Peter Kogler – Differing Esthetics

Ami Barak, 2008

For the past 20 years, Peter Kogler has been radically transforming the exhibition space by making it an integral part of his work. Perhaps the best example of this approach is the piece at the entrance to his show organized by the MUMOK, in which the viewer is confronted head-on by an invading presence suddenly surrounding him on all fronts. Many of the works take the form of silk-screened wallpaper running from floor to ceiling, with abstract patterns creating a mental landscape that reinterprets the architecture. The spectator is destabilized, losing all spatial references as he is thrown into this overwhelming landscape of interlacing digital designs that evoke organic shapes such as gigantic spider webs. Peter Kogler appropriates all three dimensions of space and makes them his own. Walls and ceiling are motionless – though at times seemingly animated – screens on which are displayed the artist’s recurring patterns, the unmistakable signature motifs responsible for his notoriety.
Kogler’s main focus is the question of abstraction and its elementary vocabulary, declined in such a manner that one can identify shapes that may seem familiar at first glance, but whose typology remains within a generic range. This particular way of spatializing the work and subjecting all three dimensions of institutional space to his program demonstrate how the Viennese artist’s inquiring mind attributes a place of choice to the spectator. The viewer will never be relegated to the margins of the visual experiment devoted to making him aware that the world as he knows it is in constant expansion, for he is always positioned at the center of Kogler’s creation, just as the lead actor and instigator of any form of spatial or territorial conquest remains above all mankind. One might suggest that, within a certain philosophical and ideological perspective, the essence of modernity consists in attaining the ideal of a whole and expressing it in topographic terms. Since the beginning of man’s long voyage of self-discovery he has never lost sight of this idea of conquest. This obsession with trying to both cover and discover the planet has been followed by countless acts of violence in the course of history. In art, this magisterial modern dimension takes on a more symbolic role, but its impact is no less poignant.

All these images perform variations on elements of vocabulary, yet manage to retain an aspect that is not only simplified and purified but also literally essential. The images are first digitalized, then magnified and organized on the surface of the wallpaper, arranged in a repetitive sequence that cleverly develops in its continuity to find itself fitted perfectly into space. Whether organic or mineral– ants, pipelines, interlaced motifs, outsized skeins, smooth spaghetti-like extrusions, trellises and lattices, Fernand Léger-type scaffoldings—the shapes all swarm like insects on the wall, appropriate the floor, criss-cross the ceiling. The spectator’s immersion is thus complete. The eyes then settle in the midst of the pictorial device as if in the center of a network, leading us to the very heart of the painting. Moreover, Kogler’s art has always given great importance to the figure of the labyrinth, used as a pattern as well as a principle of composition in its own right. In his most recent video projects, an entire maze is set in motion around the spectator. Originally, the word Daedalus was used in the Greek language to refer to something created in an artistic way. But the eponymous character in Greek mythology was also the architect of the labyrinth imprisoning the Minotaur. Led cleverly back to these archetypal sources, one appreciates the surplus of wit and ingenuity, both technical and esthetic, in Kogler’s enterprise. For Ariadne’s thread metaphorically indicates the path each of the artist’s exhibitions so graciously asks us to follow. Thanks to the focused and varied nature of the visual devices, that which the viewer initially felt to be trudging along unknown territories in time becomes a calculated trajectory, a kind of virtual propulsion, as if the artist were tele-transporting one across his major preoccupation of working at the borders of modernity’s denials in order to attain a critical perspective on the proliferation of images so characteristic of our culture. Of course, one is fully aware of the way modernism pushed the ornamental and decorative to its limits by means such as the repetitive, the obsessive-compulsive, the unnecessary or the marginal brought on by an interest in the essence of art being reduced to self- reflection and self-definition. And therein lies the force of this Austrian artist, who has managed to demonstrate not only his craft, but also his flawless comprehension of what is at stake in modernism and its avatars. Since the 1980s, Kogler has made use of digitalized patterns, computer programs allowing him to multiply them, reproduce them on various surfaces, combine them, and adapt them to spaces in the form of installations or to altogether innovative technical means such as video or the Internet. In 1986, as a contribution to Aperto at the Venice Biennale, he produced a series of computer-generated silkscreen portraits on canvas that are strangely reminiscent of caricatures—another outcast genre in the restricted category of legitimized art. A reminder of this period can be found on the walls of the MUMOK exhibition. In this fascinating series of portraits, we follow the only character’s gradual loss of all human traits up until his final transformation into a terrifying machine. At the time, the portraits carried captions or subtitles that seemed to come directly out of the character’s mouth: “I am an antique art dealer / I make my living / out of the craze / for pre-plastic object / I am a bit of a social historian myself / antique dealers have to be / so I know something of man’s crazes for artifacts through the ages / the stuff that sells big today”. The striking irony, a trademark of these kind of practices and opinions, can be seen as being tantamount to a certain critique of the artist’s autonomy, something not uncharacteristic of Kogler’s chosen patterns. His idea was to add to these geometric motifs representing ropes and eyes slogans that were a blatant parody of some of modern art’s most famous clichés—“man kriegt was man sieht” (what you see is what you get)—leaving no doubt as to his critical intentions—“die wissenschaft steht in enger beziehung zu übermittlungsfehlern” (science is closely linked to errors of transmission); “unsere leistung für alle” (our achievement on behalf of all); “ja, das gesicht hat eine grosse zukunft” (yes, the face has a bright future); “erfolg vergnügen flucht wachstum” (success pleasure escape growth); “einfachheit ist eine hälfte der strategie” (simplicity is one half of the strategy). Metaphors for society and the meanders of social networks, both the pipes and the ants allow Kogler to saturate space by defining simple and evolving patterns on the surface of his works. The ease with which these figures call for the reactivation of latent psychic contents is explained by their obsessive dimension, their repetitive or even labyrinthine character and finally the archaic connotations the latter provokes. His approach is perhaps not as innocent as one thinks if we remember that it was at the turn of the century, in Vienna, in the context that saw the appearance of psychoanalysis, that the question of ornament emerged with such violent force.

An examination of Kogler’s most famous motif, the one that undoubtedly guaranteed his success, proves exemplary. Take the generically accepted image of the ant. For it is ants, of all the inferior animals (invertebrates), that have most attracted the attention of mankind. Who has not stopped once in his life to contemplate the incessant parade of a column of brown ants while enjoying a walk in the forest? Who has never felt the painful bite of red ants when sitting in the grass for a picnic? Which housewife has not one day been very surprised indeed to find the sugar bowl under threat of imminent attack by an army of little black ants or minuscule yellow ones? Wherever man goes, as long as his feet touch the earth he is forever bound to come across these little insects. It is certainly this very omnipresence and apparent proximity that have caused men of all times and all civilizations to be intrigued by the tiny creatures and to have sought a better understanding of them.

Mankind’s interest in ants goes back as far as antiquity. Early authors were fascinated by their social conduct, so very similar to our own. In King Solomon’s proverbs, one can find one of the first allusions to their courage and foresight. All the Greek authors (Hesiod, Aristotle, Plato, et al.) at least once mentioned their great wisdom and intelligence. Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History, devotes an entire chapter to ants, giving a detailed description of their organization, communication systems, and even their elaborate division of labor. The Greek Plutarch goes as far as to attribute human qualities to ants, while the Roman writer Apuleius tells of ants and their courage at man’s service when they help Psyche sort a mountain of grain that had been kicked over by an enraged Venus. La Fontaine, and later Boileau, both recycled this image of the wise and courageous ant used in antiquity. All French schoolchildren are familiar with La Fontaine’s most famous fable, “The Ant and the Grasshopper”. Later, ants were recognized as serious objects of study and a new science was exclusively devoted to them: myrmecology. Since then numerous entomologists have taken an interest in these little creatures, among them Fabre, Huber, Emery and Forel. Like all other social insects, ants’ lifestyles aroused the curiosity of the very first defenders of the natural selection theory in evolution: indeed, Darwin himself inquired into the origin of their social and altruistic character.
Even today, myrmecology is a very active branch of natural science and animal psychology. Whether it be finding new ways to get rid of them, make use of them or simply to understand them, ants, due to their surprising diversity and omnipresence, intrigue researchers in domains as varied as the life sciences, literature and even economics. Spaceships have taken but few animals into space, but Challenger carried an ant colony on board as early as 1983. Ants play a large role in a number of our beliefs, myths and legends. They are also present in the Quran. Just as in classical philosophy, ants are used as examples in certain religions. In the Talmud, they symbolize integrity, while for Buddhists they represent all that is material. Again, the apparent perfection of their social organization and the similarities between their behavior and our own has prompted such texts to take them as examples. The ant often symbolizes the working class or acts as a symbol of an underground world, as with the American architects known as Ant Farm. Thanks to Peter Kogler, the ant has also been awarded a select place in the pantheon of shapes consecrated by modern art.

Besides ants, Kogler has chosen the brain motif as a principle of composition. As we know, the brain has played a major symbolic role in art history, acting as a reminder of human vanity or a memento mori. In fact, it continues to preoccupy many contemporary artists. In Kogler’s case, the attractive aspect is no longer the container, but its content. One is tempted to mention the brain’s extraordinary visual qualities, but the dimension that most imposes itself in Kogler’s approach is the intrinsic link between mind and matter. In biology, one learns that one of this organ’s most essential qualities is its plasticity, its near infinite capacity for development, for transformation and reparation. Intuitively, in his own manner, the artist is constantly questioning this plastic quality. Thus, he is able to unwind its meanders and describe its contours, which are always the same yet different. There are certainly analogies, but each time it is the organ’s great flexibility that is able to prove them to us. Well beyond the choice of the brain as a model for his work, it seems that behind all visions of this organ lies a hidden political reference. Kogler’s apparent association with this increasingly accepted idea, especially amongst neurologists, of the radical deconstruction of subjectivity has nothing to do with the formal sophistication of his iconic object. Rather, he approaches the brain theme in relation to the functioning of memory, of perception, of thought and finally of action. In the last 50 years, the study of the human brain has brought us a vast amount of knowledge. We are indeed aware of how today’s new discoveries have shattered preconceived ideas inherited from the last century, especially in terms of the functioning of the brain, neurophysiology, neurology, genetics and even robotics. Since the 1950s, understanding of the human brain has been deeply influenced by the discovery of DNA structure, the “new synthesis” of Darwin’s theory of evolution, and by artificial intelligence. And the artist intuitively shows how the idea of the brain as we now know it came to us, a brain conceived like a machine, structured as modules processing information, making calculations and computations. By analogy, he draws a parallel between the two key ideas we are taught concerning the brain: on the one hand, modularity, on the other, information. These ideas govern our way of understanding its reality and serve to unconsciously reinforce this state of affairs. Seat of memory, the brain is the central organ that directs our activities, but it is also the territory of our thoughts. It is most interesting to realize that Kogler has chosen the most sophisticated computer on the planet as a generic image in a number of his creations, and that he has done so by favoring computer-assisted processing.

We find yet another conceptual and formal progression in the artist’s work in his use of the pattern and its permeability in the exhibition space. Kogler’s most recent pieces make the various patterns in question appear by using an innovative “burning” technique on a phosphorescent surface, thus impressing themselves just for the time our vision persists. In the darkened space, a projector relentlessly flashes the motif of the pattern. It declines the motif and systematically arranges it by scanning it onto the prepared wall surface. The intense light imprints the image, which will stay visible for a short space of time before gradually fading away. There is an almost dreamlike quality to it, like a hallucination. The idea of animation is evinced to the advantage of a clever cooptation that rejuvenates Warholian vocabulary and also a principle dear to serial minimalists– the relentless repetition of an image in order to extract its quintessence. This is perhaps one of Kogler’s most radical and accomplished procedures since it questions the very idea of appearance/disappearance. He takes on the idea of performance in new terms. Ultimately, as Jacques Derrida might have expressed it, he brings his contribution of a work of art’s possible immateriality even as he ensures its full visibility through the trace that carries the impossibility of origin.

For his intervention at the MUMOK, Kogler conceived a complex décor. The superimposed patterns repeat a reticular motif evoking animal skin or scales on one side, and on the other the shape of a spider web, specked here and there with dripping motifs taking the appearance of matter at the stage of liquefaction. These effects contribute to an atmosphere of saturated space, resulting as much in the physical presence of Kogler’s intervention as in the impression he gives us of being plunged into a virtual world with no upper or lower limits.

Since the 1980s, Peter Kogler’s interventions, on the cusp of painting, sculpture, video and graphic design, have made it possible for the public to truly enter the image. By disposing synthetic patterns on the walls, issued from the universe of electronic culture (tubular forms, alignments of ants, pills, bubbles, graphic forms generated by computer programs), the artist rejects the painting/picture format and transforms our very perception of space. At the limit of abstraction, painting merges into architecture and turns into an evanescent décor that plunges us into an oneiric world evocative of the universes of science fiction.

Without doubt, Peter Kogler masters all the elements of a system whose categories are carefully labeled. He is one of those few who attain a constant esthetic progression because he never finds himself trapped in a fallback position. On the contrary, he nibbles at the margins and extends the contours of his own geography, whose relief recalls the mountains and valleys of his native land. His overarching enterprise, in each installation and each exhibition, testifies to an implacable will to differ, displace, conjure or reinterpret in the purely dialectical direction of the advances that have always existed in Viennese modernism.