Birgit Schuh: Landschaftslabor. landscape lab.
Verlag für zeitgenössische Kunst und Theorie, Berlin, 2014
text: Susanne Altmann
„In addition, such a gardener also has to certainly understand the compass / in order to divide the garden artfully into proportions / drafting it / and then to set the whole form down on paper or parchment / evenly measured in respect to the number and the shape / … / so that after this disegno, he is able to give account and conclusive information at any time…”1
Wolf Helmhardt von Hohberg, a German aristocrat and estate owner, wrote the above advice in a didactic treatise in 1688. In it, he set down instructions about how to ideally manage an estate and perform all the required tasks needed to this end. The text appeared in a time when man’s intervention into the natural environment was also beginning to be dealt with on a theoretical level. However, this discourse did not only take form in agriculture, but was also exhibited in the recreational parks and ornamental gardens. Hohberg richly illustrated his remarks with drawings of garden beds, labyrinths and other design elements in order to offer universal instructions to respective gardeners. Interestingly, he employs the term disegno to describe these types of drawings. The term disegno (or ‘Dissegno’ in the original text) has been used at least since the time of Giorgio Vasari, when ideas about independent composition and the potential of design circulated through the fine arts, and disegno was considered to be ideas that have verily taken physical form. In an epoch when the art of gardening was emancipated from the periphery to an art form in itself, the early landscape designer (as the term suggests) was consciously or unconsciously required to have artistic ambitions. In this sense, human intervention into the landscape was not only started on the drawing board, but can also be seen as an aesthetic and reflective gesture.
It is exactly this connection between the active intervention in the landscape, the artistic planning and preparation and the ensuing documentation that Birgit Schuh examines in many of her works. Already in 2012 with Landscape Lab, a series of postcard-sized drawings were created that look like aerial photographs of landscapes such as a highway junction, a park and a viaduct to name just a few. The use of the bird’s eye view evinces a strong degree of abstraction. The artist expands this even further into an artistically perceived rendering, almost a full-fledged ornament in and of itself. In a photographic context, the slightly slanted position blurs the borders between a reflection of reality and the possible design – stylistically supported by the watery application of color. Birgit Schuh registers and interprets this evidence of the human propensity towards design and appropriation. This is the program of her self-proclaimed Landscape Lab. With this project, she has devoted herself to intentionally aestheticized arenas such as gardens or parks, as well as to natural environments that have been transformed in various ways due to purely utilitarian interests.
In her two works, Map PG and Map GG produced in 2012, she juxtaposes both principles of land use – attaining pleasure and utilitarian function. In this way, she opens a broad operational field in which to reflect upon nature, landscape and the diverse ways they are appropriated.
The two large drawings, each almost two and a half meters wide, start from a disegno that is more of a rational medium. Map PG is based on a historical map of the Plauen Ground (a narrow section of the Weisseritz River valley). Similarly, Map GG is also based on a Baroque map of Grosse Garten. Both sites are located in Dresden and represent distinctive symbols of the cityscape. However it is not the local distinctiveness that the artist emphasizes, but rather the archetypal qualities of these maps are more important. In any case, the Plauen Ground confronts us with a landscape which was formed within an intact natural environment and that gradually developed into what we see today. Even in the 19th century, Romantic painters such as Caspar David Friedrich and his contemporaries made pilgrimages there to paint and draw this idyllic place that was relatively near to the city. In the 18th century, the valley served as a picturesque setting for the festivals of the Baroque aristocracy, without having any severe changes made to it. Nevertheless, traces of early industrialization can be found in the works of the Romantic artists as well. The road through the verdant valley was soon widened for trade, the course of the Weißeritz River was domesticated for the mills and later flanked by new train tracks leading westwards. Also, a lot of building, quarries and more recently, a monumental highway bridge has changed the face of nature. Even so, the Plauen Ground has retained a bit of its original state. Birgit Schuh’s drawing points to this and, in a certain sense, goes beyond the changes to the landscape’s infrastructure because she concentrates on its graphic characteristics in terms of elements of composition. Light lowlands and dark highlands take on a life of their own that is beyond functional intervention. The wet ink, the wild hatchings join together to give the whole a gestural, seemingly unruly sprawling atmosphere.
As an artistic vision, Birgit Schuh takes the creative force of nature once more into her consciousness just as if the wilderness has re-conquered the terrain. We simultaneously delve into the sketch and into the anatomy of a landscape and are invited to explore it. This invitation is also symbolically reinforced by the calculated folds of the drawing that follow the folds of an ordinary hiking map. The three dimensional ridges of the folds animate the drawing of the landscape even further as the crumpled paper is reminiscent of a relief map. In Map GG, Birgit Schuh takes a very similar approach. However, here the work is not oriented on a hiking map, but on the standardized folds of architectural plans. This is not by accident – the subject of Map GG is actually a site that was created on a drawing board. Although Grosse Garten was planned at first as a park in the style of the Italian Renaissance, Johann Friedrich Karcher took over the planning in 1683. Karcher was a student of the French landscape architect Andre Le Nôtre, and accordingly changed the design to fit Baroque sensibilities and completed the project in 1722.2
His layout with the representative palace at the intersection of the main axis, the square flower beds and exact axial placement of the water basins follow the rational principles used in representational architecture at that time.
Of course, there have been modifications to the park over the centuries, nevertheless the central dramaturgy of the original design still reigns. In her drawing, Birgit Schuh also follows these formal guidelines in her technique. She stencils the well-ordered network of pathways on her map; that is before she powerfully takes her ink brush to it. In the end, she is also successful here in giving the impression of the power of nature that is almost impossible to control – that anarchistically defies the elements of design.
This reflective interpretation of nature recalls the artistic preoccupation with vegetation and landscape that is becoming more popular since the 1990’s. In her book, Fourth Nature, printed in 2000, Brigitte Franzen has attempted to extend the three categories of natural spaces delineated by the amount of human intervention present in them.3
She sees the present involvement of the arts with nature as another category – a fourth nature. The activities in the spaces of fourth nature range, “from actual gardening, sculptural work procedures to their metaphorical treatment…“4
and closely follow “the definition of the garden as a third nature, as an artificial-natural hybrid.”5
We can also comprehend Birgit Schuh’s analyses of designed landscapes as a metaphorical attempt under the auspices of a fourth nature – as carried out largely on paper, but also in her photographs or sculptures. They are just as relevant for the examination of human appropriation of nature as they are to the earth and vegetation works Franzen speaks of. Birgit Schuh’s artwork offers a profound and contemporary reaction to the traditional formulas of the order of nature: first (pristine wilderness), second (interventions by civilization) and third (gardens). She particularly shows a sensibility for the tensions in the third nature in two further works both produced in 2012 – Small Map (GG) and Large Map (GG). Here she uses a starkly abstracted plan of the Grossen Garten (again in a rather prototypical form) as the starting point for a wall sculpture. She translates the emerging network of pathways into plastic material. In contrast to the ink drawing of Map GG, the network now appears as a dark, positive form. The material she uses is wood that has been specially treated. The decision to use an organic material, (albeit by scientific standards, radically remodeled and adapted to present day technological perceptions), is in the end, an allegory for how nature and landscape change and are either actively or passively subject to the growing desires of mankind – with undoubtedly ambivalent results. In this specific case, modern research has made use of the malleable characteristics of wood; it reacts to heat and humidity.
As Birgit Schuh covered the flat wooden frame with hot ink, the material warped. This process led to a spatial distortion, to a concomitant three-dimensional drawing. With these very intentional deviations, the artist symbolically addresses the contrast between the distinct garden philosophies of the 18th and 19th centuries. Birgit Schuh asks, “Don’t such Baroque gardens contain a certain absolute arrogance that is opposed to later ideas dedicated to the principle of a free landscape?”6
She confronts this arrogance, as she already has in the drawings, Maps PG / GG with strategies of destruction and implicit disintegration stating that, “before nature, man-made accurateness must always capitulate.”7
The beauty of symmetry juxtaposed to the beauty of disintegration. This does not mean that the artist would deny her own fascination for harmonious symmetry. Rather, she puts these forms of (cultural) historical greatness to the test and thereby allegorically leaves the safety net of designed stability.
Something similar happens in the group of works entitled, Plan GG (2013) – even if at first glance Plan GG appears to be exactly the opposite of anarchy. The series is a spatial composition of drawings done in string, but it also takes on the shape of a garden layout as a sheer, inexhaustible source of inspiration.8
The delicate tensions seem to strictly adhere to the aesthetic of axial symmetry. In diverse hues and variations, the lines could have been originally taken from an early set of instructions for designing a garden – one that perhaps Hohberg or the French design genius and author, André Mollet might have written.9
. These early drawings did not only serve as a plan to practically build a recreational park, but were also an analysis of the existing land formations. Birgit Schuh, in taking the approach of an interpreting, analyzing and expanding fourth nature, freely moves within the frame defined by the format of the paper. She passionately stretches the string to form new shapes and does away with the mandate of landscape design utility. In the dense web of string, she builds in disruptions, celebrating the loss of control and irrationality. Nevertheless, when taking a
closer look, it is evident how persistently the underlying historical garden plan continues to have an effect. Like an inextinguishable archetype, it deludes our senses as we overlook the flaws built in by the artist.
On a meta-level, the string drawings can be seen as a clever commentary on the generally conflicting experiences in the planning and construction processes, and ultimately, also on the sometimes haphazard methods of the natural sciences. These references are not surprising when one considers the biography of the artist, namely her studies of mathematics. This fact harkens to the characteristic Hohberg ascribed to the ideal gardener who must have a compass in hand in order to form “evenly measured in respect to the number and the shape” proportions. With her knowledge of mathematics in tow, Birgit Schuh can expertly stage her version of disegno, which is a collision of order and disruption, and parallel to this, invoke the heuristic qualities of rules and measures. In this way, she subsequently transformed the aforementioned large ink drawings of Map PG / Map GG with grid-like folds. The even grids not only give the paper a relief-like note, they also organize the pictured landscapes into systematic and manageable sections.10
This is exactly what topographic maps and plans do, – they impose a grid upon the landscape dividing it into digestible portions and so, support its appropriation. However, in order to achieve this result, the world must be measured and this was once done in a laborious and often adventurous manner. As Birgit Schuh also systematically visited the old survey columns (used to standardize measurements of distance) that were erected by the Kingdom of Saxony and made a rubbings of their inscriptions11
, she was doing nothing other than placing herself in this process of recording the world and rediscovering the area for herself. She straddles between the real, tangible space of the landscape and the abstract, printed (or digitalized) map and by taking this step, experiences it with her own body. In her artistic space of the Landscape Lab, she can experiment with arrangement, and choose the order and method of taking evidence herself.
She has the complete freedom even to conduct a sort of a reverse test as in her work, with the succinct title, Mountain (2012). Mountain comes across as a model, the plaster painted with ink and pigments, of a fictional peak that is minutely researched in the intimacy of the Landscape Lab. The artist transferred the contour lines step by step in a purely plastic process and placed them onto a canvas medium. There, she composed the top view as a formation of irregular concentric circles, a sort of string drawing of another kind. Experimental cartography is the result of the artwork, once more because the installation is also completed by a third element; a silhouette of the mountain is projected on the wall. The shadow becomes an archetype of landscape that always conceals a last secret – no matter with what method it is measured and recorded with.
84 pages (20 x 25 cm), 38 original postage stamps, hand binding, manual typesetting, slipcase
1 st edition: 9 copies.
The Artist’s book contains 38 original postage stamps of West- and East-Germany from 1970 up until publishing in 2014 with artwork depicting landscapes.
text: Juliane Wolschina
POSTAGE STAMPS – A stamp is the proof that a fee has been paid and is an entitlement to certain expectations. A postage stamp represents the face value of the fee given to the postal service, which is printed on it. This is the official definition of a postage stamp. However, for our interests, a stamp is also covertly a voucher, a ticket to travel and a coupon for a free ride. Stamps enable congratulatory wishes, large and small requests, extraneous and important thoughts, hidden intentions, explanations and decisions, and many more of those things that are a part of our personal and private lives, to be sent. Actually, they also help drafts, lists and forms – as parts of the organization of the ordered rhythm of every day human life – on their way. We send them to a person in a faraway place; someone that we don’t have before us physically and who we cannot reach at the moment either personally or bodily. In this manner, these folded and glued together desires pass through roads, countries and borders.
The letter is free and is able to reach beyond our outer and inner fences and barriers. Yet at the same time, a letter remains a part of the structures and networks of the postal service. The cancelled postage stamp reveals these pathways and social fabric, and together with its recipient, tells the story of its journey. In this way, the deployed stamps combine and connect a divided country. Although they reflect political and cartographic divisions, they also give testimony to the deeply held virtues that are the backbone of human character. In contrast to the official stamp sorting found in the Michel catalog, the artist Birgit Schuh decided to arrange the stamps chronologically; disregarding country, cancellation marks or where they were printed. Going even further, she chose only postage stamps with landscapes depicting artwork from 1970 (the year she was born) up until the present. The thread of her own life’s path is then unconsciously and mysteriously connected with the small pathways and stories of the letters – the tales told by the cancelled stamps in the collection. Juxtaposed to these are the unmarked stamps, which stand for words and ideas that were never said, congratulations that were missed, the unfulfilled desires, as well as the forgotten tasks and the tasks that were undertaken. These stamps never arrived at the unknown addressee and are reminiscent of the letters that are never sent, that remain only as thoughts. However, an observer can be transformed into a traveler just by looking at a map…
LANDSCAPE – … to a traveler in a faraway or familiar, in a imaginary or a real landscape. The mail is sent through many lands. The matters carried by our letters travel through and are connected to a landscape by a network of pathways – free, casual roads, hills andvalleys, remote trails and pulsating streets are all connected through the deliberate destinations of a traveling letter. The theme of landscape is an important focus in the work of the artist as she has continually engaged with the ways and structures of humans and the landscape; the ways they both affect and influence each other. However, it is not only the routes that proffer an insight into this relationship, but we also take in the colors and background hues when we view a landscape. In this way, when we look at the stamps, we also see the landscape in the shadows, in the colors that move through the sky, in the reflections in bodies of water, in the shimmering and flickering of swishing skirts, in proud hats and dark trees, between the grooves of the engraving plate or in the city of stone that is molded from roof shingles and asphalt into roads and plazas. Mankind is a part of this landscape and it is here that we see our desires, hopes, fears and uses for it. The diversity in our moods, plans and their transformations is also reflected in the nuances of the landscape – in the colors and lighting. There is always a basic hue that lies under everything, that holds the inner composition of the landscape together or that takes over or blows over it. That is why the back of each stamp has something special, the bleed of color from the landscape depicted on its face.
The carpet that lies before us
Is a part of every person’s dress
We carry it in bags, books
In letters and cards
They crisscross, remind, warn or love
One look and we pause
They obligate us to wait
As a garden, the message lies ahead of us
– from every angle, another perspective –
As a picture or as a word
They lead us directly
From place to place
The Memory of Future Material.
Franka Hörnschemeyer, Olaf Holzapfel, Joep van Liefland, Michael Sailsdorfer, Birgit Schuh in context to collectibles of the Technische Universität Bergakademie Freiberg, 2015
text: Susanne Altmann
[…] Birgit Schuh is concerned with a similar tightrope walk between aesthetic attraction and scientific relevance in her long-term project, “Triangulirung” (“Triangulation”), which follows the trail of early land surveyors. In her relief, “Topografie Triangulirung” (“Topography Triangulation”) (2014), she designs a map of the triangulation stations in the former kingdom of Saxony, which offers an empirical reconstruction of the terrain. However, she alienates the factual impression of a chart, not only by accentuating the existing network with color but also by choosing a novel wooden composite, which has been treated with a watery paint to give it a wavy distortion, as a background. With the artistic adoption of drawn landscape space, she reconstructs its real transformations in an allegorical way, not least through conceptual interventions. The occupation of nature by civilization can be more clearly perceived aboveground than in the shaft – here, we must only think of Josef Koudelkas’s critical report from the Bohemian coalfields, “Black Triangle” (1990–1994).
In the end, however, what happens underground, in the dark, is nothing different; measurement of the site and acquisition of the territory is followed by its expedient, irreversible reformation. Fully an artist, Birgit Schuh discovers a fascinating process of creative shaping in the applied sciences, which call for artistic responses. Her artographically and scientifically inspired works therefore omit obvious, civilization-critical gestures and leave those interpretations to the viewer. For this reason, her simultaneously creative and investigatory procedures are more reminiscent of the inquisitive enthusiasm of Novalis, the young poet and student of mining – such as when she translates mineral forms into three-dimensional cardboard objects and then showcases them along with wooden educational models from the study of crystals. […]