The interest in precisely analyzing scientifically a specific subject or area seems to be tied to an inescapable paradox: the more exactly and exhaustively that one examines a specific interest, the more expectations are frustrated, allowing exceptions to the rule to come to light. This makes it clear what methodological approaches truly are: assumptions that require examination and correction, and, moreover, assumptions linked ideologically to their subjects of investigation — not merely externally, but instead from the very outset. In order to sharpen itself, precision seems condemned to constantly relativize its claims to infallibility. For this reason, the meaning of precision, order, and systematicity are dependent, not least of all, upon the deviations, irritations, and adaptations resulting from their use.
The thesis that such mechanisms also operate in the art realm by shaping research into its own order will be outlined in this essay by referring to the works of Esther Stocker. The paintings, murals and installations of Stocker, based on grid structures and on the colors black, white, and gray, consistently manifest entanglements, interconnections, interpenetrations, both semantically and formally, for which the variably deployed grid motif functions as a metaphorical logo. Stocker consistently breaks with one-dimensional notions of order, space, and painting, while also posing the question of the possibility and the significance of order, space, and painting as contextual and relational factors and concepts. When an artist so persistently preoccupied with spatial structures and spatial experience, simultaneously calls attention to the fact that “we know nothing about space” (Stocker), then her stance would seem to testify to a productive skepticism which arises from unremitting and methodical attempts at understanding, and from insight into their — in principle — interminability.
The issue, then, is of negotiating the conditions and the fallibility of precision, or, in general terms, of an art questioning that which is apparently unquestioningly presupposed, as Stocker states with reference to W. V. Quine: “What kind of objects are those that we presuppose?” Quine’s actual reply to this question is: “Bodies, with certainty”1, whereby he immediately defines this certainty as a problem of linguistic definition: “To presuppose objects is a mental act, and mental acts are, as is well known, difficult to pin down […]. Thought processes can hardly be apprehended, unless, that is, we assign words to them […]. If we direct our attention to words, then that which was a problem of the presupposing of objects now becomes a problem of the linguistic reference to objects. Questions consisting of the presupposing of an object are questions consisting of the referencing of that object.”2 These remarks point us toward the intertwining of method and object in research discussed at the beginning of this essay, a relationship Quine circumscribes in a lapidary manner with different words: “Remaining is the, for its part, scientific fact that science forms a conceptual bridge, built by ourselves, through which the various sensory stimuli are connected to one another.”3 While Quine discusses the putative certainty of linguistic order and relates it to the sensory, Stocker interrogates the supposed certainty of sensual-visual orders in relation to their presuppositions, but not without anchoring them in the semiotic.
The shocks to authenticity and consistency staged in Stocker’s oeuvre do not merely circumscribe a work-immanent phenomenon, but instead involve additional spheres, because it also opens up to discussion the status of both the work and the medium of painting, with their material, spatial, and ideological contexts. Precisely because there can be no question of a final answer, whoever poses the question of space unavoidably involves, as a standard, the medium deployed into his or her calculations, along with the motivic vocabulary appearing in it, one which itself awaits a sounding out which can never be conclusive.
Not only the painted image and the painted room or spatial installation manifests systematically broken systems; the medium of painting itself represents such a system. For the spatial and grid systems contained in the paintings and the pictorial components recognizable in the installations not only thwart an unambiguous distinction between the painting of pictures and the painting of space, but also oppose a one-dimensional understanding of painting as a non-conceptual artistic technique. If that which is referred to here as painting manages entirely without color, and occupies and structures a variety of support media such as canvas, walls, and rooms, then painting appears as a free-floating system whose significance is codetermined by its respective locations, just as the specific meanings of concepts are always dependent upon that which is conceptualized. Painting, so to speak, darts past various contexts like a concept in which one is partially and temporarily caught up, one that simultaneously reshapes numerous connotations, and is hence recognizable in itself as a broken collective singular.
Just as painting always exists not just factually, but also conceptually, then the picture too — as the terrain most frequently associated with the medium — is no supra-temporal fact; instead, as a mobile artifact, it also bears within itself its historical, conceptual dynamic: “The picture in the concrete sense of the word is the product of history, and presents itself as a culturally determined form. Already the concept of the ‘image’ refers to an essentially movable, displaceable, and as such exchangeable object; an object which is amenable to private appropriation, and one which takes its place in the circulation of commodities.”4 Regarded in this way, each image is already the individual cell of a grid, one that is already oriented toward and dependent upon connectedness, both in the economic sense as well as in the context of the aesthetics and history of reception, and one, moreover, that is perpetually compelled to expose to discussion both its own order as well as all of its accumulated interpretations. The picture’s semantic horizon exposes itself in an unpredictable manner to the divergences or revaluations of its original intentions, those which, when considered with precision, bore their ambiguity within themselves from the beginning. Not unexpectedly, the picture winds up in the clutches of history; after all, it emerged from history in the first place. Moreover, even its attempt at overcoming this circumstance is not identical with the overcoming of painting as such. For the connection of painting to space, its detachment from the image, is not merely a flight forward, away from all painting, but involves just as much a retrospective link to the history of painting, as described by Hubert Damisch: “The decisive impulse to finish with the ‘panel painting’ corresponds to a high degree with the striving to reinvest painting with something of the necessity, even of the urgency, it possessed when it was inseparable as a product from the wall or the book from which it derived its contextual value.”5
By thematizing space in painting and painting in space, Stocker defines the necessity of painting as a constant transgression of boundaries, as a kind of systematically deployed medium for undermining historical and terminological orders. Even if painting continues to occupy walls and rooms alongside pictures, then its necessity is not grounded in its didactic function, as in periods dominated by the church and by feudalism; instead, its “contextual value” is derived precisely from its thematizing of its own context and of its own presuppositions.
However, for Stocker, definitions of space and the experience of language stand in an even more far-reaching relationship than is warranted by an understanding of painting as a conceptual system. Her own archive of citations elucidates this relationship, as when she relates her work to the following formulation from a handbook on semiotics: “In human semiosis, space is not just the frame of reference of the indexical vocabulary and a gesture of orientation, but instead also a fundamental dimension of the imagery of that vocabulary, for example of the emotions and of time.”6 For Stocker, space—not just as a physically measurable quantity, but also as a mental scenario, as a generator of language, as an instrumentarium for orienting social speech acts, as a medium for articulating the emotional and the nonlinguistic — is grounded in the structure of the dynamized grid. Her definition of the grid and of the gridded picture and space as an eloquent catalyst of linguistic semiosis is diametrically opposed to Rosalind Krauss’ classification of the grid as a place of silence: “The absolute stasis of the grid, its lack of hierarchy, of center, of inflection, emphasizes not only its anti-referential character, but — more importantly — its hostility to narrative. This structure, impervious both to time and to incident, will not permit the projection of language into the domain of the visual, and the result is silence. This silence is not due simply to the grid’s extreme effectiveness as a barricade against speech, but to its mesh’s protectiveness against all intrusions from outside. No echoes of footsteps in empty rooms, no scream of birds across open skies, no rush of distant water — for the grid has collapsed the spatiality of nature onto the bounded surface of a purely cultural object. With its proscription of nature as well as of speech, the result is still more silence.”7 Opposed in this remarkably poetic and allusive language to the narrative and the anthropomorphic, the grid functions in Krauss’s account as “a prison in which the caged artist feels at liberty.”8
The critical perspective of stereotyped orders pursued by Stocker’s grids seems, by contrast, to convey anything else but such carceral traits. For Stocker, unlike Krauss, the grid is not synonymous with inflexibility and rigidity, but is instead a motif related to release and to the effacement of boundaries. Her grids symbolize not the gesture of screening out, but instead rely far more on the “external intruders” incriminated by Krauss.
For while grid paintings open onto feigned spaces, Stocker’s installations create spatialized images into which viewers can physically enter. In the MUMOK installation, with its white bar forms set at equal intervals into the black surfaces of the floor, walls, and ceiling, viewers find themselves in the midst of a clearly structured picture space, one which seems to have found in the bars — which essentially frame an empty center — a spatialized picture frame. The visual appearance of this self-framing space is perpetually transformed by the viewer’s own movements and changing angles of vision. That seeing is not merely a physiological process of navigation, but instead a mode of dynamic interpretive behavior is adopted here as the point of departure for an art which signals mobility and displacement as the most concise, conceivable form of determination. The extent to which lucid structures can condition complex perceptual experiences has been directly stated by Robert Morris: “Simplicity of shape does not necessarily equate with simplicity of experience.”9 Or, in the language of systems theory: “The more a system reduces complexity, the more complex the system itself becomes.”10 This becomes especially obvious through the complex displacements which emerge when we contemplate the extraordinarily clear structures of this installation. Because the viewer’s movements constantly shift the orientation of the immovable bars in relation to the ceiling, the viewing or reading of order is experienced as a perspectival process in both the literal and metaphorical senses.
That which we know about space is inseparable from our visual experience of it.11 Our knowledge of space and its precise delimitations is accessible only via a detour through space; apparently self-evident assumptions are endowed with concrete meaning only through exploratory observation. Even in the very act of verification, one is able to observe an antecedent observation — only to become aware of being observed simultaneously by others, whom we, in turn, observe. To begin by questioning the assumptions underlying assumptions, and to then proceed by observing observation, are the complementary aspects of a precision whose orientation is toward the establishment of its own self-certainty — in the “eyes” of the viewer — via self-examination.
As on a stage, one arrives via the act of observing others (which, like oneself, always perceive the same as being different) and at a perception of self likewise as simultaneously actor and spectator. One is subject to a staging in which not only space is defined as processual, but one’s own identity as well. “Staging would be […] the unremitting attempt on the part of individuals to present themselves; for it permits […] the observation of the perpetual unfolding of potential otherness. The result is the internal dislocation of the individual, one that prevents him from coinciding with that within which he is displaced, but instead opens up to him the perceptibility of such a self-displacement. Only in such a staging can the individual merge with himself; staging, then, becomes the counter-figure to all transcendental determinations of the individual.”12 It is no accident that Stocker’s installation promote such experiences of identity, and in the tradition of enlightenment reflexivity. For the “perpetual unfolding of potential otherness” which she offers viewers is inscribed in her work as the most concise conceivable form of delimitation itself.
1 Willard Van Orman Quine, Theorien und Dinge, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 1991, p. 19 [trans. Ian Pepper]
2 Ibid., p. 11 f. [trans. Ian Pepper]
3 Ibid., p. 11 [trans. Ian Pepper]
4 Hubert Damisch, “Die List des Bildes,” in: Peter Weibel, Christian Meyer (ed.), Das Bild nach dem letzten Bild, Verlag Walther König, Cologne 1991, pp. 73–78, here: p. 74 [trans. Ian Pepper]
5 Ibid. [trans. Ian Pepper]
6 Winfried Nöth, Handbuch der Semiotik, Metzler, Weimar 2000, p. 283 [trans. Ian Pepper]
7 Rosalind E. Krauss, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, MIT Press, Cambridge (Mass.), London 1986, pp. 151–170, here: p. 158
8 Ibid., here: p. 160
9 Robert Morris, “Notes on Sculpture, Part 1,” in: Artforum, vol. 4, no. 6 (February 1966), pp. 42–44, here: p. 44
10 Henk de Berg, “Communication as a challenge to systems theory”, in: Canadian Review of Comparative Literature 24/1, 1997, p. 142 f.
11 The tension between knowledge and vision discussed by the exponents of Minimal Art, along with the solutions and attempts at harmonization proposed by contemporary gestalt psychology (Rudolf Arnheim) and by phenomenology (Maurice Merleau-Ponty) can be viewed today as independent historical stages of a methodical rapprochement: “There are two distinct terms: the known constant and the experienced variable. […] You see a shape—these kinds of shapes with the kind of symmetry they have—you see it, you believe you know it, but you never see what you know, because you always see the distortion and it seems that you know in the plan view” (Robert Morris, “Notes on Sculpture, Part 2,” in: Artforum, vol. 5, no. 2 (October 1966), pp. 20–23, here: p. 22). While Arnheim believed that the brain invariably compensated and corrected that which the eye perceives, Merleau-Ponty harmonized the difference in the medium of the body as the “flesh of the world” – a concept whose ahistorical ontological orientation justifiably attracted criticism, such as that by Norman Bryson, who argued that the body in Merleau-Ponty “is a unified, untroubled location of acrobatic elegance and of a perceptual harmony between subject and world and between object and world, where the incarnate subject fits itself exactly into the flesh of the world. And such a harmony between body and world is absent from any theory that recognizes that the sign inscribes a disturbance into this unity.” (Norman Bryson, “The Gaze in the Expanded Field. Discussion,” in: Hal Foster (ed.), Vision and Visuality (Discussions in Contemporary Culture, Number 2), Bay Press, Seattle 1988, p. 109, cited here from: David Clarke, “Der Blick und das Schauen – Konkurrierende Auffassungen von Visualität in der Theorie und Praxis der spätmodernen Kunst,” in: Gregor Stemmrich (ed.), Minimal Art – Eine kritische Retrospektive, Verlag der Kunst, Dresden 1995, pp. 678–708, here: p. 704 [trans. Ian Pepper]
12 Wolfgang Iser, Das Fiktive und das Imaginäre. Perspektiven literarischer Anthropologie, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 1991, p. 514 f. [trans. Ian Pepper]