The rarefield cristallographies of Gabriela von Habsburg

The rarefield cristallographies of Gabriela von Habsburg

by Riccardo Caldura

The history of 20th century sculpture is characterised by a tension between art and technique which is, if possible, even more marked then in painting. This is because, while sculpture deals with the “being” of bodies and volumes, the forms of this “being” have changed radically as a result of our social environment being invaded by new materials, industrial manufacture and products which have required of artistic creativity a thorough reconsideration of its statutes. It is enough to remember the wrought and cast iron structures combined with the use of glass (Walter Benjamin offered some penetrating remarks on this subject in his essay on Paris, the capital of the 19th century), and then steel and aluminium and all the later alloys. In the course of the 20th century technology has introduced a vast quantity of new materials and processes, which have significantly modified our way of living: from architectural macro-structures to everyday objects. Stone, bronze and wood have in time been marginalized, noble materials that have taken on an “archaeological” artistic connotation. The impact inherent in the notion of the futurists that “movement and light disrupt the materiality of bodies” (point 4 of the “Technical Manifesto” of futurist painting) set off a progressive evaporation of the solid form and the “being” of the sculpture has since changed radically. New industrial processes, new materials, kineticism and transparency: through such elements could be re-written the history of 20th century sculpture. Gabriela von Habsburg’s explorations rightfully belong to that artistic period, making of modernity the point of reference. The mark of her first, and possibly most influential, teacher at the Academy of Arts of Munich, Robert Jacobsen. can be felt in the basic references to the concepts of the Pevsner brothers concerning the difficulties of the .relationship between art and technique. an issue which runs through the various currents of European constructivism. Under the thrust of the extraordinary developments in production systems, early 2Oth century art was forced to reconsider its reasons for being.

The achievements in engineering and architecture revolved around the concept of function. For the Russian avant-garde, and for the Constructivists in particular (from Latlin to Rodtchenko), the notion of art pour l’art had become inconceivable. Majakovskij, who shared their beliefs, spoke of the necessity for art to adapt to society, expanding the concept of functionality to include that of utility, understood as a form of social service which contributed to the emancipation of the collectivity Rodtchenko took up graphic art as an instrument of mass communication and design as a means of redefining the practice of living in a society aimed at surmounting class distinctions. However. this functional approach to art, seen as adapting to, and indeed being the flag-bearer of, technical innovation, was not the only one upheld within the avant-garde movements falling broadly under the titles of Constructivism and Rationalism. With the 1920 “Manifesto of Realism” the Pevsner brothers pointed to a different direction. The new materials require that consideration be given to formal principles which are much more to do with the free interpretation of dynamics in space than with the notion of functional relevance.

The foundations were thus laid for an exquisitely artistic approach to materials and techniques as well as for the particular abstract connotation which three-dimensional works of this period were beginning to take on. It is as though a space beyond were being sought for art, in the acceptance rather than the anachronistic refutation of technical innovation, yet avoiding the artist being lost in a professional role within the techno-productive system but taking on instead an explicit social function and recognition which, according to the politico-aesthetic utopias of the avant-garde, is the direction to be followed. In a similar way to what was taking place in abstract painting, it became possible to ensure, in a world reshaped by technology, a role for sculpture as the means of conserving those formal processes which do not just result in the mere functional efficiency of the product. The works of art thus conceived are better defined by what they are not than by what they actually are; they are not the typical aesthetic, functional products of design, they are not objects already made, collected, partially modified and then exhibited according to Duchamp’s logic of the ready-made), nor are they related to the Western sculptural tradition. In the space created by discarding the “not’s”, there develops a mode of contemporary sculpture which finds its beginnings in the physical and dynamic properties of the materials and an attitude of total indifference towards any form of representation of what used to be the main subject of sculpture, the human body. It is if anything the mineral world, among the realms of nature, which is taken as a point of reference. Art, and sculpture especially, takes on a crystallographic connotation which, however, has no precedent in nature since these crystallographies are the result of the combination of unusual materials (aluminium, Plexiglas, steel etc.). It is rather the concept of neo-nature which comes into being in this particular context of the plastic arts, and this neonature is “afunctional” in that it is not conceived as stemming from the humanistic dimension which continues, even within the technological cosmos, to consider man as the measure of all things.

The motions that art bears a relationship to a cosmic dimension and that man’s “green “world” is only one particular moment in the history of the development of nature towards a higher degree of perfection, in which the decay of bodies and the corruption of elements would cease to be, transpire as intuitions in Malevic’s essays. Thus already in the context of Russian Constructivism the concept of functionality was seen as one of many possible approaches to the relationship between art and technology, certainly not as the only one nor as the most radical. That which could be explored, beyond the mere functional aspect, was the algid Lyricism of mineral perfection and the harmonious relations between incorruptible neo-materials. The projecting of the sculptural piece towards a cosmic dimension is a recurrent feature in Gabriela von Habsburg’s works as some of the titles of her pieces from the early 90s clearly suggest: Aldebaran, Cassiopea, Photon and Wega. Her use of semi-finished “industrial materials” is never conceived in terms of its functionality but rather in terms of its dynamic tension. The rigidity of steel is shaped into a sign in space and belief in the “being” of the sculpture is shaken by its apparent precariousness, the feeling that it is about to fall or to lose its foothold in its stretching towards the void. To perceive it as a three-dimensional sign, rather than sculpture, seems more appropriate since it does not define any kind of body but only virtual spaces created by the intersection of the surfaces generated by dynamic lines in space. Steel bars, whose shape and thickness recall the profile of frames, circumscribe transparent surfaces and the dynamic balance and overall “precariousness” of the sculptures seem to catch the instant of crystallisation of the dynamic elements. There are no explicit symmetries or privileged points of view. Von Habsburg’s structures barely rest along fine diagonals which reduce the point of contact with the ground to the statically allowable minimum. Sometimes the sculpture can be made to rotate, thus modifying the point and lines of contact without, however, altering the integrity of the whole. The possibility of reversing the resting points suggests a casual relationship with the plane or, even, with the surface of the “earth”. It also allows for the sculpture to be acted upon be the viewer, a possibility which, while being conceived in particular for the sculptures of the small scale series, such as Wega, is also envisaged for larger scale ones. The “fall” determined by the action is a critical physical consequence of the sculpture’s “being”. Such consequence may be accepted as a possible event but cannot modify the substantial inalterability of the mineral body, given that this doesn’t have privileged sides or resting points. It is as though the perfection of the mineral feared neither falls nor alterability. The act of falling, in the mineral and cosmological context, is a purely physical event which produces no metaphysical alterations in the state of the object. There is no perish ability of the bodies just as there is no death, anthropologically speaking, in the mineral and cosmological context.

The sculptress pays great attention to the finish of the sculpture’s surface, which is brought to life by accentuating the luminosity and reflectiveness through careful polishing in the case of steel and leaving it with its natural texture in the case of iron, creating a chromatic contrast between the skins of the metals as in “Castor und Pollux” of 1994. Similar attention is given to the junctures between parts, rendering the welded joints imperceptible so that the articulation of the bars is even more fluid, almost like an organism. It is as though the metal, through the welding, is bent into a pose which brings out the overall harmony of its crystallographic posture. It is. so to say. its self-generation. The artist in fact intervenes in the finishing stage of the work to remove the traces of imperfection due to the handwork. The piece must turn out perfect because it is not only produced but also self-generated by the subtle harmonies of the material. The concept of beauty which emerges from von Habsburg’s works has to do with incorruptibility.

With the indifference towards the metaphysical pathos of the “fall” (only conceived as mere physical casualty) and with the rhythm of the perfect dynamic suspension of forces and tensions. That there is something of a dance of the elements in the levitation of the two-dimensional planes was the formal result of the visual lyricism of the suprematists as well as of the manifold variations of EI Lissitzky’s Proun. As the Pevsner would have it, there really was something other than functionality in the relationship between art and technology. With coherence, one might say almost expressing a neoclassical ideal that lies below the abstract perfection of the dynamism of materials, Gabriela von Habsburg conceives a new metallic dance, made of unstable kinetic balances, having recourse to large steel bars to reinterpret, in a work of hers of 1997, one of the images par excellence of the perfection of movement bequeathed to us by the great tradition of Western: that of the Three Graces. It is in the mineral sphere that that classical beauty of the human body can be extended to a mineral and cosmological dimension. These incorruptible and absolute bodies. light and made of emptiness are no longer maidens, but rarefied crystallographies.

Riccardo Caldura in the catalog ‘Levitas’, 2000, ISBN 3-905639-00-9