– Summer 2009

From A(rt) to Z(obernig) and Back Again

Diana Baldon

Tags: Heimo Zobernig

Inert and enigmatic, a black rectangle is difficult to decipher without the ghost of Modernism coming to mind. Or could it be a small chamber for torture? Or a black Neolithic stone, emitting radio signals like the one buried four million years ago in Stanley Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)? Could it just be what it seems - a rectangular object made of cardboard and varnished in glossy black resin? Heimo Zobernig's Untitled (1986) is none of these. A medium-sized box, big enough to fit a person sitting, it was built following the dimensions of Wilhelm Reich's orgone accumulator, a controversial device celebrated in America in the 1950s as the 'orgasm box'. The Austrian psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, who was persecuted by Nazis, psychoanalysts, Marxists and the FBI, invented the accumulator for medical purposes. Following his belief that sexual repression was bourgeois in character and that all neuroses were caused by repressed blockages of orgone energy, Reich maintained that people would be able to emancipate themselves and transform the world if they managed to free their own genitals.

The difficulty in deciphering the meaning and implications of Reich's speculative and therapeutic work is analogous to the difficulty in classifying Zobernig's practice. Mainly shown and discussed within German-speaking art circuits, Zobernig's production consists of paintings, texts, objects, graphic and architectural designs, videos, symposia, furniture and even musical performances shifting back and forth from theoretical seriousness to deadpan humour. Often described as engaging in an ironic deconstruction of a formalist vocabulary, Zobernig has produced a free, reticular system of associations between form and content in over twenty years of activity. The apparently inexpressive, silent materiality of his visual style may

  1. Jacques Rancière, 'What Aesthetics Can Mean', in Peter Osborne (ed.), From an Aesthetic Point of View, London: Serpent's Tail, 2000, p.19.

  2. Linguistics, semiotics, rhetoric, allegory and other models of 'textuality' became the lingua franca for critical reflections on the arts and the media at the time. They were considered cultural forms in which pictures occupied a position between paradigm and anomaly, as models or figures for other things (including figuration itself) and as unsolved problems.

  3. Ferdinand Schmatz and Heimo Zobernig, Farbenlehre, Vienna and New York: Springer, 1995. Both perspectives are brought together in a publication by Zobernig that appeared on the occasion of his solo show at the Peter Pakesch gallery in Vienna in 1987. Heimo Zobernig (exh. cat.), Vienna: Galerie Peter Pakesch, 1987.

  4. Respectively, at a group exhibition at Isabella Kacprzak Gallery, Stuttgart, in 1988 titled 'Franz West, Neue Skulpturen, Kollaborationen Herbert Brandl und Heimo Zobernig', and 'Ein Fernsehstudio für UTV' ('A Television Studio for UTV') at Galerie Christian Nagel, Cologne, 1997.

  5. W.J.T. Mitchell, Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1994, p.245.

  6. Unlike Mondrian, who removed the tape in the finished works, Zobernig leaves it on the canvas.

  7. Mary Anne Staniszewski, The Power of Display: A History of Exhibition Installations at the Museum of Modern Art, Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press, 1998, p.xix.

  8. The notion of display has been a subject of enquiry in his lecture 'Displaced Display: The Drama of Display', given at Lisbon's Centro Cultural de Belem in 2000, and of an artist's book of the same title published by Kunstraum Innsbruck in 2006.

  9. This intervention was inspired by Pablo Picasso's Guernica (1937), which was painted in black, white and grey tones, as he considered colour inappropriate for portraying the horrors of the Spanish Civil War.

  10. In 1961 the Austrian graphic designer Herbert Bayer wrote: 'Exhibition design has evolved as a new discipline, as an apex of all media and powers of communication and of collective efforts and effects. The combined means of visual communication constitutes a remarkable complexity: language as visible printing or as a sound, pictures as symbols, paintings, and photos, sculptural media, materials and surfaces, colour, light, movement (of display as well as the visitor), films, diagrams and charts. The total application of all plastic and psychological means (more than anything else) makes exhibition design an intensified and new language.' Herbert Bayer, Aspects of Design of Exhibitions and Museums, 1961. Quoted in M.A. Staniszewski, The Power of Display, op. cit. , p.38.

  11. Jan Winckelmann, 'Intuitive Formalismen', Heimo Zobernig: Kunst und Text (exh. cat.), Bonn, Leipzig and Munich: Bonner Kunstverein, Galerie für Zeitgenossische Kunst Leipzig, Kunstverein München, 1998, p.33.

  12. This principle is equally valid for the paintings, in which emulsions, primers and synthetic resins climb to the finished surface, even though their seemingly careless brushwork looks like a paint-job. If until the 1990s most of his works were characterised by an industrial colour palette, later more varied colours appear, such as blues, browns, oranges and yellows.

  13. All these architectural 'modifications' were removed later but reconstructed in 1999 on the occasion of his solo exhibition at the Kunstverein.

  14. See Ferdinand Schmatz and Heimo Zobernig, Lexikon der Kunst 1992, Stuttgart: Edition Patricia Schwarz, 1992.

  15. The same applies for most of his catalogues, which appear in standard paper size DIN A4.

  16. This formula was also adopted for his solo show in Chicago's Renaissance Society in 1996, where he organised the symposium 'Planned Obsolescence' to discuss his exhibition as well as issues that at the time preoccupied the speakers (Joshua Decter, Kathryn Hixson, Ann Goldstein, Mark Wigley), indirectly related to Zobernig's own concerns.

  17. Jean-Luc Nancy, The Birth to Presence (trans. Brian Holmes), Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993, pp.248-65.