationships with the world and the universe, by providing us with the symbolic tools which show us an obvious need to take up an ethical stance in relation to progress. So it is therefore a reading, a sensibility and an interpretation which lead to the deliberate configuration of the exhibition space.
Recently, by bringing in the video projection, which portrays him installing one of the component parts of the exhibition, Peter Kogler at the same time uses the chroma key effect, which makes it possible to insert a backdrop image, and thus introduce a parallel line, an opening towards the world which lies behind the curtain, and bring us closer to this backdrop which is the philosophical dimension of his entire approach. For his show in Bregenz, the artist decided to open a window in a virtual way and to show the landscape behind the picture rail. This false trompe l’œil of a nature that is so different but not that far removed from the desire for openness on the part of Renaissance artists, shows that artists do refuse artifice for artifice’s sake, and that the attitude parameter is still an essential constant in art. This critical stance has to do with the desire to get us to take the flipside of the decor for what it quite simply is, and also to get us to avoid, in the daily round, that flood of manipulations which now dogs us.
In a formal sense, Peter Kogler’s language has a high aesthetic quotient. This, needless to add, is not a hierarchically-inclined value judgement, but nevertheless takes into account the powerful retinal impact that is involved. For the onlooker, the works have a certain fascination which has to do with the effect of scale, deployment, the idea of proliferation, and, on the symbolic level, what this basic unity, the tube, represents, where humanness is concerned-veins, arteries and viscera-water pipes and- why not?-those famous information superhighways along which all those bytes hasten at the speed of light. Art thus turns out to be this backward look which, in reality, would see the trees but not the wood, and which insists that nature would not be likened to a means of production, consumer objects, and symbols of mathematical preferences. There is thus a struggle against the forces which rein in and censure subjectivity. A systematic desire to open the eyes. His own eyes-and, to mark the same occasion, ours, too.
In the at times controversial art world, Peter Kogler’s work helps to draw the public’s attention to the idea of turning a situation around-reversal. It enhances the museum environment by its presence, violating decor criteria and reappropriating the physical space in favour of the imaginary space. From the outset, Kogler’s works have been part of the in situ phenomenon, in other words, a twofold distancing, historical and linguistic alike, in relation to the place, its context and its architecture. They share their integrity with the site and the placement within this site. But at the same time the work contains plenty of external references, while remaining linked with the place and its specificity, be this interior, within the museum institution, or exterior. Peter Kogler thus tries to tease out a conception of the motif in the basic vocabulary of assisted drawing. It is hard to over-stress this dimension of the work, which once again calls to mind the twofold historical distancing that is constantly at work in it, whence his in-depth research into emblematic images in a smaller gamut, finally manages to apply an objectualization created by the computer world. Without wanting to remember the past, and without any ambition to forget the future, Peter Kogler’s works are defined by a pragmatic analysis of the relationship between the real and the symbolic, a relationship stripped of any deliberateness, a distinctly «in situ» relationship. They are places of passage and self-discovery, which set identification processes in motion.

Translation of the french original text,
»Peter Kogler en Détale dans le Labyrinthe du 20e siècle«