FOR THE TIME BEING
– thoughts on Bärbel Praun’s work
– from the series "office figures"
That a corner, or any other kind of angle, can be used to create a sensation of space, is immediately apparent. The difference – which a corner creates between one surface and another – is needed. It doesn’t just come in handy. The bottom edge of a wall with the panel reaching down to the floor can also be useful. Anything will do actually. Appropriated by the artist, small holes or even cracks in the wall create an X. A trait from which meaning can spring. The questions for a viewer then become: What is the take-away here? What can be drawn from this? Is something being said? How can this praxis be framed and what might I then end up saying about it, framing it? While it simultaneously says something (back) about me and my ways of seeing… and for this viewer’s part: Ways of giving a written response. What will happen once I interact with it? This -ness of -ish: These X’s which seem to be resistant to attempts at description coming from outside of the praxis itself. As if the praxis gives its description in itself, through the ways in which (its) formal investigations are carried out.
From the top: A corner is needed, and then some found objects. Only stuff with a bunch of possible features, which may be able to be drawn on, and drawn forward. As the artist starts mounting the stuff, we begin to see traces of space(s). To put it more correctly: We see photographs, but are spectators of performatively sculpted occurrences – das Geschehen der Dinge. A corner is used to set out from, and the idea of a corner thus becomes a function, once the occurrences have-been-happening. The corner is ‘worked through’ – bearbeitet. It becomes the, in logical terms, hidden property within the visible and comes to bear the function of a necessity. The studio is the evident space for experimenting with these occurrences. But the experiments could just as well be done outdoors or in a gallery space. Praun also does this. Since what comes to constitute them in the end is the visual (photo)-graphy made possible by a camera, the camera is employed as an apparatus, which passes on to viewers its documentation of accounts: This happened, like this! When working in gallery spaces too, documentation is made, to be circulated later, thus creating the gap which we fill in with our imagination.
We are presented with a sequence of stripped images. We could see these images as nude studies of the artist’s matter – our stuff – and its properties. That is, situations where slightly more bare and thus intimate relations uphold the logic in the (sculpted) images. It is sculpture, drawing and performance studies settled into a (photo-)graphic space. A scene is set, so sequences may be made more clearly. Sequencing used methodically makes the attempt at a precise description – which may be blurred by too much detailing and overwork – quite possible. One thing gives meaning to another, by not being the other thing in question. By making a difference, as it stands.
Attempt(s) at dissecting the impermanence aspects of the praxis of making works of art
Praun’s work deals with the human, our being and its -ness – but also its mess. Our mess. The decay of materials, of the body and of relations. A central metaphor in the work is movement, and thus also the passing of time. Things get collected, arranged, reorganized by being put back together, and then simply disappear. Where the works are off to is not important. But where the artist is off to – and what she’s up to – can tell us something. My thoughts about this, and what it might be worth, are what I’ll present through this text.
Praun’s emphasis on the processual and thus the process of times passing – time as its own duration – seems to serve the spectator as a reminder of life’s premises. And thereby of death: “Memento mori and keep questioning” could be a contemporary version of this ever-relevant motto. Everything related to the mounting should be open to questioning. Should this go here? Can that go there? Where am I supposed to be looking? What is it that I’m supposed to be looking at? What can I hold on to?
The syntax, I believe, and thus the validated grammar as our common logical principle of order. Though here, because we are dealing with images – and the graphic gesture of imagery – the sense of rhythm becomes the montage strategy. Principles of order are not given, but arise from modelling and movements found possible in the moment of sculpting. This is sculpture in its rawest form, as close to the gesture of sculpting as it can be. As a movement that freezes, only to be able to deconstruct itself… and to decompose. This corresponds to the act of writing. It is thus my point that we should see Praun’s praxis as relating to a specific kind of writing, wherein the processual and thus the act of writing is what I shall refer to as enunciational. Which counters writing as statements: It is sculpture dealing with impermanence.
The presentation of the works in this way provides a kind of grammar of the temporary; with contingency as the premise par excellence for meaning (Sinn) to arise out of Bedeutung (‘meaning’). Or, put differently: Nothing; a no-thing contracts enough to emerge as a some-thing. Maybe something other than what their regular use value – given to them by us – orders us to see them put to use as. In this way, through this approach, things can become matter: Stuff. This word is cognate with the Danish term stof, corresponding to the German Stoff.
All this is a kind of play – it’s not a game. Made possible through the manipulation of time, thus allowing a play on space – rather than with the materiality of things. In other words, by putting the emphasis on time the material is allowed to become stuff. The stuff is then being played around with, before its spatial framing is once again undone. Or at least able to be made undone. In the photographs we see matter that begins to sculpt, but at the same time does not want to be sculpture(s). We see the emergence(s)… as the act of sculpting also comes to deal with negative space, thus structuring the object(s) in terms of duration. We are thus prompted to think about space as another kind of substance, although more abstract in character than we are used to dealing with it as a category. This is similar to poetry and poetics working with rhythm and pausing – with the breath – and thus with time as its first and last structuring principle. This way of sculpting, suspended in time, is a poetic song – presented here through photography. This can be understood as a graphic kind of writing, functioning as a singing which doesn't have anything specific to express. We can thus say that this method allows for the act of singing – syngen in Danish – to be charging the process. Through this formal treatment of space, rendered through its duration as time, these acts of singing seek to rearrange our ways of seeing.
It is in the way(s) of dealing with materials, of any kind – through Praun’s careful handling of its possibilities – that our view(s) can be disturbed and, in this sense, opened up to such rearranging. In the studio the stuff is matter which seems to be waiting to be manipulated. Maybe because it is handled as little as possible? Outside the studio it may be dragged through water, bundled up and placed according to idiosyncratic systems, visual logics and principles of balance in physics, but it will not be made to act unnaturally against its inherent plasticity. It is being dealt with – while also being taken care of – for what it is able to do as matter.
Anything seems to be able to happen to this stuff, as it is animated. Animated by the artist, by the hand and in this way related to the ratio of the human body. But never left to give the impression that this(!) simply just happened, like this. Arrangements are made clear. But then again, everything could be switched around, be different, could… have been another story, for instance. Thus opening up the work to the viewer. Making it possible to pose questions like: How might we imagine this work to function differently?
Places to stay and become playful through
Only the photographs, their images – and the ones that we imagine – seem to be able to survive these processes. Only the photographic seems able to hold the stuff. The images of the arrangements clear up and make space. Space for questioning. Problematizing our being, not only existentially in the world, but also as humans, being part of this earth and thus our ways of living – by asking about our ways of seeing. Praun uses photographic syntax to keep the dynamic of the timing of the situated objects – and thus the question(s) of volume versus void – in check. These object-arrangements have to be photographed – to give both the stuff and the viewer’s view an angle – so as to allow and enable a specific question to pose itself. As viewers we are given a clear image of where and how the possibility in this impossible mess lies, while simultaneously urging us to stay with its troubling character – can it hold, or will it fall? What happens if I seek to pass over to the other side of this messy arrangement, can it be done? Or will I make it fall over? Would it then be a work of art still? And is it, as it stands now, a piece of art? It’s a kind of questioning – which is part of an investigation. And in this way Praun ends up, mostly successfully, questioning her own, and in turn our, concepts of art.
This kind of viewing invites, it’s an invitation to see anew. It seeks to engage and creates not just an implication but a commitment during our viewing. Viewers, as a minimum, have to get involved in the act of viewing as active co-players: As readers. Otherwise there is no (inter-) activated field and thus no (art-)work is done. Rather than putting forward as positive propositions – in the form of statements – the works, due to this structure, come to function as question marks; as enunciation.
The artist’s assumption of an interest in these questions – presented through images giving non-statements – coming back from and thus being returned by an audience, about our stuff and its (possible) and our ways of interaction, is the driver in the work processes. The artist seeks to share her question(s) with us: Is this a piece of art, a work, something being worked on, or something (quantitatively) ‘less’ than that? Which then again, viewed differently, could be said to become something (qualitatively) ‘more’. To this I would add another set of questions: Is this art as value criticism? Art as ethical praxis?
Impermanence and the enunciational relation as structuring principle
We are, paradoxically, presented with sculpting assemblages that do not want to sculpt any specific thing – which the artist seems to get away with. This can be perceived as an act of balance. Not unlike the art of stone balancing, only made not with nature’s ‘fine’ materials, but with the accessible – first trashed, then reused – matter. This is the stuff of daily life as it is recognized in late capitalism. Praun puts it in a poetic way, so that we may actually deal with looking at all this mess we are in… that mankind made for itself, which we now, somehow, will have to deal with, since just fixing it isn’t an option.
Praun’s work can be said to suggest that we reuse, rethink, reconstruct and rebuild. I would add to this that we should reorganize ourselves and our presence in this world. Through a reorientation of the relation between an idealistic and visionary approach, which should give us a (more) realistic approach. This is what the artist’s work imparted to me. In this sense she was successful in producing questions, as marks, along the way of her going about her – and the world’s – business.
In other words, Praun’s approach opens up a string of questions about: How we – with our capitalistic and materialistic ways of thinking – can deal with the ephemeral at all? We will have to abandon these ways, that’s clear enough. So: Can this work teach us about how to approach the material as abstract matter? If yes, could we then learn to consider everything we experience as existing to be abstracted constructs? Here: If the work is abstracted from the performance of it, is it then a kind of labour that can be de-scribed? These questions relate to value(s) and ideology. Is this an implicit point, made clear by the more explicit work? How can we frame or add an outline to this -ishness? My best bid is to describe it as carried by the enunciational relation, as its structuring principle. By claiming this I will relate Praun’s praxis to a literary praxis that brings itself to bear on the act of writing, a tradition marked by the way(s) in which it upholds and brings forth its own indirect poetics. This is being done through the intensive study – I shall name it a Durcharbeiten – of its own principles, relations and X’s.
Jonas Georg Christensen, 2021