Dimensions dissolved

On the coloured wall objects by Heiner Thiel

When describing the artistic thought of Heiner Thiel, we must bear in mind his capacity to pursue motifs or problems of form patiently over extended periods of time. His works are not products of accelerated innovation or provocative style changes, but of gradual variations and minimal shifts in perspective. The further his artistic development has advanced, the more clearly does his strategy of decelerating the processes of aesthetic development become manifest. Metal as a material has been at the centre of his work from the start. Thiel first used iron or steel – materials which present a special challenge to artists because they are hard to process and possess high internal stability, resilience and rigidity. Forming them requires determined operations, tenacity and physical force. In the artist’s early works, we find iron skull forms which recall archaic helmets as well as pointed knife- or wedge-shaped artefacts. In these sculptures, an implicit reference was detectable to the use of these materials for the purposes of attack and defence which began in the ancient cultures. Thiel’s works are otherwise nonrepresentational, and with their progressive development have moved closer to the tradition of constructivism and minimalism. This was already evidenced by the floor sculptures and reliefs from the late 1980s and early 1990s with their strict and prosaic appearance (Fig.). In these artefacts made of steel panels, as in his earlier works, the artist always also paid tribute to the physical properties of the metal. Rubbed with shellac, iron oxide and graphite, they present an inner solidity and resilience that express the material’s capacity to shield, enclose and render impregnable.

In the 1990s, a certain change occurs in the development of Thiel’s art. Iron or steel are replaced by the lighter and more pliable aluminium. It is not simply the change in material that matters here, however. The new works give different answers to the question about the role of material in the aesthetic process. Spherically curved aluminium panels presented on a wall are now created whose concave monochrome side faces towards the space of the viewer. Since the creation of these objects requires specific techniques that are not available in a classical artist studio, metal processing workshops now play a role in the artistic process. With the aid of a press, the aluminium panels which have been cut in certain ways are first given the desired form under high pressure, whereby the degrees of curvature of the concave mirror-like objects always correspond to the surface properties of a sphere. After the artist has smoothed their concave sides with sand paper, they are anodized by an electrochemical procedure, in other words: the surface of the aluminium is oxidised and made to rust in a liquid bath. The finely pored structure so created is then bathed in dye salts, before being sealed in a further process also performed in a liquid. The colour of the objects is therefore the product of a technical-industrial process, i.e. not of a traditional method of colour application by brush, spatula, spray pistol or the like.

A shift or dissolution of genre or media boundaries occurs in these objects. Although their colour is created by technical-physical procedures, the artist here moves in the direction of the monochrome picture, thereby transcending the boundaries of sculpture in the narrower sense of the term. The hermetic surfaces of the earlier reliefs are replaced by a diffuse semi-transparent colour space with entirely different properties. Although the colours always retain a metallic character due to their substrate, they appear to drive all physical consistency and stability out of its material. The concave surfaces dematerialised in this way contrast with the narrow polished lateral edges of the objects which present the silvery aluminium without any colouration. The artist plays deliberately with this difference between the diffuseness of the colour spaces and the massive presence of the object edges enclosing them. The viewer could be reminded of TV sets on whose screens virtual spaces of indeterminate depth open up. That the artist uses increasingly thick aluminium panels as time goes on further increases the contrast between the open metal and semi-transparent colour zones.

The decision to use colour as a means of surface dematerialisation forms part of a broader strategy dedicated to the deconstruction of the space of real measurable objects. This is already achieved by the creation of forms which merely feign concrete facts, as in representational painting or the practice of trompe l’oeil. Thiel pursues this strategy, but does not stop there because spatial illusion does not necessarily contradict the structures of metric space. Going beyond those practices, he turns to the immanent logic of visual perception which cannot be captured by the classical geometry of dimensions. Colour whose qualities cannot be regarded simply as dependent, subordinate attributes of real objects already stands outside such geometry. In the process of perception, however, plastic forms, too, can present characteristics that differ fundamentally from their measurable parameters. Visual perception possesses a mobility which cannot be imprisoned in the corset of Cartesian geometry.

The light and perspective of the viewer are decisive for the reception of Thiel’s art. This is already evident when regarding a quadrangular object whose concave surface additionally displays edges that are curved towards the interior (Fig.). Viewed from a certain distance, this surface presents itself as a square with straight edges. The appearance of the work’s form is therefore highly dependent on the position of the subject. The concave curvature of the object, too, can become invisible from a certain position and under corresponding illumination, so that a planar surface without any curve is now perceived. The artist’s interest in problems of perspective is also reflected in his procedure of taking photos of objects already created, for example from lateral perspectives, and then producing further objects based on these photos. In this case, the irregular contours of the object presented in perspectival compression are used as the model for cutting the aluminium panel to be pressed and coloured. The object so created presents a curved reproduction of the artefact photographed. Mounted on the wall, the object displays an illusory positioning within the space in which the perspectival view of the depicted object is reproduced. In this context, it is notable that the concave surfaces of these objects can, under certain conditions, also appear convex.

One object which changes its perceived form if the viewer shifts position, provides a complex example of these relationships (Fig.). Viewed from the side, the edge of the object facing the viewer presents itself strongly curved and the edge facing away from the viewer weakly curved. If we leave this position and move to the mirror symmetrical one, this impression is repeated: Again, the edge facing the viewer appears strongly curved and the edge facing away weakly. The surface itself thereby also presents corresponding changes in its degree of curvature. So the sides of the object viewed appear to exchange their features. Every additional comparable change in position reproduces this impression, although the viewer now knows that the change in form is conditioned by perspective. What is astonishing is that the viewer’s insight into this fact does not lead inevitably to a correction of the perceived impression. The differing curvatures of the object present themselves as attributes of the object, not as a deception caused by perspective. 

Accepting that as fact is problematic only if we believe that objective metric space is or has to be represented faithfully in the visual field of perception – an idea that is known to be wrong. Visual perception possesses its very own form of truth that applies only here. It is certainly incontestable that we perceive different degrees of curvature and that they appear to us as attributes of the object viewed. But this does not exhaust the peculiarities of the appearance as it presents itself. If we move from the first to the second position and back again, keeping our eyes on the object, it performs a slight turning motion in opposite direction to our movement. This, too, is evidently not an event in objective physical space. Nonetheless, the motion perceived assumes the character of a process taking place in the object world.

When viewing this object, we therefore do not see a thing with stable properties that outlast changing perceptions, but a fluctuating phenomenon that changes its character depending on the positions and reception processes of the subject. We are reminded of similar relationships in baroque architecture and painting. There, too, the viewer’s own movement was brought into play as a key moment in the experience of objects or spaces. Depending on position and position shift, those intérieurs present diverging structures which cannot be captured within an overarching homogenous spatial schema. Heiner Thiel opposes Cartesian space and its logic of rigid relationships in a similar way. His objects which change in the process of observation demonstrate the topological nature of the field of visual perception in which continuous as well as reversible deformations of existing relationships are possible. So the field of experience itself, including the physically active subject, assumes dynamism here. In the process that presents itself, the objects almost assume the character of phantoms that can change their structure under the gaze of the subject.  

These processes are supplemented by the colour which possesses no stable properties itself and also generates spaces of their own kind. A change in light already lets different qualities come to the fore in one and the same object. The motion of the viewer also intervenes in the colour relations: a partial shading of a colour tone caused by the curvature of the object can itself be shifted by a shift in viewer perspective. All colours possess a more or less diffuse space of indeterminate depth. It, too, changes depending on the light and the perception perspective. Under certain conditions, above all the darker colour values present energy fields of immaterial appearance which subvert every attempt at visual identification of the tactile surface boundaries. Even the smaller surfaces so coloured recall the vault of the heaven which is a recurring theme in these works. It should be noted here that the artist also expresses his interest in the sphere of cosmic space in other ways. He is an avid collector of meteorites, those extra-terrestrial lumps of material, of which he has already amassed an extensive collection. The interest documented in this pursuit finds an echo in his artistic thought. It is no coincidence that the aesthetic of the sublimeis of special importance to Thiel, an aesthetic concerned with phenomena which exceed human capabilities of perception and imagination. Using the language of Kant, we can say that his interest above all concerns the mathematically sublime, i.e. things we have to regard as per se grand.[1] One can think here of the endlessly expanding ocean or, indeed, heaven, which both deserve being called sublime.

The artist refers back to this theoretical tradition and, in doing so, is also inspired by the work of Barnett Newman who lent expression to the sublime in the field of abstract concrete art. Like the large-format canvasses of the abstract expressionist, Thiel’s aluminium panels appear as segments of a space of infinite compass extending beyond their surface boundaries. The concave colour zones thereby often possess an irritatingly unfathomable, disquieting or even threatening aspect which can, however, under certain conditions nonetheless exert a certain attraction on the perceiving subject. Not the cool, detached, distanced eye is adequate to these objects, but a gaze affected in a special way. Experience is here confronted by specific physical forces which concentrate in these objects and act back on the perceiving subject – triggering attraction or repulsion. Confronted by this relationship of forces, the self-assurance of the subject is affected. If the observer feels challenged by these disconcerting events or phenomena, he must defend or reconstruct his inner stability. Not only the spatial structures are dynamised here: Viewers themselves are transported into a destabilised position that demands certain compensating efforts.

There is also another way of reading these objects. Due to their curvature, the metal panels also recall parabolic antennae, technical devices that serve for both communication and observation purposes. In that sense, we can feel observed by Thiel‘s objects. This recalls a central idea in the picture theory. Paintings are said to have the peculiar capacity to view the viewer standing before them. According to this insight, the work is not a dead inanimate object, but asserts itself as a kind of subject that enters into a dialogic or monologic relationship with its observer.

[2] Thiel’s works render this insight aesthetically tangible and comprehensible. They occasionally present the character of monitoring devices which seem to observe their environment and the perceiving subject. We encounter structures of aesthetic effect here which also recall phenomena from the sphere of animism and magic. Some of the panels recall archaic sculptures although they bear no objective similarity with such artefacts at all. From the position of post-minimalism, the artist also enters into a dialogue with the so-called primitivismof the early 20thcentury, i.e. with the works of artists who were inspired by Oceanic or African art. When considering Thiel’s works more closely, we can therefore see that, alongside their affinity with the Baroque, these coloured aluminium panels also refer back to expressionism and associated currents of classical modernism. It has, in fact, been observed that the magical and noumenal lives on in the formally purified concrete or minimalist art of the 20thcentury. Thiel’s works touch on these relationships. His formally reduced, austere works communicate with aesthetic traditions which are hard to reconcile with the self-conception of pure concrete art. That they also recall monitor screens endows his strategy with media theory implications: the sphere of mass communication is itself permeated by structures that are similar to the logic of archaic thought.


[1]Immanuel Kant: Kritik der Urteilskraft, in: Akademie Textausgabe, vol. V, Berlin 1968, p. 248 (80).

[2]Viz.: Georges Didi-Huberman, Was wir sehen blickt uns an. Zur Metapsychologie des Bildes, Munich 1999.