In the Sunshine is the title of one of Manfred Wakolbinger’s sculptures from 1984. It is an ensemble of presented and pœresenting elements: an interplay of free forms vaguely reminiscent of human figures and a supporting construction which also articulates itself as a carrier of meaning. Two copper elements combine to form a figure. An angular piece which supports a cogwheel-like shape, and a semicircle above a long flat element give rise to the image of a reclining figure in a relaxed pose. The title of the work also contributes to these associations. The presentation surface of the copper ensemble resembles a bed with a raised headrest. This construction consists of plaster. The yellow hue of the surface of the “bed” corresponds to the “sunshine” in the title.
In this early work Manfred Wakolbinger found a formal expression that became decisive for the further development of his œuvre. In their presentation the transitions between the figure and the supporting constructions appear to correpond to one another without reducing the predominant role of the figure. The respective platform for the “performance” has an auxiliary quality.
One year later Wakolbinger created his Female Acrobat (1985). The copper element resembling a person with an arched back and head bent backward rests on two bases. One might also project into this figure a bending forward of the body or bowing, but such a posture would seem to have little to do with the female acrobat of the title. The base is a truncated cone with an egg-shaped form “growing out of it”. This stabilizes the bent upper part of the figure. Thus the base absorbs the flowing round shapes of the Female acrobat and “assists” in a two-fold way. The impression of a “performance”, the twisting pose and torsion of the figure reminiscent of mannerist sculptures, also determines the sculptural shapes of other works from the same period, such as Triton I and Triton II (both 1985). In the treatment of the details the respective bases correspond to the figures seemingly presented on them which appear to be captured in an instance of balancing.
In 1986 Wakolbinger worked with variously shaped vessels. The copper inside is now surrounded by an outer skin of plaster. While up to that point the rendered bases had seemed to act as restrained dialogue partners of the copper elements from then on the rough outside shells followed the shapes inside. The copper that had earlier been exposed sculpturally receded and became a kind of case enclosing a space. The location of the sculptural design was inside. The outer shell only took up the expanse of the inner space without, however, responding to the subtle play of shapes. The outer case resembled the traditional base of a sculpture which reacts to the shape exhibited only in its proportional dimensions.
Up to that point the grey, dull and light-rejecting plaster of the base had been contrasted with the metallic lustre of the figures and our perception had been able to sort out the shapes of the different materials despite the restrained dialogue, whereas in the vessel shapes the contrast of the different materials is increased by the intertwining of outside and inside shapes. Gaping openings, slits and peep-holes give the impression of dissecting interventions. In the ashen outside shell the gleam of the copper in the center of the sculpture turns into an inner enlightenment.
In a next step the dialogue of enveloping shape and interior, of the exposed and exposing is newly articulated. In a group of works that remains Untitled, wave-like copper elements stand upright in glass cases (1991/92). In the earliest of these works the shape of the containers is not coordinated to correspond with the flow of the inner shapes. The cases correspond to the idea of showcases in their rectangularity. Yet with their precise references to the dimensions of the copper elements the glass containers appear much more directly linked to the presentation pieces than classical museum showcases which provide free space around the sculpture and in their subordinate function disappear from our perception that is supposed to focus only on the art object. It is, however, consistent with the development of Wakolbinger’s œuvre that in analogy to the earlier corresponding relationship between the sculptures and the bases which support and help articulate them a greater correspondence between the inner and the surrounding shapes occurs once again. Thus Wakolbinger arrives at glass cases that have a broad base but taper toward the top. In this way they are even more closely coordinated with the “foot” of the wave or its largest amplitude, while in the upper receding zone the glass container turns into a narrow inlet.
Beyond that there are references between what is surrounded and what surrounds it in which substantial properties and effects conflict with one another. The sheet copper follows the wave form. The optical dynamism contradicts the consistency of the material. Light reflexes and the schlieren-like traces left on the surface of the sheet metal by the welding process contribute to the seeming inconsistency of the material. In contrast to the copper the surrounding glass is a transparent material that was once liquid with an immaterial effect. It is even subject to a certain movement process over time. As a disk standing upright the plane shape will collapse even if only minimally in the course of decades. A slight bulge will form at the lower end, corresponding to the thinning along the upper edge.
However, this is only one facet of the optical and mental relationship of tension between what is surrounded and what surrounds it. In the transparent case not only the wave seems segmented but also the immediate surroundings. We are keenly aware of the neighbourhood zones between the crest and the trough of the wave and the glass facing them. The outward bulge can much more consciously also be seen as an indentation and a particularly dynamic wave crest corresponds to a bottleneck in the case. The glass case resembles the measured air space surrounding a sculpture and represents a direct response to its sculptural shape.
A four-part wall and glass case work (Venice, 1993) attaches the copper wave to architecture. Integrated into the base zone below a row of windows the framing shape has here “gained the upper hand”. The waves are enclosed in showcases and cannot transmit their movement to their surroundings.
Perhaps the reticence shown in this work is the reason for Wakolbinger’s arriving at new sweeping shapes that interact with the surrounding room. In 1996 he completed a sculpture that seems like a synthesis of the bed construction of In the Sunshine (1984) and the wave figures (1991/92). The shape ripples through the room like a long bed with a headrest and an additional stabilizing leg. In his work for Venice Wakolbinger assigned the dominating role to the surrounding interior architecture and it is only consistent that in the new bed-like construction he should dispense entirely with any surrounding shape.
Wakolbinger has left both his work for Venice and the “bed” Untitled. This is, however, the only link between them. With the “bed” he revised his earlier works and opened up a new field without giving up his design principles discussed above. His next works were a group of copper elements in which it is much harder for associations to find a clear projection surface than in the earlier anthropomorphic and vessel-like sculptures. But here, too, the interplay between free form and presentation “aid” finds a new expression. Supporting constructions standing on the floor, angle irons attached to the walls or hanging devices made of chains seem to divest the copper shapes of their gravitational weight. They etch themselves into their supports like shapes flowing in space.
While the waves in the showcases gave the impression of cleanly separated sections, the new copper elements – all of them untitled – have a somewhat raw quality. Anyone who has ever seen ham hung for centuries will be reminded of this by Wakolbinger’s hanging copper pieces. This is, however, where a struggle of different images begins. The metal skin of the bodies and the unyielding grip of the supports also trigger associations of technology. The elements find their place between heaven and earth similar to prefabricated compounds that are moved by cranes from the warehouse to the place where they are needed.
While in the past the bases and cases had emphasized the stability of Wakolbinger’s sculptures, the new contraptions relieve the sculptures of their gravitational weightiness. The Female Acrobat no longer presents herself with her back stretched but as a curved figure keeping her balance on the tightrope. The “waves” break out of their aquariums, tracing a wild course through the surrounding space in the way of paper streamers. In contrast to this, shapes that have been left in their sculptural compactness appear as though they were the cores taken out of the “vessel shapes”. Hanging from the ceiling in their copper gleam they appear like luminous bodies. It is quite consistent that these shapes which seem to soar and dance in space are joined by winglike elements reminiscent of early flying devices. Moreover those recent and seemingly turning constructions that remind us of components of parabolic mirrors appear to search for a correspondence with the atmosphere. They are receptacles of waves which in this case remain invisible.
Assembled in close proximity Wakolbinger’s hanging, supported and upright copper elements appear like fragments, dismembered and dispersed in the surrounding space that apparently want to be assembled into a functioning whole on an assembly line. If one pursues this association further one will soon realize that this projection work is a Sisyphean one, for in their individual sweep and momentum these works resist any claims of interlinking and compatibility. After all Wakolbinger is no design engineer but a sculptor of free forms.