Construction and Idea
Translation from German: Christopher Muller
Markus Löffelhardt / 2005
Always the same material.
Sheets of insulating material in different thicknesses.
Cut to size and painted over with a roller.
On one hand Hannes Norberg’s architecture-like constructions clearly refer to architecture. Architecture, as the epitome and symbol of a materially conceived, interconnecting space designed by people. On the other hand the banality of the invariantly homogenous, bland and unstable material represents a conscious disinterest in the material world of objects and the static architectonic construction. Faint diagonals sometimes lead the viewer into the further reaches of the pictorial depths. At the same time this appropriation of pictorial space is counteracted by the closely staggered layers of thin sheets that compress the spatiality. Occasionally the diagonals providing the depth cues are banned from the viewpoints, resulting in an almost total flatness, with only the most delicate effects of shadows hinting at three dimensionality.
The selected aspects, reduced to axial views, obey a strict symmetry and do not permit a dynamic experience and understanding of three dimensional perspective; the necessary freedom of movement is frozen in the axiality of a single standpoint. A moment of breathless suspense gives rise to a state of maximum concentration. The views give little indication as to scale, how they evolved or what materials were used. At most, prolonged study of the large format photographs reveals very fine traces of manual production and the texture of the material, be it the adjoining edges or evidence of the painted surface structure. Any appreciation of materials is deliberately kept to an absolute minimum. The unambiguous repertoire of manageable parameters, resulting from the evident restriction of pictorial means and constants, allows the artist to realize his highly precise pictorial ideas.
Norberg has drawn his formal vocabulary from an unequivocally classical tradition–axiality, symmetry, rigorous pictorial composition and sensitive weighing up of proportions–also assimilated by the minimalists. He implements a formal canon that permits association with, for example, Donald Judd’s sculpture, while simultaneously revealing significant differences. Donald Judd: “Three dimensions are real space. That gets rid of the problem of illusionism and of literal space, space in and around marks and colours–which is riddance of one of the salient and most objectionable relics of European art.”1 Judd reduced his objects to a point that leaves no room for doubt and he wanted to exclude categorically the problematic nature of visual transfer. His approach reflects the fundamentally positive attitude of a generation of artists regarding their own abilities and artistic potential.
Norberg doesn´t seek to exclude, avoid or circumvent anything. Rather he launches himself at the maelstrom of uncertainties; he is not afraid of their bottomless pits. The central theme of his works can be found in the spotlight of the very contemporary distrust of deceptively simple dualist constructions of mind and matter. At the beginning of the 20th century, the philosopher Gottlob Frege dismantled the relationship between the mind and the world as mediated by vision, with his assertion, unsurpassable in its simplicity: “Retinal images can not be seen.”2 Such radical doubt towards all sensory impressions, as Descartes hypothesized, is understood to lead to complete isolation, to the individual mind becoming an inescapable prison house.3 However Frege was merely questioning the mechanics of perception as a dubious means of an individual’s interpretation of the world.
How do things look today? The comprehensive dismantling of faith in the image as representation, as referring to something else, is at odds with the experience, that the present-day inflationary flood of images has in no way been accompanied by the anticipated devaluation of images, in terms of a diminishing degree of realism. On the contrary it is becoming increasingly apparent that today’s images attain a degree of realism equal in every respect to the medieval veneration of images.
Hannes Norberg’s pictures move in precisely this conflict area between illusion and autonomous picture. They are not products of chance or the results of spontaneous formal ideas, not artistic creations in the sense that Plato attempted to describe. The Greek philosopher felt obliged to identify all artistic creation with enthusiasmos, a mental state no longer open to critical reflection. He categorically denied that cognition could result from the mediation of unreliable sensory data, which it is generally accepted raised considerable problems for him, as elsewhere he recommended measuring, counting and weighing as means of attaining knowledge from mere supposition. In his philosophy, the mind striving for rational knowledge, by generally rejecting sensory mediation, is ultimately left with only mathematics as a science for attaining certain knowledge.4 Plato thereby raised an epistemological problem that is still relevant and unresolved today.
Norberg’s works should not be pigeonholed in the irrational sphere, even if such an impulse is no absolute taboo for the artist. The evolution of his works from the first sketches of ideas to the finished picture is driven by a carefully considered and rigorous process. At the outset he makes numerous scribbles, loose sketches that are later transferred to and substantiated on graph paper. Basic geometric forms are usually the point of departure for his pictorial enquiry. Proportions are balanced, combinations of surfaces and colours tried out. These eventually lead to a model made of thin sheets of insulating material, which is in turn exposed to the complex influences of light and shadow. As a result planes are bisected and the desired overall effect precisely rendered by the edges of shadows and modulation of colours. Photographing the composition and the ensuing developmental phases are only a means by which to arrive at the finished picture. A picture that does not want to be seen as a material construction but rather as the result of a complicated process of design and realization. In addition, an intensive examination of contemporary artistic positions that the artist is open to–be it American colour field painting or more recent approaches in contemporary photography–exercises a permanent influence on his work in terms of content and formal considerations, prompting questions and further development. It is no longer immediately evident from the photographs that they show constructed objects.
It would be possible to generate such views by other means, such as painting or computer graphics. Clearly this does not mean that they go out deliberately to deceive the senses in the manner of trompe l'œils instead a clear-cut identification is no longer important. The medium of photography represents the most logical modus operandi for the artist because it takes the polarity between the world of objects and its representation into account. The move away from any incentive to allow such identification of the picture should be seen against the background of a decade-long concern for exactitude and integrity concerning the efficacy of visual transfer and as a meaningful paradigm shift in artistic orientation.
Norberg uses his media as tools, to serve an idea, a pictorial concept. The media themselves have no deeper significance other than to serve. The impetus is the production of a picture that corresponds to the artist’s aesthetic concept. In the final analysis it is an entirely autonomous picture that does not refer to what lies behind it. The interaction between picture and viewer is its central theme. The pictures follow a rigorous pattern of organization, that could aptly be termed classical, revealing themselves to be gestures of longing for stability and clarity in a cosmos of aesthetics.
The contradictions, that become acute in Norberg’s work, on one hand, his obvious allusions to and use of a pictorial grammar derived from perceptual habits in a world of three dimensional bodies, on the other, his ignoring or even negating the very same–in other words, the alternating experiences of a world of material objects and metaphysical ideas–walk a giddy tightrope which, seeing as the conflict is insoluble at least at a purely rational level, can only end in an inevitable plunge into the depths and failure. An insoluble conflict that seems caught between a vital falsehood and a petrified truth. The contradictions should melt away in Norberg’s ideal pictorial worlds. The resulting tensions describe a mind condemned to reflect upon itself and dismissive of any easy way out.
Norberg’s most recent works seem to focus increasingly on the conflict between an ideational concept and a material presence. Suddenly the customary and reassuringly remote axiality and symmetry are left behind and make way for diagonal compositions. Sheets of plywood, with a wild, flame-like grain, form backdrops that refer crudely to material and cut swathes through the sensitive, ideational pictorial worlds. A logical step for the artist in the dramatization and accurate realization of his artistic enquiry.
Donald Judd, in: Specific Objects, 1965
Gottlob Frege, Logische Untersuchungen, 1923
René Descartes, Meditationes de prima philosophia, 1641
Plato, Politiea, Volume X
Markus Löffelhardt is a German art historian and author of numerous publications on art and architecture, he lives in Berlin.
Published in: Monograph Hannes Norberg, modo Verlag, Freiburg, 2005. English / German. Hardcover, 22 × 28 cm, 80 pages, ISBN 978-3-937014-21-0
Markus Löffelhardt / 2005