BIRGIT JENSEN

Andreas F. Beitin


Earthly Galaxies or: Stratigraphy of the Third and Fourth Dimension

On Birgit Jensen’s Cityscapes


(translated into English by Katherine Houghton)

Once when the neuroscientist Wolf Singer, in a state of utter exhaustion, was on a flight from Boston back to Germany and saw a lobster crawling down the aisle of the airplane, he began to have some concerns about his state of mind. The information that live lobsters can be purchased at the airport of this North American city and taken onto the plane and that this particular exemplar had apparently escaped from its travel carrier taught him that he had viewed this scene entirely correctly (1). If someone could have viewed Birgit Jensen’s cityscapes more than a hundred years ago, they probably would have been illegible. Just like the neuroscientist, that person would have perceived the image as unreal and interpreted the paintings as abstract designs. In contrast, imagination and experience allow us to recognize Birgit Jensen’s cityscapes as such today and enable them, through her postmedial handling, to become contemporary manifestations of artistic technique in the depiction of the themes of city and landscape.
In the early modern period landscape painting liberated and asserted itself as an independent genre in painting. While it was originally the goal of painters in the sub-category of urban landscape to choose the most realistic and recognizable represen-tation of a particular city, subjective representation came to play an increasing role in the century before last, through which it was attempted to reproduce the individually experienced mood, the atmosphere. At the beginning of the 20th century it was above all the artists of futurism, who, alongside the depiction of the city, were inter-ested in the visualisation of electric light through the medium of painting as a symbol of technological advancement. In the 1910s and 1920s artists used the static medium of painting to express movement and, indirectly alongside it, time as a synonym for modernity. And where can movement, speed and dynamic be better seen than in the city?
The American painter Agnes Martin once stated in regard to her minimalist landscape paintings that only one line is necessary to depict a landscape. Everything additional can be evoked through the viewer’s power of imagination. “Anything can be painted without representation.” (2) In reality, human perception is organized in such a way that only two defined, horizontally opposing surfaces of different coloration are needed on a canvas—or, according to Agnes Martin, merely a single line on a white back-ground—to enable an association with a landscape (3). How do images form in our minds, before our intellectual eye? How is it that the human mind is able to construct something that appears familiar to us out of simple, literally abstract lines or individual dots? Neuroscientists have been examining this question for a long time. It can even be said that “knowledge of the illusion has no influence on perception” (4). The brain is so conditioned by a mixture of experience and expectation that it wants to discover something rational and tangible, even in initially unfamiliar structures.
This becomes apparent with a painting like Birgit Jensen’s CCS I: a sea of bright dots spreads across a background black as night – at first a completely abstract, unsystematic pattern. Through the high placement of the horizon, and above all, through our understanding of electrified cities from night photography of metropolitan areas, and ultimately, through the experience of flight, during which urban areas by night seem like earthly galaxies to the traveller, it is possible for us to interpret the painting CCS I as a visualized rendition of a well-light urban landscape. Buildings and houses are components of a city. Yet we don’t see actual architecture here. Instead we see only painted light reflecting out of the buildings and into the night. The immaterial needs material in order to be seen, in order to make the houses imaginable to our eyes. Agglomerations, aggregations and clusters suggest broad streets and plazas in CCS I, where light concentrates and darkness disappears. This is achieved through the technique of stratification, in which identical or different views of cities are lay-ered. The fourth dimension, time, is brought into the image with both spatial and temporal delay.
Electric light and commercial advertising came very early to a mutual understanding (5). Already in the 1920s the metropolitan areas of the western world were filled with the bright lights of large companies’ billboards and display panels, initially as light bulb typographies, later as colorful neon tubes. Today entire building façades flicker with LED-animated advertising slogans and commercials, although advertising—with Times Square as a prime example—leads ad absurdum to diminishing returns, eco-nomically seen, due to its incredible overabundance, exceeding our capacity to take it in. Advertising indeed advertises a product, but more so, it advertises itself—the apparently self-referential spectacle. In some of Birgit Jensen’s urban landscapes advertisements and billboards run riot: “NOW”, “ALL YOU CAN EAT!” Herein lies a referentiality targeting existing images: the icons of advertising used in varying de-grees in 20th century visual arts as an affirmation of their respective contemporaneity. Advertising builds a sort of ligature between light—as a prerequisite for everything visual and, thereby, as a visual confirmation of our very existence—and the city as the center of consumption. “I shop therefore I am” proclaimed Barbara Kruger in a reformulation of René Descartes’ well-known dictum. Consumption is an existential condition, which is becoming increasingly relevant. The 21st century is the century of the consumer.
Birgit Jensen’s cityscapes belong, on the one hand, to the tradition of the painterly representation of urban spaces as already described, but are also an expression of the contemporary creation of art. Her paintings make a variety of references to differ-ent artistic techniques of the previous century and generate independent visual solu-tions for the representation of the landscape out of these references and connec-tions. In the previous century a radical change of course occurred in regard to artistic production and recognition. The starting point for the artist’s creation of an image was no longer primarily the visually and sensually experienceable environment in all its different facets, but increasingly the image imparted through the media. Peter Weibel observed that the painting of the Second Modernity emerges out of “a horrible dis-covery” that “the basis of the image is already an image.” (6)
Images communicated through different media also underlie Birgit Jensen’s city-scapes. They show a media-driven, or even a multimedia-driven visuality. The world (with cities as primary sources) was photographed and the images were digitalized and transformed with the computer, and finally layered both virtually and through silkscreen—the technique of mass media—before being transferred by hand to the supporting medium of the canvas. Furthermore, her paintings are contextualized because they show cities as social structures through the canonized medium of painting. The reverberation and consolidation of the various visual media both in and on Birgit Jensen’s canvases is a reinforcement of these as both a time-tested and, at the same time, future-proof site for artistic representation. This is ultimately a parallel to our current living conditions, as the 21st century human inhabits a dialectical ten-sion between comparatively archaic ways of life, barely changed over centuries, and highly artificial technology. Just as painting garnered creative energy out of the inven-tion of photography and film—which were initially considered threats to painting’s monopoly on representation—it is possible today to use this proverbial flood of im-ages, however they were generated and with all their positive and negative implica-tions in our everyday lives and in art, in painting.
Birgit Jensen’s urban landscapes are abstractions of the spatial world onto a two-dimensional surface, oscillating between street map and illusionary, would-be three-dimensional reality through their perspective. One can mentally stride through these visual worlds. The images seem like mental maps, like superimposed elevations—which they technically are—expanding nebulously before the viewer out of the memories he has collected as a reflective person. More and more people are con-tinually being drawn to metropolitan areas. Cities, as substrates, are increasingly contributing to the formation of identity and the guarantee of livelihood. “It is the scandal of human existence that one can find himself without having looked (…) and can discover, while crossing the street or while a keychain falls to the ground, that one really exists.” (7) Birgit Jensen’s paintings remind us that we exist—here and now.

1 Wolf Singer, “Das Bild in uns – Vom Bild zur Wahrnehmung“ in: Iconic Turn. Die neue Macht der Bilder, Christa Maar and Hubert Burda, eds. (Cologne: Dumont, 2004) 58.
2 Agnes Martin, Writings / Schriften, Dieter Schwarz, ed. (Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 1998) 37.
3 Birgit Jensen referred to her work Little Landscapes during a conversation with the author, which features two horizontally opposing surfaces of different colors (as shown in: Site 5 (2001) 68-71).
4 Singer (2004) 66.
5 See my essay “m&m+M=3M. Lichtkunst auf dem Weg zum ReADy-made“ in: Light Art from Artificial Light: Light as a Medium in 20th and 21st Century Art / Lichtkunst aus Kunstlicht: Licht als Medium der Kunst im 20. und 21. Jahrhunderts, Peter Weibel und Gregor Jansen, eds. (Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2006).
6 Peter Weibel, “Pittura/Immedia. Die Malerei in den 90er Jahren zwischen mediatisierter Visualität und Visualität im Kontext“ in: Pittura/Immedia. Malerei in den 90er Jahren, Peter Weibel, ed. (Klagen-furt: Ritter Verlag, 1995) 18.
7 Peter Sloterdijk, Weltfremdheit (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1993) 17-18.

 

CCS I 2005, 140 x 200 cm, acrylic/canvas (Foto: Birgit Jensen)

 

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