Starting January 31, 2014, the Museum DKM will be showing sculptural works by Mönchengladbach-based artist Thomas Virnich (born 1957 in Eschweiler). The exhibition brings together works from three decades, including assemblage-like sculptures made of precision-fit individual parts, monumental book objects, architectural models out of papier-mâché and sculptures rooted in the playful use of found objects. Seen together, these works give an overview of the main themes, materials and techniques that characterize this distinctive artist. Works from the Museum DKM have been supplemented with loans from Galerie Reckermann, from private collections and from the collection of Thomas Virnich.
The World on a Coat Hook
By the term «world» I mean to give space to my ideas, and I have included «everything». It is only in doing so that I can remark on fundamental obsessions. «World» captures the limitedness and relativity, but also the infinite complexity of the whole. Those reflecting on Thomas Virnich’s art frequently evoke the concept of Homo ludens, the human being at play who (also by virtue of play) becomes aware of her environment and hones her ability to derive abstract knowledge from phenomena. Indeed, Virnich’s sculptural approach to the world of things – seemingly self-sufficient in forming, disassembling, enveloping, and assembling—is perplexing in its contrast between playful lightness on the one hand and the manifest appropriation of the world and penetration of what is found in it on the other. Nearly every sculpture by the artist is a miniature cosmos that can be viewed as a whole or broken down into its individual parts. World appropriation can be understood quite literally with regard to Virnich’s work: the artist has quite literally captured and reworked our planet in a great many pieces. In Die ganze Welt als Kontinent (The Whole World as a Continent, 1992), for example, the artist combined the countries of this earth into a single, flat globe that could be put together like a puzzle. In another instance, the globe, disassembled into individual parts, appears packed and ready to travel (Schulglobus im Weltallkoffer / School Globe in a space Suitcase, 1992/93); finally, we find it tiny and piled like an onion with various leather skins (Nucleus, 1992). Likewise, another piece, Globus (1980s)—the title of the exhibition at Museum DKM—is also based on a globe that was carefully sawn apart following a «cutting pattern” of country borders, coastlines, lines of longitude and latitude. Virnich then loosely stitched the resulting individual segments back together with wire and hung the loose «world fabric» limply from a coat hook on the wall. The spherical image of our planet, scientific certainty and visual platitude, symbol of infinity and perfection, is dissected in a playful, almost irreverent act. That which has for centuries been the object of scientific endeavor, which has been measured, mapped, and circumnavigated, is invalidated and satirized, as it were, with a wave of the hand.
Here we see characteristics found across Thomas Virnich’s oeuvre: His creative practice is fueled by a profound distrust of appearances as well as an insatiable, almost childlike curiosity that is not satisfied with externals and general formulas. Virnich’s sculptural praxis is «apprehension” and «comprehension» in the true sense of the word: it is only through haptic interrogation, in this case by cutting a globe up and putting it back together again, that one can see what the globe is made of and what is hidden inside it. A symbolic reading might find it shows that the surface of a sphere cannot be forced into a plane, or how poorly model-based constructs such as the geographically-segmented globe correspond to true phenomena.
Indeed, Virnich also points to a paradigm shift: If the round world was initially a purely theoretical construct and hypothesis that could not be verified with the senses, the view of the blue planet from space is now visual common knowledge. Still, the optical shift in perception also heightened awareness of the finiteness and vulnerability of our planet. As Virnich put it, the Earth appears from space like a «spaceship that must not be allowed to leak». Before Virnich began taking a visual approach to the world as a whole in the early 1990s, his artistic focus was initially on examining the space of our immediate surroundings. Initially focused on man-made objects and machines such as airplanes, cars, and ships, it eventually turned to architecture. He himself regards this retrospectively as an almost purposeful development that, starting with the individual object and moving on to the expanded environment, ultimately explores the totality of the world as a whole in sculptural form. It is probably significant that Virnich, who as a sculptor repeatedly gives shape to his ideas of space by tactile means (cutting them up, crafting them by hand) feels particularly drawn to the means by which humans overcome gravity and conquer space. Airplanes, cars, and ships are likewise emblematic of the childlike, intrinsic motivation that underlies his sculptural activity, but also his delight in interacting with the world, its realities, and possibilities through art and the wider universe.
Virnich sculpted the hull of a plane (Flieger, 1984) from sheet zinc and wire, which encloses a compact mass of crushed and pressed wood inside. There is no hint of aerodynamics. This clumsy little aircraft is no more able to take the skies than its equally clumsy counterpart (Albatros, 1983), the movable appendages of which are also composed of sheet zinc and wire and can be handily packed in the foil package provided. Like the tattered globe on the coat hook, Virnich’s airplanes suggest human dreaming and striving in their vulnerability, evoking in the viewer not so much memories of the triumphant overcoming of gravity as of Icarus’s tragic failure. Instability and fragility are constant features of Virnich’s creations and the persistent nightmare of every restorer. Also unstable are the tower constructions he has repeatedly tackled, such as Stele (1990), Schachtel-Turm (Box Tower, 1983/85), or Endliche Säule (Ending Column, 1985), which features in the exhibition. The latter title references Constantin Brâncuși’s monumental, 1937 sculptural ensemble created for Târgu Jiu in Romania, which includes the artist’s famed, nearly thirty-meters-high Endless Column, a work that inspired many sculptors of subsequent generations. The twentieth-century sculptural and architectural urge to go vertical stood above all for optimism about the future and self- confidence. Not so for Virnich, whose column leans precariously to one side, is barely balanced and possibly on the verge of collapse. Here, too, sky-rocketing striving and falling down are considered one and the same and the great sculptural gesture is questioned with a wink. At the same time, we also find an appreciative nod to the great forefather of modern sculpture.
Striking something of a contrast is Treppenpfosten (Bannister Post, 1990), which joins the group of tower constructions and also consists of additively stacked individual parts. As the title indicates, it was created from the massive, turned and white-painted post of an old wooden banister. As is so often the case with Virnich, it was a damaged, incomplete found object that (still harboring the history of its use) sparked the artistic impulse, and now occupies the lower third of the sculpture. This post was carefully hollowed out piece by piece, with each peeled-out section piled on top. The post, telescoped apart and lengthened to triple its original height, swings in gentle coils into the vertical. The mechanically produced symmetry and uniformity of the lower section is replaced at the top by soft, irregular bends reminiscent of natural growth; the smoothly sanded, painted surface at the bottom is answered by the raw wood at the top, which shows traces of having been worked. Once again, we see how the artist uses sculptural access to the material to get to the bottom of things through an interplay of destroying and creating, understanding the world haptically.
The early 1980s saw Virnich take an important step from smaller objects to large-scale sculptures. Major works from this time include the Hausblöcke (Housing Blocks) of 1984/85: four cuboids that, placed end to end, form a loosely connected row of windowless housing blocks. The outer shells were painted in various shades of gray, reminiscent of concrete. The housing blocks exemplify a sculptural principle that has become a hallmark of Virnich’s work, namely that of forming a sculptural object from many interlocking individual parts that can be also presented in various states. Assembled, the Hausblöcke appear as closed forms, albeit with fractures and seams. Spread out, individual elements form Vier Städte (Four Cities), while each solitary form can at the same time be seen as a sculptural element in its own right.
Thomas Virnich demonstrates the transition from the closed to the disassembled state and vice versa in his sculptural happenings, during which he interlocks the numerous individual parts with somnambulistic precision. Parallel to his efforts on the large-format housing blocks, Virnich also began to work on a smaller version, initially perhaps in order to experiment with the principles involved. Over time, the Vier kleine Hausblöcke (Four Small House Blocks) became an independent piece, equal in importance to the large house blocks and completed only after the latter. In their examination of architecture, the Hausblöcke touch on one of Virnich’s core themes. Architecture, the reconstruction of space, can be analogized with elementary concepts of sculpture: with the interplay of inside and outside, of envelope and enclosed void. Yet instead of an empty volume, the Hausblöcke conceal their actual richness of form within their interior. In contrast to conventional sculpture, the key idea of which lies in the surface penetrating into space, as it were, the essence and nature of the Hausblöcke cannot be discerned from the outer form of the enclosed bodies. They reveal their secret only through the artist’s demonstration.
In the case of the Hausblöcke, too, it was a found object with its own past that set the sculptural process in motion. Virnich took as his basis an old dollhouse belonging to his sister. It is hardly surprising that this playful miniature variant of architecture, which displays its interior and lacks the intact, enclosed space per se, seemed particularly appealing to him. In his characteristic way of approaching things, the artist sawed up the dollhouse with vertical cuts. Segments of space created by the division were then encased in newly formed shapes; cavities were filled in and new enclosures and additions were created until a block-like interlocking corpus had been created, each part of which contains a fragment of the dollhouse as its innermost core piece. The shapes, dimensions, and surfaces of the total of sixty-four individual parts remain «pleasingly imprecise» and irregular, formed from such poverous materials as wood, cardboard, fabric remnants, and glue. It was sculptures like these that made Thomas Virnich a national and international name. Harald Szeemann presented Hausblöcke by the then 28-year-old artist in his 1985 Kunsthaus Zürich exhibition Spuren, Skulpturen und Monumente ihrer präzisen Reise (Traces, Sculptures and Monuments of their Precise Journey), with works by Brâncuși, Louise Bourgeois, Ulrich Rückriem and Cy Twombly, among others.
Prestigious prizes and scholarships followed, including the Villa Romana Prize in 1987 and a scholarship from the Villa Massimo in Rome in 1995. The stay in Rome in particular had a lasting effect on Virnich’s work. The ancient city’s various stratifications, where different ages overlap spatially above and below ground, echo in his practice to this day. The strikingly detailed models of St. Peter’s Basilica and the Colosseum shown in the exhibition show how Virnich recreates the essence of the architectural structures while simultaneously subjecting them to his own ideas. Thus, the massive facades of St. Peter’s Basilica start to sway precariously, seemingly tilting and writhing under their centuries-old weight. The Colosseum, for its part, raises other questions: The conically downward-tapering spectator tiers were conceived as two mobile funnels that can be inserted at an angle into the outer ring of multi- story arcaded walkways. As a result, the steeply descending rows of seats, which condense concentrically towards the arena, are visible simultaneously from above and below. The fighting area itself is marked with yellow paint and thus highlighted as the actual center of the architecture. It seems tiny in comparison to the enormous, multi-layered constructions that surround it and lead up to it.
The most important architectural ensemble that Virnich repeatedly circles in his motifs is located in his hometown of Mönchengladbach. Since the 1980s, he has lived there with his family in an old school building in the Neuwerk district, which he has transformed into an artistic cosmos within which work and life intermingle. The village-like architectural environment of his dwelling is the subject of the Wandarbeit von der Schule bis zur Kirche (Wall Work from the School to the Church, 2001), of which there are several variants. In this relief-like silhouette, which has been part of the Museum DKM’s permanent exhibition since 2009, Virnich depicted the closely nestled houses of his neighborhood in sagittal section, such that the fragile outlines depict the vertical and horizontal extent of the buildings, including the sub basements and canals. The simplest materials—cardboard, wire, textile scraps, paint, and glue – lend the warped, skeletal building silhouettes, which defy any architectural regularity, a provisional, vulnerable, and at the same time morbid appearance. Here, as in many other works inspired by architecture, Virnich strives for a creative overall view of things. At a distance from optical reality, he wrests new modes of being and possibilities from appearances and makes us aware of the liberating effect of imagination on our worlds of experience: “I am trying to play with the world, with its realities and possibilities. I experience it, and I strive to make my experiences, my realities and possibilities, tangible for others. Humanity’s progress, development, and possibilities are unlimited when they serve the beauty of creation and its worthiness of protection.”
Virnich’s artistic exploration of his hometown came to a temporary climax in a 1:10 replica of his building ensemble in 1999, one in which the world appears upside down: In Fliegender Katakomben (Flying Catacombs), Virnich combines a bird’s-eye view of his home with a view of the development from below. Various experiences had by the artist, including a visit to an Antwerp prop warehouse used for science fiction films and, above all, a helicopter sightseeing flight over his place of residence, culminated in a monumental and at the same time weightless sculptural ensemble that, like most pieces by the Mönchengladbach-based artist, knows no clear final state, but can be modified and recombined again and again. Another elementary creative complex of Virnich’s is marked by the large-format artist’s books on display in the exhibition, which are created as an independent group of works in addition to his sculptures. The dimensions alone—the Riesenatlas (Giant Atlas, 1991–95) measures some 1.70 meters in height and about two meters in width when unfolded – coupled with the fact that Virnich’s artist’s books are to be regarded as autonomous, sculptural, object- like works created irrespective of literary models and inspirations, make a terminological expansion of existing terminology necessary here as well. It is characteristic of all of Virnich’s books that, even if there are certainly motivic or creative continuities, they represent a collection of individual sheets in book form. As in his visual works, he uses a wide variety of materials that are often employed in parallel sculptural works. Materials and autobiographical references indicate a close interweaving with Thomas Virnich’s life and work. In contrast to the Saurierbuch (Dinosaur Book, 1992), the Riesenatlas does not have a continuous motif that ties the sheets together; instead, it is tied together with unifying design features such as predominant circular elements as well as page perforations, which sometimes have smaller, sometimes larger openings or openings that pierce several layers and are sometimes backed with silk. In this way, the book also takes on a spatial, sculptural quality. The title and the recurring circular theme recalls globes, a frequent motif in Virnich’s oeuvre.
Maria Linsmann, who organized an exhibition of Virnich’s artist’s books at the Museum Burg Wissem in 2000, recognized the loose play with form and color, reminiscent of informal painting, as the predominant subject of the Riesenatlas. Thomas Virnich’s works, which are conceived in terms of both found objects and materials and in which the artist’s probing, shaping hands remain ever immanent, seem peculiarly anachronistic in an increasingly digitalized world. He probes the relationship between surface and volume, space and body, and in doing so pursues an original, sculptural line of inquiry. Though his work stands in a genealogy with the techniques of objet trouvé, collage, and assemblage – introduced into twentieth-century art by Cubists, Dadaists, Surrealists, and Nouveau Réalistes – Virnich’s specific way of disassembling, shaping, encasing, or assembling objects, not to mention the «joyful crudity» of his sculptures, make him a singular figure in contemporary sculptural art. Nonetheless, the fact that he himself once compared his 2001/02 artistic principle of assembling sculptures from puzzle-like individual parts to music – the sounds of which unfold in space in a manner similar to the elements of his works – proves how little his artistic approach to things can be grasped with conventional concepts of sculpture. Virnich’s audience is continually fascinated by the contradictory qualities of his sculptures. Created with simple, almost meager materials, they always have something provisional and latently inartistic about them. Yet in their outstanding craftsmanship and fragility, there is something very rare and precious about them as well.
Dr. Heike Baare
Translation: Amy Patton