The Grammar of the Method

A short walk through the practice of the Vienna-based artist, Nicole Prutsch

Image courtesy of Nicole Prutsch

Working with seemingly different methods of the present and past, including the ‘scientific method’ and methods of art practice, Nicole Prutsch follows their subtle commonalities that surround their otherwise disparate constitutions. She utilises the luring effects of unexpected juxtaposition, resembling the distant surrealist play with the unconscious, to create a visual genealogy of the method, the methodological and the role of the gaze in the latter.
Her interdisciplinary work, encompassing photography, graphic medium, video, installation, and objects, is often based on historical archive material used to connect and confront various references from Western knowledge and culture tradition. She opens the systematically used material to coincidence by intervening into the measured and documented object; to automatisation by making apparent the implicit arbitrary remainders of measurements and gained information; all-in-all alluding to the non-sense rooted in the sense-centred tradition, however, by the end enclosing it into a discernible spacial patchwork that makes the intricate relationship between knowledge and power tangible, if not even utilisable.
Tackling the subject of love, the diminishing character of its object that arises in the ambivalent space of perception, imagination and the speculative disparity between them, Configurations – Les Amours Imaginaires (photo series, installation, 2016) refers to the work De L’Amour (1822) by the French writer Marie-Henry Beyle alias Stendhal, who uses the concept of ‘crystallisation’ in order to approach the metamorphic character of perception. Overlying three images that capture separate movements of a common photographed subject, Prutsch brings fort a polymorph entity whose normative characteristics are blurred by the newly visible shapes and characteristics. By that, she makes visible the often inexplicable changing perceptions and affections of the subject becoming the object of love, although not merely in order to explicate its metaphoric crystal-like appearance, but to go beyond its metaphoric semblance, to touch upon its crystallisation as a positivist description – by turning to the methodological gesture of crystallisation used in microbiology to bring the constantly moving proteins to a state where they become visible. These two seemingly separate sides (the phenomenal-metaphoric and positivist-descriptive) meet in the visual translation of the overlaid images, the translation of the discrepancies between the three different overlaid forms (of the common photographed subject), into a unified geometric shape, the crystal, that serves as a graph or a table, where words, shapes, and things, despite their ambiguous character, meet in a tangible manner.

As such, Configurations – Les Amours Imaginaires shows the primary focus or gesture of the artist’s practice. It brings forth an outline of a potential visual ‘grammar’ of perception, a sort of genealogy of the perceivable in the modern age that ties in the fields of art, literature, mathematics, and science on a shared table where sense is being ‘inflected’, thus, using the methodological, such as ‘crystallisation’, to set aside visuality’s inherent semblance of neutrality or naturalness and open its implicit workings to a thorough examination.

Although by doing that, by letting go of the seemingly natural character of visuality, the project blurs the differences between analysis and critique. A process that gets a closer examination in the project Memory Composition – Irene Harand (photo series, installation, 2015), a photo series of various pairings of title fragments of the portrait of Irene Harand, the author of ‘His Struggle/ An answer to Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’ from Irene Harand’ (1935) and the moving force behind the ‘Harand movement’, a resistance movement against Nazism in the 1930s.

Here, the presented arrangement of the titles conveys the principle of a memory game, although by placing them in a miss-matched order that offers no coherent view of the whole. It places them in a different field of visuality, where fragments give autonomy to the newly discernible characteristics of the photographed subject that do not necessarily add up to who or what Irene Harand was, enacting a process of forgetting, a process that coincides with the formation of an alternative insight or knowledge – made possible by the zoomed-in perspective of fragmentation, mimicking Harand’s own confrontation with Hitler’s text, although by, in the end, bringing forth her own destiny of being forgotten.

With that, Prutsch ties in the gesture of analysis and critique found in Harand’s work, a certain methodological approach relying on the gesture of cutting and isolating, with the discontinuities of a historical consciousness, tying in the seemingly transparent certainty bearing topology of the ‘cut’ with the obscurity and oblivion that appear to be the result of some unaccounted effects of its implementation and use.

Both of these projects, ‘Les Amours Imaginaires’ and ‘Memory Composition’, while indeed not being the earliest in the artist’s practice, pinpoint specific focal points of Prutsch’s inquiries: the topology of the gaze, the specific forms of visibility as their result (as in the case of the Configurations – Les Amours Imaginaires), and the unacknowledged price of the basic methodological norms and gains of the Western tradition of knowledge (as in the Memory Composition – Irene Harand).

These focal points become irreversibly tied together in her other projects, such as:

Massnahme (installation, 2013),

an earlier work that focuses on the Romanian anthropological research project from the 1930s, carried out in the East-Swabian village Marienfeld in the Banat region of Romania, where body parts of 1081 people were measured and catalogued in order to establish a method for proving paternity. A research project that simultaneously provided a genetic-biological basis for the emergence of ‘racial issues’, but was never concluded since the gained knowledge initiated a change in paradigm. Although technologically irrelevant, the project gained relevance for Prutsch in light of a more recent research project from the Netherlands (2012), where scientists explored 5 genes that are responsible for the morphology of the face: PRDM16, PAX3, TP63, C5orf50, and COL17A1. Thus, leading Prutsch to reexamine the project, although by focusing not on the primary research subject or the gained knowledge, but rather on the used methods – using documentation and archive material that depicts the researchers at work, turning the subjects of the gaze into the very objects being observed, their research stations and gestures into specimens of a certain visuality (a specific design logic and choreography).

This turn of the gaze corresponds to the turn of the methodological apparent as much in Configurations as in Memory Composition. It addresses the tie between the topology of the gaze and the form of the gained knowledge while specifying the common ground where it is most apparent: the measuring and the measurements.

Fremdkörper/ Forgein Bodies (2014),

a work that focuses on a similar research project, this time by the Austrian anthropologist Josef Szombathy, especially on his series of ‘anthropometric photographs’ of Viennese people that contain exemplars showing Viennese women in posing positions next to the measuring instruments – exemplars, that counteract the usual visual language known from this kind of studies. Prutsch uses the photos, outlining the discrepancies in the models pose, similarly as in Configurations, translating them into quantifiable form and visualising them in a graph where deviations are presented in a different way than their primary aesthetic characteristics. Again, inverting the gaze in order to project its implicit forms and principles — making visible the aesthetics of vision, its immanent genealogy.

What becomes explicit with these projects, is a strict and coherent tying in of the carefully selected and isolated fragments found in various fields of the so called ‘Western tradition’. Starting with the geometry or the shape of the graph, as a table, where words, images, and things are ‘inflected’, outlining its use as means where the methodological relations between analysis and critique are blurred, continuing with the implicit forms or the design of the gaze in methodologies of measurement and observation, turning the prominent methodological strategies and tools inside-out, and ending with the artist’s own visual endeavour as a process of explicit carrying out of otherwise implicit forms and presuppositions. This means that as each discipline specialises on its correspondent field of inquiry, defining its specific ‘object’, Prutsch brings forth that which remains common to these various ‘specifications’, demystifying their seemingly universal grounds – the abstract foundation or grounding of thought that supposedly knows no borders, class or cultures, following only the path of truth – as something not only concrete but possibly problematic: having a common topology that visually protrudes as a common code, that the artist then utilises for tying in the used material into a newly coherent landscape of sense.

The latter becomes most apparent in her more recent exhibition project La Méthode (2017) where the implicit common ground of science and art is addressed head on as ‘the methodological’ that connects together René Descartes, a philosopher, mathematician and scientist of the early 17th century, whose paradigmatic work Discours de la méthode (1637) inspired the title of the exhibition, Viktor Lebzelter, an Austrian anthropologist from the early 20th century, CRISPR, a method of genetic manipulation that was discovered in the early 90s and developed in the recent years to the extent that it can now be used to directly manipulate specific parts of the DNA with a high level of precision, and Marcel Duchamp, the originator of the ready made and one of the most paradigmatic artists of the previous century; zooming in on a certain topology of the ‘cut’: the analytic discerning of the ‘clara et distincta percepio’ (‘clear and distinct ideas’), the discerning of facial and bodily characteristics, the cutting of the DNA, and the cracked discontinuities of the Large Glass; as the presented material is itself slashed and reconfigured in order to make explicit the commonalities of the used references, the methodological as a form of the ‘cut’ – making the artist’s own method a correspondent outcome, continuation, and effect of the methodologies used.

While Prutsch’s projects tend to reference one another, offering a certain reflective potential (discernible when approaching them in comparison), ‘La Méthode’ offers a more noticeable, direct, reflective, even self-reflective, side. The conceptual core of the artistic practice sticks to the formation of an approach, a method of the artist’s practice reliant on the topological specificities of the methodological (as discerned through the heterogeneous web of references), bringing into question not only the norms of the referred traditions, but also the principles of her own practice. From the subtle constitution of a genealogy of the perceivable, in projects like ‘Configurations – Les Amours Imaginaires’, that positions Prutsch’s practice as a form of exploration and research, the specific, almost dialectic, explication of the methodological now goes beyond this positioning, as the methodological is not merely critically explored, but also reinvented. Opening up space for practice beyond critique.

Nicole Prutsch, thus, follows a certain aesthetics of the perceivable and knowable, of their crossing, that is perhaps implicit, but never absent. Finding its place amidst conceptual tools of various disciplines, utilising them in order to bring forth the elusive creativity of power, its hereditary allure, appropriating its seemingly least crucial characteristics, however, by doing so, creating new tools to handle untapped potentials of conceptualisation and aesthetic endeavour.

Author: Domen Ograjenšek

Writer, art critic, curator, PhD candidate at the Akademie der bildenden Künste Wien

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