CHARLOTTE POSENENSKE / PETER ROEHR
Where is the “nice monotony” displayed in Peter Roehr’s and Charlotte Posenenske’s works?
It is not only Roehr’s wall objects that always consist of a serial configuration of identical objects, for example hubcaps, labels, buttons, and advertising photos, that form elements of a whole, but also the text, sound, and film montages that can be experienced in the Wiesbaden exhibition and that previously could only be seen and heard either seldom or not at all. Elementarization is a key aspect of seriality within a whole. In Roehr’s work, the elements are always the same, in Posenenske’s the same, but also not the same. In any case, they are pre-fabricated. In all of Roehr’s works, the seriality of elements is also a strategy against the hierarchy of traditional composition, which claims that the artist is a supreme creator of order. There is no dramatic composition whatever in Roehr’s sound and film montages. There is no longer any emphasis to distinguish specific components from others and so guide the observer’s attention. With regard to Posenenske’s works, in addition to elementarization and seriality, variability is a method directed against hierarchic composition, which was felt to be authoritarian. (Monochromy is a method used by other artists; the gestural, spontaneous painting of Art Informel also opposed composition). Roehr’s oeuvre, and this also applies to all his works in this exhibition, exists solely in the selection (1) of absolutely identical objects to be configured; in their serial assembly, a quasi mechanical activity (2); and in determining the endpoint (3), which is reached when the objects mutate into elements that merge to form a whole that becomes more than the sum of its parts. The production process is reduced as much as possible, the assembly proceeds in a standardized manner, and the traditional status of the artist as the ingenious creator of worlds of his own he claims are autonomous, is liquidated. The production process now consists purely of the three steps mentioned, in other words not only is the completed object configured as a series; it consists of a sequence of identical elements, while the process of assembly is also conducted serially, as a set sequence of movements of the hand. So it is not only the product that is serial, but the production process as well. With regard to the text, sound, and film montages, the process is as follows: Roehr repeats a sentence he has come across, a readymade, until it loses its significance in the observer’s perception and mutates into an element in a whole. Roehr repeats an advertising slogan on the radio or TV so often that it loses its meaning in the mind of the listener or viewer and becomes an element in something totally new and different. The listeners and viewers experience the point at which a change sets in—one which technically cannot be objectively determined, though it can in an inter-subjective manner. (Intersubjectivity is the greatest criterion for objectivity in the sciences). It is a type of abstraction. Both Roehr and Posenenske worked programmatically with elements in series. Both were concerned with making the work process objective, i.e., with reducing artistic interventions to the greatest possible extent. Roehr commented that the serial repetition of identical parts could also be done by a machine. In principle, art ought to be produced mechanically, just like factory products. It was only the concept that was still creative. For this reason both Posenenske and Roehr are regarded as conceptual artists.
In her so-called manifesto, Charlotte Posenenske wrote: “I make series because I do not want to make single pieces for individuals.” As opposed to Roehr’s work, her Reliefs and Square Tubes involve identical as well as different elements, which together form a whole. These elements are five different types of yellow, blue, red, and black Reliefs that can be combined to form triptychs, pairs, tableaus, and rows. Not only identical Reliefs, but also those that differ in terms of shape and color can be put together. The different elements that make up the Square Tubes can be screwed together to create highly disparate installations, which, depending on the number, also vary in size. Posenenske’s objects are produced serially, in a factory. As with many conceptual artists, the craftsmanship element is outsourced, reducing the level of artistic intervention. The artist handed over responsibility for the way the elements were combined to others, in other words she relinquished the final completion of the work to curators, buyers, and the public, who were called upon to put the installations together based on criteria of their own. As such, full responsibility for the final completion of the work was borne by the “consumers,” as she referred to those involved in order to emphasize that her art was a product among others. She meant active consumers who, by adopting a hands-on approach, were emancipated from merely observing art. Charlotte Posenenske no longer signed her works.
Roehr also attempted to involve others in the production of his works: he fostered the idea of an edition with identical parts, which others would put together. In contrast to Posenenske’s concept, which involved others being able to assemble the parts on the basis of their own criteria, Roehr wanted them to be assembled according to instructions, mechanically as it were. With him the focus was on objectivization, with Posenenske on participation (which is merely a different form of objectivization that results in consensus). Yet responsible participation does play a role in Roehr’s film montages without, however, the democratic pathos that participation has in Posenenke’s concept: he asked friends to pinpoint the exact point at which the contents of the film sequence dissipate and become moments in an abstract structure. For this, as with the assembly of the elements in Posenenske’s installations, those involved had to reach a consensus. Intersubjectivity was called for.
Though Roehr’s objects were always configured the same way, the fact that they differ from one another was only due to the material selected, for example labels, price tags, buttons, advertising photos, or words. The same applies to the text, sound, and film montages. Posenenske, on the other hand, assembled her installations using the various elements in the construction kit, though these were always the same four (DW Series made of corrugated cardboard) or six (D Series made of sheet steel) elements in the system. This is why I called the 2011 exhibitions in Berlin “Dasselbe anders,” in Southampton “The same but different,” and in Paris “Le même autrement.” So in this case the fact that the installations differ from one another is due to the number of and difference between the elements in an installation. An important difference in the two artists’ work was the fact that Roehr saw his products as a finished whole, whereas Posenenske’s installations, as opposed to traditional sculpture, were variable and could be continued. They keep being rebuilt. As it stands or hangs in an exhibition an installation, is indeed a whole, but only temporarily. The installations, especially the Square Tubes, are designed to be a process, points and stages of a process that is infinite in terms of both space and time, in other words of a movement, a dimension that is in evidence already in Posenenske’s early pictures (with regard to the aspect of movement, which in Posenenske’s oeuvre culminates in the “Partition” consisting of two mobile walls. The exhibition’s supporting program features a video work dating from 2011 by Martina Wolf about Posenenske’s Revolving Vanes). The continuability mentioned previously is at the same time a form of changeability, an aspect Posenenske particularly emphasized when in a sort of performance she had other people continually rebuild her corrugated cardboard Square Tubes (variability is something Michael Reiter’s 2007 “Swinging Geometry,” a performance featured in the accompanying program, has in common with her work). Posenenske continued the aspect of changeability in what are known as the Revolving Vanes, whose door-like surfaces the public can move as it sees fit. There are numerous variations possible between the unfolded and closed states.
Movement also plays a role in Roehr’s works, though with regard to the wall objects not in an overt sense, but only by means of implication through repetition. It goes without saying that movement, which brings with it an element of the film montage as content, is irrelevant. I am only interested in movement here inasmuch as it is part of the artistic method. In Roehr’s film and sound montages, movement is indeed a monotone, undramatic sequence, the repetition of the same spoken text or the same identical film sequence. Time becomes an overt dimension of his art. This is reminiscent of the beat in pop music. Unfortunately, we were unable to display the two splendid works by Roehr, which in the case of his wall objects also substantiate a more explicit tendency towards movement that does not actually occur: one of his last works consists of a progressive row of six identical panels different only in format, beginning with the smallest format (“Red and Silver Progression”). An impression of growth emerges, such that with Roehr, as well, the notion of the installation as a whole seems to dissolve due to the fact that it might possibly be continued, though the individual panels remain completed wholes. The panels now serve as parts of a row that can be continued. The same also applies to the row of ten absolutely identical “Black Panels,” in which Roehr even adopts the principle of repetition for the presentation. In his case, however, movement as continuability is only one aspect of these last two works. Furthermore, Roehr was also interested in process art in the public domain, though what was referred to as the Freiburg Project, the temporary assembly of building material in the city, was never realized.
Although both artists claim their works are self-referential—to prevent them from being given symbolic interpretations, Posenenske wrote in her Manifesto: “My works are not intended to represent anything other than what they are”—, there is no overlooking the fact that they bear traces of the outside world. In the case of Roehr, this is on account of the everyday objects, which he selected in department stores together with Posenenske to use as elements in his work. A button is still a button, even when it is part of a work; it is the dual coding Duchamp played with when he positioned his urinal in a gallery. As part of a serial montage, the photos and ads depicting an aspect of the world in narrative form lose their connection to the world precisely when the montage reaches the turning point at which the parts become elements of a whole. Because it is dependent on a different subjective perception, it does not always succeed; when it does, however, it is like a chemical process. Through the mere repetition of the parts, new structures, often diagonal in the photos, emerge in our perception. At least since the Baroque, however, the diagonal has indicated a movement inasmuch as it breaks the basic horizontal and vertical grid. With the loss of its roots in the real world, the illusionary three-dimensionality of the photos and film sequences increasingly dissipates and a two-dimensional abstract structure emerges. (This effect of perception is reminiscent of Impressionist paintings, which, when viewed close up, consist of individual marks of paint, which only join to create a picture from a certain distance.) In viewing Roehr’s works, the observer experiences a process of abstraction that takes place in his perception when the individual parts suddenly lose their roots in the real world and become abstract elements in a structured whole. It also seems legitimate to regard the mutation of the ready-mades—be these photos, film sequences, advertising slogans, or texts—into elements of a purely aesthetic structure as a change, and consequently as movement in perception.
Given their type of material, Posenenske’s Square Tubes evoke the working world: corrugated cardboard is standard packaging material, while the galvanized sheet steel reminds one of a workshop. Indeed, the Square Tubes are often mistaken for parts of a ventilation system in industrial buildings. Furthermore, the elementarization and repetition in the work of both artists recall the repetitive work processes in industrial production, and it is highly probable that without industrial work there would be no seriality in art. I can still remember the beat that finally established itself in pop music at the same time as Posenenske and Roehr were working. Along the lines of “constant dripping hollows out a stone,” the continuous repetition in advertising, often described as “consumer terrorism,” was without doubt an influence on Roehr’s concept.
Thus the oeuvres of the two artists, which on the outside appear so very different, had a number of themes in common; elementarization, seriality, the greatest possible reduction in the number of creative interventions/alias objectivization, movement/change, continuability, processuality, an involvement of others in production, an affinity with industrial work, and ultimately their giving up art. Nowadays the fact that in 1968, Charlotte Posenenske turned her back on art at the beginning of a meteoric career is discussed not in terms of being a personal, but rather an artistic act, but only few people know that Peter Roehr had made the same decision. It was an arrangement between the two friends. Roehr’s early death prompted them to put it into practice. In both cases their art had reached an end. They had completed their program: Posenenske’s last project, which she left in the form of a concept, was the two mobile walls mentioned above (what was known as the “Partition”), which can be transformed by means of folding from the corner of a room to a cube, the final consequence of the Revolving Vanes. As such, on her way from the constructed, illusionary space of a panel painting to the genuine space of architecture, she arrived in everyday life, and quit. With the “Black Panels” (identical panels made of identical elements), Peter Roehr had likewise reached an end point. In both cases this represented a well-considered appraisal of the status of the traditional artist, whose works, through the aura of originality and uniqueness, serve a market in which a one-off becomes an exclusive item that tends to fetch a high price. The two artists shared a critical view of commerce. They both took part, for example, in the legendary event in 1968 in Frankfurt organized by Paul Maenz, which, taking as its motto “One day, my darling, all this will belong to you,” presented transient situations in which the invited artists worked with ephemeral materials (ice, air, sawdust, pasteboard) that left nothing behind. The event was not about beautiful objects that were the result of a recondite creative procedure, but about transparent processes. There was no way the “darling” could take anything home to hang in the lounge. Posenenske intensified her anti-commercial stance by having her objects produced in unlimited (as opposed to limited) editions; moreover, she sold them at cost price, a subversive strategy that was extremely elegant in its simplicity and that ruled out any profit and increase in value. A strategy, however, that puts off potential collectors uncomfortable with the idea of a work that has to be shared with others, preferring an original the possession of which guarantees the exclusive enjoyment of art.
Fairness on the part of curators requires a balance between works in a show, such that the art of one does not dominate that of another. Posenenske’s works without doubt fill entire rooms. However, acoustically and kinetically, Roehr’s sound and film montages are just as dominant. Suspending Posenenske’s giant creations from the ceiling and surrounding them with an acoustic cloud of repeated sentences is a new and, in my opinion, poetic experience, but in Roehr’s case it is always the same.
As is evident from various letters, Posenenske herself had foreseen the possibility of her works being hung, and as such visible from all sides. I did this for the first time in 1989 at the main station in Frankfurt, in 2002 at the Generali Foundation in Vienna, on a third occasion in 2007 at the documenta, and now for the fourth time in 2012 in Wiesbaden. In the Wiesbaden exhibition the sheet steel Square Tubes create a space-related installation that accentuates the transition from the horizontal (the floor) to the vertical (the wall). In the Wiesbaden exhibition the Reliefs, which were previously installed at a distance from each other, thereby emphasizing them as elements, have been seamlessly positioned together. The same but different.