Mimesis of Functionalism

During a scholarship to Rome, Joseph Dabernig spent the winter of 1982/83 30 km outside the city in Torvaianica. He drew the village, which most people would describe as having “grown pragmatically”, surveyed it and translated it into numerical relationships. In other words, Dabernig systematised what he saw. The beginning and end points of selected lines (buildings, river) were entered into a system of coordinates with x and y values and tripled according to the Pythagorean theorem a2+b2=c2, i.e. a rational, yet subjectively chosen system formed the basis for a series of formal operations. Although in the first sketches, or constructional drawings, the steps remained (at least theoretically) intelligible, the starting point gradually became unrecognisable as the work proceeded. Dabernig’s first sculpture in structural steel piping of 1983/1984 – the three-dimensional result of these initially drawn and then numerically translated mutations – also shows itself within this logic to be intellectually systematic and transparent, and yet optically hermetic. Systematic procedure in relation to artistic method and rationale stand in contrast to subjectively determined starting parameters and aesthetic contemplation. A further example from 1990: in W 288 826 Dabernig converted the number of his crashed car1 into a grid of 4 vertical x 15 or 16 horizontal units. This provided the starting point for linear progressions that at a certain point rendered the number unrecognisable despite the potential reverse calculability of the columns of figures. In both works Dabernig made use of a rational system that demanded ever more autonomy, freeing itself of all ties to the visible to become an aesthetic end in itself. Aesthetics takes on the role of throwing grit into the wheels of rationality (and later too of functionalism), while the rational approach encourages a critical debate with the myth of original artistic creation or subjective design.

Since the early 1990s Dabernig’s sculptures have increasingly been based on easily comprehensible ordering systems, whose starting points may lie within the sculptural material itself, e.g. width of component and/or dimensions of the exhibition space. Depending on the gallery situation, the frame-and-bracket sculptures are installed anew in accordance with the prevailing spatial relationships, an adaptation that particularly concerns the progressions and distances between the individual elements of a series. From time to time an apparently uniform grid is slightly enlarged or scaled down, or one of the horizontal or vertical dimensions is varied while the other remains the same. (Formal) deviations are either built in to the works themselves or arise in confrontation with their respective (architectonic) surroundings. Traces of dirt or corrosion on the articles used by Dabernig also function as consciously applied disruptive elements. In 1989 the sculptural material was reduced to three items used in the construction industry: components of variable length with an L or U-shaped cross-section plus mounting joint. These semi-finished products – intended for use as brackets for cladding – were de-functionalised and either screwed directly into the wall or leaned and piled up against it. In his works for the Salle de Bal in Vienna (1995), the Neue Galerie in Graz (1996) or the Klagenfurter Künstlerhaus (1993) Dabernig deliberately employed the functional origin of the components and joints. The grids covered the existing architecture as if it were about to be reworked or clad according to new, rational premises. The discrepancies that emerged between the interior or exterior spaces and Dabernig’s aluminium grids also marked certain ideological conflicts that are materialised in architecture, such as those between pre-modernism, modernism and post-modernism.

In late 1993 he was invited to exhibit at the Ambrosi Museum in Vienna. The building, once the studio of the artist Gustinus Ambrosi – from the historical perspective a controversial Austrian establishment figure – now houses a memorial to him, and since 1992 has been home to regular exhibitions of contemporary art. Through an adroit placement of his work in Ambrosi’s former dwelling and studio, Daberning was able to confront an (Enlightenment) stance aimed at rationalism, transparency and demystification with myths of heroic creation and the ideal human, exemplified in the person of Ambrosi, while at the same time criticising – through the autonomous aesthetic claims of his work – utilitarian rationality and pure functionalism. The issue of rationality is seen here as a basically ambiguous concept: on the one hand it stands for transparency, the Enlightenment, action guided by reason, and thus for comprehensibility and emancipation. On the other it is neither free from political and economic instrumentalisation nor from a relapse into mythology. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s differentiation between critical and instrumental rationality –
between critical-reflexive thought aimed at emancipation and thought which subjugates itself to expediency and calculation – may come to mind here.2 These two forms of rationality appear similar at first sight, yet they are completely different in intention. Critical rationality, as the process of rationalisation progressed, increasingly narrowed itself down to the instrumental, i.e. the development was no longer driven by the project of emancipation, but by the efficiency and functionality of a system. In his objects Dabernig starts with the discrepancy between critical and instrumental rationality, at exactly the point where the Enlightenment and rationalism find themselves in critical discourse on this very relationship. He applies rationally comprehensible methods of generating the work, proceeds serially and in accordance with the respective spatial economy, uses standardised elements that remind one of pragmatically oriented door, window or wall substructures, dismantles or piles up his objects – all of which can certainly be read as an expression of economic expediency or of rationalistic thought. But even if the strictly ordered aluminium grids give rise to associations of rationalism and functionality, they emancipate themselves from the functional demand in that rationality is subjugated to subjective starting parameters, deviations from giving structures are built in and the objects – at least in their place of exhibition and at a particular point in time – no longer have their usual function, but are at best to be understood as an “aesthetic of functionalism”.

A similar ambivalence also surrounds his own role as an artist. Dabernig appears to adjust his activity to the requirements of an entirely rationalised society. For days and weeks, and with great discipline – his doings might remind one more of a conscientious bookkeeper than of the conventions of unrestrained artistic work – calculations are made and sequences of numbers produced. This (voluntary) self-discipline – for such it most certainly is – can also clearly be seen in other of Dabernig’s works, e.g. his page after page of excerpts from F.X. Mayr’s Schönheit und Verdauung (Beauty and Digestion) in 1977. Conspicuous here is not only the disciplined and disciplining writing-up, but also the precise selection of a book about discipline, a work that reflects such a stance in its content. For Mayr primarily sees the human being in functional terms, as a trouble-free, efficiently working machine – as can be seen in the book’s subtitle: “Proper Maintenance of the Intestine Essential to Human Rejuvenation”. But the artist subject cannot and will not keep to the given structures; the handwriting continually deviates – despite considerable effort – from the written framework and contrasts with the content, a formal divergence that must certainly be read as social deviation. In other words, self-regulation is a reflection of the social regulation and control of the subject as expressed in rationalised systems, but here it is staged in a model-like, artistic fashion. One may also, in this context, talk of mimesis. In this regard, Dabernig’s method also reminds one of Adorno’s early critique of instrumental rationality. For Adorno art meant a refusal to subjugate oneself to (capitalist) expedient thought,3 whereby the critical character of art is seen in relationship to its mimetic quality. For it is only through mimesis – by which art enters into a similarity with social reality – that a critical relationship to society, and one maintaining the necessary distance, can establish itself. In Adornos words, art must become the “mimesis of its antagonist.” While other social arenas were increasingly dominated by an instrumental praxis, art would be able to illuminate the antithetical aspects of rationality and mimesis, sign and image, without eliminating its opposition by unifying them. Thus – according to Adorno – tension, dissonance and paradox are basic qualities of art, and necessary if any kind of critical debate with an increasingly functionally organised society is to be carried out. Deliberately built-in deviations from given structures, a demand for autonomy, discrepancy between image and text, structure and space, are also central characteristics of Dabernig’s work and allow precisely the above-mentioned “critical relationship” to social reality to establish itself. This does not only apply to his sculptures, but in principle to all the other groups of work. Of particular importance in relationship to the critical reflection of rational structures are his commentaries on functionalist architecture. When Dabernig, writing in a Berlinführer of 1996, places differing (ideological) interpretations of modern architecture alongside one another,4 or, in his project for interim in 1998, attempts an “urban-planning bond between Castle Plüschow in the Mecklenburger Land and the Casa Poporului in Bucharest,”5 it becomes clear that rational structures and their functional demands have never been applied in an unbiased way, and cannot be viewed in unbiased terms today. Moreover, they are themselves the product of a social positioning, and mostly also of an ideologisation that passes construction off as nature. In both these projects Dabernig contrasts various social values, judgements, differing social concepts – the Enlightenment, totalitarianism, GDR, FRG, united Germany –
to make clear the differing ideological charge of rational structures. In his Proposal for a New Kunsthaus, in 2004, he turned his attention to the discursive construction of architecture – specifically of an art institution – even though the ideologisation of architecture is no longer clearly apparent and architectural quotations from various epochs seem to be equally and liberally available. Dabernig’s New Kunsthaus does not owe its existence to the homogeneous design of a single architect, but consists rather of a combination of varying architectonic elements. Thus an alternative façade of functionalist, utilitarian architecture stands in contrast to its frontal façade in historicist art nouveau; concrete apartment blocks crowd in on a bar recalling the socialist period; the basement contains a lecture hall; family home and hotel room next to the archive with its handwritten labels. A closer look however reveals the “art nouveau façade” to be a prefabricated construction of ornamented concrete plating with synthetic windows. Empty family houses, courtyards and pragmatically furnished en-suite hotel rooms supplement the Proposal for a New Kunsthaus as guest room, security exit or second entrance. Even the annex turns out to be an unfinished building by the sea. The elements Dabernig uses for his New Kunsthaus all embody divergences from a current value system; the grey apartment blocks, the abandoned dilapidated buildings, the overgrown courtyards, the handwritten archive labels today seem worthless, past. The divergence is twofold: on the one hand the illustrations faintly evoke a post-socialist pragmatism; they show an appropriated functionalism, the failure of the once great and its transformation into the practical and everyday. On the other they stand in contrast to a new pragmatism, to which art institutions are also increasingly required to subjugate themselves in the face of a capitalist logic of exploitation. Dabernig’s proposal flirts – and not only in its title and captions, with their liberal sprinkling of Anglicisms – with mechanisms that are familiar from contemporary marketing strategies, without delivering the goods, however, in either the images or the catalogue. Here it is possible to make the link back to his sculptures, which evoke associations of rationalism and functionality without subjugating themselves to these principles. Dabernig’s works stand in a mimetic relationship to the rationality and functionalism of both an older and newer stamp; with all similarity they allow exactly that critical distance necessary to reflect rationality and functionalism in their respective ideological configurations.

1 According to Dabernig this aspect has no particular importance. This is correct in relation to form generation, yet the information is of interest with regard to the subjective side to his work. This often has its roots in the artist’s biography and forms the outset of his rational operations.
2 Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Dialektik der Aufklärung, Philosophische Fragmente, (1944) Frankfurt am Main, 2004.
3 See Adorno, Theodor, Ästhetische Theorie, Frankfurt am Main, 1973
4 Dabernig quotes from Ganz Berlin-Ost (All of East Berlin), of 1993, as well as from the Architekturführer DDR/Berlin (Architecture Guide GDR/Berlin), of 1976, or the Architekturführer Berlin of 1991. With examples of significant buildings around Alexanderplatz he cites the differing assessments and judgements of the respective authors and places these texts next to his own photographs, which show buildings from the East and West.
5 In the concept paper for the project Dabernig asks, “What might an urban-planning bond between Castle Plüschow in the Mecklenburger Land and the Casa Poporului in Bucharest consist of?” See in this book p. 104
6 Around Alexanderplatz he cites the differing assessments and judgements of the respective authors and places these texts next to his own photographs, which show buildings from the East and West.

Dabernig, Josef. Film, Foto Text Objekt, Bau
German/English. 212 pp., 280 b/w illustrations. Edited by Barbara Steiner on behalf of Museum for Contemporary Art Leipzig. Published by Buchhandlung Walther König, Cologne, 2005. Authors: Silvia Eiblmayr, Christian Kravagna, Matthias Michalka, Barbara Steiner and Igor Zabel

Barbara Steiner