Lost under the Surface

Austrian artist Brigitte Kowanz decodes light and space at the Haus Konstruktiv

Brigitte Kowanz, Exhibition view Museum Haus Konstruktiv, 2020. Photo: Stefan Altenburger. © 2020, ProLitteris, Zurich; Studio Brigitte Kowanz 

« Light is what we see. »

Brigitte Kowanz

Now that the lights are officially flicked on again in museums across Switzerland, Zurich’s Haus Konstruktiv welcomes back the public to an extended exhibition by pioneering Austrian artist Brigitte Kowanz. The show opened in February in what is arguably one of Europe’s most prestigious modern art institutions and a longer run befits this career-spanning solo retrospective.  

For the past forty years, Kowanz has explored the multifarious properties of light to create artistic visual installations, objects and interventions which challenge the conventional concept of the image and painting. Visitors to the exhibition are treated to small and larger scale pieces, which extend across the top two floors. Mounted on walls, on the floor, on metal girders or floating in air, they fit brilliantly within the impressive industrial locale of this former electrical sub-station.

Kowanz possesses a profound adeptness for interpreting light using various sources. Mirrors, neon elements and electrical hardware are her preferred materials for harnessing light and channelling information through the resulting form and space. Whether in vibrant, illuminated writings encased in transparent cubes or ethereal, cached messages which only surface when the viewer moves and ambient light hits wall-hung aluminium panels, her pieces prove the multi-dimensional nature of this elusive medium.

Image carriers – from paper to light constructions

Kowanz has held the title of Professor of Transmedial Art at the University of Applied Arts Vienna since 1997. She began her career in the late seventies working alongside fellow Austrian visual artist and one-time partner Franz Graf. Together with Graf, she began experimenting with transparent image carriers and luminous pigments by applying phosphorescent and fluorescent paints to canvases and paper. 

Those early paper compositions evolved into broader investigations of light. The experimental film, video and photography Kowanz worked with during her studies “played a crucial role” in her decision to pursue the medium as a material for art. “Light is what we see” says Kowanz, whose manipulations and observations of how light behaves enable the viewer to experience the medium both as an autonomous phenomenon and as a messenger of information. 

As this latest exhibition reveals, not all light is the same. Where other Light and Space artists like James Turrell or Dan Flavin dealt with the illusion of surface or “the conceptual rigor of abstract forms” and the intrinsic colour properties of the light spectrum, her own investigation concerns “spatiality, (or) three-dimensionality through the layering of transparent surfaces such as glass or reflecting surfaces generating new virtual spaces by means of light.” 

Brigitte Kowanz www 12.03.1989 06.08.1991, 2017 Edition 1/3. Photo © Alexia Green 2020

By approaching her work with a scientific curiosity, Kowanz researches, tests, observes  and discovers how light acts and how it contributes to a new artistic vocabulary. Explaining her process for a sculptural installation she completed in 2017 for the 57th Venice biennale (she jointly represented her country with Erwin Wurm), the artist describes how, from an initial concept, drawings are produced then digitalized, how the idea of line transformed into light emerges, and, in this case, how the line that traces the cable is broken up into Morse code to give a specific date. Templates are made and the neon elements so typical of her works are fabricated.  The mirrors which Kowanz incorporates to multiply physical space into a series of virtual scenes are produced and the entire piece assembled, often, (in the case of the Austrian pavilion) in-situ.

Brigitte Kowanz Detail Just Make Sense, 2000 Edition 2/3 Photo © Alexia Green 2020

Do you read me?

If light is her material, communication is the leitmotif flowing through Kowanz’ oeuvre. Codes and ciphers, either letters or numbers, digital or handwritten elevate the industrial aesthetic of her creations to become messengers of information where the ostensible presence of language in diverse forms adds an intellectual consequence.

Brigitte Kowanz Morsealphabet (Morse Alphabet) 1998 Edition 1/3 Photo © Alexia Green 2020

Morse Code figures consistently, explicit in earlier works such as Morsealphabet, 1998, and in subsequent works where neon tubes are broken into dots and dashes to communicate something relevant.  Never random, her pieces often carry titles linked to specific events in time. The installation originally developed for Venice www 12.03.1989 06.08.1991, 2017 which features in reduced form is a recent example where the two dates incorporated as dots and dashes in the neon tubing represent the first presentation of the concept of the World Wide Web at CERN, and the day it became accessible to the public. A compact wall object entitled www, 1995/2019 incorporating glowing lamps, distribution sockets, acrylic glass and stainless steel is an earlier conceptual nod to the creation of the internet. 

Brigitte Kowanz Exhibition view Museum Haus Konstruktiv, 2020. Photo: Stefan Altenburger. © 2020, ProLitteris, Zurich; Studio Brigitte Kowanz

Two other neon and mirror works feature dates from the technological revolution Email 02.08.1984 03.08.1984, 2017, and YouTube 14.02.2005, 2018 are numerical markers of our modern society, transmitted by this historical nineteenth century communication system.

One of the earliest works in the show is Lichtgeschwindigkeit sek/4m (Speed of Light sec/1m), 1989/2007.  Using LED and acrylic glass, Kowanz places emphasis on the fact that light “travels”, rather than simply being present. Responding to the difficulty in visualizing the rapid high speed, Kowanz uses the objects to quantify the respective fraction of a second that light naturally takes to cover their length, be it four metres or one metre.   

Brigitte Kowanz Lichtgeschwindigkeit sek/4m (Speed of Light sec/1m), 1989/2007 Edition 1/3. Photo © Alexia Green 2020

Messaging in a blue bottle

Entire rooms glow the colour of supernatural gemstones from the integrated neon components yet Kowanz encourages the viewer to delve beyond their splendid visual superficiality, and decipher the content beneath. Just Make Sense and The Unique Phenomenon of a Distance However Close it May Be from 2000 feature symmetrical, rectangular blocks of luminescent markings. Observed carefully, the coded title words are intelligible. The subtle, linear layered forms might, at a distance recall Rothko. But where the American artist’s rectangles “seem barely to coalesce out of the ground”, Kowanz’ illuminated forms, in contrast,  float unanimously beyond the glass within a definite space created by their luminosity. If these two artists share the same sense of boundlessness, what emerges is Kowanz’ own unique expression of light.

Three separate early works from 1988 present earlier illumination processes explored by Kowanz. Glass bottles filled with fluorescent pigment affixed in linear and circular arrangements to three square painted white panels emit a cool blueness into the ether.

Brigitte Kowanz Ohne Titel (1 x 8), 1988/2019 Edition 1/3. Photo © Alexia Green 2020

On leaving the glacial space, the viewer passes Light Steps, 1990, a celestial stairway which emphasizes the architectural dimension of her work.  A sequence of eleven ascending black light tubes construct multidirectional spaces. It feels like a futuristic, suspended sci-fi pathway to the sky.

Brigitte Kowanz Light Steps, 1990 Edition 1/3 Photo © Alexia Green 2020

Kowanz’ continually returns to existing ideas which is reflected in the show’s presentation. There is no chronological order, instead harmonious arrangements group representative pieces from her entire career.   Lightboxes of different shapes and sizes contain dynamic environments evoking infinite black holes extending into space. Peer in and these voids are lit up along the way by swirling, spiraling neon tubes beaming messages into the universal ether. 

Other designs using textile, aluminium and lacquered panel reveal handwritten aphorisms such as ‘Light Never Stays’ or ‘Is Continually Changing’. Observe these works and you intercept what Kowanz silently articulates.

The impressive series entitled Licht ist was man sieht (Light Is What We See) produced in the nineties using power strips inserted with glow lamps support Kowanz’ preoccupation with how the world communicates. The orange luminous elements convey the title of the work in several languages from German to English to Italian and Mandarin. In doing so, Kowanz addresses both the functionality of light and how light illuminates the structures of each language.

As her practice surges further into exploring how this elemental agent communicates with our human eye, she may, if our senses are receptive, prove again and again that light is what we see, but there’s much more to it than a shiny surface.

Brigitte Kowanz, 2019 Photo: Adrian Kowanz © Studio Brigitte Kowanz 

Brigitte Kowanz
Lost under the Surface
Solo retrospective at Haus Konstruktiv
EXTENDED until 13 September 2020

For further information go to www.hauskonstruktiv.ch

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