Peter Kogler—An Art of the «Light Sign»

  • Peter Kogler—An Art of the «Light Sign»
    Robert Fleck, 2000

    On entering the large hall of the Vienna Secession in the fall of 1995, the visitor was confronted with a truly amazing environment. A tube in black and white, graphic modulation was the same simple sign that covered the walls all over as sort of graphic wallpaper. The trajectory of these tubes of differing lengths and widths emerged from the same, in-finitely repeated module. It did not appear to be centrally controlled by hand but simply left to chance. The immedi-ately recognizable sign, the «tubes» distributed in a con-tingent pattern and the thinner and thicker tube segments crossing and overlapping each other, gave way to a space that could hardly be defined in visual terms. The actual exhibition space of the Secession had been deconstructed in the sense that all patterns of orientation had been called into question. All coordinates seemed to have become 
    flexible and movable. The illusionary spatial ensemble disrupting the architectural setting did not create a trompe l’œil but rather revealed its artificiality. The reduction and precision of the elements resulted in a strangely cool and also highly aesthetic atmosphere. A third aspect was the radical approach to the notion of art. On the one hand, this involved the disappearance of the artist as an expressionist inventor and as a technical practitioner. On the other hand, the piece also had to do with a thoroughgoing application of the principle of the mechanical repetition of pictorial 
    signs. These methodic innovations have shaped western art since the aesthetic revolution of the sixties. In the ex-hibition of 1995, they were, however, put to work in a refreshing way, as if they had just been invented, resulting in a striking experiment at the interface of a real image of space and a virtual one. The spatial piece also testified to 
    a vision of the role of art: the artist presented this in an almost manifesto-like way as something that almost has the precision and abstraction of architecture and is acces-s-ible with its parameters for everyone, regardless of edu-cation or culture. In this exhibition, the artist’s ingenious move had to do with the fact that he was able to arrive at
    a comprehensive aesthetic alternative to the existing world from such a point of departure.
    Whoever saw this Peter Kogler exhibition at the Vienna Secession went away with a lasting impression. Only seldom does one have the sense in art that something really hits the mark, that with one move the artist succeeds in making the idea around which the entire piece revolves 
    tangible. It was particularly striking that in his one-man show at the Secession Peter Kogler worked with spatial works that had been shown in the same exhibition space since 1987 with legendary artists of Minimal and Conceptual Art, such as Sol LeWitt, Joseph Kosuth and Daniel Buren. Between 1987 and 1989, they presented the very first large spatial works in Vienna in the main hall of the Secession. These artists had already played an important role in Peter Kogler’s experience with avant-garde art in the mid-seventies in Innsbruck. One could also name Franz West who was a significant influence on the developing artist in his first Vienna years, from 1979 on. West’s one-man show in the main room of the Secession in 1987 was indeed the first instance of a masterly mise-en-scène of spatial art based on a post-minimalist notion of sculpture. 
    For a retrospective of Kogler’s oeuvre the Secession exhibition is important because it brings together the 
    artist’s concerns. This exhibition also played a central role for Kogler’s career. It brought the big recognition after the media success of the installation with the ant motif shown at the Documenta IX in Kassel in 1992. The installation at the Secession in 1995 resulted in an invitation to also present a piece at the Documenta X in 1997. The latter filled the entire space of a museum building and served to cor-roborate Kogler’s role for the contemporary art scene. The artist’s vision of an aesthetic alternative world in the world of screens also became tangible with the tube installation at the «Documenta hall» in 1997. These dates—1992 (Documenta IX), 1995 (Vienna Secession) and 1997 (Doc-u-menta X)—have made Peter Kogler one of the most 
    influential artists of the nineties. In Documenta X the curator Catherine David was particularly interested in showing 
    a forward-looking perspective of art, which is inherent in Kogler’s work. The retrospective organized by the Kunsthaus Bregenz was intended by the artist as a «look ahead», which is certainly at odds with the classical understanding of a retrospective as a legitimate look back at an artist’s work now spanning more than two decades. In the cited works, three elements appear to extend throughout Peter Kogler’s entire oeuvre. What is striking is first his use of simple, easily recognizable signs that are accessible to anyone regardless of educational or cultural background. Moreover, his work reflects a keen interest in the notion of space and architecture. This ultimately serves a visionary idea of the artist’s role in a new world the contours of which are only emerging—a world that will be influenced by still unforeseeable notions of the image. The reader might object that as a result of this enumeration we will forget another, perhaps the central aspect of Kogler’s work. Wasn’t Peter Kogler mainly known as a media artist? In a certain sense, Kogler is actually identified with media art, and this not just in the German-speaking world. But on 
    closer scrutiny it becomes clear that it is partly due to a misunderstanding, partly due to journalistic reductionism. Only in rare instances does Peter Kogler’s work assume 
    the form of electronic media, even if it is true that this art reflects on media and its mechanisms of functioning to a high degree. The word «media art» does not apply to his work just in terms of material. This artistic oeuvre acknowledges the central role of the media for visual concerns of the present but it approaches the issue from the fringes 
    of the media. This has been true since Kogler’s first works in the seventies. Kogler’s skeptical restraint vis-à-vis the use of purely pictorial media (screen, computer, electronic
    imaging) as material vehicles of the artwork are what accounts for the aesthetic tension of his work.

    Kogler’s beginnings lie in the late seventies in Innsbruck. Here there were two small institutions, the gallery owned by Ursula Krinzinger and the Landesgalerie im Taxispalais run by Peter Weiermair. Both were much more plugged into the international art network than any institution in Vienna at the time. It was easier to experience the whole repertoire of Conceptual, Minimal and Body Art and the pioneer artists of the sixties directly in Innsbruck and on trips to exhibitions and art fairs in Cologne, Munich, Milan, Zurich and Basel, than in Vienna.
    Peter Kogler’s earliest works that have never been 
    shown before reveal this triple idea of simple signs, room-filling connections and a visionary notion of the artist. 
    Whereas performance, video and language-oriented works were characteristic of the zeitgeist, Kogler’s first works were an attempt to continue working with the wedge 
    frame but without the traditional painting. He had already begun working with simple signs that are accessible for everyone—signs that still form the basis of Kogler’s work today—at a time when the triumph of the personal com--puter and the possibility of processing images on a com-puter was not yet evident. This approach to signals that are non-linguistic, non-psychological and abstract in a semiotic sense all at the same time has been typical of Peter 
    Kogler’s work since the very outset. His work has nothing to do with media-analytic art, even if the microcomputer began playing a central role from the mid-eighties on as a tool in producing works. In 1979, Peter Kogler drew atten-tion to himself for the first time in the exhibition Situa-tions–Positions. This first larger public appearance showed his assured aesthetic approach and the detached, reflective stance which still characterizes the artist’s work. This ex-hibition presented works by the young generation of artists from galleries—such as Galerie nächst St.Stephan, Grita Insam and Ursula Krinzinger—which tried to define this new generation. Most of the artists showed installations driven by a desire to find ways to break with performance and Conceptual Art. Peter Kogler presented a «five-minute exhibition» in a small exhibition space at the Galerie nächst St.Stephan. At the beginning of the opening, Kogler’s room was closed and there was a sign saying that he had not finished setting up the exhibition. Then it was announced that the exhibition could be seen. A scene of two ironically identical forms was illuminated by a construction spotlight. To the right, there was a small palm tree in a flower pot. 
    On the left, a naked young man stood on his head in a metal receptacle (which, incidentally, had been purchased that same year for Joseph Beuys’ Basisraum Nasse Wäsche), the legs crossed in a Lotus position repeating 
    the shape of the palm tree. When the young man’s body
    (it was Peter Kogler’s but his face could not be seen by the audience) began to tremble out of exhaustion, someone shouted «The exhibition is over!» Kogler only left his acrobatic position after the last visitor had left the room. This was a precise statement on the issue of post-performance which influenced almost all art movements in the following years, in particular the neo-expressionist painting. Here Kogler’s predilections and dislikes, as well as his skepticism vis-à-vis expressionist art, had already come to the fore.
    Kogler’s first one-man show took place at the Galerie Krinzinger in Innsbruck, in 1984. The exhibition was structured as a sort of retrospective of cardboard objects. With these objects Kogler had found his first consistent aes-thetic line within a period of some two years. Simple gray cardboard had been folded to form wall sculptures that were much lighter than they appeared. Even though 
    Kogler’s later methods (silkscreen, computer-generated repetition, wallpaper, etc.) were then hardly noticeable; these pieces, like the later ones, derived their distinct charm from their material simplicity and banality as well as from being on the boundary of where the medium bordered on immateriality. Yet the most important element of the cardboard objects were the signs written with charcoal 
    literally all over. For example, this could be human figures falling down in hoards, with the same anonymous man in 
    a black suit appearing the same way dozens of times on one and the same object. In a certain sense, Peter Kogler shared an experience with the artists of the early eighties, namely those representing «New Sculpture». Following a conceptual training, the latter sought new ways of constructing a spatial art object that had a sensual impact. At the same time, though, Peter Kogler sort of skipped over the practice of the neo-sculptors. The cardboard objects opposed the physical weight of this art with a material lightness and a trust in the repetition of banal signs that also represented an ironic statement. The speaker at the opening of the exhibition referred to the «light sign» in Roland Barthes’ sense. The much more important role of the repetition of these signs in Kogler’s work was not yet clear to see. The reference to Roland Barthes is valid in the sense that the semiotic theory certainly provided Kogler with a point of departure. After studying Wittgenstein who had influenced his generation of artists in Austria, Kogler turned to semiotic theory at the end of the seventies, even if the structuralist texts of Roland Barthes, Umberto Eco, and Max Bense from the sixties and seventies did not in-itially seem to lend themselves to being actually translated into Kogler’s artistic approaches.
    The cardboard objects denote a kind of liberation allow-ing for an independent, personal position in art. This first decisive step had resulted from Peter Kogler’s move to Vienna. Kogler first came in 1978 to study at the Academy of Fine Arts, but in 1983 he settled permanently in Vienna. The new climate liberated the artist from the lyrical and amicable atmosphere of the Innsbruck art scene. In Vienna Peter Kogler drew new tension from the fact that as a non-Viennese he came from the «province» to the capital city. Other protagonists with an international orientation from this generation of Austrian artists, such as Herbert Brandl, Gerwald Rockenschaub, and Heimo Zobernig, also 
    paradoxically profited from the initial foreignness and 
    marginalization in Vienna which practically never disappears within a generation. The radicalization effect of this migra-tion to Vienna has been manifest in Austrian art of the twentieth century in a number of instances, especially in the artists of «Viennese actionism» of the sixties. The latter had drawn strength from the early marginalization of the self-complacent art scene, allowing them to transcend the academic pretensions of the capital.
    Several months after Kogler was accepted into the class for stage set design at the Academy of Fine Arts he commented on this situation in an unannounced action after which he dropped out of the Academy before he could be suspended. Kogler came to the school one morning, lay a white sheet between the entrance door and the doorman’s booth, sat down on a chair, and covered his cheeks with shaving foam, ironically imitating the horns of Michel-angelo’s David which Marcel Duchamp was wearing in the famous Man Ray photograph. He sat there silently reading the Robert Lebel’s Duchamp biography in the German 
    edition that was published by DuMont (which, incidentally also has this very same photograph on the back cover). When students and instructors entered the academy they silently gazed at the Duchampian student who was also -sitting there silently reading. Around noon a police squad 
    called in by the rector who had not said a word to Kogler asked Kogler to leave the building and took him to the 
    station to identify himself. One week later the alternative paper «Falter» published an extensive series of aesthetic-ally neutral photographs of the action. This is particularly indicative of how open and relaxed Peter Kogler was able to work with the various realms of expression. These qual-ities can still be found in the large, room-filling installations today.
    Peter Kogler received international recognition in 1986 with his first computer-generated works. The transforma-tion of the microcomputer into an instrument for producing pictorial motifs represented the second decisive stage in the artist’s work. For this reason, it clearly follows that the pictures from this phase are the oldest group of works in the retrospective in Bregenz. In particular, the artist’s par-ticipation in «Aperto 86» at the Biennale in Venice triggered lasting international interest. The works shown there for the first time represent the art that one associates with the name Kogler. It is much more difficult to move back to that stage and sense the original impact of these paintings. The simple and, at the same time, monumental graphic signs on monochrome ground that can be seen in these works are one of the first instances in contemporary art where the pictorial motif was quite clearly produced by means of a personal computer. Kogler’s works still derive a certain flair from this fact, giving them a unique position in his entire oeuvre. In a way we can sense that they served to conquer a new medium. Only fifteen years later most art students use a computer in some way to produce images, video films, sketches and installations. However, in 1986 this could hardly have been foreseen. Even in contemporary art there was only a handful of artists who sensed that the personal computer had potential as a material of visual arts and made it their central focus.
    At the same time these works with their black and 
    white, sculptural signs on monochrome ground are far from computer aesthetics that dominated the electronic imagery of the eighties. The first picture computers and computer games worked with surface color fields in garish colors. Their aesthetics would appear unbelievably primitive today, even primeval given the heavy-handed simplicity of the sign language resulting from the low processing capacity of computers at the time. In his Biennale works of 1986 Peter Kogler had also selected an outsider position, as in most series that he made in these years. Given the limited possibility of producing finer nuances with the computers he used at the time, he deliberately opted for a sort of primi-tivism. The heads on these pictorial objects are strikingly graphic, exclusively in black and white and clearly designed with visible grid structures. Compared to the computer aesthetics of the time, almost everything was extremely simplified. To this very day, it is one of the special qualities of Peter Kogler’s work that it clearly addresses a world now determined by computer and digital image processing, 
    while at the same time it largely evades ordinary computer aesthetics defined by the computer industry. Kogler’s qual-ity also lies in the fact that his pictorial works do not recall the usual surface of the screen designed by big commercial firms. One of Kogler’s ingenious moves is clearly evident in the Biennale pieces of 1986. Here the possibilities of the computer are completely reduced to a simple three-dimensional model whose computing requirements cannot be met by the artist’s hand. The precision of a complex shape which can only be attained by a computer is accompanied by a visual simplification that breaks with the usual aes-thetics of media art and the plethora of information on 
    electronic screens. Even in terms of materiality, Kogler’s paintings have hardly anything to do with the media art of this epoch. Characteristic of the later eighties were the photographic enlargements on Cibachrome and other plas-tic surfaces, the sculptures on industrial, perfect surfaces and the diverse dialogues and confrontations between the postmodern world of advertising and artistic positions. As opposed to numerous manifestations of smooth design in the contemporary art scene between 1985 and 1990, Peter Kogler’s pictorial objects looked strange, even anachronistic. Since his Biennale appearance in 1986 the artist has been finding acclaim in the international art world. At the same time his works from that period have a rough and unfinished appearance in striking contrast with the aes-thetic zeitgeist. This, however, is what accounts for their lasting appeal. At first glance, it is clear that the pictorial motifs in Kogler’s works were produced by a computer. The raw surface of the canvases, the application of the sign by means of silkscreen technique and the resulting errors, 
    the shape of the easel painting and the sculptural boxes covered with a silkscreen canvas as actual surfaces create really «alienate» works from the usual media world. If Peter Kogler is recognized today as a leading media artist, then this is based on his early decision to distance himself with his media-based art from the ordinary aesthetic of the media. The media society is largely influenced by the confusion of screen (or écran) and image. As Paul Virilio has been quoted as saying: «The screen is not the image which, at least in the tradition of western culture, is laden with a critical potential of reflection that is only disrupting for the functioning of the screen.» In contrast, Kogler’s works almost all unite motifs that have obviously been 
    produced by means of a computer with the rejection of a manifestation appropriate for the screen. He works with canvases. For his exhibition he does not need any technical tools. 
    The third important stage in Peter Kogler’s oeuvre began in 1988. In 1985 his first computer-generated works began introducing archaic graphics in opposition to common computer aesthetics. However, he also employed various such figural motifs. In a number of series revolving around figural motifs, the artist was interested in developing a repertory of extremely simple, accessible and at the same time complex signs. The use of isolated signs placed in the middle of the picture was an exception in Kogler’s work. Before and thereafter his work drew considerable strength from the mechanical repetition of identical signs and from the application of the all-over principle. The mechanical repetition of identical signs that are predominant in the cardboard ob-jects of the early eighties resurfaced in the abstract canvas objects of the late eighties. These, too, can be seen as one specific focus in the Bregenz retrospective. When these works were shown for the first time they did not find wide acceptance. Since 1986, Peter Kogler had been labeled as the artist for «simple pictures». Yet shortly thereafter he gave up the figural motif and shifted his attention to re-petitive principles seen as decorative. In 1987, Jan Hoet organized the first large exhibition of these works at the «Europalia» in Belgium.
    The abstract works of the late eighties initiated the third, most decisive stage in Kogler’s oeuvre. Now the central point of reference was architecture. As a result of his long stay in Los Angeles in 1989/90, the renewed introduction of seriality as a main principle of the works now gave way to a room-filling dimension. The famous Documenta piece of 1992 with the spatial network based on the repetition of one single ant was followed by a number of room installa-tions showing a computer-generated motif of silkscreen and wallpaper. Jan Hoet who already showed great trust 
    in Peter Kogler in 1987 went to great pains to enable the 
    realization of the installation in the entrance hall to the Documenta IX exhibition. Since receiving this international recognition in 1992, Kogler’s work is well known. It would go beyond the scope of this essay to describe each single piece. In closing I would like to summarize what I have said above. Peter Kogler is certainly one of the most influential artists today. The real extent of his influence and the reception of his three decisive works from the nineties (Documenta IX and X, and Secession) is hardly conceivable. Twenty-five years ago, when he was still doing his first 
    artistic experiments, Kogler decided to focus on only a few simple signs that are accessible to all cultures, to incor-porate the media as the decisive cultural phenomenon of our times and to use this to reconstruct a notion of critical art. The special form of this «future-oriented retrospective» is directly related to this personal potential.