Stuart Morgan – The limits of selfhood - 1986

Inside a white gallery the visitor moves and stops, approaches, withdraws and circles. The forms on display encourage physical encounter, but this is discouraged again by materials – that blank, substantial concrete and, in a different way, by the slivers of sheet metal it surrounds. The move from concrete to copper, cool to warm, marks a shift from body language to sheer optical sensation. As the bipartite structure plays or the relation between whole and part, tensions are established between what can be grasped and how literally metaphors of touch may be construed. And, as an elaborate combination of blockages and permissions returns the viewer to the point of entry, the question becomes one of mental grasp, of the capablility of sight alone. Physical negotioation of the sculptures turns into an allegory of interpretation.

In Manfred Wakolbingers early work pedestals gradually became indistinghishable from the figures they supported. In time a subtler play on accepted dichotomies characterised his thinking. Though the burnhished surfaces seem to absorb light and to reflect each other, closure is prevented by the concrete holders, with their connotations of brutalist architecture and corporate identity. The result is confusing, but by this point the significance of that confusion is far from simple. Containers serve to emphasize the richness and individuality of the depths within. Yet they prevent any possession of those depths except an ambiguous visual possession in which space is confused a total closure seems imminent. Wakolbinger’s interiors cannot be ransacked nor even touched. They isolate sight while evoking other faculities. Above all, they may register the presence of the viewer or, alternatively, threaten to reflect only themselves, so the promise they extend is skin-deep, a mere trick of the light.

The higher the ratio of Romanticism, the greater the level of irony which accompanies it. Precisely, those forces which seem marshaled against longing are those which perpetuate it by ensuring that it remains sacrosanct, unfulfilled. As physicality gives way to opticality, the position the viewer occupies is replaced by a purely speculative one, in which the object cannot be easily known nor exhausted and what is loft is a more husk which is nevertheless a unity, all that is possible. What begins as a critique of the impossible tensions between ratiocination and the senses ends with a plea to be satisfied with this separation. While providing constant meditative stimulus, Wakolbinger’s fiery planes and hollows remain possessable. More specific and greedy than mirrors, they allow access to exactly the type of relationship which that solitary visitor to that lonely white gallery is denied: human contact. Not every sculptures blushes as it is looked at. Finally, Wakolbinger’s theme may be love.

Often in Western culture the empty vessel has symbolised the need for inspiration. Bringing together utopian and materialist abstraction, those dual positions typified my Malevich and Rodchenko, Wakolbinger’s hints that art objects are vessels which remain empty until occupied somehow by viewers, who are obscurely “reflected” by so doing; that if longing is a permanent feature of our lifes so, indeed, is the urge to transcend the mundane, and that the ideal artwork, for which these are models, would provide a means of perpetuating that longing and allowing us to come to terms with our needs, while going some way towards assuaging them by giving immediate pleasure. As his photographs demonstrate, Wakolbinger’s eye for decorative effects – a spiral staircase, an overgrown fountain – is quintessentially Viennese. And, like all great Viennese culture, the problem they raise is of the fate of pleasure. Glance quickly from a close-up of the reflectors inside a lighthouse in Portugal to a wrought-iron grille, rococo-style, over a local window and the conclusion is clear; that though fragmentation of the individual is inevitable, it can be dissipated by decoration, that fusion of intellect and sensuality which is a model inherited from classic Modernism. That Wakolbinger’s latest works are modular and can be rearranged at will comes as no surprise; the repeated gesture of testing the limits of selfhood need not be cheerless, and very act of repeating the exercise could in itself be cause for celebration.