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From Deconstruction to Meditation: Stations in the work of Matta Wagnest

Florian Steininger


For a good 15 years now, the transparent material of glass has taken over a central position in Matta Wagnest’s artistic agenda. Its function and meaning has evolved in the course of the years from deconstructivist and institution-critical to meditative.

In 1992, Wagnest “set-designed” the baroque ceremonial rooms of the Neue Galerie in Graz including the Spiegelsaal (Mirror Hall) and the Gelber and Roter Salon (Yellow and Red Salon). Theme of the work For Sale was the scenario acted out for its own sake. The artist blocked the Mirror Hall at entrance and exit areas with glass panes; the visitor could only “observe” the hermetically sealed-off “exhibition” from a certain distance: the interior space is the exhibition; it is relieved of its original function – a setting for receptions, banquets or a room for presentations. The artist herself declared the space to be a work of art, a baroque version of the White Cube, and invites the viewer to respond with a reflection on institutional systems and practices.

In the Roter Salon, the artist placed four pieces of seating furniture – opulently floral in decoration – and a table from the baroque collection in a position of prominence by putting a glass showcase over the functional object. The functional object, a quintessential part of the historical ensemble, is separated, well-nigh auratic, like a fetish, a costly relic or devotional object, screened off for security reasons from the visitor’s possible touch. Wagnest shifts the contexts of meaning once more. She reacts to the situation, to the circumstances at hand, and changes their reality and appearance with marginally minimalist interventions. One might see this concept of art as converging with the ready-made philosophy of Marcel Duchamp. Matta Wagnest’s medium for instilling an auratic moment into what one thinks is run-of-the-mill is the glass case. Whereas Duchamp’s ready-mades show a sculptural character, often with small alterations by means of montages and applications conceived by the artist, Wagnest’s “handcrafted” investment is marginal, well-nigh minimalist: industrially manufactured glass panes. Duchamp delegated the crucial function to the observer: “no viewer, no artwork” … Matta Wagnest will take up this idea in the works where the viewer is surrounded by the glass panes – is reflected in them, moves within it, himself or herself becoming a part of the artwork.

This artistic attitude puts Matta Wagnest in close connection with the formations of the Austrian and international art scene current at that time. After the climax of the emotional and individual outbreaks in painting – Heftige Malerei (violent painting), Transavanguardia and the Neue Wilde – conceptual and institution-critical trends dominated the art scene. Gerwald Rockenschaub and Heimo Zobernig, for instance, started out from abstract, geometrical painting, questioned the personal touch of the painter, contextualised image-space normality; indeed, they resorted to the strategies of the avant-garde trends of the late 1960s and 1970s, when the panel picture was declared defunct and art came out of a cool and resolutely intellectual corner: concept art, appropriation art … idea, concept and language instead of painting brush and canvas. In addition, there was increased activity in sculpture and in addressing the object on the basis of minimal art. Wagnest also demonstrates these minimalist qualities in her works with glass surfaces and showcases, but she denies her work of art any secularisation in terms of art as art. Instead of abstraction, she expands the context of meaning. Donald Judd’s Specific Objects, for instance, are abstract, autonomous works of art. Wagnest’s minimalist-seeming glass constructions are in contrast the mirrors, the projection surfaces of her environment, which are exposed to permanent change through time and situation. 

In 1993, Matta Wagnest presented the project Deconstruction: Blue Box in the 20er Haus of the Museum of Modern Art in Vienna. The artist defines her work as follows: “Deconstruction: Blue Box  is on the one hand to be seen as exhibition on a stage, on the other as imaginary background for image processing through media. An orange field marks the destruction within this function.” Once again, this yields a deconstruction of everyday functions and circumstances in favour of an institution-critical statement with the parameters of modern art. Instead of the resplendent baroque room, the Blue Box functions as White Cube, as serene, artificial space, utterly self-contained. This constitution is diametrically opposed to the original purpose of the Blue Box. It is so to speak the matrix for the imagined picture we see on the television screens. Wagnest leads us as it were backstage, behind the camera. The artist covers this – as she did previously with the baroque sofas – with a glass case and endows a museum-associated, sculptural status to this “means to an end”, invisible within the world of television. Wagnest paints an orange plane sized 100×100 cm on the wall of the erected stage – an abstract, monochrome image, which optically fractures the homogeneity of the spherical space.

Matta Wagnest addresses the theme of the socially hierarchic moment in the projects The View – Perspective of Art (1993) and RKW-Neues Radio Matta Wagnest I (1994) in collaboration with Lincold Tobier. Both projects use the glass surface as borderline between response and action. In The View, the spotlight is on the work of art, whereas in the radio project RKW the work of sound makers – not actually visible – predominates.

In Watched while sleeping (1994) Matta Wagnest anticipates in collaboration with Mio Shirai elements that materialise with greater desnisty in the following glass sculptures. In the Art Front Gallery in Tokyo, the artist sets up a “meditative”, internally poised sign against the hectic life of the big city. She offers a place of quiet and rest for the exhibition visitor: tatamis as sleeping quarters with soft sound. The transparent glass front of the ground floor gallery gives the living sculpture installation a correspondence with the outside space. Matta Wagnest’s art projects from that period are informed by an open work concept, which permits the various scenes – art, music, club and party – to fuse seamlessly together. In 1996 she ran the Labor in New York together with Gerwald Rockenschaub.

In 1999 the artist installed an orange glass house in the gallery room of Galerie & Edition Artelier, Graz as part of the Steirischer Herbst (Styrian Autumn Festival).
The simple structure of the house recalls an overdimensional play house for children.
A bench inside invites you to enter and linger. The light filtered through the orange glass surfaces seems to dissolve the limits of the room to yield a “spatial aura”. 

Meditative qualities increasingly define the works of Matta Wagnest, whether in the Orange Glasshouse or in Ford Crystal Blue, which was presented in 2001 in the gardens of Schloss Ambras near Innsbruck as part of the sculpture exhibition Unter freiem Himmel (Under free sky). In Ford Crystal Blue, the artist places the human body in the centre of things. The observer has the opportunity to enter the open glass cube and experience the sculpture from within. All sense of dimension is aligned towards a transparent, self-abnegating work conception. Wagnest’s sculptural concept is extended by a quasi spatial architectural dimension. Instead of looking at and around the sculpture, you are yourself surrounded by the work. On account of its reduction in form and conceptual statement, the sculpture is like a neutral shell for the person within, it functions as presentation space from outside and also as a reflection space of one’s own physical localisation within.

A complex, multi-stratified system of response emerges: the transparent glass sculpture is matrix for your own awareness of yourself and the immediate surroundings.

Mag. Florian Steininger born in 1974, studied art history at the University of Vienna. Since 2001 curator at the BA-CA Kunstforum in Vienna. Numerous essays and projects as curator on modern and contemporary painting, including Karel Appel, Roy Lichtenstein, Willem de Kooning, Markus Lüpertz.