Conceptualised on site, or spatial re-contextualisation


Daniel Marzona

Some remarks on Martina Wolf’s exhibition at the Museum Bad Arolsen

Located in the inner west wing of the palace, the Museum Bad Arolsen features exhibitions on contemporary art. The three-wing complex of the former residential palace was built by Baroque architect Julius Ludwig Rothweil for Prince Friedrich Anton Ulrich of Waldeck and Pyrmont with work starting in 1710 and finishing in 1810. The ornate state rooms feature stucco work by Andrea Galasini and ceiling paintings by Carlo Ludovico Castelli, and numerous sculptures, among others, by Christian Daniel Rauch, a German sculptor born in Arolsen.

Whether considered significant or not, every architectural space has an historical and symbolic meaning, or as Walter Benjamin would put it: “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”[1] This dialectic also applies to the baroque palace of Bad Arolsen, which Martina Wolf used as the starting point for a thorough reflection on representative architecture and where she ultimately merges interrelated interventions that engage directly with the architectural context of the exhibition rooms. Photographic material the artist took earlier in other contexts before partially alienating and fragmenting it is now entangled with completely new sculptural and photographic interventions specially developed for the exhibition.

1. How it all came together

By taking a closer look at how Wolf dealt with the on-site conditions – a long corridor in the upper story of the baroque palace lined on one side with windows and adorned with ceiling paintings and stucco – may be a way of shedding light on her artistic strategy and some of the content-related references of her exhibition in Bad Arolsen. Wolf has hung in front of each of the five windows of the corridor a printed roller blind depicting digitally altered photographs of partially badly battered blinds. The motifs created with the help of a computer graphical technique keep the viewer‘s gaze trapped inside while at the same time revealing variations of an architectonic detail that appears diametrically opposed to the character of the palace architecture.
If we now turn our attention to the ceiling, we see a strangely cracked ceiling grid with individual tiles either partially missing or partially loosely protruding over other structurally fitted elements. This construction has the effect of disclosing only fragments of the lush ceiling paintings gilded with stucco ornaments that usually adorn the corridor with the aim of extending our perception. As out of place as the strange ceiling structure may appear – an architectural element which in its present form seems more reminiscent of visits to long-abandoned public functional buildings – it matches perfectly the tattered blinds used by Wolf to drape the windows. The artist discovered both motifs while visiting a school left to decay in Olevano Romano and has now brought them together again in a new spatial context. The staged contrast between the stately architecture of the exhibition space and the repetitive fragments of ‘imported’ architectural elements that refer clearly to a completely different time and history but have successfully been turned into a confusing as well as aesthetically charged symbolic establishes a broad field of references. Firstly, the palace architecture and its representative character stands in direct contrast to the aestheticism and upgrading of the everyday and banal. Secondly, the whole setup – both the pictorial representations of the blinds and the replica of the ceiling structure strongly contribute to the motif of slowly progressing decay – points out a certain instability of existing conditions. And finally, the short precisely formulated statement given by the artist on disparate types of architecture in clearly distinguishable separate states may potentially raise the question of whether and how the elaborate preservation of one is related to the inexorable decline of the other.
A third work installed in the corridor of the palace, which relates to another motif discovered in the abandoned Italian school building, is based on the connection ‘found’ between two political systems of the past century. Below a window area a swastika in blue spray paint was spotted next to a strangely mirrored representation of the hammer and sickle applied using the same technique. However, the viewer of the exhibition does not get a clear picture of these two symbols of despotic totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. By means of complex image processing Wolf has shifted the two isolated motifs differently into one another to literally generate their intersection. This process ultimately resulted in purely abstract pattern sequences to be used as template for wallpaper strips of 4 metres by 1 metre each that were applied directly to the wall surfaces.

2. About walls and people

The art works ‘Blechwand’ (Sheet metal wall) and ‘Farbiger Schrank mit Brot und Bier’ (Coloured cabinet with bread and beer) which can be found on the ground floor of the palace are the follow-up to Wolf’s play with dislocation, re-contextualisation, and reformulation of already existing image material. On a working visit to Moscow, the artist, who initially studied sculpture in Dresden before she began experimenting with the possibilities of new media, noticed strange paintings on building walls all over the city of Moscow in seemingly arbitrarily chosen colours and mostly carelessly applied. They turned out to be hastily executed overpaintings of graffiti and tags, which are apparently feared by the autocratic regime as the beginning of civil disobedience and expression of individual nonconformity and must therefore be removed as soon as possible from the cityscape. In an elaborate process, Wolf photographically reproduced piece by piece some of these walls which arose in a quixotic conflict before using photomontage to make them appear as large-scale trompe l’oeil in new contexts. After cutting out a 1 metre by 2 metres large piece from the 3 metres by 2.5 metres reproduction of the sheet metal wall from Moscow, the artist then mounted this cut-out designed as a door directly on a wall of the museum. The dimensions of this makeshift cobbled together door match exactly the dimensions of the servants’ doors, which can be found elsewhere in the walls of the palace. If ‘Sheet metal wall’ is conceived as a proxy reproduction and awareness raiser of these servants’ doors, the hyper-realistic still life ‘Colour cabinet with bread and beer’ obscures one‘s view of a door actually existing in another room. Duplication and suppression are used to seemingly fade out autocratic image censorship and symbols of autocratic domination. A radical inclusion of the historicity of the exhibition rooms allows the artist to open up new dimensions of meaning for old motifs newly composed for the exhibition. At the same time the subtile composition of these two fascinating photomontages reveals the deeply humanistic foundation on which all of Wolf’s works are ultimately based. A servants’ door embedded in the wall is not merely a door but a symbol and the expression of questionable power relations; just like a repeatedly overpainted wall from Moscow presents aesthetic qualities but ultimately becomes a kind of symbol for unfree, oppressive conditions. The question of what happens when both are directly linked to one another is left up to the viewer. The fact that contextual dimensions of this kind to which – when it comes to the formal aspect of her work – Martina Wolf always dedicates her utmost attention and care are always included in her concepts, is what characterises her approach and makes it stand out from the mass of media artwork operating on a purely aesthetic level.

3. Showing up twice – A small school of seeing

The work with the prosaic title ‘Fotobänder von der Aufdeckung der Verkleidungen im Zwischenflur’ (Photo strips of uncovered panels in the connecting corridor) is the only one in Wolf’s exhibit for which the artist took photographs on site – significantly not of representative decorative elements but of more mundane architectural details located in a space only occasionally used for exhibition purposes. The heating system installed in the connecting corridor is hidden behind wall panelling where needed. For her work Wolf removed these panels and reproduced photographically the wall layers behind them and details of their signs of wear. Two photo strips with a length of seven metres and a height of 48 centimetres each document the two opposite wall strips of this narrow space. 24 crisp images printed on MDF boards show fragments of space that partially overlap the architectural details. Wolf arranged them in the newly restored exhibition space as image pairs alternating between portrait and landscape mode so as to provide a scenic viewing experience. Some of the space fragments shown seem concealed again by the temporary walls while others actually duplicate some of the settings visible in the room. The individual images turn out on closer inspection to be quite picturesque and designed formally in terms of abstract compositional principles. As an example for many video and photographic works of Wolf, ‘Photo strips of uncovered panels in the connecting corridor’ focuses our perception on small details and nuances and invites us to reflect on perceptual mechanisms in the contrasting and penetration of the real and its reproduction. It is with a subtile sense of humour that Wolf distils from the banal motifs highly through-composed collages reminiscent of Schwitters or the constructives and goes to prove that her small school of seeing comes without a moralising undertone and certainly has the ability to bring pleasure.

[1] Walter Benjamin, „On the concept of history“, in: Sprache und Geschichte. Philosophische Essays, Stuttgart 1992, P. 145.