I. The setting could hardly be simpler, the effect hardly more complex. Rita Rohlfing has installed a site-specific work to lead into her exhibition, “The Virtual in the Concrete”, at the Clemens Sels Museum Neuss that captivates us both with the basic simplicity of its arrangement and its overwhelming impact. As an artist for whom rooms and the experience of space are an essential part of her artistic inquiry, it was imperative for her to incorporate the entrance area of the foyer and its distinctive staircase into the exhibition. The concrete cubic blocks, which make up the stairway and dominate the impression of space on entering the building, presented the artist with a challenge of how to react to and comment on this stage-setting with a precise intervention. For Rita Rohlfing, this was all the more pressing since the massive concrete architecture is in many respects antithetical to the concept of space that is the foundation of her own work.
Harald Deilmann’s museum architecture — completed in 1975, refurbished at great cost from the end of 2013 to its reopening in mid-2015 — is marked by the clear sculptural forms of its concrete elements, a rhythmic sequence of positive and negative volumes that organize and explore the space but also intrude effectively in the entire hall. A characteristic detail of Deilmann’s architectural conception is visible in the way he has not, for instance, levelled the undersides of the staircase down to a slope, but indeed accentuated the steps also in the view from below. His way of highlighting the forms’ materiality is just as distinctive, since the traces left by the retaining boards when the concrete was poured are clearly recognizable.
In contrast to this concept of space that features sculptural accentuation, Rita Rohlfing is interested in the indeterminate, the undefined, the instability in experiencing spatiality. To her, spaces are not primarily defined by their material boundaries, but essentially by the changing factors of light and color in which they have a say. Color, reflection, transparency, layering and overlapping are keywords for her understanding of space. Her preferred materials are acrylic glass and aluminum: light, transparent, reflecting. Visibility presupposes the invisible. What is visible necessarily masks something else that thus remains obscured. Every change in the viewer’s standpoint conveys new ways of seeing and new perspectives that forces him or her to revise their preconceived notions. Such a flexible concept of space is impressively encapsulated in Rita Rohlfing’s acrylic glass objects; the “spaces” they inhabit seem to change with every step the viewer takes.
In these two contrasting concepts of space, typical generational differences are expressed. Harald Deilmann (1920—2008), by means of concrete’s clear, constructive materiality, proves himself to be a major representative of postwar modernism with its optimism based on reconstruction and progress. Rectilinearity, clarity and functionality define his architecture. Using poured concrete, Deilmann relies on a material that in the 1970s was a bona fide badge of modernity and guaranteed a rational, economical and function-oriented way of building.
Rita Rohlfing, born in 1964, is a member of a generation of artists who view the principles of modernism with as much admiration as skepticism. In a world that today is quite essentially characterized by mobility, electronic media and global networking, the brutalism of exposed concrete from the postwar decades is no longer current and even less so is “beauty”, a quality Deilmann had very decidedly declared to be the goal of his architecture. “Building for the Society of Tomorrow” is the characteristic title of a ceremonial address that this architect from Münster gave on 18 December 1985 in Dortmund. Interestingly enough, in this talk his prognosis for the time remaining up to the year 2000 was that nothing short of the “completion of modernism” would take place. In the meantime a further 15 years have passed. In these three decades, social conditions have changed in a way that 1985 could not have foreseen.
Rita Rohlfing confronts the architectural givens in the foyer of the Clemens Sels Museum Neuss with an intervention that is just as bare-boned as it is signficant. Without even in the least infringing on the material status of the staircase architecture, she drastically changes the site’s atmosphere, its construtive logic, and spatial orientation. The intervention is immaterial; it consists solely of light: the large ca. 12 x 6.50 meter projection of a photograph. Not a film, not a slide show, not movement — a single static picture that falls diagonally into the space and onto the surface of the convoluted architecture, just enough to partially revoke its weighty forms and infuse the hall with steady unrest. The projector has been visibly mounted on the wall at a height of 2.50 meter. Nothing is concealed, everything is openly manifest — and yet the staircase situation is complex and puzzling, and not only at first glance. It takes a while before you can identify the motif that is made up of small scraps of light and shadow. Rita Rohlfing counters the architecture of a real stairway with the projection of a second real stairway, one derived from another time and another cultural context. Namely, a photograph the artist took of the iron fire escape on a facade of an early 20th century building in New York’s Chelsea quarter during her 1994/1995 student year there. For the projection, she digitalzed the color photo and converted it into black-and-white. The building in Manhattan’s Chelsea was shot from an oblique, worm’s eye view angle, its iron escape ladders mounted next to and one above the other, plus the openwork platforms that together generate a bewilderingly complicated pattern of light and shadow. Projected horizontally into the room, the photo’s visual axis is tilted almost 90 degrees towards the viewer’s line of vision, which results in a feeling of space that promotes irritation and dizziness, especially since the actual architecture and the projected architectural pattern can only with great strain be distinguished one from the other.
When you move within the room and climb the first steps, the situation changes. In this slanted view, the spotlit parts of the architecture untouched by the projection appear more distinctly separate. When you ascend further, in your view through the staircase you notice for perhaps the first time the object “metallica”, which the artist mounted at the very top of the wall to the right of the stairs and that likewise continues to comment on the architectural situation. Cut from aluminum, the asymmetric, rectangular object, which demonstratively does without a right angle, points with its slope to the diagonals of the steps’ massive cutoff points out of concrete. The highly polished edges of the object correspond to the handrails of stainless steel. With its paint color, “metallica” takes up the concrete gray of the stairway, but in a warmer, slightly pink, iridescent tone.
In a very early phase of planning her exhibition, Rita Rohlfing took the decision to change the entrance hall situation at Clemens Sels Museum Neuss via a photo projection. On the other hand, she didn’t decide till much later to show additional photo works. It was a decision that came about from her intense occupation with the architecture of the foyer, whose conciseness and impact called for a corresponding artistic comment. The initial idea to hang large “spaces” of frosted acrylic glass opposite the entrance proved to be too subtle, in view of the dark ceiling with the trenchant, coffered setting of its massive concrete beams and the presence of the finely structured, medium-gray stone flooring. Just as the artist countered the staircase with a photographic shot of another staircase scenario, thus decisively changing its effect, she likewise reacted to the interior of the entrance hall with unique, interior photos whose motifs however are very hard to make out.
In the museum foyer Rita Rohlfing presents four large-scale 200 x 125 cm photographs spanned on aluminum Dibond. Via the same format and the same motifs, the four unframed works appear to be related and thus in the lobby draw attention to themselves. The usual expectations we have of photography are here thwarted and undermined. We have been trained through the day-in and day-out handling of photographs — within the most diverse private, professional, public and artistic contexts — to first of all inquire into the depicted motif. Before you pay attention to the formal or compositional properties of the photograph or even to its materiality, you look at whom or what is to be seen on it. This instinctive and rapid grasp of pictorial information with our conditioned access to photography is not Rita Rohlfing’s way with photo works. It is, even after long and intense study, difficult to say what can be seen on them at all.
Although this is color photography, which is perceptible from a few brownish or blueish details, the photos are almost completely restricted to black, white and gray values. We recognize a dark two-dimensional plane that is infused with many spots and trails that sometimes seem to take on symbolic character. On all these shots, fields that are roundish, blurred, frazzle-edged and lit-up attract our attention. Two to five of these respective fields can be seen on the photos. The four smaller 100 x 62.5 cm works, which are exhibited in a vitrine on the wall of the museum stairwell, even reveal up to eight or ten of these. Seen from some distance, one could surmise that the photos depict space probes, whereby the light spots would then be greatly magnified stars. But this astronomic interpretation runs counter to a closer view, since the traces do not match such a reading. From a middle distance, you are given the impression that the material pictured must have been photographed at an angle and from varying standpoints, whereby the different gradations of the parts range from sharp to blurred. Even if you are on the right track and you read the photos correctly as the shots of a scratched-from-use, dark flooring in which the ceiling lights are mirrored at regular intervals, a smidgen of uncertainty remains as a result of the meager information the pictures provide. In order to come to a fuller conclusion, each viewer who becomes engaged with these photographs will probably approach closer in the expectation of recognizing more details at less distance, thus getting a clearer view of the motifs. But the resulting experience is a surprising one. When from a greater distance you get closer, you do indeed always see sharper details, and the photos convey an increasingly greater amount of information. Nonetheless there is one point at which this effect suddenly turns into its opposite. As soon as you step over this threshold — about one meter away from the photographs — at your ongoing approach they become successively more blurred. From a close-up view, any reference to the figurative is completely nullified; the photographs become abstract planes that vaguely recall pixelated satellite photos.
What you don’t recognize in the photos but, if you are aware of it, enters into the interpretation: they were photographed at Art Cologne 2015. They show the part of the pavilion hall over which hundreds of artworks were transported and thousands of art lovers had walked to view the gallery stands. Rita Rohlfing chose a motif that was an indispensable and, at the same time, a thoroughly overlooked detail of the art fair: the floor. The sight of this interior detail is, however, so unusual, the reflections of the light remain so rich in associations that, even when knowing the origin, you continue to question the motif’s identity.
Rita Rohlfing is an artist who does not operate within the logic of a single art genre, but oversteps the usual genre bounds and integrates them into her art. If her works with their vital interest in paint and its effects also have strong roots in the field of color painting, they, with their emphasis on material and spatial effects, always present themselves as three-dimensional objects and as such have a relation to sculpture. In a large-scale format they even expand into veritable environments. The fact that Rohlfing’s artistic repertoire now also ranges into the field of photography is, on the one hand, at first surprising, on the other, only consistent. The themes the artist takes up can be articulated just as succintly in the medium of photography.
It remains notable that it was the architecture and the spatial impact of the Deilmann building that inspired the artist to her presention of a photo-projection and photographs. The eight photos, despite their lack of color, have an unmistable reference to painting. The light-dark, the distribution of the light values, which seemingly leave gestural traces, allow them to appear to be photographic variants of abstract paintings. At the same time, they are recognizable as well-known themes in Rohlfing’s work, i.e., reflection and blurring as in the mirrored light on the lacerated floor. In her works, she reflects the fact that we live in a present age that is enormously complex and, in its many aspects, has become incomprehensible.