A text by Joachim Geil, Leopold Hoesch Museum, Düren (Germany)
Changing Signs – Paper as System
New works by Ulrich Wagner
Ulrich Wagner’s new works are marked by a change of signs.
To Wagner, as a pupil of Eduardo Paolozzi, the aesthetic transformation of plans and technical objects into graphic sign systems is familiar territory. He creates open systems of abbreviated pictographic symbols that consciously generate ambiguity. Probing them, he creates his own structure of complex signs indicating human beings as the bearers of certain characteristics within their environment such as gender, yet without transmitting concrete messages. These signs are first of all based on a line which as a contour passes through them, structures them, and links them. This was already the case in Wagner’s artist’s book of 1987.
In the following years, the repertoire of signs concentrated on mainly classical shapes such as triangle, circle, square or rod. To these was added a specific Wagner feature, a knife shape discovered and developed by him. The range of colours was limited to the primary colours yellow, red, blue, together with black, mostly against a white ground.
Here now we have a change: the classical sign shapes, arranged in vertical and horizontal lines, are now replaced by grids. That is, the individual signs are now embedded in a context of organisation that leads to new structures and thus new interdependences of the signs among themselves. Ulrich Wagner’s grids are based on transformations of functional sign systems taken from real life contexts, town plans or ground plans.
This suggests another retrospect: in November 1927, under the editorship of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, the Bauhaus in Dessau included in the Bauhaus books an essay by Kasimir Malewitsch, although Malewitsch, as the editor remarked, “deviates in fundamental questions from our standpoint” – evidence of grace on the part of modern teleology and straightforwardness.
Malewitsch’s two-part text on “Suprematism” appeared under the title “The Non-representational World”. The first part was accompanied by various series of illustrations, including the series “The Inspiring Surroundings (“Reality”) of the Academic”, “…of the Futurist”, and finally “…of the Suprematist”. If one associates academic inspiration with images of Soviet peasants, a team of horses or a dog, and futurist with locomotives, cars or airships, in the case of the Suprematist we find graphic structures such as aircraft formations, or aerial photographs of urban districts, as sections, but systematic in structure.
In this text, Malewitsch asks and answers the question “But what is the nature and content of our consciousness? – Inability to recognise the actual!”
If, following Malewitsch’s suprematist view, as in Wagner’s artist’s book of 1987, one proceeds from the idea of the actual as a conception of the essential and durable, cartography does indeed produce models of an “actuality”. It creates models of orientation which, via graphic structures, represent “reality”, while at the same time representing a counter-model to reality, a model which may be parallel to it, and carried to the extreme could cover the real world on the scale of 1:1. Thus, at the beginning of his book “Agony of the Real”, the French post-structuralist Baudrillard discusses the prose text “On the Stringency of Science” by Jorge Luis Borges. This deals with the cartographers of a certain empire, who make so detailed a map that the map and the territory are finally congruent. On this Baudrillard remarks “The decay of the EMPIRE, however, leads to the map gradually fraying and decaying, until in the end only a few scraps in the desert can be recognised. The metaphysical beauty of this decayed abstraction is, like the EMPIRE itself, witness to an arrogance which dissolves, rots like a cadaver, and finally fuses with the substance of the earth…” Congruence as the dissolution of the sign is surely the final stage of any model of reality. Ulrich Wagner goes in the other direction. With him, “metaphysical beauty” results rather from departing from the referential, without abolishing it completely. The model of a system is discovered and made visible. In Ulrich Wagner’s works, reflections on system theory are of central importance.
Accordingly, town plans of Manhattan or Mexico City are compressed into their geometrical and thus essential structures. The grids of lines and right angles of the cartographic orientation plans become de-representationalised by a formal reduction to basic graphic shapes. The observer’s view is freed from the real-life purpose of a plan, namely orientation and perception of coherence. These are replaced by the perception of structure which is made patent by the adopted system. Latent points of reference are formed only by echoes of specific cartographic traces of identity such as the paths through Central Park, twisting lines diverging from the grid. In this way, two levels of meaning become visible. On the one hand the abstracted representation of an urban system; on the other, however, the plan or idea of it. This in turn makes visible the basic elements of a complex social system whose structures are recognisable in the formal stringency as intentional. Fundamentals of human coexistence and its organisation are recognised and made manifest as a system. And Manhattan and Mexico City are indeed two cities that were planned on the drawing-board.
From the point of view of system theory, the grids in Wagner’s works make clear organisational invariants, that is, immutable points of reference. These points of reference illuminate mental and social foundations of human culture. In this manner, Ulrich Wagner’s signs are marked by a thematic charge which, however, never narrows the radius of meaning, thus becoming hermetic or apodictic – for they are not actual maps, and certainly not of identifiable places. The openness of the signs, which in earlier works of Wagner as well results from the free vertical and horizontal organisation of the individual signs, is continued here, considerably reinforced. Eugen Gomringer wrote about earlier works of his: “The artist stresses, accentuates, suggests, stabilises, moves, admonishes, prescribes, makes intervals, poses questions (without a question mark), answers, says yes and no and either/or, etc. Sign language captures us on a level on which we react immediately.”
With Wagner, choice of theme goes together with an extremely stringent formal conception and above all with the technical treatment of the paper, which becomes the real substantial factor and thus inherent to the images. Meanwhile, in the formal treatment, colour and arrangement above all differ sharply from earlier sign systems: the background is now black. The grids are ultramarine and red. Thus the black background is able to change continually like a picture puzzle into embedded black individual shapes. It is no longer possible to distinguish clearly between the sign and the surrounding background, as a complex organised system creates new mutual dependences which no longer permit static unambiguity. The American system scientist Ervin Laszlo sums this up in the sentence: “The system as a whole is determined, but the relation of its parts is not.” Wagner places grey surfaces and formations beside and below the blue ones.
This superimposition of individual shapes reinforces an essential feature for the aesthetic of the effect of his works: latency and semantic openness. With the proximity of their shades, the grey surfaces can be distinguished from the black background with considerably less clarity than the blue fields and lines. They thus form a third level between background and signs. A similar effect is achieved by the blind embossing: here, signs lacking emphasis by colour are embossed on the surface and are latently present. According to the light conditions, they are either clearly visible or barely noticeable. The compositional arrangement of the signs also makes clear a change showing a strong deviation from Wagner’s previous organisation.
The strict vertical or horizontal direction is supplanted by a diagonal one; the diagonal stresses a non-directional restlessness, a movement which is not limited by the margins of the picture. Indeed, the grids and surfaces overrun the edge of the picture, which shows the image as a random section, and by no means as a system complete in itself. However, what is finally predominant is the working of the material, which in this context is of course more than mere material. In Wagner’s works, the substantial meaning of the paper is central. They are works of paper, not on paper but with paper. Paper here is not merely a vehicle for images, but rather achieves its pictorial nature by means of its material structure. Ulrich Wagner makes the paper by hand with large-dimensioned moulds in his studio. This is in order to have a vehicle for images; the production is part of the conception. It shows itself to be not only a material, but also a conceptional necessity. The pulp is first pigmented and then dipped. This means that the individual coloured pulps now flow together in the water on the mould. They enter into a complex structure of organisation with each another. All the colour grids and individual shapes are now poured out on to the basic black paper surface as pigmented pulp. By means of couching, pressing and drying, they are combined in a stable structure which can already be seen to be concentrated compositionally and thematically as the artistic statement: a systemic order. The complex process of production of Wagner’s paper works is thus a necessary component of his overall artistic conception. The system of signs commences with the physical transformation of the pulp into paper. Paper as system.