View of “Brigitte Kowanz,” 2015. Photo: Rudolf Strobl.

View of “Brigitte Kowanz,” 2015. Photo: Rudolf Strobl.

Brigitte Kowanz

View of “Brigitte Kowanz,” 2015. Photo: Rudolf Strobl.

Morse code is a method of transmitting letters and digits via acoustic or radio signals, by translating them into a sequence of mechanical or optical impulses. Over the years, many artists have taken up this tool, with a focus on its communicative side: for instance, Cerith Wyn Evans, who has relayed everything from philosophical treatises and excerpts from novels to poems via light-transmitting objects, such as extravagant crystal chandeliers. Others have mobilized heavier equipment; among these is Craig Morrison, who have employed laser beams to broadcast messages of gratitude to the code breaker Alan Turing into nocturnal urban landscapes.

And then there are those who keep a cool head and stay closer to the code’s rational underpinnings. The Austrian light artist Brigitte Kowanz is one of them. Her exacting control of her work’s presentation and her keen feel for scale and proportion were readily evident in “Reality Check,” an exhibition of works created between 2011 and 2015: subtle combinations of industrial materials such as glass, mirrors, stainless steel, aluminum, LEDs, and neon. Illuminants were held by metal brackets and hinges; power was supplied through corrugated tubes from a home-improvement store, a coolly offhand choice of material.

Some of the sculptures consisted of steel plates mounted on the wall singly or in a group of three. Neon tubes affixed to their surfaces bathed the immediate environment in light. The holographic effects of these carefully constructed surfaces, which recall the artist’s early works involving fluorescent pigment, alternate between deep focus and sfumato; rhythmic black lines embedded in the acrylic glass—long, short, silence—spell out letters in Morse code. The plain text appears in the titles: short words such as MIND, CALM, or WISH, all from 2015; the numbers 123 and 456 789, both 2011.

A mirrored cube was set, Donald Judd style, on the bare floor. Its interior is a dense conglomerate of lights refracted in glass panes. The multiple reflections of an interior cubic element in conventional and two-way mirrors mimic a cityscape, and the Morse code’s dots and lines spread out in endless repetition into an infinite space. With her unerring eye for architectonic interaction—she’s created several works for public settings—Kowanz placed the work near an ill-defined corner of the gallery space where the two axes that structured the presentation intersected. The effect was to bring an immense dynamic energy to the room while also drawing attention to the object’s own presence.

UNSPOKEN, 2014, an airily buoyant sculptural ensemble of eight illuminated rods suspended from the ceiling, made for a remarkably informal counterpart to the cube’s visual complexity. Alternating blocks of blue light and black—a distant iconographic echo of Mondrian—spell the word UNSPOKEN, the final letter resting nonchalantly on the ground. Kowanz’s generous use of color and rhythm, of musicality and dance sets the sleek aesthetic of cool metal and cold light a-swinging.

A high priestess of lucidity, Kowanz has long been interested in the relation between technology and perception, in light as information and experience, and in the interaction of light, space, and time. The material as such, the phantasmagoria of illumination, and the poetic air of optical phenomena would be beside the point. She’d probably concur with Judd that “just as a platinum iridium meter guarantees the tape measure, a strict measure must exist for the art of this time and place. Otherwise art is only show and monkey business.”

Brigitte Huck

Translated from German by Gerrit Jackson.