ask23 > Lingner: Aesthetic Existence

Michael Lingner

Aesthetic Existence

Maria Nordman's work »Untitled 1989« (subtitle: »Für die Ankommenden; genannt/nicht genannt« - »For the arrivals; named/not named«), is made in the language of high-rise steel construction that can be completely dismantled. Because of the mobility that this provides, the building could go on journeys, and so has a parallel mobility to the human presence. Immediately after its completion in summer 1991 the building was set up for what is so far the first and only time in Germany on the edge of »Planten und Blomen«, a park directly adjacent to Dammtor station in Hamburg, where urban and natural landscapes overlap. In the mean time it has been shown in a number of German exhibition buildings in its dismantled state as an independent sculptural ensemble made up of its architectural elements. The building was constructed as a contribution to »Kunst im öffentlichen Raum« (Art in public places); it has two larger rooms with sides about three metres long and two smaller ones measuring about one hundred and fifty centimetres; all of them are square. One of the larger rooms is glazed with transparent red, green and blue sliding panes. In it is a square opening in the centre of the ceiling, giving a view of the sky. A square sheet of glass of the same size over which one could walk is situated in the middle of the floor in the other large room. Here the ground below the building, which stands on supports, can be seen. As additional light is admitted to this room only through a narrow vertical slit in each of the three outer walls, it remains almost completely dark, and presents an invitation to retreat and stillness.

The two larger rooms, differing from each other like day and night, are open to use in time. The two smaller rooms beyond them have a more specific function. One of them, the only room accessible from the outside, serves as an entrance and corridor. From the room beyond it is access to a toilet. In other respects as well the building is provided with everything that people require for a twenty-four hour stay. A square wooden structure at about knee height under the sliding windows in the room with the coloured glass, and can be used as a bench. If the seat is lifted up a variety of useful supplies are revealed: essential foodstuffs, cutlery, crockery and blankets are ready for use.

Actually intended for use

As in architecture as a whole, the objects with which the building is furnished are intended for use. It is not a work of art existing without its various relationships, and it is not intended to represent or symbolize hidden meanings. The building is not recognizable as art if simply looked at, and thus it ideally fulfils the demand made of many failed outdoor sculptures that failed as »art in building« that »an artist working in a public place (must) try to reach the point at which his work as such does not become evident at all« (Amman 1984, p. 9). The fact that this work could also be temporary, and is thus free of any monument-like claim to eternity from the very beginning, makes it an exemplary type of new art in a public place. Maria Nordman proposes it to become the »paradigm for a new city« (Nordman / Vischer 1991). »Für die Ankommenden« is not an exhibition piece that is different from other aesthetic objects only in that it is presented in public and intended to be used. It is much more that the functional quality of the work of art can make it open as an experience in itself. For example, when an arriving person joins those already present in the building, being a visitor in a real but nevertheless open situation is conveyed to him as his own state, and not in a merely fictitious way by an appropriate representation in the form of an artistic image. Of course this can happen only if people are prepared to participate beyond a purely visual level: actually there should »be no audience (at all) ... except for those involved« (ABR 1992, recalling a famous sentence by Joseph Kosuth). It is only when someone actually gets involved in the various possibilities that the structure offers, that it starts to become possible to act in a particular way and thus to make certain decisions.

One might consider whether, why and when one might visit this building, for how long, and above all how it will be done. The special feature is that none of these decisions can be made on the basis of normal purposes, motives and interests. No economic, moral, political or other day-to-day points of view are applicable in this socially unpretermined place. People loose habitual orientations and feel free to respond in a new manner. In order to justify the need for action that arises in this place where one is free to be oneself, each participant is thrown back upon his or her subjective choices, but also induced to develop them by the specific qualities of the structure.

Aesthetic behaviour

Behaviour could attain an aesthetic quality provided that it develops in a context. There is nothing artificial about this choice-making process and it does not confine itself to so-called art industry. On the contrary, it is part of the reality of life, and yet differs from it because of its particular aesthetic nature. However, the fact that one's personal existence can acquire aesthetic form in this work is not merely the result of purely individual contemplative confrontation, but is the result of an interrelation with other people. For instance, whether the coloured panes should be moved and how much depends on the people who happen to be present at the time-period, and on communication between them. Communication itself acquires an aesthetic dimension as a result of the nature of the necessary decisions and because this place is predestined to make participants' personal preferences the principal criteria for decisions-making. The work of art in this case is produced in its openness to personal choice-making, which is mainly determined by its participants and their consensus, how it comes from modes of aesthetic observation. The particular of Maria Nordman's work can be better understood if it is seen in the context of system-theory as a kind of axiom in the process of communication initiating, keeping it moving and giving it a common point of reference. It creates a reference field for the choices made by the participants, with which thy define their ways of specific communication as a form of »ästhetisches Dasein«. Its meaning is not exhausted in the traditional terminology of an art work, but serves as a medium for aesthetic conversation processes. But the building has a mediating function in another, less indirect sense, with its approach to natural light in an extraordinary way through the specific qualities of its various openings. While »we do not see in the case of everything that we see, this makes it possible for us to see something« (Baecker 1990, p. 88), Maria Nordman's work makes us aware of the conditions of the visible of any kind of visibility. It is »light that makes it possible for us ... to see (at all)« (Baecker 1990, p. 92). As in Romantic landscape painting, light is also involved as an essential carrier of mood and emotion. It appears, in the changing times of day, for example, as the phenomenon by which even in the present one is able to experience directly the process of external nature and one's inner nature, coming into being and passing away.

Afterword with a cultural and political purpose

Every feature that distinguishes Maria Nordman's project artistically and contributes to making it exemplary as a new type of art in a public space makes it a problem for the authorities. They would like if at all possible to rid themselves of the continuous and expensive maintenance necessary if this piece of architecture, intended for mobility and use, is actually to be used. The work is threatened with the fate of being reduced to its purely sculptural character or simply being dismantled and put into store.

If this were to happen the work would then be of value only as a concept, rather than as a real building-work that can realize its potential only in direct use by people. It would go against the sense of all the artistic efforts and theoretical considerations of past years of art in outdoor spaces if a project that is predestined for the public because of its communicative character were to be only indirectly accessible through photographs and essays. This means a return to museum status, indeed the elimination of art that expressly does not have museum character.

And yet in this case there are no financial reasons that make it necessary to withdraw the work from its public availability and function: in any case considerable funds from the Hamburg cultural department have already been spent on financing it over a discussion and development phase that lasted over two years and the comparatively expensive production of the work. And now after it has only been shown a single time for a fortnight in late June 1991 in the »Planten und Blomen« park, despite the enormous effort made on all sides, all that now needs to be done is to invest a fraction of the payments that have already been made in final acquisition of the work. As this sum could not be substantially larger than the payments of costs for taking the work to America, which would be necessary otherwise, the negative decision by the Hamburg »art commission«, which it is to be hoped is not final, is incomprehensible from an economic point of view as well.

Mistaken investments for which the authorities have only themselves to blame are all the more regrettable at times of diminishing cultural budgets. But any financial sacrifice is ultimately less weighty for the future of communicative art than the lack of consistency from the authorities that lies behind the refusal. And yet it was in this very Hamburg that a goodbye was said to antiquated »art in building« practice, at an early stage, and in an expressly programmatic fashion. Without at first having any convincing artistic alternatives, there was a desire in any case to move away from the traditional embarrassed solutions applied to any old building, resulting in the creation of the necessary legal conditions in the »art in public places« legislation of the early 80s. The then head of department Karl Weber provided ambitious funding and conceptual input for various early projects for art that was not bound to an institution, with the »Projekt Jenisch-Park Skulptur«, carried out in 1986, or the »Hamburg Projekt 1989« enterprise. Initiatives of this kind made a significant contribution to the development of artistic approaches related to society. If in the mean time artists like Dan Graham, Clegg & Guttmann or of course Maria Nordman have developed strategies for involving the general public in aesthetic processes, these strategies should not be confronted with bureaucratic lack of imagination, laziness or ignorance. Even controversial discussions or reasoned refusals are more productive than mere indifference. It is not possible to proceed with the usual scheme for sculptural city furniture in the case of projects aimed at actual participation. It would be much better for those responsible to involve themselves in the specific demands of this kind of art with personal commitment and imagination, and to be prepared to take over elements of certain artistic functions. Without appropriate effort going well beyond realizing and exhibiting the work once only, socio-cultural experiments of this kind cannot be adequately carried out and continued. Who other than public offices should make it possible to carry out art of this kind, which subscribes not just to the theoretical idea, but to the practical conquest of aesthetic forms of action and communication, without which there can be no free public life?


ABR Stuttgart, Zwischen Eis und Süden, St. Moritz 1992

Ammann, J.-C., in: Parkett no. 2, 1984

Baecker, D., Die Dekonstruktion in der Schachtel: Innen und Außen in der Architektur, in:

Unbeobachtbare Welt, Bielefeld 1990

Nordman / Vischer, Wandernde Struktur / Haus der offenen Landschaft. Ein Gespräch zwischen

Maria Nordman und Theodora Vischer, in: Parkett no. 29, 1991

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