Beate Ermacora

Approaching dot-communities

(translated into English by Katherine Houghton)

With her installation dot-communities, specially conceived for this exhibit in Mülheim, Birgit Jensen opens a new chapter on the topic of urban landscape, which she has continually developed and evolved since the end of the 1990s.
When we think of the term city, we no longer have an image in our minds of a man-ageable city with a clearly defined center and towering, distinctive church spires. The image is also not one of the European metropolis of the 1920s, romanticized by art-ists and writers. Imbedded in our imaginations instead are those cities that have posi-tioned themselves for the most part through the media: the contemporary megacities with their jungle-like structures and their multiple centers. They not only seem to re-semble each other around the world in their organic and chaotic sprawl, but also in their shared signifiers: the skyscrapers, mobile phone masts and the omnipresent labels of global advertising. In this light the term urbanity has become increasingly conflicting, where fascination with the big city and the opportunities available only there sometimes becomes associated with the uncomfortable, or even the threaten-ing. Today’s city has radically distanced itself in every regard from the renaissance concept of ideal city planning or the utopian planning of the Modern. While Friedrich Schiller described the city as a site of rationality in his elegy Der Spaziergang (The Walk) from 1795, today’s large cities have not only become an unmanageable ter-rain, but also a habitat where human existence can hardly be conceived of at all.
Fundamental questions concerning social sensibilities, needs and possibilities as well as their communicative qualities in dense urban areas were the focus of an increas-ing number of artists in the previous decade. Birgit Jensen also takes on such ques-tions in her paintings in order to explore the structure and essence of cities. In this process she takes a distanced perspective. The emerging metropolises of the Mod-ern are often referred to in the context of Jensen’s work, those cities, which became legends or even symbols of a new lifestyle and were captured by numerous artists in film, photography and painting. While these artists tell us of their desire to experience things first hand and one is reminded of Walter Benjamin’s description of the flaneur, whose perspective is molded by the urban dynamic, who observes the circumstantial and the spontaneous and captures images of everyday life, the viewer is not a direct participant in Birgit Jensen’s works. First of all, the viewer is assigned a perspective from aloft, allowing him to be everywhere and nowhere at the same time and sec-ondly, people are not present in the paintings. Instead her works pose questions sur-rounding the perception of images alongside the experience of contemporary urban-ity.
Jensen’s urban landscapes make up an independent complex of works in her oeu-vre, incorporating different elements already developed in previous works. Birgit Jen-sen is a painter, but she views and practices the art of painting from a conceptual standpoint. Many of her visual concepts resemble analyses, in which she juxtaposes colors and definitions and experiments with tables and diagrams, pictograms and symbolic codes. She normally begins with the simplest geometric and graphic ele-ments like dots or vertical and horizontal lines and intertwines them in such a way that they form an ornamental pattern. Even the intentional sleight of hand through optical magnification is part of her artistic strategy. However abstract these works might appear, they are always anchored in the reality of different contexts, preferably those outside art, and are created through a complex process. Photos are digitalized, modified, layered together and placed on canvas by silkscreen. It is precisely the use of reproduction techniques that allows Jensen to concertedly reflect on painting and the qualities of form and color. It is not a coincidence that the raster images also re-mind us of the resolution of digital photography and computer-generated imagery. Her works fathom not only visual stimuli and effects like proximity and distance, space and surface, abstraction and concreteness, but also take on the new media as their theme and employ their visual characteristics, which enable us to read and in-terpret reality.
In her Moiré series of paintings, with their abstract patterns reminding us of Op-Art and preceding the urban landscapes, it is already apparent how Jensen handles the interaction between color spaces of different densities and variations between light and dark. She incorporates these experiences in her contemplation of the depictabil-ity of contemporary urban areas, taking particular interest in their public images and clichés. Although her works use certain cities like Los Angeles as their starting points, it is clear that her intention is not an exact architectural rendition. She is more con-cerned with capturing a feeling or an atmospheric mood as in Piet Mondrian’s New York paintings. In his later work he used an architectural metaphor, in which concrete structures of color and form layer, alongside impressions of skyscrapers, street net-works and the hectic rhythm of Manhattan. If one stands directly in front of Jensen’s large format paintings, one sees rectangles of varying sizes referencing geometric architectural forms, arranged in apparently random formations on a dark background. Only at a greater distance can the image be deciphered and the viewer made aware that the pixelled dots, rasters and clusters stand in meaningful relation to each other and enable street networks, bridges and buildings to take shape. As if projected from the painting’s surface they take on a plastic, three-dimensional form and describe the endless space of a megacity, continuing beyond the edge of the canvas, whose hori-zon only begins to be suggested in the vast distance.

In the course of her work, Birgit Jensen has moved further and further away from creating recognizable cityscapes, using multiple photos of different cities at the same time in an individual painting instead. This layering technique allows imaginary and expansive structural patterns to emerge. Particularly distinctive details are often re-peated in several paintings. Our visual memory is put to the test with mirror images and different hues, while challenging us at the same time with the issue of urban uni-formity. Although one can still associate the views of Los Angeles with a flickering sea of lights as seen from above by night, this association is no longer possible in more recent works. Pale backgrounds are covered with black, brick red or pastel structural patterns that are out of focus, blurry, even spectral, emerging out of the painting’s fundus and appearing to float. Although Jensen uses images of illuminated cities by night again here, these serve merely as simple color reverse processes. What we see in the paintings is light, reflected out of windows and from moving vehi-cles, emitted from lighted billboards and enormous digital advertising displays. It is not earthly, material substance, but instead the dynamic of light that describes the energetic potential of life in a large city. To further increase the dynamic of the cap-tured image and to do justice to the notion of vibrant cities, pulsing with energy, vis-ual details are repeated, layered and duplicated. Blurs and abrupt circular motions ensue, creating new and unusual spatial perspectives and linking individual elements in the paintings.
Recently the artist has begun to cross over into the proverbial jungle of symbols and information on offer in the city and to zoom in more closely on these details. The re-sult is a group of paintings in which typographies reminding us of flashing billboards shout out at us and demand our attention just as they would in any metropolis. Text fragments and overlapping pictograms prompt a series of new associations.
dot-communities, the object created for the Kunstmuseum Mülheim an der Ruhr, giv-ing the exhibit its name and providing the pivotal element for the design of the instal-lation, could be a highly enlarged and substantiated fragment of one of the paintings. In planning the room-filling 4.55 x 9.6 meter installation, the artist used the idea of an enormous billboard in a public space as her starting point. As a painterly detail one would probably have to look for the motif with a magnifying glass. Standing alone as an object in space, it baffles us with its physical presence. Jensen’s always challeng-ing play on dimensions, visual and spatial experiences is presented here in a com-pletely new format. dot-communities is a radical and complex work, in which Jensen uses digital printing techniques for the first time in her oeuvre. The enormous bill-board shows a surging sea of voluminous red, blue and green dots surrounding an irregularly formed white space. White flashes from those areas where the dots’ col-ors cancel each other out at their intersections. In contrast to the urban landscapes where Jensen upholds representational legibility despite the high degree of abstrac-tion, the viewer of dot-communities has to take a different approach to the work. If we take the title literally, it describes what we are actually seeing: a community of dots. The artist assumes, however, that the viewer is learned and intuitive. That the viewer will take pleasure in being led away from a quick and compelling observation of color-ful dots and through the theory of colors in order to comprehend how print and screen colors are defined and how digital image processing actually functions. Above all, the title refers to the “dotcoms“, those companies of the new economy that have influenced so many different aspects of everyday commerce and have brought about so many societal changes. Out of the abbreviation “.com“, which stands for “commercial“, Jensen derives the word “communities”, obvious in the context of her explora-tions of the city.
Birgit Jensen’s definition of the city brings together all the possible theories and discourses on the subject and myth of the city. Taking a current appraisal into account she subtly refers to and incorporates the reality of the omnipresent internet in her work and attempts to create and describe a virtual space with sensual, tactile means. Looking beyond the stimulating effects the work evokes on the canvas concerning light, it addresses the depiction of something ephemeral, something that is only pre-sent for a short time, making space for a new reality as it disappears. The urban living environment, according to Jensen’s interpretation, is something, in which subcultures and parallel societies form, pop up here and there for a brief moment, disappear and turn up somewhere else anew. Through the layering of subject matter and color the artist succeeds in depicting the realities behind the reality, sending us on a perceptual journey of discovery. Hidden behind the detailed precision of the painterly surface of the large billboard dot-communities is a statement running contrary to the advertising slogan of a real billboard. The photo which served as the basis for the work, in turn, shows a lighted billboard on the roof of a house. Its content has vapor-ized into the glowingly white surface of the artwork. In this sense the dots not only stand for graphic raster dots but also for conceptual intersections at which different levels of meaning meet.


Andreas F. Beitin:

Earthly Galaxies or: Stratigraphy of the Third and Fourth Dimension

On Birgit Jensen’s Cityscapes