Projections of Nature

by Thomas Wullfen

“The question of what constitutes beauty, I cannot answer”.   This quotation has been passed down to us by Albrecht Dürer, layed down in one of his many surviving manuscripts.    Dürer was a contemporary of Leonardo da Vinci, and it has been acclaimed by Eberhard Roters that with these two central figures of European art, a new type of  artist was born into the World: “The artist as thoughtfull and reflective, the theoretician applied to art”1.  In the public perception of Dürer as an artist, these qualities remain secondary to realism.  His works decorating many a living room or Doctors surgery, whether in form of “The Hare” (1502) or as “The Large Turf“ (1503), both works currently in the Albertina collection in Vienna.  What would Dürer have answered, if the question had referred to nature instead of beauty, what is nature?  Perhaps he would have answered in the same way.  The aforementioned works by Dürer suggest something to us, which the counterpoint of nature subsequently strengthens.  We can ratify this viewpoint with a further quotation from Dürer:  “Art is contained within nature herself, and whoever can extract this has it in his hand”.

In order to recognize the specific artistic methods employed by Simon Halfmeyer a historical review is necessary.  Only such a review can explain the differing dimensions, proportions and techniques which form the underlying basis of  his work. Under dimensions we refer to the societal conditions in which man stands in relation to nature.  Proportions refer to the observational relationship between object and subject.  Techniques refer to relationships of production and reproduction both contained within the work itself, and related to external factors.  However, it is obvious that these three factors observe no clear demarcation lines and tend to overlap.

The dimensions are shown as being different in the period of  Albrecht Dürer to those of the period of Caspar David Friedrich.  Whereas with Dürer the tools and methods of presentation as well as object, come into question,  with Caspar David Friedrich  nature has  become its own medium of presentation: the nature portrays itself as a projection as opposed to being portrayed.  In this projection nature reveals itself as a pool, firstly as a projection canvass and subsequently as a source for artistic exploitation.  It is significant that only the impressionism with Cezanne still knows this portrayal of nature.  Expressionism in contrast sees very clearly the demarcation between city and nature.  This retreat from nature is historically concurrent with industrialization.  City landscapes replace natural ones.  In this confrontation the expression, “city or industrial landscape” becomes a paradox, which gains legitimacy only when nature becomes part of the city.   We gain an impression in the paintings of Adolph von Menzel who portrays industrial activity as another form of nature.  Today however nature herself has become industrialized.

Dimensions

In the works of Simon Halfmeyer the observer can follow these changes in the relationship between man and nature. This can be demonstrated by individual works although an individual portrayal is, and remains an interpretation. This can be clarified examplarily in retrospect of the already mentioned expression ‘the projection’, an expression which contains different meanings which often exclude each other.  ‘Projection’, in the context of psychology, means something completely different from in the field of mathematics.  Nevertheless a work such as the slide projection cross of Simon Halfmeyer 2002/2003, invites us to a divergence between differing levels of the term.

Four projection canvasses are placed in the room upon the ground plan of a cross.  These canvasses are illuminated by four carrousel projectors.  The canvasses display themselves not only frontally but also through the reverse side due to their half transparancy.  The observer is made aware of being surrounded by constantly changing motifs.  Furthermore the subject matter of bushes, trees and shrubs is rendered alien by the act of phototake, because Simon Halfmeyer took the photograph at night using a flash light.     This brings a strangeness into the portrayal of nature , thereby increasing the difficulties in forming a  projection in a psychological sense : the unconscious transfer of personal wishes, feelings or imaginations on other people or objects.  The overproportional flower images in this presentation appear to have lost their relation to the anatomy of nature.  In this exposure they appear to originate more from a film than from  nature, which remains without depiction.

At this point a further differentiation must be introduced, that between material object and formal object. In scientific observation there is a differentiation between these two objects, where the material object exists prior to investigation, whereas the formal object emerges during the observation process.  As a result the material object remains constant in different sciences,  in contrast the formal object constitutes itself differently depending upon the concrete investigation in a specific scientific environment.  Thereby the expression ‘constitution’ is quite fitting, because the object is constituted through observation. What is both,  ‘material’ and ‘constitution’, opens the possibility of further investigation or observation. This observationary perspective has been central to the perception of nature since the development of modern science.  How far this scientific perception of nature has influenced or altered the everyday perception can only be estimated.

Techniques

In the cycle of work called the ‘Park Aquarelle’ a reflection upon this realization becomes possible.  The basis for this work was a sequence of slides, which Simon Halfmeyer had brought into digital form.  We can see when using an image processing programme on the computer, that in the digital representation, certain tufts of grass are reproduced with an exact green tone.   The artist has erased this specific green tone from the picture, and re-employed it as a colourful framing.  The concrete green colour tone was, for this purpose, mixed extra and  directly applied onto the wall.  The wall sized drawings , using carbon on paper, are a form of dialogue with the German Romantic Art.  The background of the digital processing would remain concealed, without the accompanying explanatory text, which also changes the perception of this particular work.  What is, in this case,  material object, and what is formal object?  Or are there objects in art which come close to the condition of formal objects?

Ich war noch nie in Herrenhausen
Ich war noch nie in Herrenhausen (2005), Photo by Thomas Müller

This way of seeing can be justified in reference to two particular sculptural works.  The sculptures with the pleasant title ‘Ich war noch nie in Herrenhausen’  one made of steel and the other from plywood.  The work from steel carries the epithet ‘Munster outdoors’ which title suggests its practical useage.  It was planned as an outdoor sculpture for a public place.  In reality the two parts in Ollerhof simulate two parts of a hedge which has been broken in the middle.  The work has the effect at this point of being like a ‚camouflage sculpture’, to use Simon Halfmeyers`own words.  ‘Camouflage sculpture’ is however an expression with two meanings: Is the sculpture camouflaged or the object which has been represented by the sculpture? Is the hedge deceiving us or the sculpture?  The potential of double meaning lies at the core of much of Simon Halfmeyers’ works.  In his art a well thought out scepticism is displayed relating to the possibilities of contemporary art.  He cannot limit himself only to portraying an object, although at first glance his hedge sculpture appears to do precisely that.  In the context of the existing local environment however the difference between the real object and its portrayal becomes clear. The artist does not rearrange the surface of his material, and does not even remove a clearly visible registration mark  from this surface.  Where does one find the orchestrated artistry, on site or in the garden of Herrenhausen (the place named in the title): In the object in dialogue with this artificiality, or in the orchestrated art of the garden itself ?  The second sculpture with the same title relates to the garden design in Herrenhausen.  The form and size of the hedge is orientated upon the examples of the baroque garden landscaping.  That the hedge is subject to a lengthy process of growth ,pruning and further growth is here addressed in the sculpture.  However the artistry of the sculpture is completely different from the original botanic model.  The structure of the artistic hedge allows a glimpse through, but nevertheless bars the way simultaneously. It is portrayal which simultaneously points to the act of portrayal.  The form and design borrow the patterns of a ‘landscaped nature’ which is characteristic for the Baroque garden design. This pattern is further elaborated. That becomes especially clear when the employed pattern re-emerges in a so called cutting plotter folie.  This adhesive folie is used for windows, having the function of a blind, as is the case in baroque garden design, however it gains a different meaning.  The camouflage does not pertain to being something else but functions only as a blind.  But the projected shadow of this camouflage allows the original appearance to re-emerge: A glimpse of floral patterns. The disguise is visible as a disguise in the camouflage. It is a moment of discovering the concealed, which also earmarks the spacially orientated sceneries which Simon Halfmeyer has recently brought to fruition under the heading ‘Das Glashaus’ .  Thereby the expression ‘spacially orientated’ must be understood in its deepest sense, because the surface areas penetrate into the depths of the room itself, and, it appears almost natural that they also draw the floor into our consciousness.  The observer of these ‘glasshouses’ is swallowed up by the house in a double sense of the word.  The walls are in reality only walls, but function also as projection surfaces for the greenhouses.  Barbara Buchmaier, in her catalogue article2, correctly points to the conclusion that these ‘Projections’ of Simon Halfmeyer could raise important questions in a discussion of spacial utility of contemporary museum and exhibition rooms.  In which way is a shopping mall different from the exhibition rooms of the Saatchi galleries?

In 2006 Simon Halfmeyer completed a work which appears like a compendium of his collected works, and a summary of their dimensions, proportions and techniques. The work ‘Cluster mit Erdhaufen’  shows in model form an art gallery with baroque window arrangement brought onto glass using folie. A real mound of earth is found in the first third of the gallery.  In this we notice, on the one hand, a reference to the artistic view of Land-Art, but on the other hand a reminder of the ‘Rasenstück’ ( The Large Turf ) by Albrecht Dürer.  Nature modelled into art or the art model found within nature herself ?  With which point we round up our circle and  a question remains without answer.

(1) Eberhard Roters: Introduction, Catalogue ‘Was die Schönheit sei, das weiß ich nicht – Künstler’ Theorie, Werk, Catalogue of  the 2nd Biennale Nuremburg 1971, Cologne 1971, page 13
(2) See catalogue Simon Halfmeyer: Glashaus, Junge Kunst e.V. Wolfsburg 2006