Painting as a socio-aesthetic dispositif

Remarks on the observation of the unobservable 

David Komary, 2010 

In WORK IN PROGRESS Hannah Stippl turns the retaining walls of the Ernst Arnold Park into the painting surface for a dialogical artistic intervention: in the coming years she will use these walls as her artistic medium – in reaction and response to the spray paint and graffiti scene who have been using these surfaces for years. Hannah Stippl’s mural paintings downright provoke being painted over and written on by the scene’s artists. This way she turns the passage into a model work of art that is changeable and aimed at social exchange through a dialogical aesthetic process.

In her paintings Hannah Stippl usually refer to natural, botanical plant structures. In her intervention paintings she makes use of an aesthetic strategy that is typical for her work: it seems that she has always been more interested in evoking aesthetic impressions than in rendering perceptions that merely express a likeness relationship. The repetitive set of structures made up of areas of different colours and created using paint rollers are not memetic reproductions, but rather generate an equivocal impression of the natural. Her paintings challenge the observer’s gaze, his/her ability to project. Foliage and leaves are not so much detected by the observer as they are read into the structures.

Does such a manner of painting, sometimes seemingly impressionist, in the public sphere not mean aestheticisation per se? In this reading Stippl’s painting intervention is no more than an escapist projection area. In that case art would merely be an antithesis to the everyday, to the commonplace, to that which is public, and would thus be stripped of any political dimension. However, Stippl works with the reduction and dissolution of the visual to reach a state of perceptive indeterminacy. This camouflage-like encoding of their painting does not set out to occlude, conceal or disguise, rather it aims to evoke the invisible in the visible. As she does so she no longer merely refers to impressions of nature, as it might appear at first sight, but rather to covert mechanisms of aesthetic regimes, hegemonialised forms of viewing art.

In her intervention the artist does without formal cohesion, she does not construct a supposed autonomous artistic entity disconnected from the outside world, rather she creates a pictorial-interventionistdispositifin the form of an open aesthetic system. Here the artistic is closer to an activity, an aesthetic practice, which impacts on everyday public life and interacts with it. When Stippl as invited artist paints walls, while graffiti, as we all know, is illegal and punishable, over time and as the work develops the question arises as to the legitimacy of the individual aesthetic inscriptions of third parties. What is the basis on which decisions are made as to which painterly marks are to remain and which are to be removed? Is it aesthetic quality, authorship or property right? In other words: What legitimises a creative intervention? Subjective, aesthetic or political categories? The official invitation turns the forbidden, through Stippl’s pictorial dispositif, into something else, it assumes a different meaning. Stippl herself, prototypically, turns from vandal into official. At the same time, precisely to escape this typecasting and instrumentalisation, the artist leaves gaps in the picture and leave certain areas empty and unpainted. The role of these gaps is twofold: on the one hand there is the reception-aesthetic aspect, activating the viewer’s gaze; on the other hand, from a socio-aesthetic perspective, they invite potential sprayers to offer a response, as it were, to provide comments in the form of additions or contradictions. The gaps thus form a projection area for a multitude of fictive images and texts.

If one understands Hannah Stippl’s intervention as conceptual and contextually reflexive painting that has as its theme the conventions of perception and representational codes of art itself, then it is no longer about reflection on the visible, the visual, the “artistic”. Stippl does not paint in order to depict the natural or to yield impressions of nature, rather, she uses the presentation of the natural as a raw material, as a conventional and socially accepted code for the beautiful per se. Stippl thus at the same time focuses on schematisations, which ultimately are constitutive of the system of art. The beautiful is thus not a publicly negotiated category, but rather it is brought forth in and by certain dispositifs. To make these demarcations visible and observable, the artist creates an aesthetic directive for the observation of observation: of modes of reception and representational relations within art and adjoining social spheres. Modes of reception that are based in social history. The impact and the significance of the aesthetic thus does not lie in the phenomenon itself, or in the use of forms, in the aesthetic, semiotic and syntactic structure of the work. Dispositifs are those systematic intersections between discursivity and visibility that configure the gaze, lead and guide it, by assigning to the subject a specific spatial as well as political standpoint.

Hannah Stippl works along the boundaries of the dispositif of painting, making them examinable and negotiable through her intervention. These invisible boundaries organise space and coordinate courses of action. The artist thus thematises moments of social inclusion and exclusion as well as the standpoint of the observer relative to what is seen, phenomenologically on the one hand, and semantically, discursively, socio-aesthetically and politically on the other. However, boundaries always already imply their transgression: Hannah Stippl invites the observers, passers-by and sprayers to make the space their own through practices in space (Michel de Certeau), and to sign up, through trace, script or action. She thus juxtaposes the perceptions of the eye to those of the body. Because the acting body is able to oppose the visual regime, its control and regulatory function, and undermine it. This way, the urban space can be read as a space of social as well as socio-aesthetic diversity.

Marc Augé once defined places of passage, of traffic, of transit, as non-places, which cannot be integrated or turned into living spaces through social actions. The passage bounded by the walls of the Ernst Arnold Park, which is to be lent an identity and thus the status of a place through the artistic intervention, nonetheless, with Hannah Stippl, stays a transitional phenomenon between place and non-place. Through the intervention the passage lingers in a state of certain uncertainty, its semantic and aesthetic position is suspended, in a state of flux, under negotiation. However, through the possibility of a transgression of boundaries on the part of the anonymous painters the place at the same time becomes a transitory space, a heterotopia in Foucault’s sense: a place that reconciles the irreconcilable.