FELTEN & GUILLEAUME PLC, COLOGNE
my work, I examine and compare the signs used in abstract
communication systems. These come from areas such as history,
ethnology, writing system research, religion or the natural sciences
and cover a period dating from prehistoric rock drawings up to
modern-day electronically data processing. It is the graphical
qualities of these signs, which is most important for me and not the
philosophical content or scientific significance.
of the main products manufactured by the international company
"Felten & Guilleaume Energietechnik AG", based in
Cologne, include wire, high-voltage cables and communication cables.
One of the main materials for this, alongside silver, rubber and
paper, is copper. In this project, I will deal with this metal.
the middle ages, alchemists used a type of secret writing to document
their processes for making gold. Symbolic images were used in these
documents. They were meant to deter and confuse the unworthy. There
are 37 signs, whose meaning is understood today, which represent
copper. I have chosen these 37 signs for the project. They have been
prepared and transferred to a standard paper format of 11
3/4 in. They will be installed in a former production hall where
cables were manufactured in the grounds of Felten & Guilleaume.
selecting this system of signs and installing them in a
decommissioned production hall a link between the past and the
present is forged for the duration of the exhibition. The signs
representing copper will remind the viewer of how copper used to be
processed in this hall. For a brief period, they will be introduced
to a new way of using the hall. Consequently, this material can be
used for technical and for artistic production.
translated from German by Michael Tighe
- ELEMENT COPPER
1997; Kremepigments, acrylic, Cansonpaper; 36 parts, each 11 3/4 in.
THE TRAIL OF SIGNS
Johannes Senf investigates and compares abstract human sign and
communication systems in his works on paper. In this, the spectrum
extends from archaic hallmarks and family coat of arms up to modern
computer flow diagrams. Signs have existed in every culture throughout
time and their function since the very beginning has extended beyond
the conveyance of a certain signifying or information content. Based on
the fact that every sign refers to something, it is part of an
rudimentary communication structure. However, in this, knowledge of a
certain cultural code or specialised code, which as a rule is drawn
from convention, is required. Without this knowledge, the sign remains
abstract and devoid of content. A further experiential dimension
results from this trait: A sign can always also be viewed from formal
aesthetic perspectives and be judged according to its graphic qualities.
Fascinated by the abundance of Chinese characters in the Hong Kong
cityscape, Johannes Senf came up with the idea to approach the subject
artistically. Since then, he has researched sign systems of every kind
with the feel of an archaeologist exploring alphabets from foreign
cultures, signs from industry, technology, electronics, mining,
sailing, metrology etc. In this, he has excluded symbols, signals and
pictograms from the very start because they are mostly pictorial in
nature. He is interested, primarily, in language characters because
these are abstracted to a high degree and often allow themselves to be
reduced to basic geometric shapes. Old characters form a central theme
within his comprehensive series of work, like the 24 – part
Phoenician alphabet or the 22 – part tablet piece encompassing
square Hebrew characters. Further pieces show medieval hallmarks and
coats of arms, nomadic animal brand marks or also a selection of a
variety of I Ching trigrams.
Johannes Senf is not primarily interested in the specific meaning of
the signs but rather, much more in the essence of a culture of signs.
He borrows their basic structures and subjects them to an artistic
modification. In this, deviation from the original is programmatic. He
does not attempt to transfer directly in the sense of a copy, but
rather, makes efforts to objectify these language signs to the greatest
degree, thereby simultaneously achieving a further degree of
abstraction. In order to investigate and compare different sign
systems, they all must be subject to similar criteria. Due to this, he
has developed a conceptual framework borrowed from natural scientific
investigations, which he himself describes as "experimental criteria".
He lists four criteria:
1. The carrier material is always paper.
2. The basic shape is a square.
3. The thickness of the line is constant.
4. Several lines of the character touch the edge.
The artist decided on the material paper because of its close
association with written characters; it is the classic carrier of
written signs. The square as one of the three basic geometric shapes
represents stability and calm. The sign can unfold individually upon
the square. The uniformity of line thickness contributes towards
flatness and the further reduction of the shape. By having the lines
touch the borders, the entire pictorial plane is utilised. In this way,
the sign demonstrates a strong correlation to the neighbouring works
and its external contours offensively enter into the surrounding
Johannes Senf always works in series. In this, the number of individual
pieces is predetermined by the sign system upon which the works are
based. Every individual piece draws its life from the tension between
the dynamic painterly ground and the exact positioning of monochromatic
sign. The application of the paint on the surface is the result of
several different coloured glazes of acrylic paint. Because the
brushstroke movements remain discernible and the differentiated
chromatic scheme, with its various nuances and layers remains visible,
an exciting interplay between a painterly – rhythmic surface and
an exact contoured sign results. In addition to the utilisation of a
clear language of shapes, Mr. Senf also always employs a specific
language of colours, which – according to the sign system –
in terms of content involve cultural or also associative connotations.
In this way, a high degree of stylistic homogeneity is achieved which
makes apparent that the works in the series belong together.
One essential element of the works on paper is their relationship to
space. The artist uses a thick watercolour paper, which is bound to a
square carrier smaller than the format of the paper itself. This leads
to the unbound edges of the paper climatically changing with variations
in room temperature and humidity. Due to their distance from the walls,
the works lose some of their identity as objects and, upon extended
viewing, seem to float in front of the walls. They leave their
two-dimensional surfaces and begin to stride out into the room. Through
the presentation of several works in the form of a series,
differentiated form and colour relationships and correspondences
evolve. The series of work presented here – a selection of
alchemical signs for copper – has been especially developed for
the exhibition at Felten & Guilleaume PLC. The connection to the
energy industry supplier company, who manufacture high-voltage cables,
is apparent as these are made primarily of copper. The shiny, soft,
reddish and very ductile metal is second only to silver in its
electrical and heat conductivity. It belongs together with gold,
silver, iron, tin, lead and mercury to the seven classical metals and,
in alchemy, is assigned to the planet Venus. The exhibited series shows
only a part of the almost 50 alchemical signs for copper known today.
They originated during different times and in different countries
– some were also secret signs. The alchemical signs with copper
pigment are set upon a multi-layered painted surface predominated by
Prussian blue. They lift off in their metallic shininess away from the
permeable blue ground calling to mind associations of water and depth.
The works of Johannes Senf always move between abstraction and the
concrete they can just as well be read as looked at. He who possesses
the code can interpret the signs; those who have not been initiated
concentrate more on an optical perception. This gives rise to a
paradox: he who can decipher the sign simultaneously falls from the
innocence of pure viewing, because he cannot simply ignore the
dimension of the content. The sign tablets mark the tight ropewalk
between the intellectual and visual experience.
translated from German by Michael Tighe