Sabina Hörtner

Mobility, mutability, elusiveness of form are essential aspects of Sabina Hoertner’s art. To achieve them, the artist keeps her aesthetic and formal options open, and refreshingly unique. In her last solo show, at the Grita Insam Gallery in Vienna, Hoertner hung rows of transparent plastic strips from a frame of heavy metal rods. Set on wheels, the work evoked some curious, industrial armature. A series of fans blew a strong stream of wind onto the strips, sweeping them up in the air, and transforming them into slivers of scintillating translucency. Swirling in serpentine curves through the gallery space, these ghost-like strips augmented the installation’s intangible quality. Rounding of the project, Hoertner recorded all the visitors to the exhibition on videotape. This film was shown on a small screen placed close to the installation, thus bringing into play—and into view—the presence and reactions of the spectators. Occupying an indefinite formal territory, the overall installation was charged with a mystifying, yet gripping, expressive valence. Initially little bewildering, in terms of handling, composition, materials, and color, the piece could also be described as spartan. At the same time, however, the various components-fluttering transparent bands, mobile metal armature and live action video recording of the vistors, were all carefully orchestrated to leave the whole open to the ebb and flow of of a host of unpredictable exigencies, suggesting a desire to reach beyond aesthetics or metaphors towards a more concrete, reality-based creativity.

Similar baroque qualities can be found in another Hoertner installation shown at the ISP (International Studio Program, 1999) in New York. Once again, transparent bands hung drape-like in multiple, overlapping rows from a regular shower curtain rail fixed to the ceiling. Within this semi-transparent, semi-enclosed space, the artist placed two chairs and held interviews with visitors, which were videotaped—thus bestowing the work with an interactive aspect. Visually and conceptually, the installation equivocates; nothing is clearly conveyed. On the contrary, any sense of phenomenological solidity disintegrates within the flighty layers of transparent vinyl. Hoertner demonstrates a desire to draw the viewer in by means of shifting visual effects and by the integration of live-action interviews as part of the installation, which both increase the narrative potential of the work. What surprises is the expressive resonance created by such a lo-tech set-up—a reminder that not everything impressive need be the product of Hollywood-style special effects. This peculiar fusion of transparency and opacity, stability and variability, transforms simple materiality into an animated, evocative concoction. Visually dramatic, Hoertner’s installations constitute a subtly nuanced mise-en-scene that splinters visuality into myriad communicational possibilities. Curiously theatrical, these assemblages echo Joycean narrative principles: ambiguity, plurality, uncertainty, fragmentation. They also tap into our common, socio-culturally influenced perception of space and its confines that is delineated by a relatively fixed set of Euclidean geometric standards, influencing our collective understanding of reality, of the limitations and possibilities of movement—and, hence, communication—on a daily basis.

In a cynical, “service-culture” world, which offers up everything, art included, as interchangeable spins for collective consumption, the topographical elusiveness of Hoertner’s installation gains in significance. Hoertner works in the manner of a magical cartographer: re-charting, re-mapping, and presenting chimerical terrains that not only seduce us, but raise questions. A simple trompe l’oeil installation 6 5 – 6 13 – 7 5, that Hoertner carried out in Hong Kong at Para Site Art Space (2000), reflects these considerations well. The artist redrew the physical geometry of a regular, white cube gallery space with red adhesive tape applied directly to the walls. Employing the most rudimentary of means, Hoertner created a “virtual” space—a cube within a cube—within the gallery’s real architectural parameters.

With precision and dexterity, the artist custumarily applies adhesive tape to floors, walls, steps, glass panes, and various other structures, in both public spaces and galleries. Covering the steps of the baroque entrance hall to the Ludwig Museum in Budapest with bright red tape, Hoertner created a visual situation once again reminiscent of a Renaissance trompe l’oeil perspective play. Not merely decorative, the tape transformed the physical space into a unique perceptual experience for everyone that walked through it. In a related work, wo. 37 – 42, presented at the Galerie der Stadt Wels, the floor of the exhibition venue was overlaid with similar, brightly-colored adhesive tape. On this occasion, however, Hoertner created a work-in-progress. Every day, for the duration of the project, she added successive layers of tape to the floor, transforming it into an ever-changing, mobile terrain. Subsequently, the layers of tape were removed, rolled into balls, and left in the gallery space to form a kind of creative “aftermath.” The entire process was videotaped, to emphasize yet further the transitional nature of the piece. In the same vein, the repetition of lines implied reproducibility, a lack of existential certitude, but also an escape from closure.

It would seem that Hoertner aims to stretch form to its limits, to the point of dissolution, rather than to preserve its innate boundaries, which deny activity. In two separate works—at the Otis Institute in Los Angeles and, in collaboration with Markus Wilfling, at the Institute für Kunstgeschicte in Vienna—Hoertner applied adhesive strips to form bold linear trajectories across the broad glass windows of starkly Modernist buildings, in a manner that was at once integral to and intrusive upon their textbook International Style architecture. In both instances, by creating a slightly different reality within the customary confines of the everyday, Hoertner’s interventions question exactly where those confines lie. By painting or applying strips directly onto walls, floors, and other architectural surfaces, Hoertner avoids the formal limitations of “safe” contexts and creates less predictable environments for creative communication. More significantly, in so doing, Hoertner’s work generates a gripping, corporeal intensity between the artwork, the space surrounding it, and the viewing public.

In Vienna, for the project Cultural Sidewalk (2000), the artist lined a steep flight of steps in a public space with red adhesive tape, taking the indoor concept of the Ludwig Museum work onto the streets and into the public arena. Hoertner’s persistent, almost obsessive repetition of these sequences of red lines slowly hypnotizes the pedestrians, until they become entwined in the work itself, while encouraging them not only to view, but also to perceive the work through actual human activity. In another series of works, Hoertner exchanged transparent plastic strips for brightly-colored ones, usually in basic red, green, and blue. In Linz, for the work Wo. 35 – 40.98, (2000)], red, blue, and green plastic strips were used as Maypole ribbons, suggestively inviting visitors, if they so desire, to engage in a novel twist on a familiar ritual celebrating the end of winter and the arrival of spring. By means of this charming and playful gesture, participants could adopt the role of the creator, leaving a trace of themselves behind in the ribbons intertwined around the pole. In this highly appealing work, the artist adds an ironic twist to the reductionism of the Minimalist grid: the weaving together of plastic strips literally re-materializes the grid as a free-form object that, quite unlike Donald Judd’s or Ad Reinhardt’s fastidious formalism and purity of finish, actively encourages the unpredictable element of human intervention. Characteristically, whether presented as make shift Maypoles, or as transparent bands fluttering between visibility and invisibility, or adhesive tapes applied to various surfaces, Hoertner’s works acheive a more concretely experiential and individuated connection with their public.

Hoertner’s art also often displays a meticulous precision. In many works—the hand drawn ones in particular—the obsessive layering suggests vast intersecting matrixes that never reach a state of finality. They develop into grounds of cross-hatching or delicate lattice work, which radiate a luminosity and a graphic sensitivity of line that is at once lyrical, febrile, and highly dramatic. These surfaces become entangled in a pacy structural tension, stratified by a joyful, disorienting visuality. Animated, cyberkinetic, accelerated—this is the beautiful speed of abstraction. In these works, as in those utilizing transparent or colored strips, stability—of structural unity, of form—is eclipsed.

Whether applied to glass, floors, or staircases, whether located in galleries or elsewhere, it is difficult, and perhaps meaningless, to label Hoertner’s work as painting, sculpture, or architecture. Indeed, drawn, painted, or applied, staged in a traditional exhibition space or in a public arena, this work has elements characteristic of all three. The roots of Hoertner’s art lie in a wide range of aesthetic precedents, as well as in some contemporary communication theories. Her works correspond with the Modernist tradition of the deconstruction of the canvas as a pictorial device—seen in Duchamp’s “non-paintings,” and the works of Joseph Kosuth, Lawrence Weiner or Sol LeWitt. In a dynamic, inventive manner, the artist seeks to explore the wider possibilities of the abstract pictorial gesture that „reframes“ painting, removing it from its conventional limitations to discover new territories of presentation. Traces of Op Art and the antiform aesthetic can also be identified in the preference for transient, ephemeral installations made with inexpensive industrial materials. However, Hoertner draws on her influences in an unbiased way—a way that obliquely interplays formal continuity and discontinuity. She assimilates and transforms precedent into new conceptual, perceptual and communicational dimensions. Interweaving the conventions of painting, sculpture, architecture, video, and interactive practice, Hoertner escapes the gravitational pull of conventional contexts, moving into more vulnerable, uncharted territories. In ways that seem both whimsical and irreverent, at times even awkward, Hoertner tramples on the divisions between “high” and “low,” between formalist motif and craft, to give the impression of a labyrinthine, but nonetheless coherent, creativity, which relentlessly pushes back its own boundaries.

Yet, Hoertner’s central concern seems to lie in the act of communication and courting public participation. Visual elements in her work are mobile and multiple, and are frequently supplemented by an interactive dimension. Each successive reiteration of painted stripe or applied tape, each fluttering plastic strip, each taped interview, each spectator-led intervention, seems to anticipate a return of individuated consciousness. It is here, in these mercurial intersections, that Sabina Hoertner’s work emerges as a timely response to this increasingly complex, visually and informationally super-saturated era. It evokes the relativism inherent to representation and communication, and “reality” as an expansive field of potential meanings, open to flux, to differentiation. Hoertner’s multi-faceted approach proposes the individuated, subjective artwork as a possible feat.