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EXHIBITION PROJECT


COPPER


FELTEN & GUILLEAUME PLC, COLOGNE



In 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.

Some 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.

In 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.

By 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.

Johannes Senf                                                                                                                                                                                         Cologne 1996

                                                                                                                                                                  translated from German by Michael Tighe
ALCHEMIE ELEMENT KUPFER
ALCHEMY - ELEMENT COPPER
1997; Kremepigments, acrylic, Cansonpaper; 36 parts, each 11 3/4 in.
ON 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 physical space.

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.

Maria Tappeiner                                                                                                                                                                                       Cologne 1999

                                                                                                                                                                  translated from German by Michael Tighe
AUSTELLUNG FELTEN & GUILLEAUME AG KÖLN
AUSTELLUNG FELTEN & GUILLEAUME AG KÖLN

NACH OBEN