Nicole Nix: The Image and its Space
"But only that which gives free rein to the imagination is effective. The more we see, the more we must be able to imagine. And the more we add in our imaginations, the more we must think we see."
Gottfried Ephraim Lessing
The conceptual photography of Claudia Pilsl consistently applies to her visual compositions the aesthetic principle described by Lessing in his study of the inherent limits and possibilities of various media. At first glance, Pilsl's images seem incomplete. Not in the sense that they are unfinished, but - so the eye tells us when it gazes at the serial alignment of these stringent and formally precise black and white works - because they have been systematically stripped of certain elements. The parts of the image that are missing are those that once constituted the determinant features of the subject matter.
In the exhibition spaces photographed by Claudia Pilsl, the art works are missing. Instead of pictures, there are gaps in the walls of the rooms. These gaps are not the areas of uncertainty so familiar to us from painting, but actual voids: the artist has removed each and every one of the pictures from her photographs with painstaking precision, creating the emptiness of open spaces that the spectator must fill by the power of his or her own imagination. This is something we inevitably do, for our notion of museums or exhibition spaces is invariably associated with the idea of pictures on walls. By leaving the frames of the missing art works as relics of their formerly predominant presence, Pilsl further heightens our awareness of their absence.
Her artistic approach is basically a reversal of the principle of the surrealist collage. Whereas the collage is made up of fragments of reality or supposed images of reality wrenched out of their original context and placed into a new visual and cognitive context in which the creative image is generated by the additive reorganisation of fragments, here it is created by absence, i.e. by the absence of those very elements that previously gave the subject matter its meaning and purpose. The void created m this way becomes a movens and a compositional vehicle. Claudia Pilsl denies the spectator the object of his or her gaze and makes this the theme of her art. It is a reflection on the role of the spectator as recipient and, at the same time, places the spectator in the role of the one who produces the image.
In terms of form, Claudia Pilsl's photographs break with the conventions of the picture as a self-contained rectangle and take on the
character of objects. This effect is further underlined by the actual presentation of the works, which are not hung on the walls in the manner of the pictures she eliminates, but are propped up against the wall, while the small framed group of works take on the aspect of a proscenium due to the graduated depth of several perspectival views. !n this way, the empty areas can be read both as a negation of the image and also as a formal means of cancelling out its two-dimensionality in an illusionistic generation of images. First and foremost, however, these empty areas are a deliberate denial of information which, 1n terms of content, triggers the spectator's tendency to complete the image in his or her own mind, as described above. They are opened up to the real space of their surroundings and, with that, to the mental space of the imagination, becoming a field that can be cathected differently by each individual.
In this respect, the artist touches upon issues that go far beyond the individual work or series of works and even beyond the genre of photography. She addresses the fundamental question of the conditions and functional mechanisms of the image and its reception. The photographic image, however, promises a precise rendering of reality as well as an objectivity and clarity bordering on the documentary, which Claudia Pilsl seems to deliver right down to the tiniest details of the rooms she portrays, implying a maximum information content. Yet this promise of visual reality is harshly broken by the radical denial of certain information. Claudia Pilsl shows the image for what it is: a selective "detail" that is as compelling as it is subjective. Which relevant elements are omitted? How do the visible and the invisible interact to create a space and to provide the possibility of "imaging/imagining". How is the spectator's gaze controlled and how, in turn, does the gaze control the imagination that enables us to complete a picture by projecting our own imagery into it? Finally, how does the spatio-temporal context within the museum situation - the institutionalisation and presentation of art - affect this completion of the image?
Through the manipulation of the image, the architecture -- so drastically and laconically stripped of its function that it suddenly becomes the focus of the image itself -- takes on a new slant. The absence of the original fixed points creates a shift of viewpoint, a realignment of the gaze, and a seeming transposition of orientational points and perspectival relationships. This occurs time and again in each exhibition space by means of the respective architecture being added to the images of the exhibitions. The question as to the conditions and functional mechanisms of the image and its reception is inextricably linked with the way in which the exhibition as medium is addressed and considered. The museum as institution constitutes an "art space" - that is to say, a selectively created, isolated space - which Claudia Pilsl presents as an "art[ificial] space". The real space can be seen through the gaps in the space portrayed. In other words, the absent image becomes the window that guides the gaze towards one's own standpoint.
It transpires that, for all the manifold aspects addressed by Pilsl in her work, the issue is always one of self-reflection. Her iconoclasm - by which she aligns herself with the artistic tendencies of the twentieth century from Malevich's Black Square to Duchamp's ready- mades, from Arnulf Rainer's overpaintings to Allan McCollum's surrogates - invariably touches on self-image as well. The removal of images that Claudia Pilsl undertakes so deliberately and so disrespectfully is at the same time an attack on her own image, for the empty space appears to become more important than the image itself. In contrast to the iconoclastic practice of those artists who aim to abandon the picture as such, the total absence of the picture - within the context of the museum as the primary vehicle of artistic meaning - paradoxically becomes an explicit indication of its presence in the work of Claudia Pilsl. What she questions is not the right of pictures - nor even of art itself - to exist, but the conditions and mechanisms governing the relevance and reception of art. When the "art space", stripped of its function, becomes the focal point and develops autonomous qualities, and when the picture is no longer in its allocated place, art is no longer bound to this space. Art, after all, is not something that happens in a museum - it is something that happens in the mind.
Translated by Ishbel Flett