Vitus H. Weh

Emblematic Painting

Today we are experiencing a curious renaissance of the emblem. The motto of Alanus de Insulis, dating back to the 12th century A.D. "Omnis muni creatura / Quasi liber et figura / Nobis est et speculum", ("All creation of this world / is, as it were, portrayed / to us as mirror, book and picture") would seem to be wholly applicable to the present-day situation. Our everyday life is full of emblems: pictograms, graphic user interfaces, advertising images, logos, printed T-shirts etc.. These visual abbreviations demand less to be viewed than read, as a result of which a quite specific kind of information opens up behind them. Basically, emblems correspond to a doctrine of reference, correspondence and life, according to which the confusion of the world can be translated into a structure of meaningful symbols. And we all love these signatures, because they reduce the complexity of everyday life for us. These schematic pictorial forms are today so influential in perception that they practically overshadow all other images. The fact that art also concerns itself with the phenomenon of the emblem would therefore seem to be less of a surprise. Yet it has done so for a long time now. Even the art of the 16th and 17th centuries used to repeatedly demand that the painters should learn from the poets ("ut pictura poesis"). This approximation between the word and the image is most consistently achieved in the baroque emblem. The older and more popular expression for an emblem is "symbol". In a universal lexicon of the 18th century one can read under this headword: "The symbol is a painting which demonstrates a hidden meaning in an image and in words and which induces one to further reflection. The image is intended for the body, the words for the soul of the symbol."

In Georg Salner's exhibition SU.SY all the classical elements of such a symbol seem to exist in an ideal way. The short inscriptio as motto (the names of gates in white writing on a black wall), the graphic pictura (the row of chairs and the areas consisting of metal plates), as well as the written subscriptio (Salner's interpretations which surround the text). Yet one still cannot quite grasp the matter completely: why does not an emblematic vignette suffice, as it used to? Why does one evidently need a whole room for it today? And why these peculiar excessive interpretations in the form of Salner's appended text? An explanation is to be found in Salner's starting point, which derives not only from the tradition of scholarliness, of codification and interpretation, but also from a quite definite conception of painting. It is well worth examining this aspect of painting in more detail.

What one notices first of all is the fact that the room designed by Salner is, in its entirety, itself the picture, so that neither the concept of panel painting nor that of wall painting is applicable here. Expressions such as "space filling" or "spatial painting" would seem to come closer, but even they do not capture precisely enough the arrangement of this perforated spatial sluice with its coloured additions. The tradition within contemporary art, to which Salner can refer, is still young. The beginnings of increased international interest for space-filling painting installations can be dated fairly exactly to the mid-eighties. It was a development which ran more or less parallel to the movement of the "new geometry". At that time, artists as different as Matt Mullican, Sol LeWitt and Günter Förg discovered the possibility of developing their painting three-dimensionally, working away from the history of geometrical abstraction or the schematic codification of everyday aesthetics. Others, such as Joseph Kosuth, Remy Zaugg and Gerhard Merz, attempted to boost their spatial paintings with the additional use of writing. Heinz Schütz later attempted to summarise this phenomenon, which so conspicuously promoted narrative and "street-ballad" influences, under the title "the theatre of emblems": "The emblem enters the stage and the word, which painting has shoved behind the backdrop, appears on the scene." (1)

However, parallel to this international discussion, a local variation emerged in Austria, and this is very important in the present context. "Theatre" here tends to mean something more than simply "the stage". This difference has been of great significance, particularly in the Viennese area of resonance. Here, the tradition of the spatial Gesamtkunstwerk, which still continues, has to be taken into account, having existed ever since the baroque constructions of palaces and churches and come down to us, via the furniture of historicism and the comprehensive staging of Jugendstil, in the small-scale architecture of the 60s (Hans Hollein, Hermann Czech and others) and the artistically designed exhibition rooms of the Museum for Applied Art (MAK) in the 1990s. Markus Brüderlin pointed out this connection as early as 1986 (2) and emphasised the influence of visual and intellectual experience on the painting of the new geometry, in contrast to classical modernism and American neo-post-concept art, as prepared by the approach to the historically and aesthetically dense urban area of Vienna or even Sigmund Freud's cartographical work on the psyche. This tradition of painting, which extends into the "aesthetic space" runs through Austria right up to the present-day. Its field of activity includes the "event space of the panel painting", as well as "designed intermediate spaces" and "settings". The "similarity to equipment" which one finds in these areas is the difference which emerges in a comparison with the traditional theatre. It is a matter not of the "stage scenery" against which a play is performed, but of painting as the production and reflection of areas of thought and life intended to be universalist in nature. Important here is the difference between dramaturgy and polytechnology: the furnishing of this space consists not of props but of "fittings". As the work of Franz West, Heimo Zobernig and others displays in an exemplary manner, it is a matter of the body and its approach to these equipment-like pictorial spaces; it is a matter of spaces as social sculptures.

Against this background of the Austrian painting tradition, Georg Salner's SU.SY room is transparent. It becomes clear why a whole room is needed for the purpose and what the reasons are for interpretational excess. In Salner's installation it is a matter not of an emblem which is employed unquestioningly, but rather of a small machine which attempts to master and channel the exploding connotations which arise in the case of something so simple as four types of metal: iron, copper, silver and gold. Salner himself hints at the adaptable, equipment-like nature of the installation with the title "SU.SY". What sounds like a pretty girl's name actually describes a phenomenon in atomic research. The fact that in Salner's installation the meanings shift in a circular manner, like matter in a particle accelerator (see the text fragment by Thomas Kramar on supersymmetry), provides a very relevant comparison. The emblematic nexus of meanings, which was earlier intended to reflect the universe of eternal and true determinations, virtually descends into turmoil in Salner's installation. It is held together only by the space of painting.

1 Heinz Schütz (ed.) "Das Theater der Embleme", thematic volume of the art journal Kunstforum International, vol. 102, July/August 1989, p. 48. 2 See Markus Brüderlin (ed.) "Seele und Geometrie", Kunstforum International, vol. 86, Nov. / Dec. 1986

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