Within two years nine different persons – among a school child, a scientist, a composer, a hotel manager – were visited and their desks in their particular condition between two dates or in a break mapped. A first translation of these found desktops consists in a map-similar pencil drawing, on which the outline, dimension and position of each individual object are exactly held. In a second step a paper model of the desk on a scale of 1:3 is made. For this model the form of each object must be transferred into a pattern, joined and set afterwards to its respective place. The model is soaked with hot wax. The waxed paper offers the basis for a repeated application of liquid, slightly pigmented latex. The latex layer is taken off after drying centimetre by centimetre. Finally the latex skin is hung in front of a lightbox with the bottom side towards the viewer and photographed with a large-format camera.
The Desks series by Herbert Stattler consists of several desktops in various states of transformation. Functioning in two ways, it is an unusual series: on the one hand, as a collection of nine different desks, on the other, as a sequence of four formal and material transformations that the objects undergo. Initially, the artist translates the individual desk… read more
Notburga Karl in conversation with Herbert Stattler about his contribution ›Schreibtische‹ to the exhibition ›Papier [Paper]‹ at the Kunstverein Bamberg in the Villa Dessauer on 25th April 2021. In German. Video by Maren Jensen on YouTube.
Gelatin Silver Prints
Untitled (Wilhelmstrasse 44, Berlin), 2004, pencil on paper, 90 x 62 cm
Detail Untitled (Wilhelmstrasse 44, Berlin), 2004, pencil on paper, 90 x 62 cm
Untitled (Hofburg-Bellariator, Wien), 2005, pencil on paper, 90 x 61 cm
Detail Untitled (Hofburg-Bellariator, Wien), 2005, pencil on paper, 90 x 61 cm
Untitled (Philharmonikerstrasse 4, Wien), 2005, pencil on paper, 90 x 61 cm
Detail Untitled (Philharmonikerstrasse 4, Wien), 2005, pencil on paper, 90 x 61 cm
Untitled (Mariahilferstrasse 1b, Wien), 2004, pencil on paper, 90 x 60 cm
Detail Untitled (Mariahilferstrasse 1b, Wien), 2004, pencil on paper, 90 x 60 cm
Untitled (Donau-City-Strasse 9, Wien), 2004, pencil on paper, 90 x 61 cm
Detail Untitled (Donau-City-Strasse 9, Wien), 2004, pencil on paper, 90 x 61 cm
Untitled (Danckelmannstrasse 52, Berlin), 2004, pencil on paper, 90 x 62 cm
Detail Untitled (Danckelmannstrasse 52, Berlin), 2004, pencil on paper, 90 x 62 cm
Untitled (Menzelstrasse 27, Berlin), 2006, pencil on paper, 90 x 60 cm
Detail Untitled (Menzelstrasse 27, Berlin), 2006, pencil on paper, 90 x 60 cm
Untitled (Schliemannstrasse 19, Berlin), 2004, pencil on paper, 90 x 61 cm
Detail Untitled (Schliemannstrasse 19, Berlin), 2004, pencil on paper, 90 x 61 cm
Untitled (Flandrische Strasse 2, Köln), 2005, pencil on paper, 90 x 61 cm
Detail Untitled (Flandrische Strasse 2, Köln), 2005, pencil on paper, 90 x 61 cm
Untitled (Wilhelmstrasse 44, Berlin), 2004, paper / beeswax, 74 x 25.5 x 12.2 cm
Untitled (Hofburg-Bellariator, Wien), 2005, paper / beeswax, 75.5 x 38.5 x 24 cm
Untitled (Philharmonikerstrasse 4, Wien), 2005, paper / beeswax, 69.8 x 46.0 x 25.5 cm
Untitled (Danckelmannstrasse 52, Berlin), 2004, paper / beeswax, 75.7 x 36.6 x 17.8 cm
Untitled (Schliemannstrasse 19, Berlin), 2004, paper / beeswax, 70.5 x 40.2 x 16.7 cm
Untitled (Flandrische Strasse 2, Köln), 2005, paper / beeswax, 73 x 46.1 x 16.2 cm
Untitled (Wilhelmstrasse 44, Berlin), 2004, gelatin silver print on dibond, 220 x 85 cm
Untitled (Hofburg-Bellariator, Wien), 2005, gelatin silver print on dibond, 220 x 123 cm
Untitled (Philharmonikerstrasse 4, Wien), 2005, gelatin silver print on dibond, 220 x 122 cm
Untitled (Mariahilferstrasse 1b, Wien), 2004, gelatin silver print on dibond, 220 x 108 cm
Untitled (Donau-City-Strasse 9, Wien), 2004, gelatin silver print on dibond, 124 x 123 cm
Untitled (Danckelmannstrasse 52, Berlin), 2004, gelatin silver print on dibond, 220 x 114 cm
Untitled (Menzelstrasse 27, Berlin), 2006, gelatin silver print on dibond, 220 x 124 cm
Untitled (Schliemannstrasse 19, Berlin), 2004, gelatin silver print on dibond, 220 x 115 cm
Untitled (Flandrische Strasse 2, Köln), 2005, gelatin silver print on dibond, 220 x 123 cm
Editor Kunstverein Nürtingen
Text Mechthild Fend
Graphic design Herbert Stattler
Photography Cyrill Harnischmacher
Galerie Druck & Buch
The Desks series by Herbert Stattler consists of several desktops in various states of transformation. Functioning in two ways, it is an unusual series: on the one hand, as a collection of nine different desks, on the other, as a sequence of four formal and material transformations that the objects undergo. Initially, the artist translates the individual desk into a scaled-down drawing, which is then transformed into a paper model, which in turn, is cast in latex. Finally, he takes a photograph of the latex piece. In these large-format photographs, the desk almost regains its original dimensions whilst resembling an abstract drawing.
Viewed next to each other, the nine desks invite speculation about their owners and the particular characteristics of their working processes. These speculations are further stimulated by the anonymity of the desks’ owners. Only an address is given suggesting that an actual work place is represented. It is the miniaturised paper models reproducing the objects on the surface in detail – even if abstracted – that give the most clues about the activities carried out on the individual desks. We can discern few or many books, much or little space, sometimes files, mostly computers or traditional writing implements. One speculates whether the desks are situated in homes or in offices, whether they are prestigous, what profession is practised and what activities are mainly performed: reading, doing homework, writing essays or letters, conversing. The spacial arrangement of objects implies these respective activities as well as individual and cultural modes of work, while suggesting the body of the person sitting behind the desk. Does the person position itself perpendicular to the desk or at an angle to it, is the person surrounded by objects or are they being kept at bay, are the files organised from left to right or from front to back; does the person read on the left and take notes on the right or vice versa?
This series of different desks, thus, points mainly to their referents, that is, the work spaces in Berlin, Vienna and Cologne, to their respective owners and their particular ways of arranging things. The sequences showing the desks in various states of transformation as well as in different materials and media however, focus on the artistic process itself – that is, on what Stattler does with the desks. The process begins with the production of depicting the items on the desks which are then transferred onto a standard paper format. Finely outlined, the objects are shown from above, are reduced to two dimensions; occasionally protruding objects, such as a lamp, are laid flat and, thus, given from two views.The next step is the production of the paper model that transforms the desks back into three dimensions. Following the drawing, they are meticulously – though not mimetically – rebuilt. When these paper models are set up horizontally, lying in front of the beholder, it is easiest to make out the represented desks as such, although their small size and their monochromatic colour add to the fact that this imitation can hardly be taken literally.
When, in a further step, the paper model is covered with bee’s wax, cast in latex, and the dry (though still soft and flexible) latex piece is photographed – the mode of the reproduction process changes. Since casting and photography are both media that rely on the principle of the trace. In analogue photography the light leaves a trace on the photo-sensitive layer and records something that was in front of the camera at a particular moment in time. According to Roland Barthes, the »noeme ›That-has-been‹ was possible only on the day when a scientific circumstance (the discovery that silver halogens were sensitive to light) made it possible to recover and print directly the luminous rays emitted by a variously lighted object.« Following Barthes, it is precisely these material conditions, that are also required for photography being able to touch us; and therefore, in this case »light, though impalpable, is here a carnal medium, a skin I share with anyone who has been photographed«.1
Like a photograph, a cast is »an emanation of the referent«,2 insofar as the cast object and the casting material touch during the production process. The fact that the referent was once physically present causes a magical connection between the picture and the depicted. This particular magical aspect of the representational process that is linked to its mechanical character, is also the reason why art theory attributed a precarious role to the cast. It has always been considered a problem that the promise of an authentic reproduction of the represented object is accompanied by the lack of any artistic authorship. Ever since the Renaissance, art theorists have categorised the process of casting as a merely technical reproduction without any artistic dimension, as it allegedly did not involve any kind of imitatio, no modification nor any idealisation of the depicted object.3
The Desks series, however, does not keep the potential promise of authenticity of the cast as much as it questions the traditional principle of artistic authorship. Strictly speaking, we are not dealing with casts as such, as the liquid latex is not poured over the models, but instead applied with a brush. Thus, traces of the running liquid were avoided and the thickness of the latex layer could be controlled. At the same time the application of the fluid rubber produced brush marks that are especially visible in the photographs of the latex casts. The edges of the objects are shown as dark, sharp lines, and at the same time, the blotched cloudiness of the bright surface creates a texture that hints at the previous brush work. While visible brush strokes in oil sketches or paintings have been the object of mystification from the nineteenth century on, since they have been considered as an immediate expression of the artist’s personality and as the author’s mark, the regular brush strokes structuring Stattler’s latex casts imply something different. These traces of artistic gestures in his casts and photographs visualize that the supposedly mechanical process always includes an alteration of the depicted object, in other words, that even casts are representations and not presentations. Furthermore, the latex pieces are neither casts of the actual desks, nor of desks of famous people, as they are found in many museum displays, supposedly conserving the person’s aura like a death mask.4 Instead of the desks themselves, it is the paper models that are cast; thus, there has never been the contact with the referent that could have promised any authenticity. The models, though, are artistic imitations, as they constitute a transformation of the worktops, since they modify the original desks by small omissions and abstractions. This modification accentuates an order whose creator is, in the end, not the artist, but the users, who have designed the worktops by handling and placing the objects. Paradoxically, it is the artistic intervention that points at an author other than the artist himself.
Apart from that, Stattler’s casts demonstrate that a mechanic process of reproduction does not necessarily guarantee any resemblance. The latex casts are very much unlike the paper models and desks. The wobbly – and inspite of the careful application of the latex fluid – still blotchy material opposes the structuring principles of the desks and of the architecture-like designed models. Due to its transparency and softness it is reminiscent of organic materials like skin, or textiles and – due to its pink colour – even of underwear. Additionally, the latex objects evoke an unusual kind of space as it does not become clear how to exhibit them or how to look at them: nailed to the wall like a picture, laid out like a table cloth or hung up on a line like laundry? In the latter case the desks become a counterpart, a surface with the objects that were earlier largest and most sublime hanging down from it. An intruding as otherwise unavailable perspective on things becomes possible from the other side as one can get acquainted with the inner life of a desk. From this point of view it seems like one could slip into the desk, turning the latex into something like a piece of clothing or skin. This complicated process of transformation, this reversal of the spatial order, is necessary in order to be able to perceive the desk as skin.
However, the material latex itself allows the association with skin. On the one hand it is its skinny features and film-like qualities that make it resemble our outermost layer; on the other hand it is its near transparency and the potential for adopting skin colour. It is for these reasons that already in the 1960s artists such as Eva Hesse and Louise Bourgeois were experimenting with the skin-like qualities of latex.5 In the 1970s the Swiss artist Heidi Bucher made latex-casts of architectural spaces. In a work called »Herrenzimmer« (smoking room), for example, it was the respective room in her parents’ house that she cast in latex on cloth, detaching it afterwards in order to expose it as a soft, hanging structure. Thus, she related architecture, textiles and skin closely to each other, a relation that had already been theorized about a hundred years earlier by the Viennese architect Gottfried Semper.6 Semper deduced the necessity of the arts from human basic needs, explained the development of architecture with the human strive for covering up, and, by calling it the »most natural cover«, established the skin as the organic model for housing. According to him, the human need for covering up found a first pre-architectural, cultural satisfaction in the making and wearing of clothes as a second skin.7
In Stattler’s works instead of a whole desk, only the worktops are imitated and cast. A desktop is a spatial arrangement but not an architectural space and it cannot be understood as a skin or covering without further consideration. In fact, the artist transforms the worktops of the paper models into reliefs, an art form being itself a hybrid between a two dimensional picture and a three dimensional sculpture. The relief can develop a very idiosyncratic illusionistic form of spatiality when hardly embossed figures seem to come out of its surface due to the shadows at their edges. This is also true for the view into the interior of the latex casts by Stattler granting, thus, an insight into the depth of things. The perspective of being able to step into the desk like into a second skin indirectly provides access to the physical aspect of worktops and of desk work. The distribution of objects can be interpreted as a trace of the body and of its movements, and, vice versa, the items dictate certain postures and handlings by their arrangement.
At the final transformation process when the latex objects themselves are reproduced, it is the camera’s eye that takes a look into the desks’ viscera. With analogue photography Stattler employs a procedure that is – just like casting – reproductive. Using Roland Barthes’ and Rosalind Krauss’ expression one could call it to an »indexical sign«, that constructs its meaning through its physical relation to the referent.8 Stattler’s black-and-white photographs make it perfectly clear that they are recorded shadows. They make light and shadow, the material basis of photography, an issue by exposing especially those bits of the latex skins where the material is slightly thicker and, thus, less transparent. Krauss further observes in her »Notes on the Index« that photography and abstract art – at first sight being completely different from each other – have found noticeably common ground in the art of the 1970s.9 The same could be said about the photographs from the Desks series. The pictures that result from the photographic re-translation of the latex objects to two dimensions are reminiscent of abstract drawings in ink or charcoal. On a bright, slightly blotchy background sharp black lines become visible. They outline shapes that are evenly laid out on a flat surface or that are concentrated in individual areas. The outlines are caused by the thickenings that emerge at the edges and rims of the paper objects while applying the latex. Thus, the contours of the desks and of the paper and other things lying on top of them emerge in the photographs. The arrangement of the items on the desks becomes an abstract pattern. This pattern points to the rationality of even the messiest workplace and hereby stresses the rule-dependency of work procedures. Although seemingly abstract, the patterns rely on physical processes – that is, the activities at the desks.
Stattler’s series, thus, deals with work processes at desks, with their specifics, systematics and physicality. It is the series of translations and the differing materiality of the applied media that lets these various aspects emerge. What finally becomes visible on the photographs is at the same time a kind of notation of the handling of things as well as – in the blotchy surface – a trace of the artistic working process, the regular application of latex with the brush. In the last transformation – that is the photograph of the cast of the paper model of the worktop – the artistic work and the work at the desk are joined together on one level.