What Is Your Standpoint? What Can Be Known? Asta Gröting’s Sculpture and Video

In 2008, Asta Gröting produced a sculpture that “makes an appearance” in a bold, confusing, concise, strong, and heartbreaking manner. Space between Two People Having Sex is a molding of the space between a man and a woman. In this work, Gröting materializes a moment in time, a fleeting trace of movement, the movement of two bodies. The negative form becomes a work; the mold, which plays an important role in the history of sculpture, beyond the status of an intermediary product, the cast, to take on a place all its own. This form is fixed as a rubber object, then turned around, standing upside down, as it were. Now it is no longer pornography, but a mind game. Required here is a decidedly good spatial imagination to recognize the actual act presented in the pink volume true to nature. Since Gröting is not interested in riddles, she gives the thing a name. Exactly what it is: the space between two people having sex.
In her titles, Gröting is quite blunt. A few examples of her sculpture: Muschel (Shell, 1982), Eins (One, 1987), Mensch (Human Being, 1990), Orientierungsapparat (Orientation Device, 1992), Käfig (Cage, 1995), Ja und Nein (Yes and No, 1996), Feuerstelle (Fireplace, 2006), Acker (Field, 2007). Her films are given titles with the same directness: Schatten (Shadow, 2005), Parken (Parking, 2001) or Die Schwimmerin (The Swimmer, 1997) as well as the individual works of filmic blocks The Inner Voice, including Arbeiten (Working), Altern (Aging), You’re Good.
The semantic clarity of the titles communicates in a different way than the shape of the objects named. Many of the sculptures pretend to be easily recognizable, until upon closer inspection they rattle our certainty. Name, appearance, and meaning have to be shifted against one another by the beholder, tested out in this or that constellation. The individual experience of a solution, an “understanding,” often evokes emotions that are linked to basic activities, interests, and behaviors.

Grass, garbage, carpet beaters, bicycle stands, garages and the blackbirds still awake. In the rear, by the sheds and bicycle racks, the children. In the dark. Listen to the S-Bahn. Hearing trains. Feeling the wind in our face. Like time itself.
–Peter Kurzeck, Oktober und wer wir selbst sind, 2007

The works communicate as images that bear within them elements that are linguistic and non-linguistic, more thing-like and conceptual, intellectual and emotional reference systems.

Gröting stands in the tradition of art’s development during the twentieth century, in which everyday objects become available to art. From Duchamp’s readymades, the surrealists, Fluxus, pop art, to Beuys and appropriation art, the arc spans over the use and modification of real existing things. Gröting’s characteristic method consists in that she frees herself from the initial object—which remains identifiable as a reference—freely chooses her materials, changes sizes, turns the inside outside, and makes the invisible visible and then gives them titles as if it were all very easy.
From a fireplace—in a nomad camp, at a garden party, at a castle hotel, where and with whatever purpose—Feuerstelle (Fireplace, 2006) is preceded by a process that can be compared with the transformation of an everyday linguistic thought in literature. Let us not think here of flowery metaphors, lyrical nonsense, but on thin, elegantly etched formulations in the poetry of Rolf Dieter Brinkmann or Nicolas Born that still resonate when the book has been long closed.
Feuerstelle: Three massive logs made of Murano glass, glowing red, where they meet in the middle. The heat of fire, which is necessary for the making of glass. Proximity, coming together, human warmth.

And I don’t want to forget that it’s nicer to love you than not to love you
–Nicolas Born, “Drei Wünsche”, 1972

It could be so easy. And yet there’s nothing harder.
But this quotation—as lovely as it is in its simplicity, clarity, and truth—is perhaps too mawkish. Gröting isn’t mawkish. But thinking about feelings, that is one foundation of her world exploration.
When Asta Gröting treats the issue of sex, then she means: how is that possible, love? She is passionately interested in the interaction of people, webs of relationships. Her work is borne by empathy. When she molds the space between two people having sex—here we could take a moment to imagine the effort required for this, for she wants to pose questions like: why does love so rarely work out? And why do we forget so easily that it is easily to love than not to love?
Gröting herself says on Space between Two People Having Sex: “The work is about the space between two people that is filled with lots of things unsaid, unsayable, and hidden that is part of every relationship.”
Making the invisible visible. A constant in her overall body of work.

In the early sculpture from the 1980s, still clear is an exploration, a playing through of grammars of sculpture. Sonnenblumen (Sunflowers, 1988) combines the organic (plants) with inorganic material. Zellen (Cells, 1989) made of glass and plastic is part of a groups of works of wall based, largely geometrical works, in which form and material oriented subjects like transparency and opacity, layerings and cavities, slopes and supports are treated. The open curve of tires and round sewn conveyer belts visualize movement, transportation, cycles—Reifen (Tires, 1987), Förderband, rot (Conveyer Belt, Red, 1990) Monde (Moons,1990); these works pick up a material aesthetic that was introduced in the 1960s by artists like Joseph Beuys and Bruce Nauman, as well as Eva Hesse, Robert Morris, or Richard Serra.
Beginning in 1990, Gröting became increasingly interested in living beings and in their corporeality. She began watching autopsies, and integrated the method of dissection into the studio. For one series of sculptures, she chose models of the insides of the human body and of the bodies of various animals, revealing the organs that control bodily functions. One important work group shows the enlarged digestive tracts of man and animal: Mensch, Verdauungssystem eines Haies (Human Being, Digestive System of a Shark, both from 1990), Taube (Dove, 1997). Gröting chooses glass as her material “because glass is a material that one really can’t see, and because it is beautiful.” The digestive tract as well as other representation of inner organs (Hand, 1991) that carved out the veins of a hand using peach wood, or Orientierungsapparat (1992), the organ of balance from the inner ear, take their appeal not least from the contradiction between what most people see as the hideousness of the original material (flesh, intestines, cartilage, veins) and the beauty of the art work in its transparent-flowing presence and fragility.

The frailty of human affairs
–Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 1960

Asta Gröting pursues a question that is ambivalent: what makes you tick? Usually meant as a question about inner drive, motivations and thus goals. Gröting is interested in both: the physical and the psychological mechanisms that stand behind our lives and aspirations. Gröting’s concept of sculpture and her work creations are oriented toward the living. This means on the one hand an encounter with the body: many of her sculptures are anthropormorphic—for example Hochintelligente, superschlanke Skulptur (Highly Intelligent, Ultra Slim Sculpture, 1998), made using materials like bronze and polyester—at the same time dealing with social and psychological processes. Each work, no matter how various the materials used and media might be, a reflection at base that in the realm of philosophy can best be compared to Hannah Arendt’s exploration of the vita activa—with distinguishing among work, creation, and action in the social context. While working and creating matter, material, and things are limited and in turn exponentiate, action is the only activity that plays out directly between people. Only in free action is politics possible.

Action, in contrast to creation, is never possible in isolation: any isolation, wanted or unwanted, robs of the capacity to act.
–Hannah Arendt, Human Condition, 1960

Two works or groups can be read as Gröting’s commentary on autonomy and self-definition. The three spherical works Jein, Ja und Nein, both from 1996, and the large two-part iron constructions—Ja und Nein (1998/2008) and Roboter (Robot, 2006)—the recreation of a historical coach in miniature format that is slowly moved back and forth by a robot arm. Weakness of decision and being manipulated are here the issues with which Gröting raises doubts on the phantasm of human freedom.
As we can see, this can be done with humor—when one decides for the corresponding formal references (the spherical form as a doll or comic version of the human skull, the cute toy coach as a symbol for once great ideals of mobility, progress, conquest of new territories, and experiences). Käfig (1995) is located in the same thematic field, a floating cube with two meters on each side made of shiny pearls. The loss of freedom is concealed with beauty.
Käfig also raises question of space and volume, that is, genuinely sculptural issues. It takes up space without using the equivalent material volume. The largest part of the sculpture is air, without giving the impression of emptiness: on the contrary. The tension is paradoxically maintained by thin bars of pearls.
Gröting’s oeuvre can be described as a confident use of an enormous spectrum of sculptural possibilities. Naturally, like most sculptures, her works have to be walked around, one has to keep moving to comprehend them in all their dimension. Space in Gröting is frequently treated as a positive-negative contrast. Space between Two People Having Sex is for a series of other works rotated and spun around, turned inside out and clapped open.
The physical fact that a body displaces space is made drastically visibly in one of the most recent works, Faust (Fist, 2009), where a fist lunges through a wall.
The precarious state of bodies in space becomes almost physically palpable when confronted with Magnete (Magnets, 2009): 1200 round magnets link in a daring vertical across a span of 5.60 meters in the large exhibition hall of the Lentos Museum.
With the kinetic sculptures in addition to movement the factor time is introduced. In Acker, nachleuchtend (Field, Glowing, 2007) and Einen Funken Leidenschaft (A Spark of Passion, 2008) temporality is revealed as a slowly disappearing phosphorescence or the brief glow of an electric spark.
As the American sculptor Jon Kessler once said about his kinetic installations, “I like the idea that my objects perform for you”: the fascination of performativity.

Yes, we want to live and have to die
Oh, yes, I see
We age quickly and decay to dust
Oh, that doesn’t matter
–Asta Gröting, The Inner Voice / Death, 1999

In 1992, Asta Gröting built a ventriloquist dummy: neither clown nor furry animal, not a Caspar, not a child. Long gray hair, a sweatshirt hood, a mixture of nun and witch, fairy tale figure and a lady of ages past. A pale face with lidless, dark, circular eyes. “I had read than in the middle ages autopsies were done to find the soul, because it was thought that the soul had an organ. My use of ventriloquism transforms this search.” The human organ with which Gröting occupies herself now is the inner voice, mouthpiece of the unconscious.

A great idea: as Gröting a few years later makes the space between two people visible, in her large work space in the 1990s The Inner Voice she turns the unsaid, the silent and hidden toward the outside. The motif of her sculptural work “finding images that make hidden processes visible” finds adequate expression in her working with ventriloquists. As she put it, she gets to know the demimonde (Gröting), the shady world of variety and showmanship in which she, for example, at the annual largest world event of ventriloquism in Las Vegas, found her actors. For the actors and the dummy she created, she wrote conversations on questions of life practice, self-perception, and self-assertion, oppressively absurd scenes of a relationship. The dummy is given the role of giving voice to the uncomfortable, obstreperous, open, and embarrassing unconscious an audible voice.

What is that: man’s coming-to-himself?
–Johannes R. Becher, Auf andre Art so große Hoffnung, 1950

It is also a new beginning in media terms. With film and performance, Gröting opens up new ways of working. Finally disposing of ballast. After ten years working as a sculptor, she no longer knows what to do with all the material, all the things. In this light, film and performance open in these terms towards a less arduous practice.
Another welcome aspect is collective work. Gröting was never interested in the loneliness of the studio. Her sculptures emerge in a team of experts, craftsmen, actors, assistants. The films of Inner Voice each have a professional protagonist, whereas Gröting consciously seeks them in various countries and cultures. Her interest in life and work contexts, experiences and views of the actors influenced the texts and stagings. The performers include Germans, an Englishwoman, a Finn, a Franco-Canadian, a Norwegian, and an Italian. With Buddy Big Mountain from Los Angeles, the first internationally recognized “Native American Master Ventriloquist Puppeteer,” she made several films and live performances.
In 2003, she collaborated with an author for the first time, after having written the scripts herself for years. The British author and mastermind of the celebrated theater group Forced Entertainment, Tim Etchells, writes for Gröting and the performer Buddy Big Mountain, Wendy Morgan from London and Stevo Schüling from Münster Dead Air, that was premiered at Vienna’s Tanzquartier. Deborah Levy, another British author, wrote I Am Big. Both Dead Air as well as I Am Big are performed in numerous live performances around the world, staged by Asta Gröting.

You look bad.
I feel bad.
You look very bad.
Not as bad as you.
–Tim Etchells, The Inner Voice / Dead Air, 2003

With this expansion of media to film and performance, psychological issues and social contexts, but also humor comes to the forefront in terms of content.
Life is competition. A question of the right positioning and pushing aside our fellows. The corresponding illustrative material is shown in the short film Parken (Parking, 2001) on the everyday battle ballet of automobiles.
In the dialogues of the Inner Voice, the construction of identity and (supposed) individuality is a central issue: exploring social and psychological states to the extent that the works are also analyses of the present.
An amusing example: Arbeiter Lehrer Unternehmer (Worker, Teacher, Entrepreneur, 2000, with Bodo Albertini). Albertini personifies three representatives of different milieus and lists indicators of their belonging, borrowing from analyses of the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. From A with “A cigar now and then” to Bild Zeitung, “A good book,” to “Renting a vacation house with friends in Brittany,” “Educating oneself,” and “white wine.” The opposite of this choice of lifestyle components is fear. Fear of being judged (poorly), of not belonging, failing, being removed from the work process. Only the inner voice can allow itself to speak out the “shame” of these fears, and it cannot be stopped from doing so. The inner voice is uncontrollable, it can’t be influenced or suppressed. It is, in the Freudian sense, at the same the unconscious and the superego, a control freak and a dominator.
We laugh because we feel recognized: white wine, yes, but only this Chardonnay from this region. We speak along and act as if. And come again and again to the same questions: where is our position? What can we know?

You leave a house and have to stop, it smells so much like fall. The fallen leaves. You just still knew your dream from the night, and now it’s gone. You can feel how it disappears. A breeze, a curtain that moves . . . The door closes behind you. You leave the house. Life is strange.
–Peter Kurzeck, Oktober und wer wir selbst sind, 2007

The statements of Asta Gröting come from years of conversations and interviews I held with the artist, as well as an interview that Stephen Feeke held on the occasion of the exhibition at Henry Moore Institute in Leeds, Asta Gröting Sculpture: 1987–2008.

by Stella Rollig, 2010