"There is nothing outside the universe" (Lee Smolin)
At first glance, Ulrich Vogl’s work comes across as being bewilderingly heterogeneous in form, material and content. Pencil drawings on paper; animated film; sculptural installations made from recycled cardboard packaging and readymade objects; cardboard cut-outs; photographic collage; wall drawings; painted glass. Each of his projects is underwritten by a strong conceptual basis, and it could be that he chooses to realize each in the most appropriate manner, whatever that might be. But there are also persuasive consistencies to what he does that suggest a concerted engagement with certain core processes and media, and it’s reasonable to suggest that this ongoing engagement is the dynamo that drives his work along a definite line of development.
However, while it is easy to describe that work in terms of a succession of individual projects, it is much more difficult to pinpoint its general properties. We are diverted and involved by its variables, in other words, even as they serve to obscure or disguise its invariant elements. Each piece is to some extent like a world in itself. Each is a self-consistent system obeying a given set of rules and substantially determined by them. Of course they are not worlds as such but partial worlds, domains which have been artificially isolated from a wider context. In terms of complexity and possibility, they are severely edited versions of that wider reality.
But what if we try to define a more general, evolving Vogl-World, one that incorporates the various recurrent constituents but still excluding a great deal else?
He is clearly interested in types of things, in a way that brings to mind the typologies that form a significant line of approach in a great deal of contemporary art photography, though the nature of his interest diverges from the formulations typical of such photographic projects. In his treatments, individual examples of types or classes often converge towards uniformity and equilibrium, becoming interchangeable. By means of this process they are progressively defined as being emblematic of the symbolic network of meaning within which they function. Each is part of a system and operates in terms of that system. One implication of this is that ostensible differences appeal to a notional freedom of choice that does not, in fact, exist. The expression of apparent choice on the part of the individual subject merely endorses the viability of the governing system because the outcome of all potential choices are predetermined.
While some of Vogl’s works are very polished and highly finished, others have a rough-hewn, improvisational quality about them, and he often comes across as an autodidact, devising his own ways of doing things rather than opting for established methods. In figuring out his own systems, what he does might be compared to someone making a model railway, a network that is a highly selective, functioning model of reality. There is often something playful in his approach and something toy-like about the material forms he makes. In several instances the viewer is cast in an active, participatory role. But while the model railway enthusiast aims for a working representation of rolling stock, buildings, landscape and timetables, a three-dimensional, mechanical world, Vogl’s fascination with the physical and mechanical also incorporates other layers. His models are also models of rather less tangible social practice and its underlying values and imperatives. His methodology entails research and the visualization of various kinds of data, including quantitative data.
As with model railways, movement is an essential part of what he does. His work is usually kinetic in fact or by implication, and it often features light and illumination. In fact it’s noticeable that the idea of a star, as a radiant, energetic body, recurs in a variety of guises. The transmission of energy, radiant or otherwise, and the creation of energized space, are consistently important, and are perhaps related to his recurrent use of shiny, reflective surfaces. As indeed might be something else that recurs as a relevant factor: the relative value of materials, something that is often culturally determined.
Given the strong inventive impulse that characterizes his work, it is not surprising to learn that his grandfather was an inventor, with numerous patents to his name. He was, Vogl recalls, drawing all the time. Vogl himself went on to specialize in drawing. Prior to that, as part of his second-level education when he was 17, he won a scholarship and went to Chicago, where he stayed with an American family. The father was a professor of sociology, the author of a seminal book on growing up in the suburbs in the 1970s, and his analytical approach to society had a decisive impact on Vogl.
Partly because of this experience, he went on to embark on studying political science and law, only to realize that the subject didn’t fundamentally engage him. While in Chicago he had taken art classes at the Art Institute of Chicago. Now he felt sure that he should concentrate his energies on art and he went on to attend the Academy of Fine Arts Munich and, subsequently, the University of Arts Berlin (he is currently based in Berlin). Setting out to reduce the process of drawing to its essentials, he made a series of charcoal drawings of floors: a two-dimensional subject treated in two dimensions.
In Berlin, however, he became involved in film, which introduced the element of time into drawing. He has consistently seen his activities in any and every medium as drawing or a continuation of drawing. Lichtzeichen-Ein Skizzenbuch (2000), is a 4.5 minute animation film in which he drew directly onto a layer of dust on glass. Each frame was recorded with light shining through the glass where the dust had been scraped away. There is a self-conscious air of fantasy and magic to the succession of images which were derived from various sources: “Fra Angelico and Raphael, nights in the city and the wideness of Arcadia.” The process of projecting light through glass and dust is like a commentary on the working of film projection itself, and there is a nostalgic evocation of early cinema with its delighted discovery of apparently magical effects, usually achieved through the manipulation of time. More, the light has a physical quality that is characteristic of film projection as opposed to video.
Yet Vogl did not choose to pursue the possibilities of film per se. He was instinctively working his way towards the kind of work that fulfilled his aims, even though he had not quite articulated, even to himself, what those aims might be. He did know, though, that the conclusive nature of film, the arrival at an end-point, did not appeal to him and merely looping a sequential narrative would not solve the problem. As he puts it, he felt that he wanted a kinetic form that was completely materially present and complete.
Landschaft / Treppenhaus (2000) took the form of an array of drawings suspended in a grand stairwell in the Irsee Monastery, a former Benedictine monastery in Bavaria. The drawings disrupted but did not completely obscure the view of a baroque fresco depicting a lavish celebration involving the god of time, Chronos. Perhaps we can discern a conscious or unconscious wish here to disrupt the chronological structure of the film sequence. The individual drawings, arranged in linear sequences, recall film frames, but the bigger picture, literally and figuratively, resides behind the images. In fact the images were, literally, film frames, from the animated film Landschaft (2000), which was projected onto a tondo shaped space on the ceiling framed by elaborate plaster stuccowork.
The frames are, in a temporal sense, a composite landscape. They also identify landscape as a genre and, in their snapshot form, they refer to photography and transience rather than to landscape painting with its fixity of viewpoint. There is a reciprocal relationship between drawing installation and film, but an intentionally problematic one. Glimpsed from the ground floor, the individual drawings are hard to read. Their main effect is to disrupt the painting beyond them. If you ascended the stairs you could see that they were landscapes and made up a landscape composite. The film was a fleeting account of landscape experienced in transit, eluding the controlling institutional framework.
Landschaft / Kästchen (2000), at Irsee offered a synthesis but maintained a level of skepticism. Visitors were invited to sit around a table and make up their own composite landscapes on the basis of some 98 individual drawings stacked in a Biedermeier style box. The work was essentially a game and indeed Vogl referred to the Biedermeier period as a time of “playing games and landscape painting.” Every image shared a horizon line, and was more or less nondescript, offering the kind of rural prospect that might be glimpsed on a journey. You might almost think you recognized particular places. But the point of the game was surely that the landscapes were interchangeable and existed within a closed loop of meaning as an expression of socially constructed “taste”. By spreading their geographical reach – they could be “Poland as well as France or the United State of America”, Vogl noted – he was pointing to the nature of the conventions of representation in a much wider context than the Biedermeier.
Another film animation Pausinmaschine (2001), just 80 seconds in duration, indicates his unease and the direction towards which he was inclined. The Pausinmachine itself is a kind of dynamic platform for drawing, but drawing freed in several respects from the traditional support of paper and made inherently unstable. In fact it can be seen as a bid to free drawing from the surface altogether. Instead, linear images are inscribed on a mirror surface, a surface that is not, so to speak, there at all. The lines are photographed against a periodically changing background as the platform spins around and the mirror reflects a new prospect of Dorfstrasse 4 in Pausin over a twelve hour span. The rear of the mirror, though, is painted with blackboard enamel, on which chalk drawings are periodically made and replaced.
Rolltreppe (2003), a site specific drawing installation made with coloured marker on the up and down escalators of the Opel Showroom in Berlin. The treads and risers of each escalator feature a larger-than-life sized drawing of the face of a person sleeping. These two dreamers are in constant motion, regularly and obliviously passing each other by. Each image continually forms and reforms, both changing and unchanging. The mechanical nature and circular motion of the segments recall the structure of film and, together with the nature of the image, suggests the way film, in its traditional theatrical form of presentation, joined public space with private imagining, being both public and personal.
When Vogl won a DAAD scholarship in 2003 he went to New York to complete an MFA at the School of Fine Arts, New York. His return to the US rekindled his interest – an interest that had never been far below the surface – in sociology, and sociological methods of analysis. He embarked on a series of works under the collective title House America, a series that culminated in a distinct, ambitious mixed media installation at the Elizabeth Foundation in New York in 2004, House West.
The House works are substantially about the American dream of suburbia, but they also explore other aspects of the American scene. The several House America pieces are model environments and apart from addressing a particular subject matter they introduce an idea that became increasingly important in Vogl’s work: that of the transmission of energy or a force, creating a connection between two discrete objects. On a trip to Venice, after visiting several churches, he found that a particular Renaissance version of The Annunciation stayed on his mind. What was striking about it was the considerable gap between the figure of the angel at one side of the church and the figure of the virgin at the other. You could see either in isolation, but when you saw them in relation to each other it was as if, as he put it, the space between them became energized. This reads like a description from particle physics of a force field between interacting particles.
House America / Water Towers (2004) sees Vogl begin to use the idea of lines of connection in a concerted way. The water tower is an icon of American functional architecture, and irrigation is a huge issue in many parts of the United States. Numerous suburban developments emanate an atmosphere of natural lushness that is artificially sustained. The installation provides a schematic account of a process that feeds energy into the extraction and distribution of water to sustain an impression of suburban prodigality.
Throughout the House America pieces, Vogl uses conspicuously ordinary materials, recycling cardboard packaging from fast food outlets, departments stores and coffee shops, taking colour reproductions of houses from real estate advertising brochures, sketching water towers and furniture in felt-ink pen on paper, making lines of connection with thread and string, using pieces of lumber, an aluminium stepladder and cheap lighting. Everything is in common usage, low-cost and disposable, all of which is certainly a comment on the nature of consumer culture and, more, suggests that in the US day-to-day life takes place inside this packaging of corporate culture.
Cardboard boxes stand in for sky-scrapers, a football stadium, a house, a golf course and a rubbish tip. Peer into House America and the mock-antique furniture is cross-hatched on paper cut-outs, echoing the way, Vogl suggests, so much of American suburban furnishing is a reproduction of something else, an aspirational statement, “expensive but false.” Part of the peculiar appeal of suburbia, Vogl says, is its combination of beauty and banality. Blandness is not an accidental by-product but part of the attraction. If the work is critical, though, it is also exceptionally good-natured and playful, and playfulness comes to the fore in House America / Houses for Rent (2003-2004) and House West.
Houses for Rent features images of houses culled from catalogues, placed in cardboard boxes, complete with fold-out pool and with the house plans printed on the outside of the boxes. Interested parties are invited to rent houses for €1 per month. On application each house is sealed in its box and posted to its tenant. House West is a kinetic installation, a model world in which the world is a globalised suburb perpetually in search of the optimum. The staple ingredients of suburban dreams are embodied in a series of individually articulated islands.
Mounted on the chassis of model cars, the suburb restlessly forms and reforms, neighbours jockeying for position, each homestead complete with lawn, water feature and specimen trees and shrubs. A golf course lies at the centre of the promised land. Although a cloud looms overhead, it is surmounted by a rainbow that spins giddily about. Nothing can mar the dream. The island form encapsulates suburbia as a disconnected non-community, in thrall to an ideal of consumerist affluence. But it is as if the elements are held together by invisible lines of force, existing only in relation to each other.
First Ladies of America (2004) combines an evocation of the American suburban idyll with cut-out images of the wives of all the American presidents to date. The head-and-shoulders image of each First Lady is balanced atop a glass jar, counterbalanced by the gilded, upside-down silhouette of her husband beneath her. Inside, the base of each jar is occupied by a tiny suburban vista: house, lawn, trees. With every breath of air, the heads nod in cheerful assent, fulfilling their role as creatures of acquiescence and reassurance.
In House America / Telescope a room furnished with cut-outs features a prominent and implausibly grand chandelier. A year after returning from the US, Vogl took part in an exhibition at Kevin Kavanagh in Dublin. He decided to make a wall drawing, though one that reaches beyond its immediate material presence in several ways. The last person may turn off the light / Version 2 (2005) took the form of a chandelier drawn onto the wall of the gallery in permanent marker. Again, the scale and opulence of the light seem at variance with the setting, which is a plain, spare industrial type space. But the chandelier was only provisionally present. Much detail was not elaborated, lending it a flickering, uncertain quality, as though the glare of light was saturating it and blinding us.
On the opposite side of the gallery a light-switch was drawn onto the wall. A line extended from the top of the switch across the ceiling to a point where it appeared as if the chandelier was suspended from it. The installation was the clearest, most concentrated expression to date of Vogl’s desire to generate an energized space. He did so by inference. It is we who, putting all the elements together and tracing the connections, see the light, so to speak. Energy sparks to life in our own minds. Despite the sardonic title, the piece came across as being distinctly optimistic. One has the power, Vogl implies, to turn on the light.
A related piece Kronleuchter / Baustrahler (2005) consisted of a standard industrial construction lamp painted over with black enamel into which was scratched a representation of a chandelier. The intricately patterned light glows and twinkles through the glass. As with the chandelier in Telescope the work gains much of its force from the disjuncture of image and materials, the basic, functional object giving substance to the symbol of wealth and prestige, just as affluence is built on labour, however distanced they may be from each other in the globalised economy. It is a feature of chandeliers though, that as symbols of conspicuous consumption, they are on the cusp between glamour and tackiness, something that Vogl alludes to in his Mirball which, like Kronleuchter (2006) is a large-scale, kinetic drawing that significantly extrapolates on The last person may turn off the light.
In these latter pieces, the pattern of light is outlined by enamel paint on glass, but rather than using an electrical source of illumination, Vogl has devised an ingeniously simple diffraction curtain of metallic strips. Any movement of air is enough to ruffle the curtain strips, and a remarkably effective illusion of radiance and mobility is created. Again, the materials are pointedly workaday and industrial. Yet the works are curiously cheering and affirmative. It is not too much to describe the chandeliers as star-like objects that generate their own heat and light.
If the chandeliers can be considered as stars, the drawings that make up the ongoing project of Numbers in my Head (2005-) can be regarded as constellations. Vogl’s starting point is the fairy tale of the young shepherd who is summoned by the king. He may have the hand of the princess if he can answer three questions. One of which is: How many stars are in the sky? The shepherd asks for the largest sheet of paper and the finest nib that can be found. He proceeds to fill the entire sheet with a cluster of dots that become so dense they are impossible to distinguish from each other. When he is finished he says to the king: “When you have counted them you will know the number of stars in the sky.”
Vogl sets out to put in visual form numbers that are too large for the human brain to comprehend, something that equates to his desire to make film-like works that are instantaneously rather than sequentially present. As it happened, he embarked on one of those with Eine Sekunde (2005/2004), a concertina drawing that recalls Jean-Luc Godard’s much quoted definition of cinema: “Film is truth 24 times a second,” a reference to the number of individual frames necessary to generate the illusion of continuous movement to the human eye.
Vogl alternates images of a drummer with images of the interior of a train carriage. These images evoke things beyond their literal content. A drummer implies a sound, and the carriage is a metaphor for interior, mental space, so that the piece, like Rolltreppe, is a meditation on the workings of film and its capacity to link external and internal, imaginative worlds. Eine Sekunde is a representation of a second and, more, an attempt to unpack the phenomenological baggage of a second’s lived experience.
Numbers in my Head will consist of at least five drawings. Several are complete. They are Kaufbeuren, Buchenwald, and Berlin. In each case Vogl has taken the numeric populations of a place at a specific time and set out to represent visually the quantitative information. He works on each one cumulative and methodically, keeping count of every dot he makes. Buchenwald concentration camp incorporates 250,000 dots. The village of Kaufbeuren 42,832 dots, and Berlin 3,393,933 dots. The drawings resemble negative images of the night sky. The numbers overwhelm the imagination but the images allow us a glimpse of what the figures mean. The populations that they symbolize are collective entities, historical and contemporary. But unlike the types – of generic landscapes, of First Ladies, of suburban homesteads – and despite the historical catastrophes some of them evoke, the drawings are charged with possibility, occupying energized spaces that gain from their relative juxtaposition. Like the chandeliers, they enshrine the promise of light. And light, for Vogl, is hope.