PRINT October 1991


EVEN THOUGH THE READYMADE has often been interpreted as an introduction of reality into artmaking, Marcel Duchamp’s subversive appropriation of useful objects and their subsequent placement in the gallery might better be understood as acts dealing more with the alienation of the real from art. Once the anonymous object has lost the dynamic function it used to have, to become a specific art object with the “aura” that ensures its functioning within an art context, this object, by the artist’s decision, has gone a long way down a dead-end street: Duchamp never used a Rembrandt as an ironing board, though he wanted to, and it is improbable that anyone purchased his Bicycle Wheel, 1913, in order to use it to repair a bike.

Maria Eichhorn’s art practice can be situated within the tradition of the ready-made—with a difference. She has adopted some strategies of appropriation, but at the same time, she deconstructs the premises on which these strategies are based. She is aware of the function of the artwork within the art system, and by taking a critical stance in relation to it, she has acquired the freedom, as did Duchamp and the first generation of Conceptual artists, to use any form—that is, object, architectural space, or linguistic system—she finds suitable. In Entnutzte Treppe (Unusable staircase, 1987), for example, Eichhorn enclosed a staircase within a wooden box, making it impossible to climb and emphasizing its dysfunctionality. Nor could one play Spiel am schiefen Billardtisch (Game on a slanted billiard table, 1989-91). For Eichhorn, the appropriation of the table was secondary to its use—or nonuse. Intentionally placed outside the territory reserved for art, between the café and an exhibition space at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni in Rome, the piece looked like an ordinary billiard table, until one tried to use it.

Eichhorn’s attitude toward the object may be recognized as a rejection of the idea that once something becomes art it should stay art. Accordingly, much of the time the work itself becomes a passage in the utilitarian life of the object, which is only alienated from reality for the period in which it functions as an artwork, and will have another life at another time. Her motivation is not the “artiness” of the object, but rather its “artlessness.” By using a stuffed lion in Löwe im leeren Raum (Lion in an empty room, 1989-90), the artist was not only interested in the thing itself but in the context to which it belongs before, during, and after exhibition. Consequently, her interview with the owner of the lion, published in the catalogue, itself became an integral part of the work.

In taking the path of an art that must continuously reestablish its ties with social reality, Eichhorn works on the margin, which should be understood in the Derridean sense as a “borderline” that both unites and divides. The oppositions thus created—visible/invisible and word/object are especially important to her are partly interwoven, creating a layering that is permeated with an antinomy of function and dysfunction. In Geweisster Raum mit Blick aus dem Fenster (Whitened room with view out of the window, 1991), part of a group show in Berlin, Eichhorn claimed the room as her own through the act of painting it white. By this act she also made a correlation between inside and outside, not only in the physical sense, but also by connecting—once again—art and the real. In a further “layering,” the act of painting provided a framework for the works by others that were later exhibited in this room and that, in effect, became a part of her piece. A similar contextualization occurred in one of Eichhorn’s “white on white” pieces, Wandbeschriftung (Wall writing, 1990), in which the architecture also became a solid support of the work. Thus, at her request, one artist partly covered her white-on-white painted statement—“The visible contains the visible, the visible contains the invisible, the invisible contains the invisible, the invisible contains the visible” with his wall painting, somehow playing down her verbal dictum.

Wand ohne Bild (Wall without painting, 1991), which was in the recent “Metropolis” show in Berlin, is another work emphatically interwoven with its environment. Here, on the surface of a wall superimposed on the original, Eichhorn copied an old wallpaper pattern left in one corner of the room. In the middle of this she painted a patterned area in darker tones that mirrored the proportions of the window on the opposite wall, allowing us to imagine the space where a painting might once have hung. In this piece there is again an interplay between several polarities: between the absent and the present (the dark and the light); between what is not (the title, expressed in the form of a negative definition) and what is (the work itself, a painting).

A crucial aspect of Eichhorn’s art is her work on/with language, something that is apparent in the titles of her pieces. The translation of an abstract word into a concrete physical fact (the object/the work) is the basic idea elaborated in her ongoing “Vorhang” (Curtain) piece, realized three times since 1989 and to be done six more times. What Eichhorn intends by repetitively placing a curtain, each a different color, in front of a given wall, then covering it completely, is to incarnate a sense of the word itself. In other works the artist deconstructs language by creating sentences in which the words don’t follow syntactically but rather alphabetically; or she plays linguistic games in which the alphabet is deconstructed to construct the word “alphabet.” (The game was made more complex by the introduction of parole into the artistic dynamic; the system by which the work was constructed was explained to six people, who each then wrote a text converting the spoken text into a written one.)

The preoccupation with margin was elaborated even further in Eichhorn’s most recent work, Meer. Salz. Wasser. Klima. Kammer. Nebel. Wolken. Luft. Staub. Atem. Kiiste. Brandung. Rauch. (Sea. Salt. Water. Climate. Room. Mist. Clouds. Air. Dust. Breath. Shore. Breakers. Smoke., 1991). This time the gallery was filled with mist produced by the sort of ultrasound nebulizer used in spas. Surrounded by the work, viewers perceived it by breathing and “consumed” it by seeing the air-that-is-becoming-visible. Art and reality thus became one in one place—came together for a while.

Bojana Pejic is a writer who lives in Berlin.

Translated from Serbo-Croatian by Rajka Nisavic.