During the night of October 4, 1957, a radio report reminiscent of Orson Welles’s exploits announced that Sputnik would pass over Austria. The entire population of Mitterkirchen, a small place in Upper Austria, was out and about, scanning the sky for the spaceship in orbit. Nobody actually caught a glimpse of it, but the collective fascination with the mystery of technology was a rite of passage for Manfred Wakolbinger, five years old then. Even today, he says it was the time when the basic apparatus of notions began to emerge which were to orbit around his art later on: the simultaneity of inside and outside, the flexibility of and limits to the potential for human influence, the unstable balance between autonomy and independence, and especially the dialogue between the familiar and the unknown.
Thus it comes as no surprise that Wakolbinger’s one-man show at the Museum des Zwanzigsten Jahrhunderts is entitled Sputnik: as a programme, as a symbol and as a myth.
You will see them coming at you as soon as you enter the lobby: Unidentified Flying Objects, unknown beings which do not fit into any category we know. Classification: Aliens. Characteristics: wild, strange, threatening. Position: overhead. They float in the air. Burning flames of shimmering copper at eye level between ceiling and floor. Matter, airborne. Only at a closer look do you realize that they are fastened to the ceiling. What is hanging here in a delicate state of equilibrium, suspended on strong bands of iron, is alive or was alive just a little while ago. The unprotected metal oxidizes, dark, dull spots spread on the glowing surface like an epidemic disease. Raw untreated welding seams join violently bent copper pieces, creating breathless bits of sculptures, charged with associations calling up slaughterhouses where dead meat is dangling on hooks. Strange surreal forms develop through protean growth in space. Flank pieces proliferate, fold up, stretch out their tentacles and coagulate in nothingness. These studies of substances degenerating from metal to jelly are juxtaposed with clearly defined and solid pieces of machinery, barrels, pipes, shafts, cylinders. They take us from a mysterious cosmos of science-fiction back to a more familiar, but still unsettling world. The fiction of reality lies in between hybrid nature and encoded technology.
Wakolbinger’s new sculptures are located somewhere between Hannibal Lecter’s cannibalistic rituals and Greenaway’s cold-storage depots for meat, where dogs lurk at the doors. Distressing and intense. We remember that in David Cronenberg’s movies TV sets mutate into organic bodies and video tapes breathe, and we are beset by the same panic when faced with Wakolbinger’s suspended thromboses. A manifesto of blood, sweat and tears, a lightyear away from the decorative small sculptures of the early days, neatly presenting themselves on plinths. And a far cry from the meditative vessel sculptures marking Wakolbinger’s international breakthrough, sculptures at the intersection of autonomy, functional object and piece of cult furniture. At documenta 8 he demonstrated how roughcast and copper sheet can turn into objects that unite base and sculpture in a whole. Copper negatives tucked into dull grey bodies of roughcast
could be read as a metaphor of polarities and as a way of formulating the absolute balance between tensions. The sculptures functioned from within, they functioned in their relation to space and they also delighted in proving their utilitarian value.
Whereas, in the roughcast sculptures, copper was a mysterious carrier of light, of energy from within, Wakolbinger has encased his material in stereometric containers made of float glass in a new series of works. Copper bands and loops move in waves that break on the resisting glass, pushing outside full speed ahead. Arranged freely in a given space in pairs or groups, or incorporated in the architectural setting, placed in recesses, wall and floor surfaces, the sculptures developed their alchimistic poetry as glistening fetishes for the perfect balance of form based on a spatial statement, an intervention in space.
As a matter of fact, Wakolbinger has always been interested in contrasts, juxtapositions and dichotomies, be they notions of within and without, geometric and amorphous, transparent and opaque, or core and shell, outward appearance and inner reality. A convincing counterpoint to concepts of immaterial media art, Wakolbinger’s three-dimensional shapes continue to be therapies against the transitoriness of the moment. They consoled us during the decade when skepticism against the status of sculpture was high on the agenda. They were persistent, metaphysically dense icons in times when the crossover from object design to discursive practice was rampant in art.
Wakolbinger has changed his sculpture in a decisive way once again, trading the consoling element in for distress. Clear silhouettes and volumes that strictly adhere to Euclidian principles have given way to formal hypotheses of excessive and extreme variability expanded beyond recognition. As a logical consequence, Wakolbinger’s affective sculpture rise above the ground and occupy airspace. And as we can never be sure when the androids start to mutate, they have to be observed. Satellites from Wakolbingerville rotate slowly on two metal masts, collecting energy from the exhibition system and transmitting it on by radio. The fact that, at the same time, their look is that of a sculpture, different, but equally pleasing any which way you view it, should be understood as a parody of the classic requirements to be fulfilled by sculptures.
The choice of material, made a long time ago, remains unchanged: copper is unmistakable and easily recognizable by its unique colour. Wakolbinger now uses pure copper exclusively. While a theory says that the specific properties of a material create the language of objects the artist does away with this claim. Instead of shaping the copper in reduced, self-contained forms and burnishing it the way Brancusi would have called for, he undermines the rule which was once important to him, too. The aggregate state of copper seems to change from solid to fluid, kneadable, soft. Wakolbinger introduces bio-mass as an antithesis to stereometry, going all out in terms of softness with the bulky metal. Adorno, to whom all syntheses of the seemingly incompatible were suspicious, would not be pleased.
Quite often, the visual structure of Wakolbinger’s sculptures, that which is visible and thus perceived as the truth, is based on the codes of fiction, and especially on the codes of the cinema. The experience and processing of motifs emerging e.g. in the dual world of David Lynch was incorporated into Wakolbinger’s sculptural method. For example, the heroes of Dune turn into glass crystals, their bodies disappear in the glass prisms, the exterior space-body is transformed into an interior space. It is precisely the potential for manipulations between inside and outside that Manfred Wakolbinger played through frequently and most explicitly in the group of works in which he locked the copper substance up in glass containers.
In David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers Jeremy Irons is duplicated on a split screen: one actor plays both Mantle twins, good guy Bev and bad guy Elly. They are linked by one nervous system – a genetic disposition. Claire acts as a catalyst between the two brothers. She has to find out that she is dealing with two different persons who in turn do not believe they are different because they are one and two at the same time.
Wakolbinger’s sculptural syntax also plays with the binary element, with polarities, contrasts and contradictions which are actually needed to form a whole. We can never be sure which side of the Moebius strip joining the visible and the perceivable we are on.
This is due to the consistency of the material – one of metal appearing to be latex. This is also due to an active involvement in the lift-off, the act of floating in the air, relativized by the clearly and deliberately visible suspension devices. Furthermore, this is to do with calling up associations with tumour-invaded organs, created by the chiaroscuro aestheticism of spotty surfaces. Dead matter is feigning latent growth. Much like in a horror movie, internal proliferation is reflected by excrescences on the surface, the skin of the sculpture becomes a map of internal transformations which are by no means benign.
In spite of all the obvious ruggedness Wakolbinger shows respect for the physicality of sculpture and insists on its three-dimensionality. For him, the classic foundations of sculpture, the formulation of volume and mass, the emphasis on the forces involved in a shaping process and enthusiasm for a seductive material remain current practice. However, his latest works undermine established and accepted categories. They have lost their centre and, due to their elevated position, the debate about the issue of the base has eventually been turned around. A wild cosmology of amorphous hermaphroditic figures defies any and all theories about the emergence of form. Again, Wakolbinger’s note on para-organic, transformed and deformed expression points to the movies, to David Cronenberg. In Crash he traces the hidden kicks of wrecked cars, bodies crippled in accidents and serial perversities, leaving nothing unsaid about the fascination inherent to them.
In Cronenberg’s film and Wakolbinger’s sculpture, it becomes apparent that, regardless of the logic they were previously subject to, all things can be turned into their exact opposite which prompts them to release new energy. Instead of seemingly cogent models based on fixed polarities, Wakolbinger offers the subversion of conventional forms, be they hermetic, abstract figures or sculptural constructions referring to elements of every-day life and objects.
With his spectacular sculptures positioned between fascination and shock he proves to be a master of irritation.