Eugen Gomringer, 1999
Elementary and constructive
Observations in the work of Ulrike Kessl
Artistic practice has over the past few years been particularly prolific
in the fields of “constructive” and “concrete” ( concrete in the sense
of geometrically ) composition – which can perhaps be seen as analogy to
an architecture of rather terse forms, but which in any case gains a
much greater response in terms of attention and public integration than
that normally attributed to it in art publications. On the other hand,
an “extrapolating” theory of “constructive art today” does not receive
the attention it deserves. Constructivity was no longer a subject of
discussion and writing in many disciplines apart from art; it even
seemed as if no field of conceptual study could dispense with the term.
The work of Ulrike Kessl should not be seen from a constructive
perspective – although a new notion of constructivity could perhaps be
formulated from her work. Any contemporary notion of constructivity is
dominated by the perennial discussion on subjectivity versus
objectivity, which is now enjoying new currency due to recent advances
in perception studies. It is true that the demands and forms of
Constructivism as practiced in the 1920s are aroused quite unobtrusively
by her daring perspectives as well as her rather rigid ethos. Otherwise
these are a thing of history. This fact should, however, only be
mentioned because constructivity is always judged against the backdrop
of Constructivism, which would appear quite incongruent with regard to
contemporary constructive art. Indeed, even where a “vision of
modernism” is founded on the “construction principle”, the vision does
not take account of that yielded by constructivity within the framework
of the principle, which is, however, no less strict and consistent.
Constructivity is not formulated in relation to mathematical stringency
or geometrical design. There is, rather, sufficient evidence of
constructivity being defined in art practice as a psychological Gestalt
factor, and something better classified as “elementary”.
If the observer surveys the arrangements by Ulrike Kessl from memory or
on the basis of illustrations, he will notice with amazement just how
diverse these present themselves in terms of dimension, volume,
physicality, in fact as full phenomen. They form a sequence of
inventions, partly with spatial reference – as installation – partly as
moveable objects. The invention, however, appears to be linked to a
certain idea, that can be fundamentally and easily- “elementarily”-
transformed. The question arises regarding dominance: which was the
decisive factor, the invention based on a certain situation, or the
searching, subjective idea for a suitable situation and objectivating
possibility? The reply to this questions from the work of Ulrike Kessl
can be formulated easily: both procedures are inventions, which may in
certain cases be preceded by discovery of a situation, a room
presentation, etc. The essence of constructive procedure is thorough its
simplicity, a basic recognition of the “assignment” and ultimately the
transparency of the creative act. Ulrike Kessl shares such
characteristics with not a few colleagues. Her sense for the precise
accuracy of a design with a really broad perceptive spectrum allows the
observer to enjoy the sequence of her inventions with special attention
and keeps him braced for surprises.
Constructivity as realized in the work of Ulrike Kessl, without
ideological operations as it were, amounts to a new invention of the
Anne Rodler, 2009
Into the magic garden of sculpture.
The work of Ulrike Kessl
The work of Ulrike Kessl is a constant exploration of the relationship
between person and space, between space and body. This concept is felt
like a pulse, like a constantly beating heart. And the artist creates in
this way with her organic objects a very special cosmos of
relationships: her objects penetrate into existing spaces, exploring and
transforming them into the interior of an organism. This is contrasted
with works that entice us into the most minute structures of the human
body or plants, anatomic studies, works of drawing, photographs and
textiles, exploring the delicacy of body structures and their inner
nature. Whether tissue or cellular structure of living creatures,
spatial designs or fabrics of a building – the artist always brings our
attention to the anatomic and the architectural.
This catalogue presents Ulrike Kessl’s objects and installations from the years 2001 to 2009 in dialogue with select drawings from her “Organ Garden” group of works (2003), published here for the first time. A garden represents nature as formed by human hand. A place of tamed flowers and plants, it provides us with a refuge, a place of sensuality, of pause, an occasion for observant contemplation. In the garden of organs, nature presents itself in its carefully crafted beauty. The studied, objective appearance of naturalness, however, is deceptive, as the plants here are fused with human organs into fanciful structures. Ulrike Kessl seems to be playing on biological research into genetic engineering, and beyond that on human attempts to dominate and control nature. The artist is at the same time recalling certain medieval notions, and the conceit that formal analogies between plants and human body parts confer related medicinal effects. Through their special enchantment, these creatures bring us into the world of the magic and the surreal.
This creative and imaginative idea can be seen in the spatial object “Playpen” (2001), the form of which corresponds to the two hemispheres of the human brain and which becomes an explorable sculpture for small children at an exhibition. Material experience, mental and physical movement are here contrasted with the visual representation of nerve tracts and cerebral memory cells. Another object amenable to interactive and haptic experience is the seating group “Polströ” (2001), representing an oversized digestive tract.
The palpable surface and the hidden inner structure, skin, organs and skeleton of living creatures and things are taken by Ulrike Kessl and repeatedly combined into different, evocative, combinations. She realises this in her artistic language by means of various collages of defamiliarised objects, materials and pieces of clothing. Cloths are transformed into space, articles of clothing into bodies.
Nylon stockings formed over balloons become, for example, the starting point for objects that suggest first of all inverted female torsos. The artist then composes from these a group of fabulous, brightly coloured creatures with the title “Feerinden” (2008/ 2009), which again raises questions concerning the interior and the exterior. Stability and fragility, covering and volume are also investigated in the work “Skirt Columns” (2003). A series of skirts fixed on top of one another form long columns that separate the room. They evoke architectural elements, the supporting function of which is, however, not fulfilled.
The use of textiles is a recurring leitmotif in the repertoire of the sculptress. She uses them as structuring and colour elements, in which they also become the “material” of the aesthetic experiment. Textile techniques are moreover also transferred to other materials, an idea tangibly rendered in the curtain made of invitation cards (2006). Here, postcards were cut up, mixed and then sewn together again. This curtain served as an element of interior architecture to drape the entrance to the Goethe Institute in Rabat, to which it also directly referred. Visitors had to pass it before entering the exhibition and the rooms of the cultural institute, during which they were also able to read snippets of information from the cards close up. We encounter here the constantly present urge to combine drawings, photographs and layouts with plastic bodies and architectural structures – through physical interaction, the surface is fused into the body, the 2- into the 3-dimensional.
Anja Wiese, 1996
Measuring, counting, trading, selling
– The market is a venue for transaction and interaction and what would it
be without the weighing scales as instrument for measuring quantities.
An arrangement of scales on the art market as a ground sculpture that
can be mounted reverses the role of the instrument into a marketable
commodity: just like rugs and carpets, it is sold by the square metre.
In her work for the art fair Kunstmesse Art Cologne, Ulrike Kessl turns the tables: her installation titled “waagen” 1) is not only a self-evident object d’art presented to the assessment and judgement of the public. Viewers of the work rather become participants as soon as they become physically aware of and responsive to the object they have mounted. The work is not perceived from a distant perspective, but rather does the viewer’s body become a central and essential object of perception.
The personal weighing scales used for this work differ in their contemporary form and colour, their design. As functional instruments they are evidence of the collective stylistic preference of their time and their individual utilisation in private households. Each item bears witness to its distinct history and the people that used it in their daily lives. More than any other domestic instrument, the weighing scales represents a culture of body control. Its place is the bathroom, its function the individualised monitoring of change in body weight. What was originally an indispensable instrument of trading, the weighing scales in this century came to be used by people to gauge and control themselves. In the post-war period in Germany, it became an attribute of economic growth, in the course of which moderation and proportion were manifest in surplus and excess.
In “waagen” Ulrike Kessl renounces all personal signature.After the initial creative inventiveness, her artistic activity involves a collection and arrangement of existing objects. Just as the individual weighing scales is a non-determing element of the installation, the artist is an archaeologist withdrawn into her immediate individuality. The sequential arrangement of the scales that – although different – all perform the same function, i.e. weighing, contradicts the anecdotal-narrative element that makes the visible functionality of these used objects accessible. The neatly arranged variety of objects decreases the significance of the individual element. Each individual item is simply a replaceable part of the whole.
People using scales to monitor their physical development weigh themselves by assigning a finite weight to their bodies as volume and mass. They thus also reduce themselves to their material contents of bone, organs and skin. Because weighing reduces all people to the lowest common denominator, their body weight in kilograms and pounds, it also underlines human equality in this very physical essence. Ulrike Kessl does not make a theme of the body as medium and object of the senses, but sees it in its essential materiality. This physical reductionism is not surprising in an artist who for many years has been exploring modes of representation for mass, weight and volume.
The fact that the visitor can mount the work “waagen” allows an interactive relationship to develop between him and the installation within the preordained framework of the game, with the state of the work being changed by the presence of the visitors. The sculpture thus has an active state and an inactive idle state. As participant in an artistic measuring process on the arranged balancing scales, the visitor experiences weighing as an elementary-mechanical interaction. The force exerted by weight on the scales is reflected by the noisy swing of their display indicators. But this trace left by our steps soon vanishes, and the game we were allowed to play swings back to the starting position.
Ulrike Kessl’s work “waagen” unfolds a dialectic of similarity versus variety, of individuality versus uniformity, of freedom versus determination. The individual play made possible by the visitor’s participation in the work, the fun of weighing oneself and balanced walking, is contrasted with measurement and weighing, reaction to material presence. Weighing involves a distancing from oneself by reducing the body to its mere weight, and just as all scales are the same, all people are the same when on this instrument; by virtue of their common materiality and weight they lose their individuality. “Waagen” moreover contrasts the lesser significance of the every-day household object used as installation material with the higher significance of the scales as symbol of justice. This work shows – and the truths that persist are always simple truths – that all people have weight. It shows that we are of weight: In this vital materiality we are all equal by having a body that weighs, grows up and grows ill and deteriorates.
Amid the bustle of the market, the artist reminds us that, in the final analysis, we cannot make assessments according to weight. The scales are a just instrument in this endeavour, that permit this valuation even when the eyes are blinded. Ulrike Kessl’s installation playfully weighs up that which is hidden to imperfect insight behind a deceptive surface: the value of the commodity art.
2) Space prohibits any further examination of this point here;
3) French “Balancer”: to hold in balance, swing, contemplate/examine, and “Labalance”: the scale
«Something unforeseen always happens»
A dialogue between Ulrike Kessl (U. K.) and Necmi Sönmez (N. S.), 2003
[su_quote style=“default“ cite=““ url=““ class=““]Hidden child: He already knows all the hiding places around the house and seeks them out like a shelter where one can be sure to find nothing changed. His heart is beating, he holds his breath. Here he is enclosed in the material world. It becomes incredibly clear to him, comes near to him without words. Just like someone who is hung only then becomes aware of what rope and wood are. The child standing behind the portière himself becomes something fluttering and white, a ghost. The dining table under which he has been crouching makes him into the wooden idol of a temple whose four columns are the carved table legs. And behind a door he is himself a door, has put it on like a heavy mask and, like a magician priest, will bewitch all those who enter unsuspectingly. He must not be discovered at any price.[/su_quote]
Walter Benjamin, Einbahnstraße, Frankfurt/M. 1997, 13th edition, pp.59f.
Ulrike Kessl’s installation project, “Arbeiten für ein verstecktes Kind” / Works for a Child in Hiding, in the exhibition space of the RWE Tower in Essen comprises five works which deal with new aspects of the artist’s work. Since Kessl developed the project from an intensive critical engagement with the given architectural features of the tower, and the time schedule was very tight, the collaboration of all those involved in this exhibition was, in the truest sense of the word, a work in progress. There were many changes made during the preparations. Our decision to explicitly treat this process of change in the exhibition as well led to the following dialogue which we had on 1 May 2001 in the artist’s studio in Düsseldorf.
N. S.: You have often realized works which go beyond “autonome Skulptur” and strive to interact with the viewers. Can one regard your new installation project, which was developed especially for the RWE Tower in Essen, in this context as well?
U. K.: Yes, the sculptures are conceived of in such a way that they can, but do not have to, enter into an interaction with the viewers.
N. S.: It’s necessary to define why interaction is important for you as an artistic strategy.
U. K.: On the one hand, of course, it is an essential feature of an installation that viewers are drawn into the work more strongly than in the case of a painting or a sculpture. Viewers are surrounded completely or partially by the installation. It occupies the space, so to speak. On the other hand, direct bodily contact between viewers and art is important to me.
N. S.: When or with which art work did this interaction start?
U. K.: Some of my very early works which I did as a student are basically already conceived in such a way. In 1983 I stretched threads at a distance of ten centimetres from each other just below the ceiling of a very long narrow corridor in the academy and hung newspaper over them. When someone walked down the corridor, the newspaper moved behind them like a wave.
N. S.: But when did you incorporate the exhibition space into the context for the first time?
U. K.: That started really with the large textile works. I realized the first of these in 1993 in the Dominikanarmuseum in Rottweil. It was a kind of tent and it struck me that very many visitors, especially children, asked whether they could walk on it. A year later I reacted to this in the Haverkamphalle in Münster. I designed the work Staircase in such a way that it could be used. The installation could be walked on on the ground floor.
N. S.: To incorporate interaction into an art work as an artistic strategy means of course to present a certain challenge to viewers so that only after they have accepted this challenge can they begin to interpret the work properly or to understand it.
U. K.: But that does not necessarily mean that those who do not enter into a concrete interaction therefore cannot understand the work. My works also work when they are not used, but then they work in a different way.
N. S.: Your works also have a very highly aesthetic and poetic attractiveness. This attractiveness can also unfold like it does for an autonomous sculpture. But some of your installations in space make themselves felt more noticeably if one enters into interaction with them. When I think about the development of your works I am struck by the fact that you often shape your work between two poles. The first pole is the desire for interaction, the invitation for viewers to participate. The second pole is a highly aesthetic, very sensuous materiality which is present in your textile installations and which can provoke viewers. For me it would be very interesting to find out how you decide for a certain work which pole you will put into the foreground and which pole will then step into the background. Or don’t you make this distinction at all?
U. K.: I don’t really make such a distinction. The starting point is always an idea. Only then do I ask how can I realize what I have in my mind. In this phase I also think about the possible reactions of viewers, although it is difficult to foresee these in detail. The exhibition space, its context and the movement of people in the space play an important role in this connection. The architect guides and leads the viewers and then I intervene once again in my own way. To give an example, at the art fair, Art Cologne, in 1996, I showed an installation which was composed of 260 scales arranged to form a field. I wanted the visitors to move around on the scales and to weigh themselves. Since the arrangement of the walls was not yet finalized, I was able to create a transition situation which practically incorporated visitors into the work. This of course was quite a special situation because normally the space is defined in advance, but the example shows how important the interplay of architecture and installation is. Until the exhibition opens I often do not know whether my idea will work and whether the visitors will react how I think they will. It is like a spontaneous performance, something unforeseen always happens. For me this moment of surprise is extremely important. From it I always derive something for my next works. But I think that I can plan so far in advance that the interaction will work. To date anyway it’s always done so.
N. S.: I’ve often looked at your sketchbooks and notebooks. One can see very clearly that you start at a very early stage to think about an interactive aspect in your work. Then you make very precise drawings of how you imagine the interaction concretely. Finally you are given the chance to realize your ideas in installations. I am interested in this transformation. How do you transfer your ideas, your sketches to the space? To what extent is this transformation from a sketch to an interactive work for you dependent upon the situation in the space?
U. K.: They are always interdependent. It is very rarely that I have an idea and then the space is added and bang, it works. In most cases there are some ideas which exist in the form of sketches or notes which are then transformed by the situation in the space. That is a process which goes back and forth. For example, some time ago I made a note about two mattresses in the form of brain and digestive system. This note has now become the Sitting Landscape and the Playpen. That is simply the artistic work which then still has to be done.
N. S.: The exhibition space thus plays an important role in your works from the very beginning because your installations very often interact with the given features of the space. In Essen the exhibition will take place in the RWE Tower in a very prominent and difficult architectural space. Is the architecture of the space in this sense a challenge for you? And what were your feelings or thoughts after we looked at the rooms together for the first time?
U. K.: Yes, that was certainly a challenge for me. The very first impression was: gigantic, a monumental presentation of architecture, a tower standing on stilts, the columns bearing the whole weight, the walls are basically just a skin. Here it is being demonstrated, hey, look here what technology offers today. The architecture presents itself with the elegance and coolness with which a company like RWE wants to present itself to the public.
The spatial structure, the form of the space, is of course also very unusual. What especially interested me, however, was the situation in the entrance hall. The first time I was here it struck me that people don’t really use the exhibition space proper, but come in, go to the reception and then directly to the elevator — that half the space on the ground floor is pretty much undefined. You can see someone sitting on a sofa every now and then, but nothing really takes place there. Basically half the space is used only as a passage. I wanted to break through this with my work.
N. S.: When I saw your sketches it became clear to me that you did not want to enter into competition with the architecture here. On the basis of your notes and sketches I noticed rather a dialogue with the architecture because you have spread out your concepts over five different groups of work in the space which protrude not only inwardly but also outwardly. Could one speak here of a congenial complementarity? You add something to the architecture which it did not have and conversely, your work receives something from the architecture.
U. K.: Yes, one can view it this way. I do not want to compete with the architecture because I don’t think that that would make any sense.
N. S.: With the fourth work, Cell, which is conceived for the outside space, last time you expressed the wish to provide your work with a link to the architecture without fail. The more insight I gained into the your sketches, the more I reflected about them, the more it became clear to me that a very harmonious dialogue has come about. Each position, that of the architecture and that of the artwork, maintains its definition of purpose and aesthetics. In my opinion it follows very clearly from this that you use this difficult architectural framework as a reflective surface for your work.
U. K.: I find this formulation very good.
N. S.: For me the entrance hall of the RWE Tower is also a place of encounter where employees receive visitors. When I think about your works, from the child’s playpen to the carpet in the basement, it becomes clear to me that you have chosen precisely this place of encounter as the background for your project.
U. K.:: That is certainly the case. I often take my ideas from the context of the space or the venue’s situation. For this project it is the situation of the reception hall of a large company which has its headquarters there. One can view the inner organs in such a way that the administrative headquarters represent a kind of inner organ of the enterprise. Things take place here which do not become public but which keep the entire organism alive.
N. S.: You regard this company with all its employees like a body, an organism which, like the human organism, functions by means of its organs. These inner organs which perhaps at first glance do not have much to do with the work which is done there, give the whole another presence through the transformation they go through by means of your installation. When I think about your work Playpen, whose form resembles a brain, I can well imagine why you are presenting this work here. But why are you showing the ‘digestive organs’ at this place?
U. K.: I searched around for a long time for a suitable organ as a complement to the brain, which was firmly established as an object from the outset. Heart and lungs did not seem to me to be a good counterweight and the stomach on its own was too one-sided for me. Then I struck upon the digestive tract without initially being able to provide reasons for this.
Both brain and the digestive tract produce something but with the difference that the one product is highly recognized socially and the other is stigmatized. Only children who do not yet know social and cultural norms do not make this distinction. On a formal level there is a surprising number of similarities: the endless convolutions in the brain are repeated in a certain sense in the intestines. There are kilometres of tubes which are pressed together in a narrow space. However, whereas in the brain, put simply, ‘thoughts’ take place as chemical processes and take complicated, entangled paths, the same thing takes place in the digestive tract on a more concrete, material level. By the way, there are scientists who call the intestines a second brain because the intestines carry out complex functions independently of the brain.
N. S.: I would now like to go into the materiality of your works. It has become clear in all its facets through your installations in the RWE Tower. The spectrum of materials used passes from foam through timber to cables. But above all, you use textiles. Are there criteria according to which you select textiles and materials? Where does this manifestation of textiles in your works, which is a kind of leitmotif, come from? Are textiles materials which are more easily to form?
U. K.: It’s not so much a matter of whether a material can be worked with or formed more easily, but rather whether it is the right material in relation to the idea of the work and also in relation to the exhibition space. I sought out the colours and patterns in accordance with the idea and I must say that this is the first time I have used patterned materials on this scale.
N. S.: Earlier on you always used monochrome textiles.
U. K.: In other contexts I have always used monochrome textiles, mostly white or red.
N. S.: Does that perhaps have something to do with the fact that now you have a child and that recently you have often come into contact with these colours and textiles which are typical for babies?
U. K.: Perhaps that is so. It is always difficult to decide how such ideas come about. Above all I wanted to counteract the stern atmosphere and the subdued colours of the room. The concept for my exhibition works intensively with contrasts with respect to colours, forms and also themes. I think there is also a humorous element in this; in any case, the bright patterns of the textiles could be interpreted in such a way.
I must say that the concept, textile art, is negatively connotated for me. I am really only interested in textiles in large quantities, as large surfaces. My previous textile works are basically architectures, spaces made of textile.
N. S.: But previously these works were consciously monochrome textiles, either white or earthy, dark green or similar, i.e. mainly subdued colours. For the exhibition, Sculptural Ideas, we worked together. I think that for this exhibition the coloured fabric assumed a position in your work for the first time, different from the usual position it assumes in textile art. The colours of the textile you choose stimulate strong feelings. When they are red they generate warmth or energy and a kind of emotional surface arises.
In your work, “Vorhänge des Vergessens” / Curtains of Forgetting, for example, one could view the red in two ways: on the one hand as the colour of blood, and on the other as the colour of the brain, which is a whitish red. This symbolism of colours plays a large role in your works, for you always employ it on a different level depending on the context of the work.
U. K.: Of course colour has an emotional component. Previously I was moving on relatively neutral ground by using white or natural coloured fabrics which adapt themselves to the architecture and do not add any strong colours of their own. Colour always brings in an additional dimension. Especially in the case of textiles, associations are ready to hand; baby colours in pink and light blue are only an example. Fashion aspects are also important; that starts already with what textiles are available. I want to control the textile with which I work. It should not divert attention from my idea but form a unity with it. The choice of colours and fabrics has something to do with the theme of organs. Compared with the earlier sewn rooms, the themes now come more from the context of the body. Images are already there, colours and forms, associations which I do not simply adopt but which I want to shape. But I also have to incorporate what viewers already have in their minds.
N. S.: On the basis of this multipartite group of works you want to show viewers various ways of seeing and interpreting. The works of the installation project refuse a central perspective, normal seeing. I am thinking for example of the work on the ceiling with which you force the viewers’ gaze to move high up above the ground by the threads’ positioning, thus compelling them to adopt a frog’s perspective. In another example, Carpet, it could mean that it is only perceived when one is very close to it or is standing on it. In my opinion these experiences of seeing are an important aspect of your artistic investigation of space because your work breaks through the visual spectrum of the average exhibition visitor and goes beyond it. The architecture does provide a certain framework, but through a changed viewing position your works bring across another visual experience which is hard to describe.
U. K.: Yes, that is of course my intention. To continue the architecture and the space in another way so that one consciously looks upward and makes a connection from the front area through the sluice in the middle to the rear area. My work is supposed to connect the two areas with each other and to break through the isolation of the ‘exhibition tract’. It is a work which has a connecting function also towards the outside, as if one wanted to draw the line further in thought. I will position the Carpet in such a way that it can also be seen from above. A downward connection in the vertical dimension will then also arise. But a come back to your question as to whether the works would function individually or only in a group. They can be seen independently of each other, but in an interconnection there are additional aspects. The Playpen as brain and a Sitting Landscape in the form of the digestive tract, for example, are related to each other. One would spontaneously ascribe the intestinal tract to small children and the brain to adults, but in my works precisely the opposite is the case.
N. S.: That is an interesting interpretation because small children bear the idea of the future within themselves.
U. K.: There are various explanations. Especially with children the brain is particularly capable. Never again later in life are they capable of learning so quickly. That makes sense of course, but there is also a crossover in this constellation with the works with the Sitting Landscape and the Playpen. On the whole I would say that all the works are also autonomous and work individually, independently of each other. But for this space they have been conceived as a group in an interplay with each other. This idea is also important for me: the entire building is like a living being. This idea I believe becomes all the more clear when several works come together.
N. S.: Thank you very much for this conversation.
Translated from the German by Michael Eldred, artefact text & translation, Cologne
Emmanuel Mir, 2016
Let’s get to the point straight away, without any prelude or elaborate
introduction, and state bluntly but accurately that while the objects,
installations and assemblages of Ulrike Kessl, as she has been
increasingly creating them from various articles of clothing over the
past decade, inevitably lead to associations with the body, the human
body is by no means here her theme.
When nylon tights are stretched across the facade of a historical building (Monument for Örebro) or between the four walls of a gallery (Nylons in Space), when photography of dresses and blouses are sewn onto a textile background (Islands) or safety vests linked up to form a funnel hanging on the ceiling (Syövest), the viewer may be inclined to see metaphors for the human form in these textile sculptures. That would, however, be a conditioned reflex, a kind of intellectual short-circuit that has gained currency in art appreciation over the past half century. But in Ulrike Kessl’s works the focus is not on the body, but on space. Her positioning of items of clothing and various textiles reveals and highlights the physical and atmospheric features of the room in which they appear. Both the material components (the dimensions, colours, materials and composition, etc.) as well as the subjective vibrancy of natural or architectural space are rendered visible in these textile settings – sometimes highlighted and emphatic, sometimes narrated.
It was necessary to clear up at the outset any possible misunderstandings in the reception of Ms. Kessl’s work as the body metaphor is pervasive and stubborn. In the context of visual art, it is difficult to resist the narrative power of clothing, especially used clothing. Whether as sculpture, installation or object, the isolated, out-of-context garment evokes the human body and its various – political, biographic or social – dimensions. The tradition of artists, and primarily female artists, employing this element is long. From Meret Oppenheim, Lygia Clark and Marie-France Guilleminot to Rebecca Horn – the use of a modified and worked second skin is usually intended to draw reference to the first. The political context also cannot be denied – the body, this on-going battlefield of individuation in the post-structural sense, is an eminent political entity, and its artificial covering can be considered a visible symptom of invisible, psychological and social processes. When specifically female artists work with textiles as a medium, the feminist and gender ramifications would seem to be rather obvious. This is due above all to certain intellectual and sexual trends. The early 1990s, when Ulrike Kessl was creating her first works and already making her mark in the art scene, can now be seen as a particularly prolific decade for the genre of “clothes sculptures”.1 This period saw a rise in the number of female artists who were taking the surfaces of textiles as a medium for their endeavours and with these coverings were exploring various aspects of individuality. The Moss Coat by Leslie Fry, the long gowns of Beverly Semmes, the eccentric costumes of Klaar van der Lippe or the printed overcoat by Alba D’Urbano were all created at this time and enjoy high visibility in the art world. Whether as installation or, and in particular, when they are used en masse, the material communicates a memento mori character, which can be seen most clearly in the works of Annette Messager or Christian Boltanski. The worn clothing were then used as a “lane of memory”2 and accordingly show a high degree of emotionality.
Whether as an object or an installation: The connotations raised by textile sculptures have become so cemented in contemporary art that a disinterested use of this form is now practically impossible. Ulrike Kessl nevertheless attempts to reinterpret the material. When she started working increasingly with textiles, she was well aware that she was approaching the interpretative danger zone of the body metaphor. Perhaps with a view to neutralising this risk, she initially focussed on unprocessed materials, where the relationship to the body was not so evident. In the Landscape series (1997) that she developed in Marfa, Texas, or in Staircase (1994) and Brain (1998), the artist constructed space of calico and muslin, which with their clear lines and their purposeful, non-narrative presence, were defined architecturally. The viewer’s body was of course never excluded from these space constructs – on the contrary: theses spaces always had to be physically experienced; nevertheless the association with intimate, individual bodies fell further into the background in favour of a phenomenological exploration of the spatial features present.
As if a reminiscence of these earlier works, some of the more recent creations of Ulrike Kessl seek friction with the viewer. In Running Clothes (2009), for example, the recipient’s body comes in direct contact with the coloured nylon tights hanging on cables. In contrast to Rutrill (2014) or the Monument for Örebro (2015), both of which imply a frontal and therefore distanced reception, the physical confrontation with the space is one central aspect of the installation. The visitor penetrating the tunnel-like space of the Field Institute on the Hombroich museum island, also finds himself physically very close to the textile objects. It must, however, be emphasised that Running Clothes was conceived especially for spatially difficult, elongated Field Institute with its very sparse natural light. The nylon tights are positioned as counterpoints in this space, their vertical lines highlighting the dominant horizontal character of the location. Their colours also create a stark contrast to the cold inhospitality of the (albeit untypical) White Cube. The tights thus cause the visitor to intensify his view, to intensify his perception. The room is not only the carrier and the container; it is transformed into an autonomous body, whose features become (more) amenable to the visitor with Kessl’s intervention. In short: Running Clothes is a site-specific installation, and like every site-specific installation, the main focus is on aspects of space. The site-specific argument will in itself suffice to invalidate mere psychological or narrative interpretations of the work of Ulrike Kessl.
One interesting aspect of this work is the interaction between distance and proximity. We have already hinted as this effect: works such as Rutrill or Monument for Örebro keep the viewer at a distance – in strong contrast to Running Clothes. The two-part Rutrill installation was realised for the Lemgo art society and consists, in one part, of colourful pairs of nylon tights fixed to an extension behind the Eichenmüllerhaus building, while the other part is a monochrome line made up of more pairs of tights stretched between two trees in the adjacent garden. The sense of distance here is generated by the number of works. A viewer can perceive the overall image of the clad facade (“clad” to be understood here in the architectural sense) only at a distance of at least twenty metres, while for the significantly larger work at the Örebro town hall a further twenty metres are necessary. The receiver is therefore prevented from recognising the overall structured design and its detailed surface structure at the same time; he has to move back and forth in order to link the two parts of the visual information. A similar situation can be found in Rondo (2015), which is suspended high above he heads of walkers, or Halbwolke (2010), which also remains unreachable, whether in the interior or the exterior version. By strategically positioning her installations at points that provoke distance among visitors, Ulrike Kessl determines the focus and controls the perceptive rhythm. The version of Nylon in Space (2015) appearing in the city of Wuppertal on the other hand conjures up a sense of closeness that recalls that generated by Running Clothes. The visitor’s body is again here incorporated directly in the work, become an integral part of the installation, caught in space like a fly in a web.
With the maximum tensile extension of Nylon in Space, the nylons lose all reference to their original function – they now function only as a material, objects that are defined primarily by their elastic features. They are, however, first and foremost elements that animate and structure space and, perhaps, work counter to the existing room structure. Again here we can discover an antithetical moment in Kessl’s contribution. Because the interior architecture of Neuer Kunstverein is dominated by horizontals and verticals and because the massive pillars radiate weight and slowness, the artist has placed colourful diagonals, that create an airy, illuminating and invigorating effect. The room is then scarcely recognisable. Or: You simply have to see it with entirely new eyes.
A similar challenge was presented by the thankless corner in the Wilhelm Lehmbruck Museum in Duisburg, where Ulrike Kessl installed a different version of Nylon in Space. Thankless, because it is highly unsuitable for conventional exhibition of art works, with its tiny window corner interrupting the flow of the wall surface and with the light rails on the ceiling providing yet another visual disturbance. But this is precisely where Ulrike Kessl applies her imagination and skill, stretching her nylon net out to solve all that spatial awkwardness. The installation becomes an ornament giving the room a new homogeneity and dynamism. These two installations show clearly how Ms. Kessl seeks out challenges and gets fulfilment in tackling problems posed by complicated architectural space. The nylon tights are in this sense an adequate and humorous response to “impossible locations”: Just like an invasive plant species with a high physical adaptability, they nestle up to every structure and transform it for the brief duration of the intervention. The material is, however, also so light and delicate that it does not impede on or smother its environment. Nylon tights can cope with every space and room, but without making it disappear completely.
The nylon tights are either bought new or – simply because the artist requires a large volume of them – used as used pairs. In the latter case, they are first collected, generally on the basis of a local appeal for donations of unwanted items, and then dyed, although their original colour does give the creation a special touch. The artist naturally arranges the colour combinations after careful consideration, composing with varying shades of a basic colour (Rondo, 2015) or, in other cases, working with striking contrasts (Nylons in Space, 2015/16). A comparison with painting would, however, be an exaggeration. The colour is rather to be seen as a signal, as a marker in space, easily identifiable even from a distance. It readily draws the attention into the landscape and emphasises the function of the textile objects as eye-catchers.
Tension, lightness and dynamism characterise Ulrike Kessl’s sculptural works of. Und: something is always handing down from the ceiling or from the wall. Art in suspension. Art seeking a vertical. Art refusing to accept gravity and preferring air as its support (a very unusual tendency in the field of sculpture). As was the case with Nylon in Space, Halbwolke (2010) exists in two distinct versions. The first was suspended from trees in a garden on the Rhine, while the other was fixed between two balconies in the staircase of the Bucharest agricultural museum and floated gently above its atrium. This installation emerged from a trip by the artist to Rumania, where she got to know the Moldavian monasteries with their characteristic gently curved roofs, recalling stylish and broad bonnets. Halbwolke (Half-cloud) provides a fine example of how Ulrike Kessl can neutralise any potential narrative or atmospheric factors in her work. Despite the title being stipulated, the illusion should not include too much space – it is not a small cloud, but rather a half-cloud. A red border was therefore sewn in that intentionally thwarts any narrative implication of the work. More than a mere object (cloud, jellyfish, flower, boat, UFO, etc.) or more than the stylised memory of an object from the real world, Halbwolke is primarily a form, a form with a specific physical identity, but without narrative reference, without history, without anecdote. An abstract and therefore general form, one not reduced to any special association.
We are, however, unable to deny a certain association with a certain part of art history: that of the baldachin or canopy. This ornate cover over a throne, an altar or a bed is – contrary to common assumption – never a purely decorative element. The baldachin achieves above all a marking. It highlights a particular point, emphasising that the object, or subject, present underneath is noble or even sacred. Baldachins are accordingly also found in enclosed spaces, such as a church, a relic shrine or a tomb. The baldachin provides not only protection, it is especially a symbol and a visualisation of power and dignity. It ostentatiously draws attention to the elevated status of the people or the space beneath. This marking function can be recognised in various works of Ulrike Kessl – in Rondo, in Rutrill und in Syövest (2016). With their positioning in prominent places in interiors and exteriors, Ms. Kessl creates a distinct special zone in the landscape and ensures more focused and intensive attention on this zone. This fact underlines again the remark we made above regarding function of colour in these installations: each arrangement sends a signal, a challenge, to perceive the genius loci of the place more carefully.
In this spatially defined working context, the image assemblages of Ulrike Kessl generate an additional reflection medium removed from any local idiosyncrasies of the site. Piles of shirts, bras, pants and other textiles are arranged according to shades of colour so that a uniform overall impression is created and is then grouped and photographed in “Islands”, as the title of the series indicates. In a further step, the medium-sized photographs are sewn onto carpets, such that their picture characteristics are transformed, oscillating in an object-like appearance between flatware and a spatial object. These are each independent creations, without any reference to existing installations and not even conceived as a concept aid for future realisations; to see them as mere sketches would be a misunderstanding. These formal experiments, sounding out potential opportunities for a work with acquired used items of clothing, are present in order to highlight certain aspects of Ms. Kessl’s artistic production. The form, the play with volumes and with vacant spaces, the tears and fissures and the drapes, the texture of the various surfaces and the circumspect variations of the different designs come to the fore here.
Above all in this assemblage cycle can we recognise the significance of the materiality in the work of Ulrike Kessl. Repeating this point we can finally close the circle: The artist’s heedfulness of surface structure and materiality of her medium reveals the special nature of her approach while also marking a clear delineation in relation to other textile works of art in contemporary art. The sculptress Ulrike Kessl has accepted the challenge posed by a material that, while full of narrative and art historical references and is temptingly open to psychological interpretation, nevertheless primarily holds physical, material characteristics and is employed here to formulate commentaries on specific spaces. In this work, therefore, the human body is an instrument of perception and not a thematic focus.
1. See, for example, the exhibitions “Empty Dress – Clothing as Surrogate in Recent Art” in ICI New York (1993), “Discursive Dress” in the Kohler Art Center, Sheboygan (1994) or “Metaphors. The Image of Clothing in Contemporary Art” in Huntsville Museum of Art (1989).
2. Cora von Pape: Kunstkleider – Die Präsenz des Körpers in textilen Kunst-Objekten des 20. Jahrhunderts, Bielefeld 2008.