Richard W. Gassen
Linear Sculptural – On Sigrún Ólafsdóttir’s Drawings
Drawings in space, volume on the surface – Sigrún Ólafsdóttir’s sculptures and drawings to date could be summed up under this motto. The artist works with two media that seem to differ entirely in essence and appearance: sculpture and drawing. Sculpture signifies volume, space, matter, weight. Drawing signifies surface, linearity, lightness. Sigrún Ólafsdóttir’s combination of these aspects is groundbreaking: her sculptures are frequently light and transparent, her drawings heavy and compact. But this artistic approach is not revolutionary; it pertains to an established tradition. For sculptors in particular have been working with the two-dimensional media of drawing for a long time. Drawings often serve as preliminary designs and sketches for three-dimensional work. The unique quality of Ólafsdóttir’s artistic concept lies in her autonomisation of drawing, i.e. in her departure from using this medium purely for design purposes, although in this aspect too, her work follows a certain tradition.
What is important in this context is the significance the artist herself lends to drawing. After all, there is drawing and drawing; its connotations as a visual medium are multifaceted and it enjoys a rich past, for it forms the historic beginnings and the elementary basis of all sculpture. As the “archetype of all surface art” it deserves not only a place of honour within the creative arts, but it also enjoys a freedom other art forms do not: it is not bound to the domain of fine art. In addition to its artistic dimension, drawing can be described as one of humanity’s basic forms of expression, since it can be used as a tool for language and work even in mundane situations. This anthropological dimension is based on two fundamental circumstances: on the one hand drawing is the fastest and most direct creative technique of expression, and on the other it can serve its purpose as a means of communication and as an orientation-aid even on a simple level. We just need to think of a preschool child’s drawing in its function as a non-verbal form of communication, of the cave paintings in Altamira and Lascaux, of ritual tribal incision sketches, of medieval ground plans (for example the plan of St. Gallen monastery), or even, returning to mundane situations, of a hand-drawn map, of Ikea furniture assembly instructions, or of caricatures and pictograms.
Another feature of drawing is its function as a draft sketch without any ambitions to reach the realms of high art. In early Western art the initial design and the completed work of art stood in an entirely disproportionate relationship to one another. While book illustrations and murals were prepared with sketches, these were primarily considered to be technical aids; they were the preliminary (and subordinate) part of a whole. Drawing and painting were two phases of one and the same process. It was only during the Renaissance that drawing began to free itself from the bonds of this purely functional utilitarian union; in Italy artistic drawing won its independence through masters like Gentile da Fabriano, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Raffael or Leonardo da Vinci; in Europe north of the Alps artists like Albrecht Dürer, Albrecht Altdorfer or Wolf Huber set new standards by redeeming landscape and portrait drawing from their former servitude. Since then we have experienced two aspects of drawing: as a functional design medium and as a streamlined graphic pictorial concept.
Since the 20 th century autonomous sculptor’s drawings have also existed, i.e. a drawing made by a sculptor that is not to be considered a design for a three-dimensional object. We could mention Henry Moore, Richard Serra or even Alf Lechner as examples, who all fashioned an independent corpus of drawings with their very own artistic significance, although the boarders can become blurred when the idea for a design and autonomous character become interwoven, when a sketch and a sculptural artistic concept enter symbiosis. Finally it is the artist himself who defines the artefact. But this, too, is ultimately dependent upon the recipient and to what extent the suggestion is accepted – for an unambiguous definition of the “autonomous sculptor’s drawing” does not really exist.
At the dawn of the 21 st century there is also no clear and definitive meaning to the word “drawing”. A drawing need not necessarily be of a limited size, it need not be on paper, and it need not be drawn in pen, ink or chalk. It can also be large, it can also be applied to cotton instead of paper or card, and as in Sigrún Ólafsdóttir’s most recent works, it can be executed in India ink and gesso (chalk base) and hence acquire the quality of painting.
It is paramount to analyse the artist’s work under the two aspects of autonomisation and technical execution (while we will stick to the terminology of sculptural drawings). If we consider the entire corpus of drawings, three separate groups that prototypically reflect the artist’s development can be identified: the “Körbe” (baskets) series embodies the primary phase, followed by the “Linien” (lines) or “Berührungen“ (contacts) sequence, and finally “Windungen”(spirals) or “Bänder/Balken“ (ribbons/beams) represent the newest and current creative phase. The “Körbe“ (baskets), dating from the period between 1995 and 1997, certainly seem to reveal “classical” sculptural thought-patterns. The drawings, which are executed in India ink and linseed oil, mainly on 40 x 50 cm paper, still unmistakably speak the language of three-dimensional plasticity – not quite in the sense of a preliminary sketch, but they are to be understood as artefacts created in two-dimensional space and their central theme is the representation of spatial forms, of volume. Significant for this group is the frequent use of fine lines and the predilection for circular shapes. Finally, the drawings – even if they are certainly of autonomous character – seem to be spatial objects transferred to a surface, and a central object dominating the pictorial action can usually be identified.
This changes fundamentally in the next group of drawings “Linien“ (lines) or “Berührungen“ (contacts), which begins in circa 1997, running parallel to the sculptural work. These works are also primarily small-scale and the media are once more India ink and linseed oil. The novelty of the drawings pertaining to this creative phase, which the artist has not yet completed, is a reduction to compositional basics. Many pictures consist of no more than two lines approaching or crossing one another, sometimes against a background of criss-crossed or circular surface compartments that dominate the compositions’ generously ordered interior structure. The colouring is also discreet, confining itself to delicately applied tones of black and yellow. What is surprising and particularly remarkable for an artist who is representing the ideals of sculpture, is the total absence of any spatiality: the drawings are always surface-oriented, the third dimension is consciously obliterated.
In her current series “Windungen“ (spirals) or “Bänder/Balken“ (ribbons/beams), which represents a new artistic concept, Sigrún Ólafsdóttir creates a synthesis between the approaches described in the contexts of the other two work groups. In these works the dichotomy between two and three dimensionality, space and surface, sculpture and drawing essentially becomes obsolete, especially since the artist radically transcends the borders between painting and drawing. The works have been applied to cotton (i.e. canvas!) often in formats of 100 x 200 cm and 180 x 180 cm, and they have been leant the unmistakeable character of painting. Simultaneously, the artistic elements have been reduced: the pictures consist of widely spaced ribbons intricately highlighted by very fine lines. They appear to float freely in space, devoid of all gravity. The curved ribbons or beams move in groups, they overlap and intersect one another, sometimes they are translucent and airy, sometimes dense and powerful, they have no boundaries, they always surpass the confines of the canvas. These drawings, that all have analogies in the artist’s plastic works, create a virtual space, which cannot be categorised by any conventional method. Comparable maybe to the Czech painter Zdenek Sýkora’s pictures, where flowing colourful lines overlap and intersect one another, or the artefacts produced by the Swiss artist Beat Zoderer, who frequently employs “non-artistic” materials such as sticky tape, strings of wool or rubber bands, Sigrún Ólafsdóttir’s drawings generate a deep spatiality which defies any definitive form of interpretation. The artist consciously concentrates on a reduced colour scheme bordering on the monochrome, mostly in brown, grey and black tones: a method that lends her pictures further refinement. She designs completely wilful and ultimately unfathomable picture spaces, which can be considered a contemporary variant – and the comparison is more than legitimate here – of those imaginary, architectural scenarios mirroring an irrational and inaccessible system of interiors that were devised by Giovanni Battista Piranesi in his 1745 „Carceri d’Invenzione“.
Characteristic of all three work groups is the predilection for lines and curving patterns, while straight beams also appear in her latest works. The dominance of round or curving sequences lies in Sigrún Ólafsdóttir’s conceptual approach. She associates round and oval forms with spheres and circles, with the sun and the egg as donors of all being and creation. The earth is a sphere, in zero gravity liquids form circular shapes, the stellar systems are spirals and energy always develops in concentric circles. Circularity stands for creation, for warmth, for comfort, for harmony – and it is also the symbol of eternal recurrence and renewal.
Be it in her sculptures or her drawings, Sigrún Ólafsdóttir’s artistic systems always deal with the balance of movement, with the equalisation of opposing principles, with the synthesis of motionlessness and dynamism. Just as a number of her sculptures maintain an apparently impossible equilibrium, so the individual elements in her pictures support one another. Without doubt all her two-dimensional works exude a high degree of balance and contemplation, they perfectly harmonise rational calculation and creative fantasy. If one were to seek their deeper meaning, one would be doing them an injustice, for they are also autonomous, i.e. independent works that need no underlying philosophy, no specific ideology, no utopian design and no explicit behavioural instructions to justify their existence. Rather, they follow their own inner system, impervious to outside occurrences or influences, they are enough in themselves, they unite problem and solution in one.
All the artist’s drawings exude a powerful aesthetic presence, which is undeniably engendered by their clarity and the frugality of the employed creative media. With just a few compositional elements she succeeds in creating pictorial spaces that are characterised by a tense dynamism on the one hand, and an almost meditative sense of peace on the other. Sigrún Ólafsdóttir’s drawings acquire their very unique charm both by means of their aesthetic impact and by the process involved in deciphering the riddle of their underlying system and their interior and exterior structure. As these cannot always be recognised immediately, the viewer finds himself mentally reconstructing the artistic creation process.
Sigrún Ólafsdóttir – The Sculptures
During my research for this essay I stumbled upon a videotaped TV interview with Sigrún Ólafsdóttir. The sculpture Füllhorn (Cornucopia, see p. 37), which she had just completed at the time, is to be seen in the background while the artist relates how her fascination for making things began in her childhood and she never grew out of it. This statement made a great impression upon me. It remained imprinted upon my memory and I always had the feeling that this sentence contained the key (or one of the keys) to Sigrún Ólafsdóttir’s work. The following article describes my quest for this key.
In conversations with the artist we did not talk about her art alone, but also about real life and their influence upon each
other. This interdependence is of great significance to Sigrún Ólafsdóttir’s work. Her theme is the relationship between two forces that define and determine one another. Opposites in the broadest sense: black and white, male and female, hard and soft, wet and dry, ugly and beautiful, war and peace, distance and proximity, or »Force and Tenderness«. The balance between these opposites forms the quintessence of Sigrún Ólafsdóttir’s work. We are not talking about static balance, but about dynamic balance: about that short moment when two opposites are equally strong (or equally weak), the pause between breathing in and breathing out, between high and low tide, between gravity and centrifugal force (the fleeting moment for which a ball that has been thrown into the air »freezes« before falling back down).
Sigrún Ólafsdóttir’s sculptures can be divided into three separate groups: »baskets« consist of stacked hemispheres, while »contacts« can be described as »linear sculptures«, and finally, »spirals« are composed of floating bands that appear to defy gravity and either ascend into space or move diagonally as though seeking something to grasp.
Many of the works installed permanently in public buildings pertain to the »spirals«, as does the place-oriented sculpture designed for the exhibition in the Stadtgalerie. All the artist’s sculptures share a sense of lightness, which materialises through a combination of their ingenious balance momentum and the fact that »empty space« permeates the objects themselves, thus lending them shape and completing them.
The »baskets« owe their stability to rings that are obliquely arranged one on top of the other. This stability, or balance, is amplified and visualised by means of calotte-shaped lead weights. The individual spokes of the »baskets« trace the outlines of the shape in space, as though the inside has disappeared and only the skeleton remains. Our perception lends shape to the »immaterial« emptiness. It becomes evident how »unstable« this kind of shape is when the viewer contemplates the sculptures from a variety of angles: the visual information shifts disconcertingly, we are barely able to comprehend the sculpture’s structure or coherence due to the disturbing tangle of crisscrossing lines that appears before our eyes. Sometimes the objects even appear to become two-dimensional, like drawings. And as with the drawings, there is boundless scope for figurative associations. The term »baskets« came to me as the result of such an association. These sculptures are characterised by round and oval forms: they recall boats, vessels, and even to some extent helmets. Objects that all have a protective function in common. Sigrún Ólafsdóttir seldom names individual objects; she only gives her works titles when she considers them to be self-evident.
The »swinging« balance between two mutually defining forces is also the theme of the »linear sculptures«. But here the wooden strips do not trace the outlines of the shape; rather they form the bodies themselves. The balance momentum now becomes even more evident: as with acrobatics, it is defined by the principle of mutual leverage. Additionally, this point is visible in the form of a metal insert in one of the two wooden or aluminium elements that comprise the works. Sensuality and tactile seduction are particularly manifest in this object group. The realisation that these sculptures are even more »mobile« than the »baskets« entices the viewer to want to become the perpetrator of this movement himself.
The preparatory work involved in all sculptures is considerable. First wooden models are constructed. To make these Sigrún Ólafsdóttir uses templates and steam to bend special strips of wood into the required form. The actual sculptures are either made of wood or »translated« into aluminium. In the former case, additional strips are glued to the curved wooden components and then carved into the appropriate shape. This is also how the thick warped sheets that form the large Füllhorn were fabricated. It is remarkable that this work is actually unique. The artist describes it as more »masculine« than her usual creations, this means that she associates it with features which are generally considered to be »male«: it is more massive, more unyielding and has a more obvious presence. In fact the Füllhorn has a very potent presence. Space and object only interweave to a limited extent and the object is of an ample size. Nonetheless, the subject of this construction is also movement. It remotely recalls Umberto Boccioni’s futuristic sculpture Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913). Here the usually invisible traces of a human being in the act of walking have been cast in bronze as in a time exposure showing the blurred image of a temporal motion sequence. Similarly to the »baskets«, the Füllhorn was constructed on a framework of rings, onto which the sheets were screwed. The rings are still part of the initial model of the work, but on the final sculpture they could later be removed, since the thick sheets took over their stabilising function themselves. In the lower section the Füllhorn also contains a lead insert.
The quest for stability, for an equilibrium that is determined by constant back and forth movement, is embedded in personal experience, not in autobiographical events as such, but more in a general lifestyle and philosophy. The sculptures thus exude a degree of natural clarity and simplicity, they speak for themselves: they are like they are because that is their nature! Hence they are an expression of a brave and consequent analysis of the basic questions concerning our existence. In a word: when Sigrún Ólafsdóttir »makes things« she produces art. That is a key to her work.
Ernest W. Uthemann
Material, Space, Humanity and Thought in Motion
On Sigrún Ólafsdóttir’s site-specific Works
»In an ideal world one would sculpt
statues with prior knowledge of their
ultimate setting (…). Every work of art
should have its own particular place
where it can blend harmoniously
with its surroundings.« Aristide Maillol
In 1997 Sigrún Ólafsdóttir made a suggestion to the jury of the Nikolaus-Cusanus-Weinkultur-Förderpreis (viniculture funding prize), which, were it not to be realised one day, would leave a sense of loss at the Moselle and the vineyards scaling the mountainsides at its banks. Above a riverside road and the wall stabilising the cliff at its side, a quadrant of shining metal is to emerge, spraying a stream of water across the roadway and into the river (p. 88). Communally steel and water will form an arch that the mind’s eye forms into a sphere, a reflection of the earth’s eternal water cycle; water that flows into the Moselle, lets the vines thrive and ultimately generates all life.
Some facets of Sigrún Ólafsdóttir’s Moselbrunnen (Moselle Fountain) recall the Monument à Bachelard Klaus Rinke erected above the Lac de la Forêt d’Orient drainage canal near Lusigny-sur-Barse (Champagne-Ardenne, France) in 1986. However, in Ólafsdóttir’s design water is even more of an essential sculptural constituent than in this monument dedicated to the philosopher and author of L’eau et les rêves, or in most fountains or kinetic sculptures that integrate water in one way or another. For in Ólafsdóttir’s sculpture water forms half of the arc, and hence (materially-speaking) half of the work. Rinke’s Monument, a 24.6-meter high bow, simply uses water as an impellent to move an eight-metre long pendulum that has been affixed to the apex. Here water is a means to an end (even if its power is manifest), while Ólafsdóttir employs it as a medium. The artist further demonstrates this through her intent to adjust the water-flow electronically depending upon the weather: when it is windy the water is to gush across the road in a dense stream1, and when it is sunny and calm it is to spray gently into the atmosphere, thus creating the natural phenomenon of a rainbow, an optical, illusive counterpart of the fountain’s water and steel arch.
Hence, the kinetic dimension of the Moselbrunnen is not limited to simple streams of water, as it is the case for those fountains that are commonly encountered in public squares or in pedestrian zones. No, the moist element transmutes and »moves« the surrounding area. Above all, the environment in which the project is to be realised is unusual, for it is not to serve as urban decoration, but to landmark a place that most people would first and foremost consider natural rather than dominated by civilisation. But it is beyond doubt that the intended setting of Sigrún Ólafsdóttir’s sculpture actually lies in the hub of a cultural landscape, and an ancient one at that. Passers-by remain oblivious to the landscape’s cultivation and its horticultural development due to an overwhelmingly amaranthine atmosphere: hemmed by vineyards and walls that could be one hundred, but maybe even two thousand years old, a river interwoven with myths and legends has eroded a valley into the surrounding mountains over the course of millions of years.
Sigrún Ólafsdóttir is to erect a symbol that whispers tales of infinity and eternal renewal in this rural ensemble that seems unaffected by the passage of time, while its design is clearly rooted in the present. Although the artist’s Moselbrunnen clearly alludes to temporal transcendence, it simultaneously contradicts this on two fronts, most apparently due to the obviously futuristic appearance of the stainless steel construction. While on the one hand, this monument to eternity is accentuated by the use of the arch, which has carried such associations since time immemorial, and this reference is intensified by the seemingly ceaselessly bubbling water, on the other hand, Sigrún Ólafsdóttir’s Moselbrunnen interrupts the landscape and causes it to »oscillate« by separating it into hither and thither.
In this sense Ólafsdóttir’s arch recollects the landscape-altering temporary artworks created by the Franco-Bulgarian artist couple Christo und Jeanne-Claude, above all the Valley Curtain they drew above and across a country road near Rifle in Colorado, USA in 1970 – 72. Both the Valley Curtain and Ólafsdóttir’s Moselbrunnen dramatise the landscape: the former in the shape of a glowing orange »theatre curtain«, which reveals a not truly different scenery but one that is perceived anew, and the latter as a quasi sacral form of architecture, the traversal of which summons the feeling of entering new spaces.
When compared to the sculpture’s complete dimension, the steel quadrant is of a relatively limited volume. In unison with the stream of water, it traces a line before the backdrop of the landscape, rather than displacing it. Mass was considered a practically ontological feature of sculpture until artists like Picasso and Julio González began to disperse it in their plastic works. Since then we have experienced a tradition of »drawing in space«2 that has contributed to the deconstruction of the canonised boarders between the various art forms. Sigrún Ólafsdóttir works in this tradition too; she primarily employs thin and elongated linear sculptural elements that jut out into the surrounding area like feelers, or that embrace a »bubble of air« like a net. Both aspects are utilised in the Moselbrunnen project. The steel section of the arch will surge into the air like a tentacle – should the water ever be turned off. The »spray-effect« distributes the water in the area circumscribed by the arc and thus clearly incorporates it as an integral part of the monument.
This (real or virtual) changeable impetus of movement plays the second decisive role in Sigrún Ólafsdóttir’s sculptural work, both in her autonomous sculptures, and more specifically in her site-specific creations. While the »mobile« sculptures dynamise their current surroundings and frequently at least implicitly feature kinetic qualities, their influence on their variable positions remains fickle and can only be foreseen by the artist to a limited extent. It is certainly a complex business to incorporate a work of art into an extant structured and frequently complex architecture. The concept Sigrún Ólafsdóttir entered for the competition the Landeszentralbank (central regional bank) in Saarbrücken (p. 87) held to select a sculptural element for their courtyard was not entirely different from Sigurd Rompza’s suggestion, which was ultimately selected by the jury in 1996 and later realised.3 Both projects were based on a coloured steel spiral. But while Rompza’s work gives the impression of a spring that has been clamped between the walls of the courtyard, thus having concrete contact to the architecture, Ólafsdóttir suggested a sculpture consisting of two strands that were to curl up into the sky in the form of a »double helix«, emanating from a type of circular cluster, and which would have stood isolated from the walls and glass surfaces surrounding it.
If the relation to architecture was not yet entirely stringent in Kontrapunkt (Counterpoint) in 1996, Sigrún Ólafsdóttir decisively intensified the relationship between architecture and sculpture in various projects realised in 1999. Ohne Titel (Untitled) in the Sparkasse Riegelsberg (p. 86) curls around a couple of pillars in the form of a relatively broad band and the observer cannot help thinking of a snake. Here, critical undertones might suggest the seductive reptile »Mammon«, which contributed to the Fall of Man.
Ohne Titel (Untitled, 1999) in the Sparkasse Saarbrücken (pp. 84/85) follows a winding staircase in the form of a double helix, thus accentuating the existing architecture. While the sculpture Ohne Titel (Untitled, 2002), which hangs from the foyer ceiling of the Saarland’s federal offices in Berlin (p. 83), also transgresses a number of storeys, it appears diametrically opposed to the aforementioned work. It contradicts the angular structures of the space surrounding it. The starting point for this work was also a spiral, but during the planning phase it was »cracked-open«. Previously calmly twisted lineaments erupted into a frayed braid of »thorns« that jut out into the hall and hence counterpoint it.4
The installation in the Stadtgalerie Saarbrücken continues in this vein. (pp. 90/91) The curved black segments are arranged in a chiefly horizontal structure so as to efficiently utilise and accentuate the unusual perspective of the irregular trapezoid exhibition space. On traversing this sculptural system the viewer experiences how the curving and protruding forms perpetually seem to rearrange themselves. The (almost) uniform white background lends the installation the air of an »interactive drawing«; and the visitor can manipulate its appearance by changing his position.
Sigrún Ólafsdóttir has successively extended the »repertoire« of possible motion in her plastic works. This is of central significance to the site-specific sculptures, since these inevitably challenge the artist to vary her theme of real or virtual kinetics to suit the particular conditions offered by individual environments. In the installation in the Stadtgalerie, Ólafsdóttir has further empowered the spectator to influence the appearance of the object depending upon his angle of contemplation. While this played a key role in the design for the Moselbrunnen, it has here been further refined to enable complex and alterable perception possibilities. She also stresses the convergence of sculpture and drawing, her two preferred media, more than ever before. Sigrún Ólafsdóttir’s works in wood, steel and water set the space and the observers that surround them in motion. Above all, however, they stimulate and challenge what we think and see and what we think about what we see.
Ernest W. Uthemann
1 Sigrún Ólafsdóttir, in: Nikolaus-Cusanus-Weinkultur-Förderpreis 1997, n.p. or d. (1997), no pagination
2 Compare to Ernest W. Uthemann, Volumen in der Fläche, Zeichnung im Raum, in: exhibition catalogue Saarbrücken 1998, Sigrún Ólafsdóttir. Skulpturen und Zeichnungen, no pagination
3 Compare to Landeszentralbank in Rheinland-Pfalz und im Saarland (editors), Kunst-Bau, Saarbrücken 2000, pp. 29 – 33
4 Compare to Jo Enzweiler (editor), Wettbewerbe Kunst im öffentlichen Raum im Saarland 4, Saarbrücken 2003, p. 60 f.