PRINT February 1992


IN 1982, WHILE STILL a student at the Düsseldorf academy, Asta Gröting made a six-foot-high scallop shell, perfect in detail, out of mother-of-pearl-toned polyester. Although it was one of Grating’s first sculptures, Pilgermuschel (Pilgrim shell), as the piece was subsequently titled in 1990, is characteristic in its grand scale and almost obsessive materiality. It also introduces a theme that runs like a thread throughout her body of work: the attempt to isolate the creative moment. The Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli embodied this effort in The Birth of Venus, ca. 1485, that painting of the young, beautiful, flower-adorned goddess born of the sea foam, stepping from an open scallop shell.

At first, the theme of creativity, casually worded, might sound quite abstract. Grating, however, is referring to a very specific moment when all action comes to a still point, rather like a ball that, tossed aloft, initially soars, then remains breathtakingly suspended in air for a split second, before finally dropping back to earth. It is in such instants of tense silence that ideas emerge and slowly take clearer shape. Years ago, in fact,Grating threw balls dipped in black paint against stretched cloth in order to duplicate just such a moment. But it would take a long time for her to find a way to capture it in the form of an artwork, although it goes without saying that many artists, much like old Botticelli, have been similarly tempted to try and do so.

In 1990, Grating began a series of sculptures that may be read, if not directly as an effort to hold fast the creative moment, at least as an attempt to open up a path toward comprehending its significance. So in Samen (Seed, 1990), she welded a real Brazil nut into a transparent crystalline acrylic plate, which, forming a showcase, is held away from the wall by two iron grips. The nut—that primordial germ cell of creation—was thus plucked outside of time, relieved of the pull of gravity. Suspended between life and death, the seed (which may also be translated as “semen”) remains forever in a state of potential.

Gröting’s attempt to seize the absolute, however, cannot help but go awry. For although the seed is preserved within its airtight protective envelope, it is also dead in the sense that it is prevented from developing its given values and possibilities. It is deprived of the essence of its creativity—to grow. mature, die, and decay. Torn away from its life cycle as determined in time and space, the nut becomes a relic, much like the saintly body parts preserved within medieval reliquaries in an attempt to defeat the body’s inevitable decomposition.

Since 1985, Gröting has also been making round sculptures out of rubber conveyor belts, interrupting the seemingly endless course of these bands by cutting them up and then shaping them into freestanding circles. By so doing, the artist brings the course of the belt to a stop, which makes it seem to exist outside of time; simultaneously, by forming it into a ring shape, she evokes the idea of infinite motion. Here, too, by distinctly different formal means, Gröting manages to create a sense of tension inherent in the intermingling of mutually exclusive ideas—time and timelessness, movement and standstill, the finite and the infinite, and ultimately life and death.

As in her acrylic works, Grating, in these rolled-up conveyor belts, is reaching for the absolute, for that moment of bated breath, in order to preserve it forever in an unalterable form. Obviously, she is as doomed to failure here. Nevertheless, Monde (Moons, 1990) and the other conveyor-belt works bear witness to the reality of such moments of absoluteness, even if they exist only as freeze-frames within the chronological flow of life. the course of which seems eternal, despite the physical death of the individual human being.

Death in connection with the reach for the absolute remains the dominating idea behind Grating’s latest sculptures, which take the form of the human or animal digestive system. The first such piece, Der Mensch (The person), done two years ago for the “Aperto” section at the Venice Biennale, shows the human digestive tract—alimentary canal, stomach, and intestines—at greatly enlarged scale. The sculpture, based on an artist’s model, was made of transparent glass in Murano, Italy, a place known for its glassblowing. Lying on the floor and reflecting light, it radiated something timeless and unapproachable, something sublime that transcended the bathos of death. This work was followed by other glass sculptures of the digestive systems of, for example, a shark and a hare—a carnivore and a herbivore, the quintessential predator, the perfect prey—sprawling larger than life on the gallery floor.

The most recent pieces in this series have been cast in black or white transparent silicon, a rubbery plastic, and filled with excelsior, which is used to stuff bodies after autopsies. More lifelike than the glass works, these pieces share their sensuous materiality. But while the coolness of glass affords the viewer some distance from the subject matter, Grating offers no such escape here. The materials out of which the silicon works are made ensure their ephemerality. Literally incarnating decay and degeneration, they incite a revulsion equal to their attractiveness. Quiet, self-contained, disturbing, they reveal the hidden, what we can see only at the risk of spilling our guts. For any attempt to seize the lived moment, any effort to arrest the vital process of flow, of change, of unsteadiness, can only lead to annihilation.

Yet we humans, with our desire for transcendence, will inevitably try, and Gröting, in her sculptures, honors the heroism of our attempt. Her works symbolize nothing, represent nothing. They are neither simulacra nor surrogates. They simply exist. And yet they are poignant witnesses to human life, understood as a process of becoming that must remain intangible. Gröting knows there is no hope of connecting with the absolute—with.that palpable moment of breathless hiatus. Before we can even lift our hands to seize the moment, it is gone. Any claim that we can have a relationship to such moments—aside from yearning or imperfect memory—is deadly. Life can be conveyed only as a trace, a souvenir, a recollection. Anyone who wishes to seize his or her intestines is doomed.

Noemi Smolik is a writer who lives in Cologne.

Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel.