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Revealing and concealing
Sabine Folie

Susanna Fritscher’s Transitive Pictorial Spaces

Revealing-concealing, that is theatricality. (1)
Jean-François Lyotard

At first glance, the spaces within which Susanna Fritscher’s art is sited appear as mere spaces, as architecture. Her statements – or should we call them interventions? – are discreet. Although they are actually quite com­plex, we perceive them as minimalist. Although they appear reserved, even neutral, they are nevertheless subtly ‘conspicuous’, ‘distracting’. (2) They are not intended to be objects that are set down in a space. Instead, the ‘paintings’ connect with the space in a mimetic way, so that the space and the picture become one, almost indistinguishable from each other, and yet the crucial interface lies in the in-between, where the painting appears as space . Yet, the space and the painting reveal themselves as being different, as the real and the medium. The space becomes pictorial, the painting becomes spatial. But above all, it seems impossible to decide whether the ‘work’ is a painting, an architectural intervention, a painting, a functional display or a sculpture. We see and we don’t see; the effect is subliminal, since it is not clear at first glance what is at work here. Or as Richter puts it: ‘You see everything and perceive nothing’. (3)

Fritscher refers prosaically to ‘painting on acrylic glass’ or ‘painting on Etfe’; we can therefore assume that these are pictures and in the broadest sense paintings. These are paintings that look like walls or call our atten­tion to actual walls by acting as wall-facings. In other words, they are paintings that paradoxically function as panels and like walls, almost cancelling themselves out as paintings in this mimetic act. This ‘almost’ is crucial, since it marks a boundary, a boundary that refers to the in-between – in between the real material wall as a piece of architecture and the ‘doppel­ganger’ painting as a transitive moment – thus generating the illusion of homogeneity but, at the same time, making it clear that there is a wall. The panel, the painting, therefore refers to nothing other than itself, but in doing this, by becoming opaque, it refuses transparency, the lack of which only then becomes evident.

Since the Renaissance, picture theories have operated at the conflictual interstice between transparency and opacity. Since Alberti, the picture has been considered a window, an image of that which is on the other side of the window, of the frame, and is thus an image of reality. This theory assumes the possibility of the representability of reality. Ideally, whatever is in the picture coincides with what is behind it; reality and image are not ontologically but at least visually identical except for their materiality; full transparency is guaranteed. The painted surface is negated within the transparency effect of the view; thus the medium is secondary; it ‘disappears during execution’, thus fulfilling its function. (4)

Modernism was one art movement – but not the first – but it was above all, postmodernism that framed the issue of representation differently and prioritised the medium via which the image is mediated. The image can always only be an illusion of reality; the medium therefore becomes the image of itself, it becomes manifest. The painted surface becomes visible, acting as a distraction, drawing attention to the interdependency between view/transparency and concealment/opacity, allowing these to come to the fore. Thus the nature of the surface of the painting only becomes vis­ible when it becomes opaque, when it is subject to the effect of the opacity. Paradoxically, something ‘manifests itself’ through this obfuscation.

The actual picture represents nothing other than itself: the picture is the picture and as such is just colour, surface, flatness and materiality – as proposed by Clement Greenberg who thus sowed the seeds of modernist picture criticism. The self-critical picture assumed by Clement Greenberg was the square picture; in Fritscher’s world, this is transformed into a panel-like format, with acrylic glass, a mirror, the wall itself or the floor as the support rather than canvas. And the paint does not come from a palette or a tube, but is poured out in the form of silicon or is sprayed. This spray application (thus subject to a kind of aleatoricism, yet systematic in the way it treats the colour spectrum, which – together with the space – is the actual subject) is a process that, coincidentally, was not only made acceptable by Pop Art and Minimal Art but was also necessary for lib­eration from the confines of the authentic brushstrokes of conventional painting created by the genius, and also includes modernist painting. This type of authorial signature and any reference to authorship are to be avoided. One of these movements – Pop Art – concentrated on the world of commodification; the other – Minimal Art – looked to, among other things, the monochrome in diverse formats. The monochrome plane refers to nothing; represents nothing. The paradigm of modernism, the opacity of the pictorial surface in the self-critical picture, which no longer presents an open window – at least not outwardly from the perspectival viewpoint with the intention of portraying a representative picture – no longer pro­vides this perspective and view. At best, it illustrates the inner self of the viewer, a view that is projected back upon itself, via the opaque, im­penetrable plane, upon the constructed nature of the picture, upon the medium. It is precisely the interplay between transparency and opa­city, central to image and media theory that concern Fritscher, especially since she also makes use of video and sound media; these two elements each have diverse effects in very different and specific ways. (5) The translucent and ubiquitous reflective plates or panels, which divide, modulate and structure the spaces, are placed in front of walls; they are not quite transparent but, equally, not quite opaque. They reject the viewer’s glance and imply the other side of diaphanous, transparent visual surfaces. ‘ For Aristotle, the diaphanous is not just a characteristic, an accident of the media but is in fact the media itself. Aristotle’s transparency, in the sense of current transparency, was itself a crucial preparation for the virulent figure of successful communication or “aisthetic neutrality”’. (6) What lies behind it is rarely static, since the panels are positioned mostly within the space, and not hung on the wall like pictures so that something can ‘take place’ behind them. Here, there is space to saunter, discover, conjecture, test. The repudiative visual surface prevents the transparency effect that Matisse and Turner criticised with such vociferousness. It is helpful at this point to cite an extract from Sylwia Chomentowska’s insights in Das Bild als Paradox (The Image as Paradox): ‘Matisse notes that the viewer should not engulf himself or herself in the picture, in the trans­parency effect; he or she should ‘meet’ the picture, which, as a result, becomes a quasi-equal subject. (7) The act of ‘picture criticism’ is thus not only to be situated within the viewer’s view – through a complex interweaving of literal and metaphorical transparency – it also occurs beyond the scope of any subject-object hierarchy. (8) She also cites Turner – here, acting in the field of picture criticism – who noted that ‘representation is swal­lowed up by extreme brightness’ and that ‘A systematic piercing of the representational other, of the ‘mystic shell of colour’, to create a ‘transitive dimension’, is (in Turner’s words) ‘sacrilege’. The picture is severed from its indeterminacy; it is completely subsumed by the viewer and his or her representational projections, and is, even then, still a ‘not yet’ in the images of his or her imagination.’ (9) It is precisely this act of and need for projection that the viewer faces in front of and between the panels in the spaces of Susanna Fritscher.

These are spaces nuanced with colour, within which any boundaries – almost imperceptibly – are merged, submerged; the ground beneath our feet is lost in the reflective planes of silicon that unsettle the limbic system, invert the world and turn everything upside down. The space floats within colour, projections and voices. When the voices do not intrude, it is a relatively free, even peaceful, unoccupied space, unmolested by rules or attributions. When the voices are present, the space becomes, for the most part, a theatrical zone of resonance. The space is composed of relative emptiness and does not lend itself to occupation except via temporary presence and interaction. It disappears into itself again and again, an empty ‘ocean chart’, an ‘absolute blank’ (Lewis Carroll). The emptiness essentialises the space; it manifests itself in the structure, the architecture – or does it really? At times it seems as if all the parameters of the Euclidean space have been removed, that boundaries have been blurred, that the space has developed out into the image, its depth into the plane, transferred into flatness. With regard to Quattrocento painting, Louis Marin formulates the special role played by architecture in the picture, which behaves in exactly the opposite manner in Fritscher’s case: ‘One of the most prominent figures in this metaphoric and metonymic entity [an entity that has the means to demonstrate how that which is represented mediates itself as that which is representative, which is self-aware] is undoubtedly architecture. Architecture, which although portrayed in the painting as one of several persona of the narrative, as one of several configurations of the framing of the scene and the ornamentation of the action, constitutes, nonetheless, in the same gesture and through the same process, the structure of the representation in which it is contained, presenting itself, exposing its function, displaying its finalities; en bref, demonstrating its architectural nature in all its effects and states.’ (10) Here, Louis Marin distinguishes between the transitive and the reflexive as support material,which is transparent and shows that the representation represents something, on the one hand, and the effect, the moment of opacity, which demonstrates that the representation is represented as something representative, on the other.

The translucence or semi-transparency of Susanna Fritscher’s panels reveals and conceals; it does not simulate an illusion within which the medium could disappear as a ‘successful execution’; it does not ensure any imme­diacy behind which the medium could retreat, neutralise itself. Instead the panels are ‘visible’ as a medium and thus they are self-referential and question the concept of representability; they depict nothing. Instead they display resistance in a mode of iridescence, of oscillation. The paintings or panels are not self-sustaining: they are indexical; they can only refer, with reference to their materiality – mirror, glass, film – which is reflective as well as translucent or transparent. But even if the materiality, which replaces traditional supports such as wood or canvas, were transparent, this would not be its defining characteristic – it would also be opaque, in the way that glass reflects, depending on the incident light and back­ground. In order to have a referential character, the picture (in this case, the panel) would have to be ‘conspicuous’, opaque – if it were transparent, it would not be visible; the object to be depicted and the image would be apparently congruent and the message thus obsolete. The conspicuousness is thus a condition of the possibility of being apprehended as a sign, behind which ‘something’ is visible: ‘In order to be able to function as equipment for indicating in their referential structures, signs must retreat into the background, in order to allow their ‘message’ to be transparent: The sign is not actually “apprehended” when we stare at it as if it were indicator-equipment that occurs. However, signs must be evident to the extent that they can be identified as such in the first place.’ (11)

Since the 1960s, Gerhard Richter has devoted himself to this dual referential character of the picture in detailed studies and works in his glass paintings and panes of glass. These works are transparent, translucent and yet also reflective. Richter also works with mirrors where pigment has been applied to the glass, creating a reflective, opaque plane. In a discussion of Gerhard Richter’s installation Acht Grau (Eight Grey, 2002), Benjamin H. D. Buchloh refers in an illuminating essay to a pittura immaculata, a painting in which the pigment and support fuse together to form a perfect surface; he comments: ‘When the cult of the immaculate surface extends into spatial and architectural dimensions, these contradictions [between perfection and repression] are intensified even further. Now it is no longer just the fetishistic object that captivates the viewers, it is the entire space, the “environment” that surrounds the viewers in a web of phe-nomenological mirror-reflection. The narcissistic object-relation of the viewers is now extended onto a spatial line within which viewers can constitute themselves in the reflection and, at the same time, be observed and monitored by this reflection.’ (12) In this regard Buchloh refers to the immaterial nature of glass throughout its entire history as a construction material and its special place in modernism, the ambivalence between forbearance, the crystalline, demystification, monitoring and control – the tension between the inward transparency and the outward reflective opacity: in corporate buildings, for example. Essentially, the issue at hand is what art has brought to architecture since the advent of modernism; in extreme cases this only becomes evident in the guise of industrial design and is thus at the mercy of consumption-based aesthetic affirmation. According to Greenberg, this heralded the end of painting as far back as the 1940s, resulting in the loss of autonomy, which was more or less absorbed into architecture.

Susanna Fritscher’s works distract us from their own nature as objects and their fetishisation and direct us towards the phenomenological con­nection between the viewer and the space or spatial architecture. Reading Fritscher’s spatially arranged works as purely aesthetic, self-referential positions (which they also are) would be misguided; they are – in their own way – politically charged. The self-referentiality produces aesthetic re­sistance and, if the issue were affirmation in relation to the functional interplay with architecture, in this case critical affirmation, a critical game of hide-and-seek between a combative adherence to autonomy – through which the ‘picture’ ‘indicates’ itself and thus paradoxically also architecture in its ‘Being as it is’, and is not absorbed in it or, in a worst-case scenario, degenerates into mere ornamentation – and its disclosure, in this case, when it presents itself as a relational work of art in its intrinsic architectural context and can only do this by not concealing itself, by asserting itself as a statement.

The austere theatre of Susanna Fritscher is organised within this dual referentiality located between autonomy and heteronomy, between transparency and opacity. In museum spaces, it reframes the mediality of the relationship between space and image, display and surface, in public buildings, through its modularity, for example, it reflects more critically upon the inherent constraints of the system and through the use of colour it ‘treats’ normally repressive large-scale projects in a way that can be described, simply, as fundamentally human.

1 Jean-François Lyotard. ‘Acinema’ in: Jean-François Lyotard, Andrew Benjamin, The Lyotard Reader, Oxford: Blackwell, 1989.
2 See Rautzenberg, Wolfsteiner, Hide and Seek, Munich: Fink, 2010. Heidegger’s deliberations in Being and Time and Off the Beaten Track are used in this discussion. In his two works, Heidegger introduces the concept of ‘the conspicuous, the obstinate’, which is necessary to get to the bottom of the truth, pp. 9–21.
3 Quoted in Sylwia Chomentowska, ‘Das Bild als Paradox. Warum Munch verdoppelt, Matisse auf der Schwelle steht und Richter farbig spiegelt’, in: Rautzenberg, Wolfsteiner, Hide and Seek, p. 63.
4 See Rautzenberg, Wolfsteiner: Hide and Seek, p. 11.
5 Fritscher’s voice works involve not only human bodies – and therefore viewers – in the space, but also language as expressed in spoken text. The voices overlap, like a palimpsest, filling the space as they reach a crescendo. Snatches of words and sentences, and thus also the texts discussed here, can be heard within the cacophony of voices. The space itself becomes the motif: its territorial dimensions, the requirements placed upon the space, its adherence to building laws and regulations, the politics of the space. The forgotten and subsequently rediscovered film version of Beckett’s Play from 1963, which the playwright created with Marin Karmitz in 1966, is an example of such a cacophony in which the voice is used as a sound instrument and determines the beat, yet its function as disseminator of meaning and sense is lost in the incomprehensible chanting and monotone hissing. Fritscher’s voice and video works require specific consideration and cannot be examined in any further detail here. See Rautzenberg, Wolfsteiner: Hide and Seek, p. 11. See Philippe-Alain Michaud’s essay in BLANC DE TITRE BLANK OF TITLE, The art of Susanna Fritscher, Springer Verlag, 2012, p. 198.
6 In their introduction to Hide and Seek, Rautzenberg and Wolfsteiner refer to the concept of aisthetic neutrality, a term used by Sybille Krämer in her essay ‘Erfüllen Medien eine Konstitutionsleistung? Thesen über die Rolle medientheoretischer Erwägungen beim Philosophieren’, p. 12. For more on this topic, see also Emmanuel Alloa, Das durchscheinende Bild. Konturen einer medialen Phänomenologie, Zurich: Diaphanes, 2011.
7 Sylwia Chomentowska, ‘Das Bild als Paradox’, p. 58.
8 Ibid., pp. 58–59. Chomentowska is referring to Matisse’s Écrits et propos sur l’art, Paris: Hermann, 1972.
9 Ibid., p. 59.
10 Louis Marin, Das Opake der Malerei. Zur Repräsentation im Quattrocento, Berlin: Diaphanes, 2004, p. 105.
11 Rautzenberg, Wolfsteiner: Hide and Seek, p. 14 with reference to Heidegger, Being and Time.
12 Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, ‘Gerhard Richters Acht Grau: zwischen Vorschein und Glanz’, in: Gerhard Richter: Acht Grau 2002, New York/Berlin: Guggenheim Museum Publications, 2002, p. 27. Many thanks to Ilse Lafer for the Buchloh reference.