Things have structure but they do not all have infrastructure, the material or immaterial, visible or invisible, elements from which things can be produced, organised and systematised. Infrastructure is also a network of relations, an apparatus – it functionalises things but instrumentalises them as well. We can speak of infrastructure as a support structure in that it creates and distributes goods and services such as natural resources, transport, space, telecommunication and information technologies; we can also describe it as a regulatory or disciplinary structure, in that it produces and reproduces social relations through laws, the economy, education, planning, culture and so on, where both aspects in combination generate variable forms of value.
Nicole Wermers' exhibition Infrastruktur ('Infrastructure') looks at the structures of ritualised social relations in general and at the material objects through which these relations are communicated in particular. Although the two bodies of work on view are formally and physically distinct – they do not form an installation as such – they are structurally not dissimilar in that they comprise legible objects that have been reassembled or made anew in a different material form, re-contextualising their location-specific orientations from where transient acts and exchanges have been made into fixed concrete form.
Untitled Chairs (2014-15), is a series of unique dining chair and fur coat assemblages where the individual garments are seamlessly and permanently sewn around a chair's form creating an entirely new one. The chairs themselves are Wermer’s adapted versions of a model created for German manufacturer Thonet in 1928 by architect and furniture designer Marcel Breuer, twentieth century 'design classics' that are still in production today. The Cesca chairs integrate a cantilevered tubular steel form with a cane or upholstered seat and backrest. These have now been conjoined with women's furs in various styles and colour, whose folds and visual allure boldly disport themselves coupled with additional silk linings and matching iridescent velvet seats, rendering the upright steel frame and cane back support entirely hidden from view. The coats hang as if their owners had left the room, a coded fleeting ritual marking their absence and their 'ownership' of the chair and its 'place' as one would do in a public space. The works unify their disparate parts into luxurious functional sculptures recalling the work of architecture and design collaborations such those between Eileen Gray and Charlotte Perriand with Le Corbusier or Lilly Reich with Mies van der Rohe, which created innovative interiors employing contrasting materials to great effect and to great acclaim, although until recently mostly for the men, whom, unlike their female counterparts, are tellingly known only by their surnames.
Tear-off flyers are only found in public spaces. They are a transitory, moribund form of communication and exchange where one must be co-present and localised with the object for the act to be completed. Whether in a shop window, a notice board, a phone box or a tree, these 'hand-made' announcements are always oriented towards an anonymous addressee, who then tears off one of the aligned pre-cut vertical strips of the paper with a contact number to respond to an offer to sell or exchange something or to request or exchange information as in a lost person, pet or thing. Wermers has taken the flyer as a template more or less to scale and remade them as a series of three dimensional, matt white clay reliefs entitled Sequence I-IV (2015). The paper tear-off flyer is a temporary exchange mechanism here re-embodied as wall-mounted ceramics, resembling a castellated parapet or a set of teeth in need of a dentist but with no written message and no phone numbers. It has become a hardened relic of a fugitive social relation once removed and congealed, a 'blank' structural code to be deciphered. Like the chairs, it too rehearses the movement from the artist's initial observation of social phenomena through an active interface to the static sculpture, telegraphing the persistent ways in which infrastructure informs it.
Nicole Wermers‘ works target the suggestive appeal of surfaces and the adaptation of a familiar fine-art aesthetic within the overall design of our daily life. Ashtrays resembling sculptures or sculptures that remind one of security devices at the exit of department stores blur the distinctions between functional design and autonomously conceived art. The works she has devised for her exhibition in the Kunstverein also fall into this category.
Placing standard industrial shelving upside down reveals flooring made from metal with edges folded down. This particular type of manufacture tends to make the flooring look bigger than it actually is and increases the stability of the unit. Independent of its actual functional context, these hollow spaces of an upturned shelf can also be used as an independent module for storage and display in order to present more amorphous substances, such as sand and water.
Surfaces of water and the sunlight reflected in them, the sky, and nature are numbered among the most frequently cited visual stimuli that people associate with happiness and natural beauty. The sculptures, devised to be shown in the open, are therefore often designed so that water can accumulate in the depressions, in a similar way perhaps to the works of the British sculptress Barbara Hepworth.
Nicole Wermers’ sculpture, which actually is reminiscent of an upturned industrially manufactured shelf unit, presents water as if it had been made for this express purpose. A peculiar shift is achieved via the deliberate misuse and by isolating a specific observation which can actually only normally be performed outdoors. As a furnishing for the space and by means of the inclusion of the element water, this sculpture prompts associations ranging from the petri dish to the swimming pool. However, as an open storage system or display, it represents a counter design to the closed museum variety. In addition, there are photographs taken at the Musée Rodin in Paris. They also testify to an individual synthesis of art and interior. Innumerable mirrors in the rooms of the Hôtel Biron – an hôtel particulier or grand urban dwelling, which was inhabited at one time by several artists, including Rodin – reflect the exhibited sculptures as well as the viewers as they look at them. The photographs show shimmering glass, the reflective surfaces of display cases, and details of the exhibited sculptures and furnishings. The theme here is the presentation of objects and sculptures behind glass – both as museum pieces and commodity items – and the postulation of different degrees of function, as well as, in equal measure, the notion of the private interior as an exhibition site.
Wermers displays these photographs in frames reminiscent of simple clip frames, whereby the neat fixings have been replaced by elaborate applications. The frames themselves, which normally tend to recede subtly into the background, take on their own framing function that duly asserts itself as independent decoration. Geometrical elements, such as semicircles and rectangles of differing sizes, hold the photograph, glass and back in position. Unlike the original appearance of the frame, the clips are not distributed regularly, but correspond instead to the respective motif beneath them. They add an illusionistic aspect to the photographs and transform them into three-dimensional collages. Their function, material substance and positioning are reminiscent of uniform hinges, fixings, and locks on the modern glass doors of shops and offices, as well as of the methods of mounting panes of glass in public places and public transport.
When I first saw Wermers’s works—these were the “ashtrays” such as she showed at the Camden Arts Centre in 2005 and Tate Britain in 2006; the Untitled (Sand Table), 2007, in the Zabludowiz Collection is later and rather different outgrowth of that motif—I felt I was for once seeing something unfamiliar in sculpture. These works had a Mannerist incongruity about them but one that paradoxically seemed unforced. They often seemed too simple to sustain real interest but thanks to the artist’s acute judgments of scale, materials, and references, the case turned out quite otherwise: I had to keep thinking about them. Wermers has said that, rather than directly referencing modernist sculpture, she is “referencing how these movements have been digested as styles into our surroundings.” Maybe it’s the work’s oblique take on sculpture that made it so striking to me. Right now, though, what I’d rather do is insist on the strength of the work’s relation to sculptural tradition, and locate one source of the work’s ability to surprise to the fact it reflects a different part of the tradition than one would expect.
Let me explain. As a sculptor born and raised in Germany, living and working in England, educated in both countries, her main precursors, you’d think, would be found in one or both of those countries’ traditions; one might be tempted, for instance, to compare her use of negative space to Henry Moore and her fascination with everyday materials to Tony Cragg; or to connect her tectonic concept of form with Wilhelm Lehmbruck’s treatment of the figure and her interest in the aesthetic of display with Joseph Beuys and his vitrines. To sound such relationships might even be illuminating but it would miss the more essential point: The main traditions of modern sculpture in both Germany and England depend on the humanization of the object, on seeing the thing as metaphor the living, organic self—while Wermers’s art tends to avoid this humanization altogether. Her things are stubbornly thinglike. If anything, her work seems closer to an Italian tradition, one that flows through the vast opening created by Lucio Fontana’s concetto spaziale and takes in the “fake sculptures” of Pino Pascali or Gianni Piacentino’s vehicles. In this tradition, the pathos of the humanized object is avoided in the conviction—as Piacentino put it—that “art had to have something to do with beauty and decoration, even when taken to extremes.” Art in this tradition forms part of the theater of human habitation rather than standing in for the protagonist who lives and suffers in it. Focused on the meaning and phenomenology of contemporary space, Wermers succeeds in formulating a more extreme sense of décor, at once sensuous and austere.
Ornament, cladding, and layering—used to create appealing “ambiences” in commercial spaces from hotel lobbies to boutiques—are recurring motifs in the work of Nicole Wermers. They act as material vehicles for the kind of visual transformations that lend spaces an atmospheric charge, changing them into fields of symbolic representation, which is usually understood as no more than a measure to boost sales. In the same way that the architecture we move through imprints itself in the social mesh and performs symbolic inclusion or exclusion by its mere appearance, our individual needs are channeled by different kinds of commercial architecture. Together with the theatrical presentation of products in glossy magazines, these real service settings and surrogates for elegant living spaces, which transport the subject to the inner space of the imagination, are the point of departure for Wermers work, which distills the visual potential of this applied aesthetic and opens it up to new interpretations on the abstract level, detached from the conventional product context. Ideas on the construction of space between utility and aesthetic value, on commercial spaces and fictitious dream spaces, on functionality and elegance enter into a dialogue that, from a critical distance, acknowledges the fascination of artificial beauty without ignoring the conditions under which it is created. What is the source of this desire that lets itself be manipulated by visual mises en scène and which allows objects to become screens for the projection of other, more abstract things that can hardly be expressed in economic terms?
Pieces like Dekorierter Saal (2001), Verbarrikadiertes Zimmer (1998) or Vacant Shop 1–4 (1999-2001) are three-dimensional models of spaces in miniature format that use mainly decor and interior design to produce different emotional atmospheres and the associated patterns of social behavior. Here, glamour and coziness, private retreat and public location turn out to be equally hermetic, inward-looking systems, since none of these meticulously constructed spaces features a door.
The empty commercial units of the Vacant Shop series manifest the interim state when the theatrical sales interior has lost its function. But the potential reoccupation of the space is already present, as future decor using visual enhancement effects that herald a new world of goods. In the face of the pessimistic view of all cultural difference being razed by uniform displays the world over, Nicole Wermers retains an ambivalence in her handling of these spaces, which have long since become part of our social environment. In this sense, the Vacant Shops are transitory spaces of an urban culture whose stated goal is to change the scenery of city centers. They are spaces that are mobile by nature and whose meticulous design only appears to be at odds with the ruined shops in which they are presented: for they reveal the modalities of visual seduction, the sources of desire and glamour, by showing the states of before and after, imperfect states in which that which the subject wishes to perceive as something generated from within itself is manifested as an abstract control mechanism. The emotional capital of the attractively presented goods turns out to be a superficial illusion, behind which stands cool, calculating functionalism.
The Dekorierten Säle (2001) also bear witness to this kind of purposeful adaptation of space, with furniture and decor acting as freely designable stages for human activity. In the absence of people, we again see a visual space controlled by mirrors, made rhythmic by mood-enhancing ornament and upbeat decor. Spaces molded in such a deliberately psychological manner are reminiscent of film sets; they are mises en scène that go far beyond simple furnishings. Here, even the visual axes and the spectrum of potential associations appear planned in minute detail. On the one hand, then, the viewer can appropriate the empty space and subject it to his or her own desire, while on the other, the spaces remain visibly indebted to the cultural matrix whose components they so effectively serve.
In other respects, too, Wermers work is clearly marked by elegant-looking surfaces and an aestheticization of materials, and thus by the codes that signify luxury and exclusivity. It refers to these codes, but without aiming to expose advertising strategies as hollow promises of utility value or interiors as producers of illusions in the name of efficiency. Wermers is more interested in the visual impulses radiating from certain materials—their shine, their reflectivity, their perfect surface—and in their use both in the consumer world and in art. Collages, sculptures, and video works focus on the textures of everyday glamour, while shifting the desire associated with them into infinity. Like mirror surfaces in which viewers are reflected, throwing them back on their own resources, the surfaces on show create a vortex in which individual appropriation is superimposed on the attention commanded by the object. If consumption is to be understood as a creative act, then the fascination-potential of the consumer world can also be recast as such.
In turn, such visual distancing strategies, which foreground the material and its emotional charge, bring—to quote Adorno—other “social constraints” to the artwork. When the decision to use a given material is made, the artistic work becomes heteronymous, as it is subjected to external constraints: references to other works that use the same material, their reception and history, the specific coded meanings of the material. The choice of, in this case, aesthetically and commercially coded textures, creates a frame of reference that cannot be so easily ignored. (1) Industrial building materials, for example, stand on the one hand for the functional emphasis of Modernism, while also recalling the aesthetics of Minimal Art, as well as the everyday meanings, implications and projections associated with certain materials designed by industry for mass usage. In this way, the choice of a specific material in itself creates a connection between form and content which may have repercussions at other levels.
Nicole Wermers works are well aware of these external constraints and turn them to productive use by alluding to certain artistic styles without arguing at the level of direct quotations. The smooth metallic surfaces in cube form, for example, evoke Constructivism or Minimalism, the geometrical rigor of objects from this period and their ambivalent way of addressing the viewer, a status somewhere between solitary object, utopian conceptual framework, and space-defining presence. But these works have no direct affirmative character. Instead, they employ simple appropriation and alienation effects to transform existing things into something that is new in an abstract way, something that allows its origins to run alongside it as a subtext, but which takes an ironic stance towards properties that mark it out as part of a broadly ideological or utopian attempt to synthesize art and life. The point where the border between autonomous and applied art becomes transparent, where the element of popular culture in art is already inscribed as a referential subtext, where the adaptation of the vocabulary of art becomes visible in forms of applied design—these are the points of departure for Wermers work.
Her video Palisades (1998), for example, generates an almost surreal force by a simple 180 degree rotation of the camera. The fact that the camera is filming the essentially familiar ceiling structures of trade fair halls, shopping malls, airports, and other semi-public buildings is not immediately clear. Instead, the inverted lamp constructions, spotlights embedded in ceiling cladding, serial grid structures, and imitation marble pillars develop an aesthetic that obscures their true function as decorative elements. The camera floats incorporeally through the spaces, gliding along staircases and mirror-clad walls, registering without seeing or recognizing. From this perspective, familiar architectural settings become abstract formations leading a life of their own, shaped by the pure fascination of materials and lighting. In this piece, the architectural strategy of injecting the interiors of functional buildings with consumer-friendly glamour comes into its own at the moment when the functional context disappears, in a way that betrays potential artistic models: ceiling lights suddenly recall Minimal Art; reflecting surfaces shot through with light evoke designs from the 1960s.
In Wermers’ collages, too, different materials are combined into graphical and architectural forms in which the interplay of visual attractions creates simultaneity of space and surface: real spatial references are just as present as the suggestion of space made by the contrasting perspectives of the various elements. In their ambivalence between retro-modernist appearances—already staged by the materials used—and abstract mise en scène denying any precise positioning, the resulting collages possess beauty and, to the same extent, rebel against their references. Wermers takes the image material for these works from photo shoots and advertisements in fashion and architecture magazines, whose content is almost completely lost in their new fragmented visual context. Like inlaid work, magazine cuttings assembled into a picture form homogenous visual surfaces in which competing product worlds merge. They are abstract textures whose reproduced materiality evokes an absent object quality without highlighting it in overly critical fashion. They reveal an evident fascination with the production of emotional ties to certain things and with the strategies of making commodities appear in the right light. But the insight that meaning lies elsewhere and emerges in different ways is superimposed over this fascination like a gentle corrective, which refuses to be deprived of its proximity to beauty.
One group of works shows mosaics made of precious stones and minerals set side by side as if in a late-modernist treasure chamber, offering different types of viewing pleasure. Amethysts, rock crystal, jade, and rose quartz join to form crystalline still lifes in shimmering colors or abstract landscapes that cause the viewer to forget their original pictorial function. Here, the stones as such act as advertisements for nothing but themselves; between a collection of minerals and the jewelry aesthetic, a flat, nested structure of self-sufficient precious things emerges.
Other works maintain a relation to the format of the kind of magazines from which they take their material, while opening themselves to an illusionist three-dimensionality by fanning out foreshortened abstract geometrical forms in the space. Reflective surfaces that appear to mirror light coming from outside develop a visual life of their own suggesting a relationship between the object and the space that extends beyond the collage: glass structures promise transparency; object fragments suffused with light take on an immaterial physicality. Each element displays a visual life of its own, which lends an inner glow to the composition as a whole. By liberating material aesthetics designed for maximum image impact and integrating them into a context that flickers confusingly between two- and three-dimensionality, the illusionist aspect on which the collages are based is multiplied. But in spite of this, these works vary widely depending on the visual repertoire on which they draw: the Glascollagen (2002), the Lichtcollagen (1998-2001), the architecturally interlocking metal pictures. Here, form and content enter into a tense, constantly shifting relationship, sometimes foregrounding the composition as such, sometimes the fragments from which it is formed.
And then there are small scale collages such as Untitled Spitzen (2002) or Dorinth (2003) that are directly reminiscent of the formal vocabulary of Constructivism, Art Deco, or Modernist design, so that the question of “applied art,” of art that enters life directly in the form of design, is posed in a new and different way from a current perspective. When certain positions within art are considered not solely as fixed stages in history, there emerges a freedom to think more directly about their formal structure or to think in new ways about the relationship between intended functionality and aesthetic value. It is well known that the utopia of an aestheticization of the world we live in, synthesizing life and art under the primacy of abstraction, evaporated in a school of design that soon exchanged the ideal of mass production for the exclusivity of refined taste. On the other hand, today’s mass production uses precisely this historical valuation of specific forms and materials to give cheap goods an aura of luxury. But the fine distinctions in this differentiation of tastes are to be seen above all in the enhancing of apparently functional objects by means of designs which, in their formal language, refer back to established, abstractly “elegant” artistic currents, such as the ‘Concrete Art’ of the postwar period.
Wermers’ sculptures entitled French Junkies (2002), for example, deliberately walk the fine line between furnishings and sculpture, making use of an aesthetic which at a certain point in time was considered as art. Here, too, the collage principle defines an aesthetic procedure that consists of combining forms and materials taken from different contexts to obtain a new formal whole. Positioned in the exhibition space, the cubical objects made of wood, copper, painted steel, aluminum, and transparent plastic exude a style reminiscent of the art of the 1960s. Products from hardware stores metamorphose into fetishized surfaces charged with the implications and projections of this style, partly (or precisely) because they show traces of use that negate the first impression of an industrial aesthetic. The fact that they are topped by shallow trays of sand transforms them into lobby ashtrays and therefore into a form of reclaimed commercial design. This creates a visible ambivalence between form and function, causing the two categories to relativize each other; it also acts as a method of critical distancing towards efficient design, without denying the fascination of these design strategies. Although these sculptures conceived of as ashtrays do possess a defined function, in the gallery space it becomes ambivalent and performs the kind of subtle encodings by which interior decor signals distinctions of taste. As soon as the French Junkies are actually used as ashtrays, the institutional space is also transformed into a social space, and the apparently autonomous artwork is confronted by an exterior familiar from other contexts.
When, for example, the rhomboid metal sculpture Untitled (Stainless Steel) (2004) is positioned near the door of a gallery in London, it seems like an elegant security system for electronic merchandise monitoring. This artistic highlighting of forms and functions from commercial and public contexts examines a principle according to which the everyday is aestheticized in an attempt to obscure the fact that certain objects are manifestations of regulations: bans on smoking where no ashtray is provided, monitoring of customers for fear of shoplifters. In spite of this, Wermers’ works do not appear conceptually out of place; in fact, it actually seems like they are standing in exactly the right place and we are the ones who must adjust our position to them. For of course, they are first and foremost perfectly formed objects. In spite of this, they refer to something more than just themselves. They are signifiers of a world in which pure self-sufficiency is no part of the plan, as otherwise the system ceases to function. Precisely in their critical reenactment of this functioning, however, they open up perspectives where the possibility of a different way of dealing with signs can appear: the possibility of a resignification of what can stand for beauty, for promise, for the fascination of things beyond their existence as meaningful objects.
(1) Cf. Isabelle Graw, Adorno ist unter uns, in: Nicolaus Schafhausen, Vanessa Joan Müller, Michael Hirsch (eds.), Adorno. Die Möglichkeit des Unmöglichen, New York / Berlin 2003, pp. 24.