The strategies intrinsic to form as expressed in the sculptural shapes of Manfred Wakolbinger’s œuvre are determined by the dialectic theme of how physically material and sensorily empirical processes of perception can be relativized or seen as something absolute. Seeing material, empirical moments as absolute does not only denote an immediate, bodily and haptic encounter, a quasi-“corporeal” relation with the sculptural phenomenon but also an inexorable confrontation with the highly sensual connotations, sometimes even bordering on the sexual, which evolve through the strong presence of the material properties of the shapes. From the very beginning, Manfred Wakolbinger’s sculpture has been characterized by this accentuated sensuality and a strong, even overwhelming materiality. When he uses seemingly traditional means so as to heighten our sensitivity to the relationality of the sculptural bodies in the context of space, he is in line with the classic issues of European sculpture, which preserves the basic self-containment of the sculptural form, considering space to be an empty, neutral environment and sculpture to be a solid volume, a body. However, Wakolbinger introduces a new element into the engagement with sculptural bodies, i.e. the shell as an element of design. This triggers off a complex process relativizing traditional views, and at the same time an ongoing re-definition of the viewer’s position. It is not only the phenomenon of sculptural form that is investigated in this process of relativization, and not only the phenomenology of contexts intrinsic to form is explored; the very possibilities and relevancy of perception itself are thematized, too. As the shell or case is often transparent the boundaries between body and space or interior and exterior space are relativized, at times they even blur. In the late eighties and early nineties Wakolbinger worked on glass cubes containing organically ornamental shapes. The content was form – sensual, fleshly and organic, shaped in reddish-yellow copper – and it was kept like a treasure, like a precious, mysterious, exotic cult object, and displayed behind glass as if in a showcase. Here, the exterior “façade” also functioned as a geometric form – as in a minimal sculpture – as part of the sculptural structure, as a design element of the artwork and as a shell, a transparent wall protecting the piece and allowing it to be seen, a wall separating the interior from the exterior space.
Ironically, one might claim that the interior space would be “more precious” than the exterior, that the interior space would be art while the exterior would correspond to life. By the same token, one could argue – not without a grain of irony, either – that, seen in terms of representation, the interior space would be “content” and the glass pane would be form. This would then mean that aesthetic form – in the Hegelian sense – only represented the shell surrounding the precious core, actual content. Thus there would be two forms: the glass cube on the one hand and the fleshly-organic copper shape on the other. Such an ironic thematization of the form/content dichotomy goes to show how radically Wakolbinger relativizes the physical and empirical processes of perception pertaining to the most simple sensual-sculptural elements while at the same time preserving the relevancy of the sensual form in its sensory and material obviousness, even deliberately emphasizing it as a central momentum and incorporating it in the perceptual process. This artistic strategy clearly distinguishes Manfred Wakolbinger’s work from certain tendencies of de-materialization deriving their legitimacy directly or indirectly from Minimal Art theories. In this context, Wakolbinger’s position is typical of the late eighties and early nineties, which were the years characterized by various strategies of re-materialization. This intellectualization of sensory and sculptural means is linked with the process of “bringing materiality back” to notions of the artwork as a communication system. While the sixties and seventies were dominated by a strong trend toward de-materialization, accompanied by a self-defining function of art, we can observe an obvious tendency toward “re-materialization” today. On various levels, the “body” of the artwork is considered to be a primarily semantic element; ity or the sensuality of different materials are generalized as intellectual phenomena and at the same time they take concrete shape in their sensual and plastic physical existence. The body is no longer seen as an object used to demonstrate a generally valid concept or structure; it is placed in the center of an intellectual process by virtue of its physical existence. In this context, the object is not interpreted as a purely intellectual model but as an integral part of physical and perceivable reality – a part that acts due to its physical givens and has relevancy due to its material existence. For this reason, we observe diverging attempts at overdoing materiality, bringing it to a more sensual, surprising, provocative level, or at reducing it to the most minimal without limiting oneself to the tautology – in the classical sense – of Minimal Art in the sixties. From the late seventies and early eighties onward, a new generation of artists came to the fore, with a history and vocabulary that definitely tied in with international art. Manfred Wakolbinger is one of its most typical protagonists.
A new awareness of art in Austria also enriched the debate about the significance of cultural regions in contemporary art with arguments from art history. Instead of an ahistorical, abstract, naïvely evolutionist internationalism, an idea of regionalism that was historically sensitive and realistic was formulated and its cultural embeddedness qua direct linguistic material was applied to artistic forms of expression. The young artists called the formalistic and (art-related) evolutionistic concept of Modernism into question and made the aesthetic embodiment of cultural history process the central theme of their art. The immediate sensory effects and the radicalized sensuality of the artwork lent powerful existence to this aesthetic fiction of an embodiment of symbols from cultural history and mythology, with the anthropological levels of meaning and the updated allegories from cultural history running counter to all linear and evolutionistic, formally phenomono- logical ideas.
As Wilfried Skreiner noted as early as in 1982, new Austrian art encompassed at least two groups with different approaches to expressivity, visual drama, content and formal vocabulary. Interestingly enough, the aboutface also caused decisive changes in the œuvres of people who were among the expressive, dramatically oriented artists, such as Hubert Schmalix, Erwin Bohatsch, Alois Mosbacher and Lois Weinberger, in the mid-eighties. In the early eighties the position of Franz West, Erwin Wurm and Manfred Wakolbinger was also one that linked sensuality and a strong emphasis on sensitivity to the material, even a certain degree of painterly expressivity and almost baroque ornamentalism with an intellectual content-centredness that was hard to convey. In its later development, from the mid-eighties onward, their art has precisely revealed the aboutface characteristic of contemporary art in Austria on the whole, a shift from trans-avantgardistic, eclectic sensuality and radical subjectivism toward a cool and exact intellectual formal vocabulary and a certain economy and sparingness, reductivity and de-materialization. While, in Franz West’s œuvre, the engagement with psychological and anthropological issues does not impose any formal limits on his artistic language, and the provocative directness of psychological meanings pinpoints the human body as the instrument of expressive mechanisms, a strong tendency toward simplification, reduction and sparing use of expressive means can be observed in the development of Erwin Wurm and Manfred Wakolbinger. Both artists approach ontological questions, often thematizing them in dualistic systems. In Erwin Wurm’s works, these questions are reflected as cover and void, or the presence and absence of material. Manfred Wakolbinger gives this dualism the shape of objects by using the relation of inner and outer form, or transparent surfaces and massive, heavy bodies. The organically sensual inner form undergoes a visual change caused by the rigid, geometric shape of the glass cubes. Positive (filled) and negative (empty) spaces offer different views from different positions. Surface and inner “content” are e.g. duplicated and thus relativized. In the most recent works by Erwin Wurm and Manfred Wakolbinger an almost provocative, physical directness seems to become stronger. Erwin Wurm’s video works show “living sculptures”: slowly moving human bodies are covered by clothes, the sculptural shape of the “living objects” created this way trigger confusing and uncanny feelings in the viewer because expectations of anthropomorphous form are thwarted in an almost brutal and scary way. In Manfred Wakolbinger’s sculptures, the sensual bodies made of copper, which remind us of flesh, have left their glass cubes. Suspended on iron hooks, they seem like huge pieces of meat in a slaughterhouse. In contrast to the early eighties, sensuality is no longer presented in terms of impulsive, dynamic, “vegetative” immediacy but as something provocative, scary, almost deterring; it is thematized as a process of contemplation of the work.
A far cry from the tautological models of the sixties and seventies, which saw formalistic and phenomenological interpretations as something absolute, Wakolbinger introduces a non-formalistic momentum to interpret sculptural structures in a context of sociological and psychological references. In this sense, he e.g. highlights the act of “displaying” the object; this is not only true of his glass-cube works but also of the more recent suspended sculptures in which the state of being displayed is associated with hints at a violent exposure of the body. The act of “displaying” encompasses physical, psychological, culturo-sociological and aesthetic factors, and the cult of a precious and “exotic” object – placed in a secure space, protected but visible – can also be read as a metaphor of its position as a museum exhibit and the alienated modern way of attributing value.
However, the transparent boxes – which can actually be analyzed in a culturo-sociological context – also have a new function which cannot be deduced from this culturo-sociological basis; it is entirely different and can be deciphered in aesthetic terms. They basically create a new “second” form re-formulating the classic dialectic of filled and empty space in a new context. The hard and rigid glass panes determine the cube, a uniform geometric shape as seen from outside. Vision conveys a different impression than physical-haptic perception: on the one hand, we see a solid body or “filled” form – made of copper, seemingly organic or ornamental, strongly emphasizing the sensory and physical properties of the sensual material – and another one, a “second form”, quasi-negative evolving between the “positive” solid form and the hard and smooth glass panes. By Wakolbinger’s simple act of placing an “inner”, “filled”, body-like form in a glass cube, a “negative”, immaterial, “second” form develops, defined by the surrounding body as a negative. It is not made of a sensual, tangible, solid material but has formal qualities similar to the “first” form which fulfills the expectations of sensory and empirical perception.
As the shell is not made of transparent glass but a sensual material reminiscent of flesh, i.e. copper, it acquires the “character of skin”, the original and natural function of which it is to cover the body and protect the sensitive interior organs. This brings a hidden psychological element to the fore very clearly, as the sculptural formations become sensual and organic in nature, as they turn into something bodily, physically-sensory, even violent or sexual. They start to provoke our senses, they stimulate associations and demand an entirely different way of dealing with sculptures; they are no longer simple objects to illustrate an aesthetic engagement with the problem of the spatial relationality of sculpture or models of an intellectual and dialectic process of perception. Not only does the “skin”, artificial and sensually organic at the same time, protect the body, cover what is inside, it also separates the spheres from one another and creates a boundary between inside and outside, between what is empty and what is full, what is organic/flesh and anorganic/object.
The act of suspending makes the strongly emphasized sensuality with its associations of violence and fear even more preponderant than it is in the glass-cube works. Perhaps it marks Wakolbinger’s most radical departure from the classic notion of sculpture, especially because the heavy bodies, shining with a faint reddish gleam reminiscent of flesh, and openly revealing the traces of processing (“wounds”) on their surface (“skin”), are really suspended on hooks and can be moved around by everybody. They are by no means static sculptures with a fixed base and stable position, they are accumulated masses taking up space in a threatening way.
Even though psychological content and body-related sensuality have a strong impact on the structure of meaning in these works, Wakolbinger continues to thematize the relationality of sculptural bodies in space here. His formations are not “space-related” in the sense of a deliberately calculated and model-like installation reflecting on the qualities of the given space. However, the objectification of relationality in sculpture remains in the focus of his efforts. Interestingly enough, he links up the classic problems of sculpture with equally classic themes of modernity such as threat, destruction, existential exposure etc., with the sculptural outcome being anything but classical. It is against this background that we can grasp what is specifically “topical”, par excellence “rooted in our day and age”, truly “contemporary” about Manfred Wakolbinger’s œuvre: the intellectual question intrinsic to form and space is objectified in a provocative, radically sensual shape in his works, illustrating analytical and sensorily empirical elements at the same time.