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.

Emmanuel Mir

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.