Dorothée Bauerle-Willert
Reflections on works by Johannes Pfeiffer
According to a distinction made by Johann Gottfried Herder sculpture "is truth, whereas painting is dream: the first, pure representation, the second, magic telling a tale." So sculpture lives in real space, painting in things imagined, from which it follows that in contrast to painting sculpture, being three­dimensional, is capable of creating a unity of the object and its representation.
It is just such an interlocking of theme and material that can be found with great economy of expression in Johannes Pfeiffer's work 'Ost-West' ('East-West'), which he set up for an exhibition with the same title in Mai/June 1989 - that is before the fall of the Wall. Two fragments of a brick wall face each other, leaning over at a threatening angle; each single brick is held - just - by a nylon thread fastened to a ring set into the floor some metres away. The pieces of walling, which, in their factual presence are, so to speak, classical objects in space, cast an iridescent sheaf of rays meeting at a point on the floor; a transparent structure which, according to the position of the observer, can materialize as a white cone shape or nearly disappear on the border-line to invisibility. In this way the 'presentness' of the sculpture and its significance (which is the object itself) are joined by a third element: the dimension of time. In his essay "Laocoon or on the borders between painting and poetry" Gotthold Ephraim Lessing saw the visual arts as centred in space, whereas poetry, telling of action, manifested itself in time, but Lessing adds: "Yet all objects exist not only in space but also in time. They last: and at any moment of their 'lasting' can appear differently or in different connections. Each of these momentary appearances and connections results from a previous one and can cause another to follow and in this way the object can be, so to speak, the centre of an action in time". The tension between the spatial organisation of a work of art and the time-quality of experience, between the static calm of a piece of sculpture and the changing forms it takes on under the eyes of the observer and through the play of light and shade, between 'time stopped' and time flowing on has become one of the essential issues of 20th century sculpture. Johannes Pfeiffer takes up this challenge in his work 'Ost-West'. Beyond the level of its specific significance ­the crumbling, swaying wall between the two blocks - the work takes up the discussion of the basic tenets of contemporary sculpture. The artist is reflecting here on the dissolution of the identity of idea and material (as, for example, exists in figure sculpture) and this, as it were, in and through the theme: a wall is a wall. And yet we are instantly aware of a 'before' and 'after'. We can imagine, beyond the visible work, both the intact, solid wall as well as the crumbling of its structure. The shot of a given moment, as in a film still, is transported into the sculptural mode.
Whereas in 'Ost-West' the idea came from the outside stimulus of the exhibition theme, gathering, as it did, artists from both sides of the 'Iron Curtain', the impulse for 'Stellwände' ('Partitions') installed in the Town Gallery at Tuttlingen in 1993 came, as it were from within, from the exhibition hall itself. Partitions such as these are the standard equipment of many exhibitions - normally intended to fulfil their supporting role as discretely as possible, leaving the pictures centre stage. In Johannes Pfeiffer's hands these aids become the central characters of the piece. Once again we encounter brick walls, this time square grey concrete blocks. And once again the sections of walling are off-balance, each block held by a nylon cord maintaining it in its slanting position and securing it to the real walls of the exhibition hall. What emerges here is a precarious interplay of stability and instability - in this way the room is given structure while at the same time its functional form is dissolved. The viewer moving around in this atmosphere is constantly brought up short by the nylon cords, not always visible at first glance and is frequently forced to abrupt changes of direction. At the same time the question of the aesthetic boundaries of a work of art is posed: the closed contour, which according to Winckelmann marks the essence of all sculpture, is broken by the taut lines of nylon cord, a line structure or drawing in space on the borderline between the materially visible and disappearance into the immaterial. Both are present: the closed block form, repelling space around it and the open form enmeshing space not only by encompassing the space around the object (without which no sculpture could exist) but also by setting it up bodily, constructing it. The space-around is no longer pure space. Whereas 'Ost-West' was still a metaphorical spatial picture, here space itself is the theme and material of the 'installation'.
Picture or object according to the angle from which it is viewed, 'Bilder einer Ausstellung ('Pictures from an Exhibition') was realised in 1993 in the 'Alte Wäscherei' in Offenburg. On coming to view the site Pfeiffer found an exhibition of paintings by Georg Karl Pfahler. Pfeiffer took measurements of the size and exact positioning of the paintings on the walls, recreated the pictures in brick form and hung them in their places. (Again they are hung from nylon cords, and tipped forward slightly in the manner of some more old­fashioned galleries.) Here too the 'exhibiting' itself is exhibited. Whereas the setting up of the 'Stellwände' upset our sense of orientation in the room, here with the 'Bilder einer Ausstellung' our conventional expectation of how to look at a picture is duped. In general, with a series of paintings on view, it is not only the uniqueness of each individual picture but also the surface variations from picture to picture, even if only in the faintest modulations, that draw the onlooker's interest. By contrast Pfeiffer offers consistent repetition - as in some minimalist sculptural rows - of the same, of the piece of brick wall. Admittedly the 'picture' does consist of different elements (as it ordinarily would), but these parts produce an entity, a thing and not as in a picture an indeterminable sum of interrelations. And again the Albertine window onto the visible world, which paintings have opened to the beholder's eye ever since the Renaissance, has closed in the form of an impenetrable brick wall. The closed wall is the motif and the technique at one and the same time. Here it is less a matter of the symbolic quality of the wall - although this is also present and palpable - nor of a second reality hidden behind the world of appearances: rather this work is a sly exploration of our habits of viewing and of exhibition modalities. What we see here, under exquisite lighting, is purely an untroubled surface - and we no longer know what we are looking at: a picture or a sculpture? At the same time this tranquil row calls to mind pictures we have seen and evokes those we are yet to see.
In the installation 'Säulenhalle' ('Pillared hall'), which Johannes Pfeiffer produced for the Reinhardt Barracks in Ludwigsburg also in 1993, the bricks have disappeared. Around 1300 nylon cords pinned from floor to ceiling form 85 pillars symmetrically arranged around a central aisle and underline the architectural forms already present in the hall, itself structured by supports. And yet instead of solidifying the ordered structure of the room in thus connecting the floor with the ceiling, paradoxically the opposite is the effect. The whole room seems to move, float, vibrate. Top and bottom seem to be moving apart, to be expanding and opening out. As in a cathedral, in which the windows seem to gather the light, here too the nylon structures evoke an impression of light made material, pointing and marking our path rhythmically. As in the cathedral the pillars of light form rooms within the room, never however hardening into a static constellation but producing a vibrating space continuum in flux. The original, and somewhat dominating supports - picked out as they are in yellow and black - ­have been given a filigree chorus of shadows, mirrors, veils. A complex play of presence and absence of corporeal presence and the loss of body outlines. Like a sketch, without weight of its own, the threads enmesh the room, almost immaterial and yet present and immovable. Whereas the previous installations lived in the material contrast between the heavy, cemented walling, seemingly floating despite its solidity and the transparent nylon cords giving support - here solidity and volume dematerialize into pure sign. Instead of sculptures being independent of their context the surrounding space has become the object of the forming process. In this way Johannes Pfeiffer formulates an open-ended relationship, an interplay of artefact and space-around-it, of work of art and viewer - the two elements no longer keep their distance, the two spheres overlap, interlock, communicate.
Their immediate effect on the beholder is often disconcerting and yet Johannes Pfeiffer's environments always represent a serious enquiry into the basic questions posed by the sculpture of our time. Breaking of moulds, rejection of the closed form, exploration of the space around objects, inclusion of the viewer in the work itself: these are the basic categories of the sculptural medium in the 20th century. In Johannes Pfeiffer's work they are discussed and rediscussed. The problems of the media are not presented and examined as dry examples, his work communicates existential borderline experiences: feelings of insecurity, standing firm and slipping, linking and firm holding, being together and being apart, being far away and being close.