Tipping Points

“Whether constructed of masonry, carved in marble, cast in bronze, fixed beneath varnish, engraved on copper or on wood, a work of art is motionless only in appearance. It seems to be set fast – arrested, as are the moments of time gone by. But in reality it is born of change, and it leads on to other changes.”

Henri Focillon

It’s strange. When I first encountered sculptures by Ulrike Buhl, I had to think of the mythological figure of Actaeon. It’s strange, because I should have rather seen clouds, bubbles, smoke, or even internal organs in these abstract bodies full of dynamism and energy. These associations were obvious, but the image of the hapless hunter forced itself upon me. According to Ovid’s narrative, the forest goddess Artemis transformed the young Actaeon—here as a pure creature, not as a mythological hero, and even less as a moral metaphor—into a stag because he had caught her naked while bathing. In classical iconography, he is usually depicted in a hybrid state, that is to say, at the very moment of his metamorphosis, not yet animal but already no longer human. A transformation takes place: The matter changes its structure, the solid lines begin to move, dissolve, and pass into a new form. For artists from antiquity to the present day, the challenge of the motif is to express this flow of forms with the means of fixing forms. This, I believe, is precisely the challenge of Ulrike Buhl’s practice and, apparently, her artistic agenda.   

As the works of Hans Arp, Barbara Hepworth, and Henri Moore—as well as (to a lesser extent) François Stahly and Peter Agostini—attest, modern sculptors’ preoccupation with fluid and soft forms has a tradition. These organic abstractions maintain a high degree of analogy to nature, and all share a certain idea of harmony and grace. With Norbert Kricke and his explosive formations, which virtually shatter the space, an energetic dimension is added to the biomorphic dimension, whereby his compositions are defined by lines and undergo a more indirect treatment of volume. Ulrike Buhl’s art appears as a synthetic combination of these two tendencies: Her sculptures are amoeboid, or blob-like in nature, but their inner dynamism, this palpable urge of the forms toward the surrounding space, diverts all attention from the fully sculptural aspect to point to their power, their energy.

Form and force are thus the two principles that are united in Ulrike Buhl’s art. Like the principles of space and time, which they represent on a subordinate level, form and force behave antagonistically to each other, but are closely interlinked. This contradictory correlation could be illustrated with a vivid metaphor: In a pressed or embossed metal plate, every projection on one side is connected to the indentations on the other. Embossing is inseparable from being embossed, just as action (force) is inseparable from its effect in space (form). And yet both principles are in a relationship of mutual tension. Form is realized only when it eliminates any effect of force; conversely, force is realized only when it eliminates any form it seeks to fix. This duality applies not only to the field of art, but also characterizes more fundamental phenomena. Life, in fact, is divided into the need to establish itself permanently, that is, to be solid, and the need to constantly evolve and change. Although matter naturally strives for constancy, it is only through its encounter with forces that it achieves form. Form is the result of the struggle between the internal force of cohesion and the external forces that disturb it.

It is precisely this interrelationship that is quite clearly visible in Buhl’s art. And it is precisely this interrelationship that reminded me of Actaeon, the epitomized manifestation (and victim) of the dialectical difference between form and force. The works of Ulrike Buhl always maintain a balance between the two entities—indeed, this sculptural practice is about nothing less than the balance between force and form. In works such as Zumba and Bobobs, as well as in the entire Implosion series, we experience the emergence of form as the result of the application of force, which, it seems, is still operating at the moment of its contemplation (which is precisely the crucial illusion, the sculptor’s brilliantly mastered “trick”). 

We experience—if anything—the emergence of something; perhaps an object (less so, because there is too much potency in these processes), a natural phenomenon, perhaps a living thing, a larva in its early stages, the buds of a bizarre fruit… The bodies are pregnant. Spherical, plump, expanding. They pulsate with the vital energy that animates them. They are full to bursting, and in a moment, in the next moment, they will give birth. It is a blossoming, a bursting, a hatching. The eruption of a volcano, the spawning of a hybrid being, the swelling of a muscle. Buhl’s works radiate a fundamental sexuality, and by that I do not mean humanized, erotic sexuality, but that inexorable reproductive drive that governs the life cycles of plants and animals. I will continue with this metaphor: Form and force are like two hostile lovers who determine each other and cannot live without each other. Ulrike Buhl stages their encounter, their flirtation, their quarrel, and turns it into a lustful dance. 

The artist herself walks a tightrope. Every decision, every gesture, every material, every form is created in the tension between movement and stasis, between chance and control. Her search is for the barely definable realm of the in-between, the paradoxical space in which time prevails. Ulrike Buhl’s artistic achievement consists in capturing that momentum (but just: not too firmly!) when the fluid becomes solid, when artificiality masquerades as nature, when force solidifies into a structure of masses and lines, when the unformed becomes a form. She searches for the tipping points, and she makes them the main subject of her sculptural practice.  

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 Henri Focillon, The Life of Forms in Art [1934], trans. George Kubler (New York 1992), p. 41.

 

Text by Dr. Emmanuel Mir, Duesseldorf

Translation by Gérard A. Goodrow

 

 

Ulrike Buhl

comes primarily from sculpture and installation. Ambivalent, constantly changing, mutating, Buhl’s works are futuristic sculptural installations that depict a world in constant flux. Her works oscillate between beautiful and menacing, man- made and natural. On the one hand, the visual characteristics of the pieces automatically suggest something unnatural, man-made, and inorganic; Through the visual qualities of shimmering car paint and shiny surfaces, we are prepared for something wondrous and magical. On the other hand, the forms are biomorphic, natural and spontaneous, resembling magnified viral structures or microorganisms, symbolising the endless cycle of creation found in nature. The energy in the works is escalating and it feels like they will explode at any moment.

The sculptures tell us the story of a fictional cosmology, a biological Big Bang yet to come. The process of mutation becomes a witness to a dystopian future, should humanity continue to deplete resources as it is doing now. In the process, Buhl makes no moral judgments, leaving the viewer to make his own interpretation. The works are in a constant state of evolution – Buhl welcomes change and chance, allowing it to enter the work and shape its aesthetic. Buhl speaks of the universe, biology, and ultimately the depths of the human psyche; her works remain manifestos of the unpredictability of life and, by extension, of man’s inherent capacity for both good and evil. In light of the Covid 19 crisis, Buhl’s work has taken on a new, unexpected significance that makes her approach more relevant than ever.

 

 

The Mystery of Eternal Genesis and Transformation 

A Few Thoughts on the Recent Works of Ulrike Buhl 

Panta rhei. According to the teaching of Heraclitus, everything is in a constant state of flux, and nothing remains as it is; there is only eternal genesis and transformation. The same can be said in reference to the idiosyncratic sculptural works of Ulrike Bühl, which are characterized by an organic—or, to be more precise, biomorphic—language of forms. What we are dealing with here are figures and forms that appear to develop autonomously—an orthogenesis of sorts, according to which the sculptures seem to be subjected to a continuous organic development triggered by an inner driving force. This is not a gradual evolutionary development, but rather something that obviously takes place abruptly. One can easily imagine a repeated “Big Bang” en miniature in the artist’s studio—a turbulent maelstrom or perhaps an implosion—which does not lead to destruction, but rather to creation. Yet this process of creation has apparently not yet reached completion. Instead, we are confronted with a kind of intermediate state, as though the metamorphosis was still in full swing. “Becoming”—much more than “being” —thus plays an outstanding role here. Buhl’s sculptures are still “becoming” and thus represent a constant state of metamorphosis. 

This “genesis” gives rise to an internal dynamism—or perhaps vice versa. Nevertheless, Ulrike Buhl’s sculptures are, of course, static and merely give the impression of vibrating or pulsating. They almost appear to be breathing. An ostensibly magical process of formation marked by numerous curves. The circle, the sphere, and other rounded, curving forms imply movement and simultaneously symbolize the endless cycle of nature. Yet whether we are dealing here with a microcosm or a macrocosm remains completely open. Buhl’s sculptures thus occasionally seem like models, both in a literary and figurative sense. Since they are indeed model-like in the sense of an innovative artistic way of dealing with nature and natural phenomena. Buhl’s sculptures are not abstract—they do not find their origins, as one might expect, in nature; they neither illustrate nor distort nature. On the contrary. They represent a kind of cosmogony—an explanatory model on the genesis and further development of the world—as well as a hypothesis about how nature might appear in the future. A nature that is increasingly and ever-more intensively manipulated, altered, and determined by humankind. 

Dynamism is also evoked through Buhl’s use of “effect lacquer,” which creates a strange optical illusion (it is certainly no coincidence that effect lacquer is used primarily in the automobile industry, where speed and dynamism often play a significant role, and where the future is far more important than the present). The shimmering, glittering surfaces reflect light, as well as the surrounding environment. For the viewer, the coloring appears to constantly change according to his or her own standpoint. As a result of this special lacquer, the biomorphic forms appear to be in a state of flux, i.e. constant change. Paradoxically, the effect lacquer also disassociates Buhl’s works from the realm of the organic, since—although this light-color effect occasionally appears in nature (such as with particular species of butterflies and beetles, as well as with some species of exotic fish)—the shimmering metallic coloration in conjunction with the forms of the sculptures evoke associations to the world of high technology and science fiction. If they are indeed of this earth, then we are dealing with a future earth, which does not yet exist as such. It thus also finds itself in a perpetual state of “becoming.” 

At times, the glittering surfaces of Ulrike Buhl’s sculptures appear fragile—if the surfaces did not appear so fluid, one might almost think they were brittle. Through this “imperfection” in the otherwise so perfect surfaces, the process-like character of her works is further enhanced. Fissures, cracks, and gaps can perhaps be understood as testimonies to an as yet incomplete metamorphosis of these artificial beings. As though they were perhaps about to shed their skin. They appear to virtually burst out of themselves. 

Everything is constantly changing—and yet everything remains the same. It is precisely these inherent contradictions that make Buhl’s sculptures so fascinating. Microcosm and macrocosm, art and science (or perhaps technology), primeval creatures and beings from a distant future, part organism and part high-tech. They find themselves in a never-ending state of becoming, and yet they are indeed finished and perfect as they are. And that is what is so special about them—and what confirms their close relationship with the teaching of Heraclitus, who postulated the unity of all things, including contradictions and the unexplainable. Everything in one and at one with everything. With keen anticipation, we eagerly await the further development of Ulrike Buhl’s artistic cosmogony. 

Text by Gérard A. Goodrow, Curator and Author, Cologne

 

 

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