Friday, 2 April 2010
by Kirsty Bell
Are nature and civilisation doomed to be antagonistic forces or can they be coaxed into benevolent cooperation? Björn Braun takes the situation into his own hands in his collages and sculptures: their transformative interventions draw up a new alignment between the two in which art making itself becomes the agent of change. Winner of this year’s blauorange Kunstpreis, a solo show of his work will open at the Kunstverein Braunschweig in December.
In 1688, a Swiss doctor, Johannes Hofer, coined the term “Schweizer Krankheit” to describe a strange malady that was afflicting Swiss foreign legionaries: an overbearing longing for the Alpine landscape of their homeland that manifest itself in various physical symptoms and resulted, in some extreme cases, in death. It was made illegal to sing or even whistle traditional mountain folk songs, punishable by death, for fear that it would be unbearable for the Alpine legionaries and would lead to mass desertion. Such an extreme relationship to the landscape, as if it were a character, like a faraway lover or overanxious mother, inflects the work of German artist Björn Braun, and “Schweizer Krankheit” was the title he gave to his 2007 exhibition in his adopted hometown of Karlsruhe. His works suggest an indeterminate longing, for simple village life and bearded rustic folk, for wooden huts and looming mountains and the assurance of a benign, protective Nature. For a time, perhaps, when nature was respected and a landscape, like a picture, could simply be admired.
Björn Braun’s collages take photographs of landscapes from picture books from the ‘50s or ‘60s, usually black and white, and reassemble their parts to suggest a new alignment of nature and civilisation. In one collage, a group of three women traditionally dressed in embroidered tunics and woollen stockings chuckle amongst themselves, oblivious to the fact that the ground beneath their feet is full of irregular shaped holes, having been snipped free of stones. The cut-out stones, meanwhile, have been piled up in the background, building a giant manmade mountain on the horizon. In another work, the branches of two neighbouring trees have been cut out and used to form the rungs of a ladder between the trees’ parallel trunks. Here the natural landscape seems literally to provide an escape route, up into the tree tops.
Although we can assume Björn Braun to be a nature lover, this is not Land Art. We never get a sense of the artist himself in nature; his relationship to it is always articulated at a distance. Like a desk-bound Richard Long, he works rather with an already mediated landscape, rearranging stones into unexpected sculptures with scissors and scalpel rather than his bare hands. And rather than the immediacy of, say, Fischli and Weiss’s landscape photographs, the images he chooses for his collages have a remote otherworldliness, like those pictures of rustic Alpine utopias on the back of Artforum advertising Bruno Bischofberger’s Zurich gallery. There is something almost theatrical about these perfect visions of nature and rural life, as if staged for the camera’s shutter. In one collage from 2009, however, showing two tall slim tower blocks surrounded by plantings of trees and a water feature, two of the trees have been ripped out of the picture, and in the foreground, a small wooden hut has been constructed from their branches, such an alien idea of habitation in this modern “landscaped” setting that it appears like a rustic folly.
Björn Braun, Untitled, 2009
courtesy: Meyer Riegger, Karlsruhe/Berlin.
Braun’s careful repicturings articulate a complex reciprocity between the forces of nature and civilisation. Like Long’s, his art has to do with an interrelation of man with his surroundings, rather than construing sharp divisions between nature and culture. But through the images he chooses, which seem locked in the past, it becomes a more cerebral longing, like a city boy’s dreams of a rural childhood, rather than a hands-on engagement with a landscape that is, after all, still out there. To paraphrase Robert Smithson, nature itself is nothing but a fiction of the 18th and 19th centuries. Braun’s images work alongside this to produce a kind of entropic reversal, where the artist has the power to restore a collection of scattered rocks into a mighty mountainside, or switch the seasons by decking the summer-time Matterhorn with a coat of white paper snow.
For Braun, then, it is not about place so much as the idea of landscape as a type of imagery and a symbolic entity that encompasses the whole heavily-laden romantic tradition as well as the idea of escape or utopia, and transformation. In a collage from 2008, the funnels and chimneys of an industrial compound have been cut away and rebuilt into a little chair, placed in the grassy foreground, presumably on which to sit and contemplate the new improved view. The cyclical transformatory action at work here similarly occurs an Untitled sculpture from the same year, in which, however, a physical transformation takes place. A wooden chair faces the wall on which a rough piece of thick brown paper is hanging. The chair is missing a leg and is splattered with paint, being borrowed from the Art Academy; the paper is also textured with little flecks of colour. This is because it is made from the chair’s missing leg: Braun cut off the chair leg, shredded it, boiled it for several weeks, and used the resulting pulp to make the piece of paper on the wall. Almost absurd in its literalness, it is a concentrated reflection on making and looking at pictures: hanging there, the piece of paper becomes a literal landscape of its own origins. The transformations that take place in Braun’s work are inspired by an almost ridiculously literal interpretation of facts, which refuses their logical reality. In his absurd über-logic, a photographed stone is assumed to have the same properties as real stone and used as such, within the picture plane. The wood that made the chair leg could, after all, just as well have been used to make paper.
Björn Braun, Untitled, 2008
courtesy: Courtesy: Meyer Riegger, Karlsruhe/Berlin.
Adalbert Stifter, a 19th century writer, a classroom staple of German literature, well known for his books, which describe the Alpine landscape in extreme and vivid detail, was described by Hannah Arendt as “the greatest landscape painter in literature”. A series of works by Braun titled after his books take this literally and reverse Stifter’s power to “transform all visible things into words” by transforming each of his books into a kind of abstract landscape painting. Taking an early edition of each book, he stewed it for hours, then spread the resulting paste onto a canvas. The colour of each work is lightly inflected by the colour of the book’s linen dust-jacket, and a smattering of words is still visible in the picture’s surface. This gives a whole new meaning to the idea of digesting literature. Content and material collapse together in Braun’s consideration of the making of art. His image-making and object-making define their own internal logic, and the resulting works say as much about the thought process of the artist, as the laborious physical process of their making.
More recent sculptures could be seen as attempts to achieve a harmonious interrelation with the natural world and attempt the same reversals that occur in his collages, now in sculptural form. An intricately woven sphere of twigs interspersed with blue plastic, or a hollow ball made of yellow and white shredded plastic and lined with red wool are perplexing objects until you realise they are the results of his collaborations with birds, zebra finches to be exact, to whom he offered various manmade materials to build their nests: plastic bands, colored wool, magnetic tape. In a truly collaborative spirit, the very decisions about form and material have been designated to the birds, which simply chose what they fancied to weave into their small spherical habitats. Meanwhile, another recent work shows the reverse in action: a pullover in distinctive argyle pattern is lined with cuckoo feathers. Just who is feathering who’s nest here?
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Björn Braun, Untitled, 2009
Courtesy: Meyer Riegger, Karlsruhe/Berlin.