Five Continents

Five Continents

by Dr. Andreas Hapkemeyer, 2001

Five Continents, the large-sized sculpture that Gabriela von Habsburg positioned on the Franke company premises in Aarburg in 2001, continues her work to date but also presents new accents. Unlike most of her medium to small sculptures, this work was commissioned for a very specific site. This fact is mirrored by several aspects. For once, her work which, as a rule, conforms to the typically modern principle of autonomous sculpture and only accepts to follow its own laws, had to give serious thought to an actual site and specific requirements. Therefore, this sculpture turned into something of an installation, a three-dimensional shape reacting and interacting with spatial requirements. Beyond this, the artist created a reference to the contents of the site. The aspect distinguishing Five Continents from a so to speak autonomous work is its lack of fear to interact with the reality surrounding us; a lack that is, as a matter of fact, its conditio sine qua non. Five Continents is one of a series of three large sculptures by Gabriela von Habsburg including one erected for the MCE office building of Voest Alpine Linz in 1994 and that for the Bugatti works in Verona - though the latter never passed the project stage.

Gabriela von Habsburg studied with Professor Robert Jacobsen at the Munich Academy of Art and belongs, similar to her teacher, to the constructivist-geometrical tradition - a movement going back to the very beginning of modernism, which practised the reduction of means to geometrical elements and mostly primary colours. It was based on the conviction that this was the only feasible way to create an art free of any relation to actual objects and thus totally individual, following its own laws. In this respect we refer to early masters such as Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner, whose oeuvre combined the concept of autonomy with quite a strong link to optimism regarding the future, society, and technology. Much like the constructivists, Gabriela von Habsburg almost exclusively works with primary forms, relating them in the most varied ways to one another. Of course, the occasionally unlimited confidence that accompanied the pure principle of construction during early modern times has now been lost. In its place, Gabriela von Habsburg's works show an alternation between strictness and gracefulness, construction and lyricism established within the domain of aesthetics.

By naming her sculptures associatively, Habsburg goes beyond the Spartan soberness of her constructivists antecedents though: she no longer just numbers them or describes the actual phenomenon in a name but - as in the case of the Franke company - uses rather suggestive names such as Five Continents. This title, generating a long series of associations, corresponds to the five parts of the work. On the parking lot framed by the three Franke buildings and thus central to the site, five huge shapes made of steel plate rise that could be likened to gates. The heights of the five gates vary from a maximum one of 11 metres to a minimum one of 5 metres, establishing references to the surrounding architecture. Depending on your vista, they seem to merge into a single, continuous shape or split into five single elements. The posts, to remain with the image of a gate - do not rise parallel and vertically though but are shifted either horizontally or vertically in several ways and create an intensive sculptural rhythm. This rhythmic treatment does not break away from the strict linearity of constructivist tradition, though it no doubt revitalizes this very tradition. Already in 1990, in the catalogue of the Autoren-Galerie 1 in Munich, Helmut Schneider referred to the important role of asymmetry in Gabriela von Habsburg's oeuvre.

The same as in most of her works, Gabriela von Habsburg refrains from using volumes to displace space in this monumental sculpture. The elements the gates are shaped from are more linear than voluminous. With these shapes, that don't seem to be heavy in spite of their impressive size, Habsburg strives to encompass or create space: for between the curved surfaces, pipes, poles and rods, grids or bent metal tapes, space is allowed to emerge and seemingly expanded, compressed, and shifted by the very elements the artist uses.

For the type of sculpture represented by Gabriela von Habsburg, the material used is quite essential. This also applies to Five Continents. The steel plates were worked with the flex grinder so that they almost seem to be textured like grained wood. The important thing for the artist here is that the refraction of light by the polished surfaces changes according to the prevalent insolation. The static aspect of the form and hardness of the material are contrasted by the changing appearance of the surface. The steel plates used for the construction in turn echo the stainless steel used for the buildings, and are a homage to the material processed and converted by Franke.

Each of the five gates (or frames) point to another direction: a pointed triangle positioned between the posts and embedded in the ground functions as a stabilizing base, a direction finder and mirror to boot. Here, the sculpture definitely changes from a three-dimensional object into a two-dimensional surface. This mostly subtle back and forth between the dimensions is one of the essential factors of the tension inherent in the works created by Gabriela von Habsburg. In some cases, her sculptures exclusively develop within space in a linear way. Another variant is the creation of a sculpture solely by combining various inclined surfaces. She already developed a special form of sculpting in the early 90s when she put rather small sculptures on reflecting surfaces that, by mirroring them, made the invisible part visible and, at the same time, created additional depth. The triangular floor plates used for the sculpture at the Franke works represent a variant of this treatment of refractory surfaces. The gates, however, also represent - beyond any formal aspects - a certain symbolism referring to the international activities of Franke.

Artist Gabriela von Habsburg is substantially a craftswoman, or rather, like her teacher Jacobsen, she does not distinguish between "high" art and the crafts. The artist herself as well as critics time and again refer to the fact that she values craftsmanship and precision in her work. This very attitude helped her establish a relation with the site chosen for the Franke sculpture. Contrary to what many artists think today, she considers art without craftsmanship unacceptable. For Gabriela von Habsburg, art cannot be a purely mental process whose actual realization is delegated to others. Of course, the creation of such a large sculpture requires industrial support - which Franke provided in a highly professional manner. The Franke workshops took care of the necessary lifting, cutting, rolling, etc. Such a work with an overall weight of more than 4,000 kilograms and a total surface of approximately 130 square meters is no longer feasible as a pure craft object created by a single person. Gabriela von Habsburg, however, participated in all the work phases and was very directly involved in the creation of the sculpture. Art has always been a matter of confronting the chosen material for her and implying the use of her own body and physical strength. This physical aspect is the link in a large sculpture such as Five Continents when welding the crucial components of her work into a whole and also the very prerequisite to perceive the vitality inherent in these basically rigid works.

Dr. Andreas Hapkemeyer im Katalog 'Five Continents', 2001