Margareta Sandhofer - art critic

It was about four years ago that I first met Gisela Stiegler. It was also my first encounter with her sculptures. I accompanied a joint friend on a visit to her studio or what Gisela calls her Grauzone or grey area.

Gisela was standing, a simple Stanley knife in her hand, in front of an expanded polystyrene block into which she was carving edged slats. Polystyrene crumbs were on and around her, the statically charged particles were everywhere – beautifully metaphorical, signifying a sly perseverance and significance, and not to be shaken off.

These double or multiple meanings are perhaps the distinctive characteristic atmospherically surrounding Gisela’s person and her work – as expressed by both her theoretical reflections and her manifest artefacts, seemingly in mutual dialogue, challenging and driving each other.

Gisela spread these polystyrene crumbs around the room with expansive gestures and words full of emotion – poured out her statements with straightforward openness, her very personal remarks about Vienna’s art scene, the protagonists, the consumers and the circumstances surrounding them, very emotional and at the same time analytical, self-reflexive and appreciative of any response.

It was the beginning of a valuable friendship.

These carved and notched polystyrene forms in the room, on the floor and on the walls had a strange attraction for me: rhythmically structured, abstract creations, as if built for outer space – very strange and peculiar, especially in their coat of metallic blue car paint (a special paint for Maserati). These creations exuded a kind of controlled minimalism, inspiring awe, although this was seemingly undeserved or at least uncalled for. These curious carvings were absolutely self-sufficient in their confident solipsism.

These sculptures are based on black-and-white photography, which, mainly in the form of still lifes, was Gisela’s preferred artistic medium until 2005. Gradually, initial by-products and secondary conditions became independent of the photographic activity: the motif of the still life photograph, e.g. a gnawed piece of bone, which previously had been the protagonist in focus, was dealt with separately from its mannered background.

The severed piece of bone was presented, following deliberate overexposure and subsequent underdevelopment, in front of a white background without any further embedment in the room, a paradoxical sculpture hovering disconnectedly like a U.F.O. in a void.

The background, in itself already illusion and deception with the playful latent image effect between two and three dimensionality due to the foreshortening in the checkerboard design, was manipulated further by Gisela: she placed these painted surfaces together at varying angles and added the reflected and distorted planes from the analogue photographic image. Here and there underlain by a dark flat shadow cast by a cube, this photograph was mounted on a display wall. Any illusion was thus undermined, while the viewer’s conventional spatial perception was destabilised and relativized. Space and surface is a recurring dialectical, contradictory and hence intensifying, principle in Gisela Stiegler’s work.

The background gradually became relevant as an object and was increasingly staged: Gisela combined expanded polystyrene planes with various structures and surfaces to form constructivist compositions for her photographs. She started carving notches into the expanded polystyrene blocks and taking photographs with various gloss levels and degrees of illumination. Expanded polystyrene became an ever more important material in her work and the photographic image soon became obsolete. What used to be the background came to the fore and became a self-sufficient protagonist. Expanded polystyrene as a material seems to defy physical limits, equating optical weight with actual lightness and image with mirage. This irregular freedom from evidence permitted excesses verging upon opulence.

The reliefs gradually conquered the space, and soon they were standing tall as man-sized sculptures in the middle of the Grauzone.

The iconography of many of the works likewise seems ambivalent. Their form plays upon the nihilist elegance of a minimalist trick, the design and supposed utility of a piece of furniture, the simulated function of an architectonic set piece – yet does not commit to anything, apart from an unparalleled naturalness and irrefutable casualness, a confident attitude which conflicts starkly with the undecidedness of the artistic ambitions.

Gisela Stiegler implements a singularly non-classical concept of sculpture, which is strongly characterised by her photographic thinking. Volume, split into planes, is presented in a surface view, front view, back view and a number of three-quarter views.

Equally, the large monochrome black foil pictures aspire to a haptic quality. The bulging and creased imperfections of the surface area, the interplay of the differently refracted light reflections, give the pictures a subtle corporeality. At the same time, they catch up with the earlier pencil drawings with a new complexity.

Rather than volumes in their original identity, the sculptures are condensed views put into concrete form in a sculpture. The genesis of the surface area grown into space seems to be one of their permanent inherent characteristics. The surface is organised into plane units, structured by notches which, like slats, are grouped into individual sub-areas. Even in the details one encounters surfaces: the notches themselves are nothing but planes inclined towards each other, orchestrating the capture and reflection of light.

It is a metamorphosis from surface area to volumetric object – a plane turned into a sculpture that keeps turning back to its origin or its previous stages. In the background, each of Gisela’s figures harbours a profound, enigmatic longing for the plane.

And yet another urge complicates the state of the subjectified sculpture: within the sculptures there is a persistent inclination towards the minimalist form and a simultaneous resistance to this temptation. This formalist dialectic is felt only subtly; the problem breaks out in forceful aesthetics: rough cracks, coarse forms, harsh edges and notches, and avoidance of colour. Curves, if there are any at all, are not flatteringly gentle, but ironically counter the dominance of minimalism. Any trivial associations are blatantly provoked as arguments against vanguard gestures of reductionism. Colour is not employed as a means of design, but is used in a purely functional manner as a signal: black as a non-colour, white as an all-encompassing colour, metallic blue for its abstract, dynamising artificiality.

The direct encounter with these bizarre creations makes the viewer insecure. With an appealing unaffectedness, they demand direct engagement – in the in-between, in a Grauzone where a work of art borders on the scope of other categories like interior design, furniture or everyday objects, only to reject it vigorously; in the complex relativity of surface area and space; the dialectic contradictoriness of the constantly countered minimalism; this subversive complexity, this sometimes ironic, sometimes mischievous ambiguity, results in an insistent puzzlement and fascination.