Peter van Kester

At her recent solo exhibition, Heimat, Iris Eichenberg (1965) presented a brooch entitled Deutsch-land ist in Mädchen. The show itself was dominated by a wooden farmer's table, gnawed at by history, but beautifully constructed. The table turned out to come from a farm near Göttingen, the place where Eichenberg grew up. Just as most other citizens of the industrialized world, Eichenberg no longer lives in the house where she was born.

Some twenty years ago, the series Heimat was broadcast on German television. The series sketched out the changes undergone by the German countryside between 1919 and 1982. Taking a rural village in the Hunsrück as his starting-point, its director, Edgar Reitz, showed how history, apparently having stood still for a number of years, had suddenly started up again. Novelties, such as the radio, the telephone, and especially television, opened up the formerly closed-off rural community, and undermined the longstanding influence of both the church and of local customs. Pre-war poverty changed, almost imperceptibly, into wealth. Growing numbers of cars put an end to picturesque country lanes winding through the villages. Long stretches of motorway emerged

instead; much more efficient, of course, but lacking all charm. The first foreign workers arrived; the native population anxiously embarked on their first trips abroad, while the widely celebrated bearers of wealth, fertilizer, and pesticides, suddenly turned out to be a source of pollution. Reitz showed the ways in which capitalism ruthlessly altered and uglified daily life, while the character of the countryside gradually crumbled.

Ritz's universal epos undeniably also represented Eichenberg's world. The color and the stitches on her brooch - consisting of leather, canvas, silver, and hardboard - seem to refer to a farmer's jeans. In reality, however, they refer to the typically German Fachwerk houses, a building style that has been extensively, systematically, objectively – and hence impressively - documented by, i.a., Hilla and Bernd Becher. The canvas is covered with car tracks and tractor trails that evoke the harsh realities of daily life on a farm. The frayed, loose-hanging threads additionally stir up associations with the long hours of mending with which farmers' wives whiled away long winter evenings. This impression is strengthened by the four silhouettes that recall the refined art of Biedermeier clippings. They form the contours of reunited Germany, a shape in which a girl's head may be recognized: Deutschland ist in Mädchen…..in the distance, one hears Heine's Lorelei, but also Celan's Todesfuge (...es dunkelt nach Deutschland, dein goldenes Haar Margarete, dein aschenes Haar Sulamith.) The profiles appear to be cut out of the underlying material, but upon closer look, only the top and the bottom ones prove to correspond, as if East and West still do not fit together?

With this brooch - embodying a certain duality between the masculine and the ewig Weibliche as well - Eichenberg appears to inscribe herself into the collage tradition of the 1970s. Just as her compatriots Hilla and Bernd Becher, the French Anne and Patrick Poirier, as well as Christian Boltanski, she tries to recapture the traces of a gradually disappearing past; a practice for which art historians have coined the beautiful German term Spurensichering.

Like a sociologist, Suska Mackert (1969) bones out the role of jewellery. Using a variety of media including chains of office, decorations, and crown jewels - she explores the functions of jewellery in our urban civilization. In her video, To be on display' (2002), we see her patiently painting the logos of six multinationals, i.e., Bulgari, Cartier,Chopard, Piaget, Tiffany & Co., and Van Cleef&Arpels. In brushstrokes, she copies out the silver, gold, and black letters on a white surface. Painstakingly, like a monk. Sometimes the artist fills the image, sometimes the brush, but most of the time we see the logos themselves, slowly passing by, or awkwardly lighting up. The video lasts four minutes, but the tape unnoticeably runs on while the images start repeating themselves, generating an almost meditative quality, which is enhanced by the absence of sound. 

The contrast between this video and the flashy and dynamic world of the 'represented' corporations could hardly be more pronounced. The firms originate in France, Switzerland, Italy, and North America. Family businesses, founded by skilled artisans, silversmiths, gem setters, and clockmakers, who designed, among other things, fancy, diamond-studded watches. They introduced innovative, daring designs, which were eagerly embraced by royalty, nobility, industrials, and film stars alike. Their businesses expanded rapidly, as did the range of their products.

In the course of the twentieth century, these purveyors to the Royal Household became increasingly conservative, and today they signify tradition, convention, and security. But despite their quite dowdy designs, the quality of the materials they use remains superb. From their outlets in Paris, Rome, New York, and Tokyo - stores you can only get into by ringing the doorbell - these glamorous firms cater to the powerful, to film stars, and to the nouveaux riches of this world, who function as role models for the masses. They are imitated by millions of people who thus try to acquire an identity and lifestyle for themselves. These people buy jewellery and accessories that are not only lavish and expensive, but that are also, perhaps primarily, uncontroversial. They subject themselves to the strategies of the fashion world, as if they were non-stop on display, and take recourse to brand names and symbols. These large firms are today's most important jewellery-producers, a fact that Mackert not only respects, but also critically observes. For, in the final analysis, what they deliver is just afaçade. Is Mackert's video a critique of our mass-mediated world, in which one does not exist if one is not constantly in the picture? Warhol's famous "fifteen minutes of fame,' in an ongoing comédie humaine of reality soaps, idols-shows, Big Brother series, and lavishly displayed weddings and funerals of the rich and famous?

Employing her own, slow techniques, Mackert places these firms in a different context, puts them on display, as it were. She puts lifestyles into perspective that ultimately are no more than empty shells, mere surfaces. These sacrosanct, established logos are suddenly rendered vulnerable by the way they are represented. If Mackert were not working with such precision and devotion, one might suspect the whole thing to be a parody. The video's plainness precludes such a conclusion, however. The artist's meditative journey into luxury is not merely critical; it also leaves a great deal of room for the respect she feels for these firms.

Untitled (2004) is the name of Célio Braga's (1965) installation. This wax sculpture measures approximately 1,5 by 3 meters, and evokes a range of associations. Not with Madame Tussaud's panopticum, immortalizing the idols of our time. Braga works with the moldings of familiar forms, with words even. Keith Haring comes the mind, the graffiti artist who died of Aids, and covered walls with comic book figures restlessly circling one another. But whereas Haring primarily used dynamic patterns, Braga's installation emanates a sense of quiet, the lines forming linear, almost static patterns. Braga's major source of inspiration appears to be the Cuban-American artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres, who died of Aids in 1996, aged 38. Like Braga, Gonzalez-Torres used the abstract form principles of minimal art, but deployed them to express personal emotions.

Is there any systematicity to this floor-image? In addition to closed forms, Braga has used open ones, the result being a playful variation on realistic and more stylized components. One finds hearts, manikins, pricks, and organs, including bowels, stomachs, and livers. Commodities too: small scissors, necklaces, (wedding) dresses, a shoe, a hammer, bottles, and latticework resembling architectural drawings or parts of do-it-yourself kits. The viewer furthermore detects religious symbols, such as pierced hearts, a crown of thorns, a pyramid, and skeletons. Some shapes appear repeatedly, such as the hearts and the manikins. Others are ambivalent: what appear to be pricks might also be scissors, or condoms; necklaces resemble chains. Upon inquiry, I learn that they are mainly medicine jars and perfume bottles, human organs, instruments of torture, and religious symbols.

Braga's wax sculpture additionally calls forth associations with materials that were liquid before they solidified into form. Ceramics, for instance, or glass. Pieter Stockmans' ritualistic, ceramic fields come to mind, or Antony Gormley's crawling installations. At the same time, however, the sculpture resembles lacework that in its turn recalls Braga's own work with shirts from friends, which he pressed into abstract, organic sculptures.

The rectangular shape of the image turns it into a charnel field, harboring the remains of the faceless dead. The sheet of glass suspended above a section of the installation looks like a tombstone. The clouded sky hanging over the work, which is reflected in the glass sheet, functions as a third layer. Top and bottom are related, for the same forms recur repeatedly, often in mirror image. Are we dealing with the symbolism of upper- and underworld, the here-and-now and the hereafter? It is characteristic of Braga's work, which always serves to explore the theme of layeredness. He carves into paper to expose its underlying layers; he spreads wax and plaster onto walls, sticking hairs into them. This skin-like approach gives his work a physical quality.

Everything in this wax sculpture refers to love, sexuality, illness, suffering, death, and religion. There even appears to be an explicitly named person involved: Yours Ricardo, it says, in carved out, negative letters, as if the person in question has evaporated. More names pop up in the installation, names of deceased friends, lovers, and acquaintances. And yet, the work is called Untitled.

The floor-image is a contemporary memento mori, a frozen homage to the artist's dead friends, an allegory on the vulnerability of human life. As if Braga pierces through the futility of fashion and lifestyles, the façade of imaginary security, liquid as wax.


Textured Inscriptions

Renée C. Hoogland

A triptych. A triptych of three pictures, representing works of art that also consist of multiple parts. Célio Braga's sculpted sheets of paper actually form a triptych in and of themselves, although they are vertically rather than horizontally arranged – which would be the more usual constellation. As the first of the three works of art assembled here, Braga's contribution thus immediately plavs havoc with tradition. But in relation to one another, too, these three pictures make up an unruly unity. Neither Braga's work, nor that of Suska Mackert, which would form the third panel' in a classical triptych, functions as a side-compartment that could, if necessary, be folded over the centrepiece, the "panel' featuring Iris Eichenberg's work. These compartments cannot and will not be folded onto one another: they do not comply with an artistic tradition that gives material shape to the weighty concept of the (Holy) Trinity in the form of an altar-piece. The two side compartments do not serve as margins to set off a center, so that these three images, each already defying the rules of internal unity, do not readily cohere either. By not suggesting mutual comparability, similarity, or agreement, and yet presenting themselves in ostensible unison, these works do not wish to forge metaphorical relationships with one another. They rather link up with an earlier, ancient tradition of triptychs, in which metonymical interrelations prevail; i.e., metonymical in the wider sense of the term, designating the process of association by which metonvmies are produced and understood. The three panels would then seem to function as a kind of writing tablets, loosely hinged together, their inscriptions associatively linking up with one another, becoming interconnected through sheer contiguity.

This impression is strengthened by the fact that each work employs a particular sign system. Since the early days of semiotics (the systematic study of signs), pioneered by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure and the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, the sign has been regarded as a basic element of any form of communication. A sign may be of a linguistic nature - a letter or word - or non-linguistic, including pictures, images, articles of dress, as well as bodily postures and gestures, rituals, types of food, even buildings; in other words, anything that can be construed as having a meaning that is shared by and conveyed to members of a particular culture. The Saussure's major insights have been of decisive influence on 20th-century critical theory, from semiotics to literary theory, from anthropology to psychoanalysis.

One such insight concerns de Saussure's idea that every sign consists of two inseparable components: the signifier, which is the materially perceptible element, e.g., a sound or written mark, and the signified, i.e., the concept or idea that is the meaning of the sign. Another staple of semiotic theory involves the relationship between these two aspects of the sign. According to de Saussure, the relationship between signifier and signified is unmotivated, or arbitrary, for based purely on social convention, rather than on natural necessity. There is, after all, nothing about a horse that demands that it be called horse,' since the French call the same thing a cheval. De Saussure's theory, incidentally, delib- erately leaves out the referent or real external object referred to by the sign.

A third assumption of semiotics concerns the ways in which the vast collection of dissimilar, "arbitrary' signs function within various sign systems. With regard specifically to verbal signs, de Saussure claims that the identity of all the elements in a language - including words, their component speech sounds, and the concepts they signify – are not determined by 'positive qualities,' or objective features in the elements themselves, but by differences, by their respective positions within a network of relationships, relationships that in their turn consist of distinctions from or oppositions to other speech sounds, other words, and other signifiers obtaining within a particular linguistic system. A simple example would be the so-called binary oppositions, pairs of signs that signify only through their mutually opposed position in relation to each other, e.g., night/day/, thin/fat, tall/short, or, some- what less innocently: good/bad, man/woman, straight/gay, white/black, young/old. Although de Saussure's ideas primarily pertain to verbal language, they immediately come to mind when one is confronted with this triptych.

The traditional triptych of ancient times is perhaps most forcefully evoked by Braga's paper sculpture, in that it presents itself as a series of tables or tablets, inversely inscribed with innumerable markings. Employing a three-dimensional visual idiom, Braga also recalls schematic charts of organic growth processes, as they commonly appear in biology books. Meticulously carved-out half-moon shapes join up with a range of undulating lines to organize themselves into a pointed relief of intertwining stems, petals, and veins. The flowing lines, as well as the precision with which these myriad small figures are formed, suggest a certain harmony, an almost too charming sweetness, which is at once undercut by the organo- graphic quality of the image as a whole. The brutality with which the three parts of the relief are cut off from one another strengthens my impression that a naturalistic perspective is highly inappropriate here. Indeed, the razor-sharp edges of the sheets of paper, and the white spaces separating them, force me to abandon my desire for 'natural' unity, for organic growth, and for self-sufficiency, and to acknowledge the arbitrariness of this pictorial language, and thus of the meanings it generates. The employed technique of embossing equally confirms that I am not looking at a reassuring, if schematic representation of 'natural' growth, but rather confronting an ironic reflection on the arbitrary nature of signifying practices as such. The work's third dimension, emerging from the paper's flat surface in the shape of meandering, interconnecting lines and forms, echoes a practice primarily employed with linguistic sign systems. Embossing, as a technique, has traditionally served to press out a person's proper name and/or address on envelopes or sheets of (writing) paper. The visual reference to embossed (writing) paper is, however, critically shifted by the substitution of the standardized signs of the alphabet with those of an equally abstract visual and formal language.

The suggestion of ostensible 'naturalness' and organic growth is extended in Iris Eichenberg's two installations, appearing side by side in the central 'panel' of this triptych. On the left hand side, we see a number of twigs protruding from the wall, from which three pairs of knitted, pink woolen breasts are dangling, resembling small saddlebags. The duplication of the traditional trinity - breasts, after all, generally come in pairs undermines the symbolism of established convention: the metaphorical value of the number three is substituted by the metonymy of the series,of objects being strung together, of contiguous relationships. I am not looking at the umpteenth picture of the perfect Female Breast, functioning as a pars pro toto of the desired Other; these breasts do not allow themselves to be objectified by my gaze. Does it matter that I know Braga-who, while breaking up its unity, ultimately retains the evocative tripartite structure in his installation – to be a man, and Eichenberg to be a woman? Is it a coincidence that my encounter with these woolen breasts immediately calls to mind the title of Luce Irigaray's famous feminist classic, Le Sexe qui n'en est pas un? Perhaps, but that does nothing to detract from the fact that it is also through their specific shape and their materiality that these small woolen sag-bags defy the traditional visual language in which sexual difference and female embodiment generally take shape.

In their function as signs, Eichenberg's wool-forms shift the relationship between signifier and signified: these drooping breasts do no signify the ultimate Other, the mysterious, fascinating, yet scary female body, waiting to be mastered by the (male) gaze. On the contrary, failing to meet established standards of beauty, these inseparable objects - warm and familiar in their fluffy tactility – almost feel like one's own, and thus refuse to be anything other than themselves; they defy metaphorization. The technique that went into their making reinforces the familiarizing effect of the material. Knitting, a homey, everyday activity, is usually seen as a typical, and therewith reassuringly, "feminine' or, better, still: motherly - practice. A time-consuming, unspectacular process, in which one loop is strung onto the next. Yet, it is precisely this suggested reassuring quality that also produces a sense of discomfort. The shift in the relation between the components of the sign is put into effect in the process of the work's making. Considered 'improper' to established artistic practice, the technique of knitting as such foregrounds the arbitrariness, the fundamental unmotivated character, of the interrelation between the signifier and the signified, and therewith equally fundamentally calls into question the validity of the dominant sign systems in which sexual differences are metaphorically constructed.

Formal elements connect the picture on the right hand side of Eichenberg's 'panel' to the one on the left hand side. We see a large number of twigs - comparable to the ones supporting the woolen breasts - that appear to be sprouting through a wall. The doubling-up in the first image shifts into multiplication. The twigs appear to be spilling over the picture's edges; it seems that, in addition to the ones we can see, there must be many more, invisibly branching out over the wall, disappearing into the distance.

On the face of it, my idea of a sign system here seems to be falling apart: the twig-ends fan out in a deliberately unsystematic manner. Long and short, thick and thin, they sprout through the wall at random intervals, almost in the way a real tree grows, branching out, showing its capricious outline against the sky. Once again, however, it is the material quality of the work, as much as the employed technique, which prevent me from reading this 'tree' metaphorically. There is nothing natural, or organic about this tree. The twig-ends are topped off with pink or white wax, precluding any potential growth. If there ever was something natural about this twig-installation, it has been given short shrift by human hand. No more than the woolen breasts, do these twigs represent something else. It rather appears that the installation forms a literal actualization of a family tree, a system of kinship relations that presents itself as self-evident, 'natural' even, but is ultimately founded on nothing more and nothing less than a set of quite arbitrary, as well as historically changing social conventions.

The topped-off twigs appearing in both of Eichenberg's installations newly confront me with the direct link between established kinship relations and the traditional gender system underlying them. The literalness, the tactile quality of the materials used in both installations, the clash between recognition and familiarity on the one hand, and estrangement and a sense of unease on the other - equally implied by the perceptible manufacturing process - affect the deployed sign systems in a way similar to what happens in the simultaneous utilization and inversion of other, yet equally conventional sign systems, in Braga's work. The existence of such systems is acknowledged, eagerly embraced even. Their effective operations and their signifying power are reinscribed. A radical disruption of established patterns of thought, a calling into question of all "naturalized' processes of becoming, however, is realized in the choice of materials, and in the manner of their treatment. Braga eventually stays within the bounds of the sign systems he employs, by severing them from the inside, disconnecting them internally. The interrelated kinship systems interrogated by Eichenberg, in contrast, are literally turned inside out. The overarching network of social relations in which they obtain, is furthermore allowed to run across the boundaries of the image, to disappear into space, as if there were no boundaries at all.

That such boundaries do, indeed, exist, and that they operate in a manner that is at once compelling, constraining, and regulating, as well as structuring and significatory, is retroactively confirmed by the installation appearing in the third compartment of this triptych. Suska Mackert's work reintroduces the concept of the trinity, by giving it literal shape in the form of three lines of text, vertically arranged, as if they were printed on ruled paper. The smooth operation of such rules is brutally disrupted, however, since the second line starts with a gap, so that the symmetry, the unity of the image, is immediately undermined. The frames - rectangular gray lines forming eleven boxes within which cutout red letters arrange themselves into words - turn out not to behave as orderly as it may first seem either. Some encapsulate a single word, others two, vet others merely accommodate part of a compound. But am I actually looking at an image here, or am I in the first instance dealing with the sign system regarded by semioticians as the most refined, complex, and sophisticated, i.e., verbal language? Should I read this sentence, in German - Auf dem Boden kniet ein Arbiter und befestigt Klebestreifen unter einem roten Teppich – comprehensively in order to do it, as well as the installation as a whole, justice? Or should I rely on my perceptual experience of an image, the visual encounter with neatly aligned, brightly red, cutout shapes, distributed among equally orderly arranged grey-lined surfaces, which, in their turn, cohere into a regular, almost static constellation?

It is, perhaps, precisely in the impossibility to answer such questions that I may find a wav through, and at the same time forge a connection with my previous comments. The precision and scrupulousness with which the installation has been composed, the formal agreement between the block letters and the block-shaped frames, as well as the rectangular outline of the entire image, jointly force me consciously to reflect upon materiality of the arbitrary signs that I usually, almost unthinkingly, interpret as conceptually more or less unequivocal. Suddenly, the self-evident connection between signifier and signified is lost. Paradoxically, this effect is most palpable when the one seems literally to coincide with the other, when the signified literally materializes itself in the signifier, i.e., in the word roten, lighting up in its brightly red color from within the penultimate frame.

Having reached this point, I realize that I have, unconsciously, obediently been playing by the rules: I have been reading from left to right, from top to bottom, expecting to receive a meaningful statement in the course of this process. The semantic dimension of language - as distinct from the semiotic one - does, after all, only obtain on the level of the sentence;

meaning arises from the sequence of signs linking up with each other to cohere into a conceptually valid, comprehensible statement. Yet, is this what this work wants from me? Should I not rather allow myself to be addressed by its form, and by the materiality of its composition? These qualities equally unavoidably impose themselves, powerfully and instantaneously, and therewith defy both the sequential character and the durative aspect of linguistic processes. This work does not leave me a choice between either one or the other. In my encounter with this installation both spatial-temporal dimensions operate simultaneously, and in the clash between them, I can hear the echoes of the two other works represented in this triptych. The irreducible, and at the same time indivisible, character of the two dimensions, of signifier and signified, on the one hand underscores the arbitrary, conventional nature of any sign whatsoever, and, on the other, confronts me with the impossibility to escape from the meaning-producing effects of signification per se.

If Mackert, perhaps even more so than Braga or Eichenberg, demonstrates the fundamental arbitrariness of signs, as well as their lack of positive qualities,' it is because she has chosen willfully to exploit a sign system that can only operate and sustain itself by grace of its presumed 'naturalness.' A system, moreover, without which no form of human relations seems conceivable: from interpersonal relations to all kinds of social and societal relationships, it is only within language that differentiated positions and mutual interrelations acquire meaning and materialize. It hardly needs pointing out that only a system taken to the highest level of abstraction is capable of producing such complex, at once unifying and differentiating effects, and to live up to them in all their materiality.

Due to the fact that the words, Auf dem Boden kniet ein Arbiter und befestigt Klebestreifen unter einem roten Teppich, are separated from one another in a rather arbitrary manner, that they are framed, and laid out in red letters, I am newly aware of the conventional character of this abstract, and comprehensive sign system. At the same time, however, these letters arranging themselves into words that, in their turn, string into a sentence, do not, their estranging and alienating effects notwithstanding, allow me to liberate myself from the coercive nature of the larger, overarching systems of signification that I have earlier also encountered with Braga and Eichenberg, and that are here, quite literally, spelled out. These are not just words, randomly placed together. Semantically, they refer to a system of power relations in which different individuals can and must take up highly different positions in order to give meaning and material shape to the network of interrelations making up society. The laborer positions himself through his actions as the subordinate of the dignitary for whom the red carpet is being laid out. The red carpet's strictly symbolic value – even dignitaries usually have no problem walking on concrete or cobblestones - underscores the conventional character of such hierarchical power relations. The significance of established class relations does no more result from a 'natural order things' than the (un)holy trinity, or the binary, oppositional relations between the sexes.

Have I defied my own starting-points, by, in reflecting upon this triptych, eventually succumbing to the temptation of interpretation? Have I fallen into the trap of a metaphorical reading by forging conceptual links three 'panels' that I initially would not and could not approach as a coherent unity? If so, this would be the ultimate confirmation of the 'message' that I have involuntarily attempted to distil from these "panels.' I nonetheless suspect that I have only been able to pursue my course in the simultaneous encounter with the three works together; that my observations have only been able to converge, along associative rather than logical lines, by way of the metonymical relations these distinct, incomparable installations, deliberately or reluctantly, take up with one another. Arbitrary? Well.