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Siglinde Lang
“Beautiful, simply beautiful…”

Essay from Catalog from  Stein Verlag
published 2020

…is probably Barbara Höller’s least favourite comment on her work. This is understandable because it reduces her penetrating and polyvalent works to an aesthetic or, rather, the limited aesthetic perspective implicit in beautiful. In my opinion though, this “beautiful” as a perceptual position represents one central, and perhaps even inherent, challenge of her works.

 

In the discourse around her artistic oeuvre, however, the aesthetic aspect has been given very little weight and, indeed, it appears to run contrary to the attribution of beauty that is so readily accredited to it. Furthermore, this ascription may well be an attempt to articulate something which is difficult to put into words: the immediate gravitational pull, the pure, unmediated power that her works – in all their complexity, conceptual substance and experimentalism – exert.

 

Seen in the context of her long and extensive creative career, Barbara Höller exhibits a stringency and consistency that is a rare commodity in today’s art world. That is because she was, and is, not only an artist but always also a researcher – not in the sense of current trends though, but rather as one with a focussed interest and a systematic drive to research and explore. Her ways of working, which are at times analogous to scientific methods, correspond to her education as a visual artist specialised in painting and her (incomplete) course in mathematics. This duality is reflected in both her artistic and experimental, processual approach and forms the basis for her preference for, loosely speaking, grids, lines and geometric figures and a tendency which is also not difficult to recognise in the most recent series on interference – especially as it relates to structures, patterns and guiding principles.

 

In common usage interference refers to a reciprocal superimposition, a mutually determining intersection or an overlapping consisting of oppositions. On the other hand, the disciplines of physics and technology regard interference as the observable phenomena of the overlapping. This is evident in the concrete case of waves encountering one another. The central characteristic of this phenomenon are the alternating maximums and minimums of their intensity. Simplifying matters, the process of overlapping is either constructive, where the merging, colliding or shifting results in amplification, or destructive, where the overlaps cancel each other out or cause divergence. An overall picture emerges from this regulated reciprocity that merges all of this into a(n apparently) harmonious whole.

Serie Corner @ Artmark Gallery 2017

Harmony has always significantly influenced our understanding of aesthetics – from Plato to Baumgarten and including Kant – and denotes a unification or consolidating congruence of opposites and contradictions into a whole. Here, the emphasis is laid on the importance of harmony for mental and spiritual well-being, the feeling of the sublime and beautiful, where harmony means a congruity which is rather hidden away, almost indiscernible, but nevertheless directly perceivable. Perceiving or feeling harmony – when viewing a picture or art object, for example – causes a feeling of unity, simplicity and lightness, yes, even serenity and it allows us to experience and call something beautiful. Accordingly harmony can be understood as the aesthetic attraction exerted by Barbara Höller’s works: taking as the point of departure an explicit question or a particular focus of interest – in this case interference – the artistic method underpins the works with a subtle and defined set of rules that aligns the work process according to specific parameters. This is often derived from a mathematical or, rather, physical procedure. The interplay of these differing parameters set by a material or a geometric principle allows the innovative constellations to be tested in the field of tension created by the (apparent) contradiction and then bound together in a harmonious whole or overall picture. To want to reduce the objects that result from this regulated work process to their harmonious effect alone would run against the grain of complexity in Höller’s works and also entail a simplified interpretation of aesthetics. This is because, despite all the exploratory methodology, all the systematic immersion in an structured understanding of questions relating to materiality, spatial relationships or principles determined by geometry, a common thread that runs through her entire oeuvre is the parallel — and much relished — break with (her own) systematised procedures.

 

The significance of experimentation, playfulness and chance – links with the associated pleasure of outsmarting self-imposed systemic rules – characterises all her works and creative periods. Depending on the specific aspects of the initial question or the perspective taken, what becomes evident in her works is always a replication of what lies in between or, more precisely, what might possibly lie in between. This means that the increase in interstitial space, the compaction of colour depth or the game with geometrical indeterminacy only comes into being with, and through, the momentary uncontrolled process of creation which also references uncontrollability. Furthermore, this can be deduced from the essentially illogical and divergent that is hidden behind the surface and, consequently, the actual principle. These disruptions, often only minimal, are the result of analogue and physical present working methods, that is, the manual execution. As an artist, Höller breaks and disrupts the conceptually (often also digitally) created rules by chance, play, tentatively, intentionally but also in consciously rebellious and obstinately resistant mode.

Ring 2013 @Noedok St. Pölten 2015
This break is a central element of contemporary thought about aesthetics. It can be regarded as contradictory but also as supplementary i.e. interference in relation to harmony. As “a break in every straight line between cause and effect,” that enables “making the invisible visible” (Jaques Ranciere[1]) which generates a “shaking up of one’s own certainties” (Juliane Rebentisch[2]) this moment of interrupting and being interrupted allows us – as viewers and art recipients – to make a very direct and personal experience: we are rendered insecure. That is because that this is the moment when clear norms of interpretation dissolve and the conventional – and also self-imposed – schemata of categorisation and criteria of meaning lose their traction. For just a moment we lose our orientation. However, this loss in no way means that what is seen has no meaning. Quite the opposite: it means a “much more” (added value?). Just as Martin Seel [3] proposed “here is an abundance of sensory contrasts, interferences (sic!) and transitions    [ … ] here is an interaction of aspects comes into play that is perceptible via the senses and avoids any binding rules”. This sensory interaction is grounded in an intensification of our perception and provides the foundation for it. A “physical sensory presence” that currently implies “being in the moment” is initiated and suggests the pull that we are subject to when viewing and experiencing Barbara Höller’s works. By experiencing the loss of assignability and the tangible orientation grid – perhaps the origin of Barbara Höller’s preference for grids! – we are banished from exactly this “sensory interaction” but permitted to experience the “much more”. On the one hand we are being challenged to look and feel more carefully, invited to engage with the contradictory atmosphere of the materials, with the magic of broken lines, with the spell of the apparently harmonious fields of vibration and their divergent intensities. If we approach the aesthetic through the experience of the break, via latent phenomena, by means of the “visible becoming visible”, then that does not only enable us to comprehend the aesthetics of Barbara Höller’s work but perhaps allows us to argue why, when we look at her work, we say beautiful. We are touched at such an elemental level that we cannot express it in words and attempt to verbalise it with “beautiful, simply beautiful”.

[1]  Ranciére, Jacques (2009): Aesthetics and Its Discontents, Cambridge, UK

[2] Rebentisch, Juliane (2013): Theorien der Gegenwartskunst zur Einführung. Hamburg: Junius

[3] Martin Seel (2004): Aesthetics of Appearing (Cultural Memory in the Present). Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press

This essay by Siglinde Lang is based on a speech give at the opening of the exhibition, “Overlay” at the Gallery Göttlicher in Krems an der Donau in April 2018. Siglinde Lang is a free-lance cultural studies scholar, curator and lecturer. http://buero-kwp.net