Dialogue with Architecture

by Matthias Frehner, 2007

Architecture knows no bounds: buildings are becoming higher, more intelligent, more daring. The urban symbols of our time are being created by architects: leoh Ming Pei’s glass pyramid for the Louvre in Paris, Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Norman Foster’s „Gherkin“ in London, Renzo Piano’s Klee Waves in Bern. These buildings are not just functional structures, their outward appearance is sculptural in form. What is more, the cri­tique of architecture has long since usurped the vocabulary of sculpture; the Louvre pyramid is a monolith, the Guggenheim mu­seum and the Paul Klee centre are sculptures … So where does that leave sculpture itself? The fact is that sculpture no longer plays an adequate role for such spectacular buildings. Because the architects themselves rely on sculptural designs, the buildings are both architecture and sculpture. Architecture has „swallowed“ sculpture.

Independent sculptures are not considered necessary in front of sculpturally-designed buildings whose surroundings are all part and parcel of the work. Where they are still required, they are simply designed by the architect, who does not wish his gesamtkunstwerk to be disrupted. For example, by Renzo Piano in Bern. Yet wherever artists have been given a chance, a new relationship has developed between them and the star architects: sculptors play the role of court jester to the emperor. Their works do not compete with the architectural form, they simply comment on it incidentally, so to speak.

Often, artists respond to buildings with virtual volumes; they compile photo-documentations, cre­ate sound installations, design light sculptures. At documenta XII there is only one large sculptural form outdoors – an assemblage of historical doors by Ai Wei Wei. On the other hand, there is a poppy field and a carousel in front of the Fridericianum, and a rice terrace in front of Schloss Wilhelmshohe. Gabriela von Habsburg remains a sculptor. She has faith in the equal partnership between architecture and sculpture. She is not content with the role of a droll carousel manager or an ironic land Sakarin Krue – On in Kassel. As a sculptor, she herself makes an „architectonic“ point. Her response to monumental ar­chitecture is sculptural monumentality. She creates landmarks in urban space, gives the gesamtkunstwerk – aspect of the traditional monument site a contemporary formal idiom. Yet her position is not that of a nee-conservative postmodernist. She would never be satisfied to make a merely decorative intervention. Instead she adopts the role of opponent, entering the ring on a par, so to speak. She responds to sculptural architecture with architectonic sculpture.

Gabriela von Habsburg’s art has been influenced by the organically open spatial structures of her Danish teacher Robert Jacobsen (1912 -1993), an adamant representative of the pioneers of metal sculpture. Like him, she too plays with the features of the material. Her preference for reflecting precious metals, which she constructively works, is something she shares with the Ger­man lnformel metal sculptor Norbert Kricke (1922-1984), while her move into the sphere of kinetic sculpture continues the work of George Rickey (1907 – 2002). Kinetics: In 2007, Gabriela created a monumental outdoor work for a company located in Aarburg and active in the coffee busi­ness. It consists of a slim rod carrying an elongated oval body. The overall form recalls a stylised treetop. In relation to the rod, the oval body is shifted slightly off the vertical axis. The ellipse consists of 23 parallel discs with regular intermediary spaces. The disks are slightly oblique, as opposed to the horizontal plane of the square. The body – the work is called Coffee Bean – rotates slowly around the central rod. Because of the oblique position of the discs, its overall form changes as it rotates, not just its outline, but also its internal appearance. When seen from a fixed vantage point, the light slits between the discs continually shut forming a closed body which is thus transformed into the original lamellar form again. The shadow cast by the body also changes, and the light falling on the ellipse sometimes penetrates the open struc­ture, sometimes is thrown back by the dazzling surface.

Here the artist has created a complex impact by formally simple means. As a result of the changes in its volume and the fluid impact of the light on its surface, the organically irregular coffee-bean shape be­comes a living body. Technology is experienced here as an organic growth process. This kinetic sculpture is purposely in line with its classical-modern forerunners, especially the work of George Rickey, whereby it expands on the sculptural issues addressed in Rickey’s oeuvre. While the latter placed swinging signs in space, Gabriela transforms linear structures into physical forms. While Rickey „draws“ in space, she „paints“ and „models“ volumes right in front of our eyes. Her artistic cloud would be a source of great pleasure for the „cloud shepherd“ Hans Arp (1886 – 1966). The President’s „Crown“: Equestrian statues represent the es­sence of hero worship. Today the equestrian statue is no longer viable as a genre, given that false heroes were too often acknowl­edged in that dignified form. Gabriela von Habsburg has taken up the genre of the monument. Its position in urban space and its associated potential to exert an influence provoked her to undertake an astonishing reinterpretation and reformulation of the genre. In cities today, new monuments are not being erected; on the contrary, old ones are being rigorously disposed of once regimes change. Gabriela was presented with the almost unique opportunity of giving an urban landmark to a central square in the new Kazakh capital of Astana. Her partner in this undertaking was the British star-architect Norman Foster. Foster was commis­sioned by the Kazakh President Nursultan Nasarbayev to design ideal representational buildings for the new capital city, without being restricted by any need to take the already existing build­ings into account. Gabriela von Habsburg’s Monument Horseshoe and Wheel is related along an axis to Foster’s monumental peace pyramid, the „New Sun King“, which was inaugurated last autumn. Von Habsburg’s monument, however, honours not the president, but the horse, the traditional status symbol of that nation of horse riders. Yet the horse is missing. The centre of the square is empty, except for a kind of wreath made up of 16 upright horseshoes radially-arranged at regular intervals from one another in a pond. The reflecting chromium-steel horseshoes rise upwards like a huge „crown“. The fountain of water shooting high up out of the centre transforms the setting into a dazzling light spectacle. With her monument made of ordinary, banal good-luck symbols, Gabriela von Habsburg has created a sculpture that is formally equal to Foster’s.

This horseshoe monument represents a power­ful, radially-expanding sign, but – unlike Foster’s pyramid – evades, with gentle irony, the largess of Astana’s urbanism. The „Rose“ of the Revolution: In remembrance of the bloodless Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003, Gabriela von Habsburg pro­duced a monument for Tbilisi described as being „by young people for young people in memory of the great actions of young people for Georgia“. The whole approach of the project was democrat­ic and communal in character. Von Habsburg designed a public square, the ground plan of which is a stylised rose. The model consists of a circular form with groups of stones arranged in seg­ments around the empty centre, a kind of modern Stonehenge. The site was to consist of 60 different kinds of stone all found in Georgia and documenting the diversity of the country. The artist turned to the Academy of Arts in Tbilisi, because her concept was that students should work the stones according to their own ide­as. The guideline was that each block was to be dedicated to an outstanding personality in the history of Georgia. Von Habsburg appealed to sponsors to finance the acquisition of the stones, and communities, cities, companies and individuals from all parts of the country made them available. They were then worked on by the young artists at the Academy.

The shapes and sizes of the blocks are highly diverse. Rough, erratic block-like boulders al­ternate with geometrically-shaped, organically-rounded and pure square forms. The blueprint did not lay down how the young sculptors had to treat the blocks. The overall work, however, was discussed in a team: who wanted to work on what stone, to whom was it to be dedicated, and where would it finally be positioned on the „Rose“. The inscriptions in Georgian script communicate an impression of the country’s great cultural achievements. The names range from personalities from the world of sport to citizens who take care of street children. The „Rose“ thus conveys a lively image of Georgia, embracing all facets of its social and societal developments. The Rose is also a living organism, as expressed by the water flowing in it. Like veins in a leaf. narrow irregular channels run from the periphery to the centre of the square. The Rose Monument quickly became a popular meeting place. People sit on the stones to rest and talk. The square has become a stage, and in the artist’s eyes the people on that stage are actually the living monument. Gabriela von J. Habsburg’s work is a compelling up-date of the historical monument. This is a monument that has emancipated itself from its surroundings: it does not enter into a dialogue with an architectural setting; it does not reinforce any fixed values and judgements; it embeds itself organically; it does not impress; it is a platform for encounter. The people who „use“ it, complete it. Their every interaction with the ‚petals‘ created by the artists and their co-authors gives rise to a new „Rose“ encom­passing and signifying political and social reality. This democrati­cally „open“ monument points to the future.

Matthias Frehner