Romantic Inclinations

Katharina Grosse: Picture Park
Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane
15 July – 28 October 2007

Spectacle is often a predictable mechanism. It seduces its audience, only to inevitably frustrate them. Katharina Grosse’s site-specific installation, Picture Park, at GoMA, takes this process a step further by using spectacle to draw attention to the slow and minute decay of its own monumentality. Once the initial pleasure in Picture Park’s vivid mash of colour and form fades, discontent—a desire for ‘more’­—leads us to examine the work in closer detail. Just days into the exhibition, the slowly shrinking balloons fill the space with the distinctive smell of contracting rubber, and the stiff surface of the painted earth starts to crack and shift. The carefully constructed façade is beginning to break down, revealing the temporality of the experience.

Although we witness the effects of these small movements, we do not actually see them occur. This absence of motion serves to reinforce the work’s overwhelming sense of stasis. This stillness is also thrown into relief by human activity as, despite its texture and theatricality, the installation remains untouchable. Gallery-goers move along the central component of the work, rather than physically engaging with it, like small boats drifting past a giant, crazy-coloured iceberg. This sense of ‘passing by’ is accentuated by the corridor-like space in which the work is installed: as a site of both transit and contemplation, this space also holds a tentative link with Walter Benjamin’s arcades and the notion of flânerie. Indeed, despite the lack of iron and glass, Picture Park is experienced primarily via the kind of detached ocular tactility that characterises window-shopping.

Grosse has often commented that the site-specificity of her work is at odds with the disconnectedness she experiences whilst creating it. During installation, she seals off the space with plastic sheets to prevent the spread of paint spray dust, and must wear protective goggles, a spray-suit and earplugs. In the promotional photos she resembles an astronaut; a deep sea diver; a nuclear scientist in a Hazmat suit. Like these other professional ‘adventurers’, Grosse explores, albeit with gloves, spaces and substances we can only view from afar. Her interest in the behaviour of paint on different surfaces (as the wall plaque states) begins to take on an empirical air. There is a gratifying frontier quality about the whole process that is only partially diminished by the coolness of the artist’s approach.

Each of Grosse’s installations have their own reference points, specific to the space and the arrangement of matter and materials. The awkward angles of the propped-up canvases, and the dynamic, jarring spray gun marks afford Picture Park a striking visual similarity to Caspar David Friedrich’s 1824 German Romantic painting Das Eismeer (The Polar Sea). Like Friedrich, Grosse does not capture the reality of a landscape, but the ‘phantasmatic functions accorded to it in the popular imagination’.1 Accordingly, Picture Park underlines the commonalities between the emotive potential of abstraction, and the Romantic desire to transcend physicality through sublime experience. The dramatic reds, aquas, pinks and greens scrawled across the gallery walls and ceiling resemble both an expressionist painting, and a Gothic sunset gone hideously and fantastically wrong. In this way, Grosse literally explodes the Romantic relationship between art and the landscape.

Today, when our experience of nature is more heavily mediated than ever before, the park or garden is on its way to attaining the same mythic status that the ‘authentic’ wilderness now holds in the public consciousness. The title Picture Park refers to confined and synthetic landscapes: gardens, theme parks, sculpture parks, nature strips, cemeteries. Gardens are inseparable from notions of death and decay; and, indeed, Grosse’s park is a dead landscape, animated posthumously by dynamic formal elements such as colour and line.

The park’s scale and gaudiness create a somewhat sinister effect, and the ugly dirt clods and hacked-apart tree roots littering the earthwork indicate a violent separation from their site of origin. The giant balloons have a pustular appearance; some have shrivelled and burst, their flaccid skins left hanging. In the midst of it all, Grosse’s two buttressed canvases protrude like comical headstones in a B-grade movie. Perhaps this is where abstraction has come to die… only to rise again like a giant, radioactive mutant zombie, drenched in pop cultural significance.

Notions of artificiality and staging are central to Grosse’s practice. Her installation appropriates many of the qualities of the theme park, in which the real is replaced by the synthetic to produce a more easily controlled and consumed ‘reality’. In Picture Park, however, nature is disguised rather than replaced. Grosse ‘improves’ the natural by regulating its form and saturating it with colour—this, after all, is the premise of gardening. Her installations are at their most seductive when they carefully blend spontaneity and planning to achieve a state of controlled mess.

The weaker aspects of Picture Park are those that also elaborate on its connection to the idea of the sculpture garden. The clusters of egg-shaped objects and lone painting located some distance from the main installation adopt the contrived spatial positioning common to such outdoor spaces, but the result is somehow too premeditated. There is a clear distinction between those components of the installation constructed in the gallery, and those ‘prepared earlier’. It is almost as if Grosse’s practice requires a saleable component. This sensibility conflicts with the otherwise ephemeral and impulsive nature of the work. However, this hint of commercialism is perhaps unsurprising, given Grosse’s clear intention to explore the conventions of the gallery from within, rather than from without.

Romanticism, arguably the first coherent cultural counter-discourse,2 opposed cultural hegemony and the institutions that enforced it, and strove instead for a democracy of taste. Today, graffiti enacts a similar role as a means of disrupting regulated environments and reclaiming public space. Grosse plays with this connection by merging the languages of Romantic landscape painting and graffiti tagging with that of abstraction. However, Grosse’s is not an anti-institutional position. Her varied formal and representational languages have all long been co-opted by the dreaded System, in order to re-invigorate the dominant artistic culture. Yet Grosse flaunts the results of this aesthetic colonialism with vigour and confidence, and her enthusiasm is infectious.

A striking distinction between Picture Park and many of Grosse’s other recent installations, is the absence of paint sprayed directly onto the floor of the gallery. The experience of the work is thus far less immersive than it has the potential to be. Perhaps Picture Park’s strength is that ultimately, we are left unable to connect with it—unwilling to breach the invisible barriers of institutional convention, even as we are drawn to the colour and brilliance of the spectacle.

notes: 

1. Nancy Nenno, ‘Projections on Blank Space’, The German Quarterly, 69 (3), 1996, p.315.

2. For a discussion of early counter-culture, see Richard Terdiman, Discourse/Counter-Discourse: The theory and practice of symbolic resistance in nineteenth-century France, Cornell University Press, Ithaca (NY), 1985.