Once is Nothing. Josef Dabernig

Can exhibitions serve as mnemonic models? To what extent does the transfer of exhibition architecture to a new context change its reception, once it no longer has to serve as a display for something else? Josef Dabernig submitted his exhibition design for the exhibition Individual Systems, curated by Igor Zabel for the Venice Biennale in 2003, as an artistic contribution to the exhibition Once is Nothing, for Maria Hlavajova and Charles Esche‘s section of the first Brussels Biennale (October 19, 2008–January 4, 2009). In connection with questions of repetition and continuity, they presented Once is Nothing as an exhibition about an exhibition. In Brussels the show’s exhibition architecture became a sculpturally installed system of reference. Another consideration behind the curatorial concept was the observation that, unlike the presentation formats of other kinds of art, the visual arts lack a system of notation that could make it possible to preserve and re-enact exhibitions. The curators invited Josef Dabernig to reinterpret his original design for Venice in the new context of the show in Brussels. Josef Dabernig’s transfer of a system and its integration into the former mail-sorting system produces a structure that can function as a mnemonic model. It becomes a sculptural structure that emerges from a specific transformation that can be re-traced through the catalog as an essential part of the installation.

Copying in Drawing and Writing

JOSEF DABERNIG When studying sculpture, I asked myself how subjective my life drawings were. And I made more than a little effort to avoid it. I measured the model like an engineer would, forcing him or her into x-y-z coordinates and trying to avoid any uncontrolled stroke of the pen. It was around this time that I copied F. X. Mayr’s book Schönheit und Verdauung; oder, Die Verjüngung des Menschen nur durch sachgemäße Wartung des Darmes (Beauty and digestion; or, The rejuvenation of the human body simply through proper care of the bowels).1 I copied the entire book delicately and cleanly by hand, writing on both sides of the pages, and then asked myself, what was the substantial difference between assigning coordinates to nude models and writing out pages of text. At the time, I was interested in concentration—in the form of hours spent drawing from nature, weeks spent practicing copying books, and no less time-consuming conversion tables and columns of numbers. Sculpture became a pretext for an accounting trick, an attack on subjectivity and originality carried out with a contemplative disposition.

DISPLAYER In 1982 you used motifs from Torvaianica in Lazio, Italy, as the basis for using drawing and cartography to translate a physically real situation into a system of signs and, ultimately, numbers. Using inherently rational systems like a² + b² = c² to generate coordinates, you produced data that you then used to form a sculpture. Is there a program or script that determines the systematization of the processes and decisions for designing the form down to the individual working steps of abstraction and re-concretization?

JOSEF DABERNIG No written summary of those steps was prepared. The Torvaianica project consisted of fifty-four drawings, tables of numbers, and a steel sculpture. The decision to use the Pythagorean theorem was connected with the choice of a differentiation code that seemed to me would be difficult to decode through sensory reception. For the formula a² + b² = c²—which in that sense was also chosen for purposes of concealing—I defined for a the factors 0.5 for the x value and 2 for the y value, for b the factors 0.75 for the x value and 1.75 for the y value. The curves of a and b intersect as x is increased while y is decreased, forming the basis of a mutation that is controlled but nonetheless of baffling complexity. The values for c derived from the formula are the logical consequence for a kind of third dimension. The conceptual decisions are no longer adjusted in the mechanical execution; the task tends toward an exercise in concentration.

DISPLAYER How would you define the artistic position in which the processes of deciding on forms are determined by
systems of rules?

JOSEF DABERNIG I would see them as conforming to reality in the sense of explanatory models that can be objectified. For me, aspects of rationalism and structuralism fulfilled an important function in overcoming traumas caused by certain values of a Catholic, petit bourgeois education.

DISPLAYER In your cinematic oeuvre, systematization often seems to be part of the action presented. To what extent could elements which are perceived simultaneously, like action, selection of image, site, and music, be observed individually?

JOSEF DABERNIG In my short films I try to create a symbiosis of elements from narrative cinema and the tradition of experimental film. Simple narrative threads are interwoven with strictly conceived spatial settings and elaborate dramaturgies of editing; moreover, the relationship of image and sound is generally conceptually loaded with anachronisms and clashes of genre. The constituent parts are linked in such a way that they can still be separated analytically but make no sense in isolation from one another. Putting them together is defined as film. Rosa coeli2 —which may serve as an example to describe the relationship of individual elements—consists of a cinematic narration about a mysterious encounter of three men in a hotel. On the visual level, there is the plot of a male world that is emphatically cold, squared off by rectangular reinforced concrete, plunged into an icy winter climate, and accompanied by sparse communication. The soundtrack that is interwoven with the images is quite different: birds are twittering and the word images of Bruno Pellandini speak of warmth, rural idyll, and the colorful history of a place, and they never, ever mirror the visual thread that runs in parallel with them. The level of images and the level of sound would otherwise run the risk, independently of each other, of ossifying in genre clichés. But the film derives its tension from the symbiosis and dialectic of elements that contradict one another.

Choreography of Derivation

JOSEF DABERNIG Scene change to the film Lancia Thema.3 The protagonist is driving through Italy in the car of the title, stopping frequently to get out and photographing his vehicle each time. While he is shooting, the film camera leaves the photographer and offers long panning shots of what evidently doesn’t interest him: significant sites marked by a tension between the ancient and the modern. This dramaturgical scenario is repeated five times against different backgrounds and with changing music. If Rosa coeli is a film with a beginning and an end—and here that applies to the image and the text levels, seen both together and independently of each other— then Lancia Thema calls that form into question: the film camera and the still camera represent different gazes in Lancia Thema. The exercise with five repetitions was used to work that out: the film camera leaves the protagonist in order to become independent—as a model for the reception of the film.
As a rule, the details are specified compositionally. For example, with few exceptions, the camera moves only horizontally. This lends something profane to the iconography and content. The camera work and editing were intended to allow the viewers to find themselves in the fiction. That sometimes makes a conceptual reception more difficult, but it opens up the miniatures (short films) to the tradition of narrative cinema. In each of my films, there is an aspect of content that generally serves as the trigger or motivation for the film in question. The most obvious basis of material for me is my own traumas, since you don’t have to invent anything. The second and at least equally important level is that of form. There I try to create continuities and at the same time violate them. Hence the individual films, but also all my films taken together, depict movements of figures that can be read as sculptural volumes.

DISPLAYER Under what conditions can repetitions produce errors and difference, so that differing forms can be generated from the systematic pattern?

JOSEF DABERNIG A series can be articulated linearly or rhythmically. A rhythmical series is already a model of differentiation that differs from a linear one. As an artistic phenomenon, the series has the advantage of being easily readable; it is well suited to illustrating structural thinking but is at the same time the expression of a schematic view of the world. Errors or deviations in a series put this view into perspective and as a dramaturgical resource bring tension into monotony.

DISPLAYER Whereas in Lancia Thema the camera leaves the scene of action and thus emphasizes the spatial context of the action over the plot, in the film Wisla 4 the fragmentary context replaces every narrative form of plot. Can the depiction of context replace a plot or be equated with it?

JOSEF DABERNIG The framing of an existing but unseen plot is a crucial constituent in the farce of the plot. It becomes manifest through architectonic signifiers that document a place in transformation whose ambiguous content helps construct the voids of the pseudo-fiction. If an artistic statement tends to explain (or show) everything, then the viewer has no leeway. Such a statement runs the risk of being an authoritarian gesture. My conception of film deliberately plays with established voids and sometimes also with traps for the viewers’ autonomy.
The actors in Wisla represent the theme by means of stage directions and bearing; the camera collects via stage directions the images necessary to construct the content. These images are representatives of a narrative that takes place in one’s head, is put on paper, and then realized. The void of the invisible center of the action is a conceptual and dramaturgical decision. It stands for the secret or for desire as well and represents the latitude for the viewers which I mentioned.
My task as an author is not to question the dramaturgical void once I have decided on it but rather to bring together all the dramaturgical details (including those that help to define the significance of the void) into a whole. That includes leaving things out and all the components of the framing that construct the empty center in this film. The latter is framed not only on the level of content, but the game simulated with the gestures of the trainers is also introduced and ended with a nearly identical pan. This structural framing establishes a narrative of signifiers through the landscape and buildings and at the same time is set up in such a way that its horizontal movement will not at first betray the real void but rather confirm it in the end. Consequently, the direction and editing make many decisions relating to form and content in the spirit of increasing precision and density, and the same is true of the sound direction and editing.

Analogies and Deviations

JOSEF DABERNIG As part of Francesco Bonami’s Venice Biennale in 2003, Igor Zabel brought together fifteen artistic positions for his exhibition Individual Systems.5 Igor invited me to design this exhibition as a display with both open and closed areas. I approached my task by way of the immanent logic of the architecture of the Arsenale: the relevant exhibition space was a slightly distorted rectangle approximately fifty meters long and twenty-one meters wide. Enormous columns seven meters apart articulate the three-aisle hall. The premise was to leave the central aisle free of built-ins, to make it possible to experience the depth of the space, and thus to help mediate the site. I decided to increase the dynamic of the linear rhythm established by the columns on both sides, the side aisles, which were nearly seven meters tall, albeit articulated by galleries. As a result, the lengths of the white cubes placed there were decreased and their heights reduced as well. Hence the series of built-ins forced the projecting effect of the architecture, playing with the quotation of monumental axis, an effect that turns into its opposite on the way back. In order to break up the symmetry of the side aisles, the units opposite each other were shifted back a distance equal to one segment of the columns.
The hermetic quality of the exhibition architecture was mitigated by a measure stipulated for conservation reasons: all of the built-ins had to be freestanding in the room, without any ties to the brick walls or columns. Nor would it have made any sense technically to connect a geometrically linear form to a slightly buckled and round column. So, to the left of the corridor, there was a slit between the existing fabric and the white spaces, while on the right the walls were set in from the row of columns in order to create self-contained units that would offer a suitable frame for the works by Yuri Leiderman, Roman Opalka, and Florian Pumhösl. Taken together, the hermetic and communicative qualities are balanced in a display concept that is structurally based but flexible enough to permit free interchange with individual demands.

Maria Hlavajova and Charles Esche conceived the exhibition Once is Nothing for the first Brussels Biennale in 2008.6 The occasion for it was a memory of Igor Zabel’s exhibition Individual Systems, which prompted a discussion of the exhibition as historical model. Since the project in Brussels got by entirely without the material presence of the works shown in Venice, it provided an opportunity to create a sensory recoupling by means of the architecture. The structural similarity of the floor plans of the two exhibitions supported this. In Venice, it was the tripartite, monumental rope-making factory of the former republic; in Brussels, it was a quadripartite floor of a modern but nonetheless abandoned mail-sorting center at the southern train station. Both buildings were historical landmarks, and a significant residual texture pointed to their respective former uses. Because the intervals between columns were of similar dimensions in Venice and in Brussels, there was no problem transferring the basic structure of the spaces of Individual Systems to Once is Nothing. In the mail-sorting center, too, the direction of access determines the architectonic structure. For example, on the right hand side there is a complete row of three units; the second row, this time not shifted, is shortened by the stairwell, which projects into the rectangle.
The exhibition architecture for Individual Systems and Once is Nothing, respectively, is characterized by a systematic structure using similar premises. Nevertheless, the sensory experience of each differs. Not only did the curatorial concept rule out a repetition, the glass façade of the mail-sorting center represented a situation open to the outside, in contrast with the Corderie. Hence, from the perspective of the exhibition display, memory has an ephemeral fleetingness. Lines of sight between blank walls open up a view far into the grounds of the train station and into urban space. Along the line of intersection between inside and outside, with a view over the platforms, was the only work that had been added after Venice: a fantasy story by Patrick Corillon, presented on twenty tables lined up in a row.
The lack of other exhibits—only the labels of the works shown in the Arsenale were applied to the walls, and catalogs with reference material related to the project were made available to visitors to take with them—lent a sculptural aura to the functional level of the display. Walk-in spaces were not necessary. The result was an architecture that served as a model apart from any concrete demands on its use and, more so than in Venice, one that was indebted to semantics rather than pragmatism. The one space formed solely by four walls was not accessible but could be viewed through small slits between the walls.

DISPLAYER When the architectonic structure stands freely in the space, the only attractor other than the wall labels is the surrounding space—that is, the building and the other parts of the exhibition—they become the frame for the reconstructed frame of the exhibition. What is the frame for a frame with no content? To what extent does the sculptural nature of the exhibition walls overwhelm their potential as a communicative structures inherent in the exhibition design?

JOSEF DABERNIG The architecture for Once is Nothing was based on the logic of the exhibition concept, but with only a rough knowledge of the architectural plans for the neighboring exhibition, Show Me, Don’t Tell Me, which was organized by the Witte de With. The two exhibitions share a floor level and represent a dialectical duo in terms of their displays. The walls in Once is Nothing imply the character of an object or installation—and also, by the way, their visual permeability can be verified from the floor plan and the other connections mentioned above. I see no problem with the idea of the wall as an expanded sculpture, which is where I would place this work within my oeuvre. The structures of the hall and the display represent two related systems. Their context is at once connection and lack of connection. The hall and the display are autonomous and together result in the exhibition architecture for Once is Nothing, analogous to the principle behind the construction of the film Rosa coeli, where the film resulted from the visual story and the textual story. Clear relationships, spatial and visual axes can be read from the plan. If they do not emerge in some individual’s sensory experience, that may have to do with a subjective discomfort with admitting a systematically conceived display. Such a systematic approach was the basis for the architectural concept of the original exhibition and hence was a logical consequence for the attempt to re-enact it.

DISPLAYER A narration within an exhibition and hence a transfer of memory usually results from a specific path through an exhibition selected for, or forced on, the visitor. Once is Nothing was presented as a space that enabled viewers to behave as they wished, since it did not offer any instructions on how to act (‘Walk left, look right, linger’). But what can a spatialized framework actually achieve as a model for memory?

JOSEF DABERNIG Transgressions of the sort that derive from this set of questions are the object of artistic praxis. ‘Walk left, look right, linger’ sounds like an Unterhaltungsparcours (entertainment route). This project has nothing to do with that. The theme of Once is Nothing was the memory of the exhibition Individual Systems, which did not attempt to do justice to the demands of an assiduous flâneur but rather postulated systematic thinking in individual positions. The exhibition architecture was supported by a system in the sense of pars pro toto, totum pro parte, and it was revived in the model of memory. It is not the ‘spatialized framework’ alone but rather also its interplay with the work by Patrick Corillon that was added, also with the wall labels, with the catalogs and with the context of the mail-sorting building, that represented the narration of Once is Nothing.

DISPLAYER How do the guideline/narration and the individual experience relate within the exhibition if one is familiar with the spatial representation and the publication but not with Individual Systems as the reference? What expectations do you have of inscribing in memory through physical experience as opposed to a textual approach to the object of the reconstruction?

JOSEF DABERNIG A space for the imagination—for the flâneur it could be a path optimized for sensory perception—represents a mathematical task for the structuralist. The path’s parameters are not optimizing factors in the sense of entertainment but are rather explained as the crystallization of a system that has been shifted into the field of experience of the exhibition. In this concrete case, the catalog is available as the musical score that becomes the tool of a deconstruction. That is a necessary component in the reconstruction of the exhibition concept; in my view, its significance for the experience of the exhibition is analogous to the effect of studying the score on the experience of hearing a symphony.

The interview is based on a written statement by Josef Dabernig in October 2008 and an e-mail conversation,
January 2009.

1 Handwritten copy of Dr. Franz Xaver Mayr’s book Schönheit und Verdauung; oder, Die Verjüngung des Menschen nur durch sachgemäße Wartung des Darmes, 5th ed. (Bad Goisern, Austria: Neues Leben, 1975; orig. pub. 1920), 1977. Ballpoint pen on paper, 109 pages (54 pages measuring 19.7 x 15 cm, and 55 pages measuring 21 x 15 cm).
2 Rosa coeli, 35 mm, b/w, 24 min., 2003.
3 Lancia Thema, 35 mm, color, 17 min., 2005.
4 Wisla, 16 mm, b/w, 8 min., 1996.
5 Individual Systems, La Biennale di Venezia, 50˚ Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte, 2003. Curated by Igor Zabel. Included artists: Viktor Alimpiev & Marian Zhunin , Pawel Althamer , Art & Language, Josef Dabernig, IRWIN, Luisa Lambri, Yuri Leiderman, Andrei Monastirsky, Pavel Mrkus, Roman Opalka, Marko Peljhan, Florian Pumhösl, Simon Starling, Mladen Stilinovic, and Nahum Tevet.
6 Once Is Nothing, Brussels Biennial 1, 2008. Curated by Maria Hlavajova and Charles Esche. A project realized in memory of Igor Zabel. Included artists: Viktor Alimpiev & Marian Zhunin, Pawel Althamer , Art & Language, Patrick Corillon, Josef Dabernig, IRWIN, Luisa Lambri, Yuri Leiderman, Andrei Monastirsky, Pavel Mrkus, Roman Opalka, Marko Peljhan, Florian Pumhösl, Simon Starling, Mladen Stilinovic, and Nahum Tevet.


Displayer 03, Doreen Mende (Hg.), HfG Karlsruhe, 2009. Samuel Korn (Displayer) im Interview mit Josef Dabernig. S. 147-156