Rainer Fuchs: At the beginning of your career you and Franz Graf executed paintings together, which demonstrated an obvious discontinuity in what was at that time dubbed the Neue Malerei.1 There were at once formal similarities, but also deviations through the choice of color materials and their connection to space. What was your relationship to the Neue Wilde (Wild Style) and why now the occupation with light and space?
Brigitte Kowanz: Painting for me has always had a close connection to space. You see this in the installation and presentation of the series and sequences on transparent paper, many of which hung freely in space and were painted with fluorescent colors on both sides. With black light the color appears to dissolve and float in space. The experimental transgression of the picture’s boundaries and the employment of new materials together with the interaction of light differentiate themselves from Neue Malerei, where the boundaries of the frame were not crossed and where the expressive and subjective were themes.
RF: The boom and the downfall of painting was very strongly shaped by and contingent upon the art market. Was the danger of prominence and decline in painting foreseeable for you, and did it influence your artistic development?
BK: The boom of the Neue Malerei¹ appeared exaggerated to me; it had more to do with the zeitgeist of a young generation. The innovation was lacking for me, so it was foreseeable that it would have to change quickly. Since the beginning I wanted to analyze image and painting, to convey the three-dimensionality of the two-dimensional, to view in a new way the relationship and distinguishability of materiality and immateriality and, from there, to grasp their complexity.
RF: The polarization between painting and neo-conceptual approaches was at that time very strong. What was the reaction of the art establishment of the mid ’80s to your light-based works?
BK: The work was perceived as very unique. It was not classifiable, and that was my intention. The point was to use various media and through them generate context. There was interest, but the installations just weren’t marketable.
RF: How would you assess the significance of painting in relation to your work today?
BK: My first line of thought follows the close relationship between space, light, language and time. The light creates an autonomous artificial medium, one that subordinates painting even when it seems to be present in my work. Light can abolish borders. It fills an entire room and colors it, allowing images of light and shadow to emerge. Images of light are formed through reflected colors and passages of light that are both virtual and fleeting. Painting in this way has a similar framework.
RF: You negotiated painting with actual spatial — light — scenarios, initially through using cylindrical and bottle-shaped glasses, which were employed as a medium to contain refractive light. How did you come to choose this material? Why now the glass and the bottles?
BK: Transparency is what interests me in glass and especially in bottles. Because of their translucence, when these materials interact with light they offer the possibility to make the hidden structures and attributes of the light and glass simultaneously visible. Glass passes through various aggregate states of being during its formation, from a solid into a malleable liquid until finally a container. The bottle is a space within a space. Similarly, neon lights can illuminate other matter. In conjunction with black light, its rays can spread throughout a surrounding space. The material in this case steps into the background while everyday objects develop a special aura.
RF: Do the works with light not correspond to a sort of balancing act between contradictions, which ultimately play with different models of scientific explanation?
BK: Light is energetic and endlessly multilayered, it is omnipresent and uncontainable; light makes things visible though it is transparent, it is a drawing force that is inseparably bound to space. My interest lies in the possibility to create those numerous manifestations and facets of light that can be shown.
RF: Light is a central medium in your work but by no means the only one. The way light is used is key to understanding the work, that is to say the attempt to define light itself through object and spatial relations. What helped you orient your work and what were your historical points of reference?
BK: Conceptual art was important, but so were artists like László Moholy-Nagy, Dan Flavin and James Turrell, to name only a few. Generally though my points of reference were electronic media, photography, film and video: technology that generates images and information that signal immateriality and elusiveness.
RF: The intention of your work is clear: to gradually and systemically define light and to discover adequate further media. Signs and language were and still are critical themes that not only frame the light motifs, but are also at the center of the compositions. How do you see the relationship between light, language and signs?
BK: Light can be and not be. It defines itself literally through the tension of lighting up and turning off as a dynamic process. Therein lies its possibility to function as a carrier of information. Morse Code is a special example of this process. Morse Code consists of only two signs, which correspond only to short and long signals; with them, though, complex information can be transmitted. Light and language are not only the foundations for knowledge and perception, because they serve as the transmission and communicative usage at the same time. Light is a form of language, respectively a carrier of signs and codes. On the other hand language can serve as a construction principle for light, and light can appear as literal.
RF: The self-referential and tautological structure in much of your works, even those where there’s no connection to language, are reminiscent of techniques from visual and concrete poetry. Is this a tradition that you are committed to?
BK: Visual and concrete poetry have always interested me and resonated with my work. In the newer works I have moved away from self-referentiality. The conceptual elements are concrete and the installation’s visual presence and materiality have become more complex. The neon texts have been designed to look like handwriting and bring an element of drawing to the work. Reflections reinforce this element of drawing and generate imaginary neon lenses, which convert the linear into the three-dimensional. The text produces rhythm and illustrates time whereby the handwritten text can often no longer be deciphered. Cryptograms develop and produce codes in which language and the visual begin to mirror each other.
RF: Your use of language and signs defy intents of definition and analysis. There is no lyrical resolution of concrete facts, but rather converse attempts to clearly define the intangibly poetic. Generally what is your relationship to language and sign systems?
BK: Language and signs give the possibility to substantiate and communicate meanings. There are media of translation with more intellectual processes, but they have their own boundaries. Thinking, speaking and writing are complex translations and transformation processes. What interests me about language are not modes of single-dimensional and linear clarification, but rather complex and polychromatic phenomenon that science and even poetry possess in each possible formulation. Now, as language exhibits an immense spectrum of competencies — and because many can read between the lines — it seems to me that the motives behind my work are sensible. Language can manage a lot of different things at the same time. One can use it precisely and be open-minded too without being caught in contradictions. As language is given visual presence, a synchronicity between form and content is produced that correlates to the playful, poetic and analytic. For me the unexpected lies in the reduction and specification.
RF: You have created very substantial public works. From your experience what distinctions can be made between working situations within the art world and in the public sphere? What kind of interactions resulted in these experiences?
BK: The public works have a strong relationship to architecture, respectively to situation and use. One is confronted with very different circumstances, which must be included and considered in the initial design. Viewers are very different and vastly more anonymous than in the art community. In the production process there are necessities to bear in mind like durability and safety. The process of development can stretch over the course of years, one works together with many people from various fields — this is both exciting and educational; it procures insights and constraints that do not exist in the art world. Teamwork is important, and you start to think in different ways.
RF: If your work primarily exists as forms made of artificial light, they surely refer to the implicitly natural phenomenon of light, and even on occasion make the interaction between natural and artificial light a discussion. This occurs through single-light installations on windows and façades that act as interfaces between inner and outer spaces. To what extent does the observation of natural light ‘taint’ your discourse with artificial light? What is the relationship between art and life and the private and public spheres that you can state more precisely with the medium of light?
BK: The interplay of natural and artificial light brings different images and levels of perception to the forefront. Movement is created and time becomes visible. Light can influence and change a given situation. The meeting of natural and artificial light resolves the process of definition; it makes apparent the interaction of different spatial fields and temporal situations. Inner and outer, private and public are not distinct opposites because they require each other. The light from the window actualizes the inner space and connects it with the external in both literal and metaphorical sense. We find ourselves in private space while we simultaneously surf in virtual public space.
RF: Mirrors and reflective films have become increasingly more important to your work in recent years. Light and language have also found a new kind of reflector, that which enables the boundless and inconceivable to grasp dynamically alternating images, both of which are able to indicate the infinite. Is this not an irrational category? How can you approach art without being mystic?
BK: What interests me especially about these works is the meeting of real and virtual space. It generates transitions, transformations and reflections of reflections, lived-in rooms with their own potential. I pay attention to the simultaneity and the merger of real and fictional space, rooms where light and atmospheres are shaped, and therefore come into being. They certainly identify the irrational and I do not seek out the mystical. Metalanguages are closer to my interests.
RF: The room of mirrors at MUMOK not only summarized the motives and tactics of your entire oeuvre, but also fused them to a new space and perceptual experience. What new and unexpected experiences resulted in this work for you?
BK: The room of mirrors opened new dimensions; it multiplies the space and focuses the reflections. You find yourself in both real and virtual spaces at the same time, and you have to face visual duplications of yourself. You are part of an apparently boundless installation. You register texts and your own reflections while the light is the foundation and framework of them both. Perception and orientation become challenged and curiosity in the fundamental unpredictability and possibilities of perception is provoked, despite or because of the precise calculation that is the basis of this room’s construction.