Gerwald Rockenschaub

Gerwald Rockenschaub is still an “insider's tip,” and it comes as somewhat of a surprise that the Kunstmuseum mounted this first large-scale exhibition of his work. The show was a risky enterprise, because for three years now this 40-year-old Austrian has been presenting empty installations, thereby radically challenging the gallery space as an institution that provides meaning and ascribes value to art. Anyone who thinks of art as framed pictures on the wall or shaped objects in space was severely tested here.

The smallest room, following a standard practice of museums, had a cord that kept visitors away from the wall; there was, however, nothing hung on this wall. The side wall of the largest and longest room sported a gigantic translucent plastic curtain, approximately one hundred feet long. This artificial membrane physically blocked the two entries to the completely empty second room (a twin of the first), permitting only a visual osmosis between the two art containers. The annoyance was perfect: several visitors stopped at the door, unwilling to interfere with the ongoing painting; others tried to sidestep the colossal imposition by cracking jokes and making banal associations; and one nonplussed visitor looked for the contents in the fuse box on the wall.

Where’s the art? Rockenschaub’s. answer is that space itself is the subject of the picture. Art has set about turning the frame of its appearance and disappearance into its contents; the picture has become the frame, the content the box. Rockenschaub’s methods to make this goal absolutely clear are so rigorous that he keeps having to cope with two fundamental misinterpretations. Some see him as the ultimate avant-garde purist, whereby he has exposed art down to its formalistic end point, where it finally destroys itself. Others simply regard his work as a cynical way of toying with our desires and expectations in order to skewer the psychosomatic state of the zeitgeist. However, Rockenschaub’s art is anything but a cynical inventory. With its cool, precise formalism, it clearly dissociates itself from neo-Dadaist posturing. Its aim is not so much provocation as a radical testing of art in relationship to its position in this era of mammoth media armaments, as well as to its autonomy in terms of its co-option by commerce and the culture industry. Rockenschaub therefore questions the institution of the white gallery space, which, along with abstraction, is the most important innovation of the 20th century. In this critical situation, the artist discovers the white cube. By disguising the walls with an ambivalent plastic material, he confirms the closure of the wall as the preserve of the spiritual space of art, and he promotes the permeability of the wall so that art may gain new material for its own system by colliding with the realms of design, fashion, and advertising.

The reduction of means resembles a homeopathic treatment, which, in its economy of precise doses, makes us more sensitive to its theoretical connections. The fascinating thing about Rockenschaub’s art is that, unlike the often arduous, conceptual treatises on art and context by other contemporary artists, he works entirely with the methods of sensory knowledge, hitting the bull’s eye of current art awareness—something that we can circumscribe as the core of emptiness.

Markus Brüderlin

Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel.