Dialectics of Translucency
by Stephen Wright

Deutsche Version
Transparency has good press these days. As an underlying principle of good governance, rule of law and freedom of expression, transparency enjoys the status of a self-evident value. Who, after all, would contest a notion that seems virtually synonymous with sincerity and truthfulness? Political rhetoric is full of praise for transparency - and rightly so, for after all was it not Glasnost, that particularly Soviet brand of transparency, that brought an end to the opacity of the protracted Stalinist gloom? And where transparency is held in esteem, opacity is held in contempt. In both the private and public spheres, opacity resonates as synonymous with deceit, cheating and underhandedness, whereas transparency is associated with fair play, openness and probity - with the attitude that "we have nothing to hide". But imagine just for a moment a world of perfect transparency; a world where transparency was not merely a regulatory principle, but had finally triumphed over opacity; where everyone lived in glass houses. Such a world, which may not remain science fiction for much longer, given the rapid development and implementation of surveillance technologies, would be literally unliveable. The powerful fictional accounts of dystopic transparency imagined a half century ago by novelists like Orwell and Huxley have in many respects been outstripped today by what some authors refer to as the "biopolitical" mindset of our advanced democratic states. One might, broadly speaking, describe this ironic development as the "dialectic of transparency": to allow democracy to emerge and flourish - that is, to break with concealed privilege, endemic corruption, and the sort of cronyism which thrived behind a thrall of opacity - transparency had to be institutionalised; all-too-effective a tool, transparency soon became an end in itself, and we are now all potential victims of its success.

Is there not some alternative to this paradoxical dialectical identity between transparency and opacity? What about the undertheorised concept of translucency? Not as a wishy-washy compromise between two binaries but as a different way of visualising relations in the public and private spheres? In one respect, of course, translucency does stand somewhere between opacity and transparency; but in another way, it is entirely unaligned with them, and offers a viable third way for mediating the opposing imperatives of intimacy and disclosure. Translucency is essentially fuzzy, approximate, a sort of "rough ground" upon which one can gain a foothold, as opposed to the sheer and icy slipperiness of transparency or the treacherous gloom of opacity. A pragmatic concept upon which the sort of distance constitutive of human relations can be founded.

It so happens that translucency is the very material that Inge Gutbrod has been working with for the past two decades - roughly, that is, since the time that the crusade between transparency and opacity became a commonplace of political discourse. It may seem incongruous to approach Gutbrod's work from a politically discursive perspective, given her essentially formalist approach. Yet it strikes me that an artist's choice of material is always historically overdetermined, and though not necessarily the outcome of a conscious choice, it is the object of pre-reflexive knowledge: in other words, it just seems to "work" or to "fit" in some historical juncture, though it would not in a different setting. I would wager that in making translucency her historical material, Inge Gutbrod is revealing - somewhat obliquely, even translucently, as it were - her own ideal both for the mediating relations between subject and object and for intersubjective transaction.

To assert that Gutbrod's "material" is translucency is by no means to deny the obvious fact that her primary artistic resource is paraffin wax. In the materiological sense of the word, wax is indeed her "material" of predilection - the stuff of the majority of her artworks. Of course, it just so happens that translucency is the outstanding visual characteristic of wax - at least in its solid state, which is how wax appears in Gutbrod's artworks. But I am also choosing to use the notion of "material" in the Adornian sense of the term, referring to the historically determined scope of meanings of a given form of appearance. In asserting this, I am not taking issue with Pia Dornacher, Hans Gehrcke, and Hans-Peter Miksch, the three curators of the artist's three-tiered exhibition, who have written that Gutbrod has steered clear of current art fashions such as the problematics of gender. Their observation is entirely accurate - Gutbrod's aesthetic is form-driven, not issue-based. Yet, what are gender politics about if not the struggle for determining the criteria for who defines truth in our society? In other words, a struggle that can be described in terms of transparency and opacity, or perhaps - and far more effectively - using concepts of translucency. I believe that an intuition of this kind is immanent to the work of Inge Gutbrod.

The hypothesis strikes me as all the more plausible in that much of Gutbrod's work over the years has had a decidedly architectonic bent - walk-in structures made of steel-framed rectangular wax blocks or what might be described as "archi-sculptural" forms, including hand-crafted, bulbous wax spheres, pierced only by small orifices, which viewers can peek through at the diffuse light within. Architecture is of course the spatial embodiment of intersubjective relations: how close can we get to whom? How far are we kept from what? This concern with intersubjectivity is explicitly inscribed in Gutbrod's aesthetics: "My work always has a haptic as well as a visual side," she points out. "It is meant to be touched, and ultimately I don't mind if it is damaged in the process." Translucency as an architectural principle implies an overcoming of high modernism's obsession with transparency, which may ultimately explain some of Gutbrod's choices, including her decision to "collar" one of the pillars in the upstairs portion of her Neumarkt exhibition with rings of wax, stacked one upon the other all the way up to the ceiling, drawing attention to the architecture of the site by integrating it into her work's form. Psychoanalysis has taught us to recognise the extent to which architecture and architecture-related forms are structured by the subconscious; but it has shed light on how we should actually look at architecture - the meaning itself is forever yielding to the opacity of the object or, conversely, vanishing into the transparency of the signifier. Gutbrod's translucent objects maintain this dialectic in tension, in an attempt to architecture to itself.

However, it is above all for another reason altogether that I see translucency as the key to what might be referred to as the prevailing "structure of sentiment" in Inge Gutbrod's work. And that is the contemplative nature of many of her recent installations. There has been a definite shift from her use of wax per se toward a focus on diaphanous colour. I am thinking in particular of the recent installation entitled wärmestube (2001-06), a back-lit composition made up of dozens of translucent wax tiles, shown in the Heidelberg portion of the exhibition. Producing a 1960s style psychedelic effect, the work gives off a warm, almost flamelike sensation, whereby each tile's coefficient of colour and translucency gives visual rhythm to the overall composition. From afar, one has the impression of an entirely flat surface; upon closer scrutiny, it turns out that the play of translucency is produced by the different thicknesses of each tile, invariably thinner in the middle.

Precisely because her work is essentially form-driven, translucency could in sense not but be Gutbord's material of predilection. In the words of Russian Formalist Viktor Chklovski:

"To render the sensation of life, to feel objects, to experience that stone is stone, there exists what is called art. Art's goal is to give a sensation to the object as vision and not as recognition; art's device is the device of singularising objects and the device that involves obscuring the form, increasing the difficulty and duration of perception. The act of perception in art is an end in itself and must be prolonged; art is a means of experiencing the becoming of the object, what has already 'become' is of no consequence for art."

Though Gutbrod's work is perhaps more immediately concerned with contemplation than with perception as such, Chklovski's aesthetic theory helps account for what is ultimately at stake in her work. According to Chklovski, artistic language is a sort of ostentatious visual dialect whose vocation it is to trigger the awakening of renewed perception. The object's artistic use can be observed and measured by the strangeness of its form - "difficult, rife with obstacles" he asserts, but never quite opaque - which is perceived as unusual by comparison with an ordinary object: form is thus the distinctive feature aesthetic perception, and transparency its ultimate foe. At the core of Chklovski's system, one encounters the opposition between emphatic perception and acquired habit - an opposition that is determinant in Gutbrod's work as well, particularly in terms of her engagement with the architecture of the exhibition space. Habit is the depleted form of perception that has become mechanical, almost algebraic. The stultifying of perception leads to myopia with regard to the object; instead of "seeing" it, one merely "recognises" it, perceiving it in a habitual way. The function of art, by contrast, is to revitalise perception of the object, to wrest it from habit in order to bring conscious experience back to life. The artwork must unleash a sudden awareness of the surfaces and shapes of the object and the world that has been recharged with some of its original freshness. The work only rises to the status of aesthetic experience once it manages to provoke a renewal of perception in the viewer; as Chklovski goes on to say, the work succeeds if and when it "creates a particular perception of the object, creating its vision rather than its recognition."

One might persuasively argue that it is the brittle nature of wax, as much as its translucency, which can best be recognised to be at the heart of Gutbrod's aesthetics - a possibility emphasised by the artist's decision to use an image of broken fragments of mauve wax on the cover of her catalogue. But it seems to me that translucency itself is a fragile state, always liable to succumb to encroaching opacity on the one hand, and to the lures of transparency on the other. Such are the dialectics of translucency and, in effect, of Inge Gutbrod's work: caught between radiant knowledge (heuristic openness) and cloudy obscurity (enigmatic closure).

Stephen Wright