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 Just as the individual weighing scales is a non-determing element of the installation, the artist is an archaeologist withdrawn into her immediate individuality.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