b1 A text in four parts, Maja Siska and Helene Renard, 2009

Material/culture/discipline/work

1. Corrugated metal.

Before living in Iceland, I spent a number of years living in Ireland. In both countries, dilapidated sheds and outhouses clad in corrugated metal populate the rural landscape, and have been a part of my surroundings for the past 12 years. I have always been attracted to and intrigued by the material. Historically, the arrival of this material signaled a significant improvement in building technology; the standard up to that point had been to use turf and grass tufts as roofing and wall material. The zinc color is reminiscent of slate or stone, and as it ages and rusts it transforms to look like dying plants in the fall; it seems so connected to the natural environment.

One day during my developing crush on corrugated metal, I thought to myself, “Why not try and paint on old corrugated metal.” I know a farmer who collects all kinds of things, and I asked him whether he had any of the corrugated metal, and he answered that, yes, he had some, but that it was very special. It was around 100 years old and had been used to clad the church in Villingaholt that his grandfather built. About 30 years earlier, the cladding of the church had been replaced with newer material, and he had salvaged the old plates "in case he had a use for them one day.” It was lying in a pile behind the hayfield, impressively overgrown, and was being kept company by old engine blocks and other junk. I then started thinking about its history and how that might find its way into my work.

 

2. Religious culture

Growing up, I went to the nearest school, a catholic school in rural southwestern Germany. Catholicism dominated the local culture. I saw a lot of hypocrisy, and witnessed many theatrical performances at church services. On the other hand, I have many vivid memories of various aspects of the churches, the rituals, and the catholic aesthetic that have made an imprint on my psyche and are latent within some of my work. When I was about 16, I began visiting churches on my own account, regardless of religious affiliation. I went into these churches to experience the atmosphere, the architecture, and to see the old artifacts.

To this day, when I go to Ulm, I make a point of visiting the big cathedral Ulmer Münster, which has tremendous atmosphere. I used to time my visits so that I would arrive at the hour when the organist practiced. To me, it completed the experience of the space. I got a strong sense of all the hundreds of years before me, and of my place in the continuum of human history. There is a phenomenal choir stall, called the Chorgestühl. On either side of the central aisle leading to the altar, there are the seats for the choir, carved out of wood and decorated in the Gothic style with all kinds of expressive and grotesque faces and figures, their tall backs towering and hovering over you.

I have recently realized how much these experiences have found their way into this particular work, all triggered by the origin and history of the found material.

 

3. Abstract Painting

When I first turned to painting, I was concerned with learning the craft, and acquiring the tools to begin working in this media. I was excited by the freedom painting offers in contrast to the field of architecture, which is typically defined by many pragmatic restrictions such as budget, building regulations, and clients’ wishes.

For some time I avoided form, trying to stay free of all restrictions, until this in itself started to become restrictive. I call what emerged “negative form,” like the bits of paper that remain after one has cut out a recognizable shape, i.e., a circle, or a triangle. The form wasn’t (and isn’t) recognizable or representative or intended to restrict the viewer’s perspective or interpretation. Painting abstract forms was not a willful decision, it simply happened.

At some point, when I stopped being concerned with the rules of oil painting or the perfecting of some ideal craftsmanship, the patterns of thinking and working that I developed as an architect could begin to inform my painting. This allowed me to further refine my own methodology within the medium of painting. It became possible once again to consider different layers of process, development and meaning. New information was added to the collage, and this became manifest in my painting.

Another interesting juxtaposition between painting and architecture for me is the architect’s creation of a set of drawings that become a recipe for a reality that only exists in his/her mind, while painting has the potential to become a recording method, to reflect a certain vision of reality. There is an additional freedom in abstraction (as opposed to figuration) and this is the freedom of the diagram. The range of associations and possible decisions or moves remains very broad until the piece takes its final form. This is characteristic of the open and flexible framework in which I allow my work to evolve. While integrity and logic are important to my creative process, I want to provide opportunities for the work and the methodology to respond to all the conditions of the project, i.e., the site, the material, my state of mind, etc. in the most appropriate and present manner.

 

4. The work at hand

My first works incorporating the salvaged 100-year-old corrugated metal plate were three altarpieces in the format of a triptych. I installed them on a white wall of an exhibition space to be “revered.” The second incarnation is a set of 8 plates mounted on crossbars in such a manner that they can be endlessly reconfigured, but where a gold paint datum line is the thread that ties all the pieces together. The third set of plates is the work for this show, which is also the last of the material!

The linear configuration of the exhibit space that became the site for this work lends itself to a layout that alludes to the original context of the material. One enters the space off axis, but quickly becomes aware of the strong directional nature of the space, and may then also recognize the positioning of the various plates as analogous to a spatial framing – like portraits of saints or choir stalls – on the route of procession towards the “altar”.

The piece, as defined by the objects, the space, and the viewer’s relationship to it, invites one to consider the texture and colors of a material that was banal in its original function, but becomes the focus of the work here. The outside skin of the Villingaholt church is now turned inwards and becomes the object of attention and reflection. Technique, color, material, and spatial choreography subtlely suggest the program of the church. The traditional hierarchies are upended, and the meaning of ritual procession has changed and is questioned. Each individual’s experience of the work can be at once very personal and universal.

Maja Siska

Helene Renard