The Transcendent Space

Matta Wagnest’s artistic approach is based on models of perception that explore transformations of identity relationships in spatial situations through a variety of media. The utilization of a great diversity of media ranging from painting, photography, video, installation and sculpture to music continually gives the artist an opportunity to probe the boundaries of perception, which in no way should be conceived of as two-dimensional, but rather as a spatial, i.e. three-dimensional, experience involving the subject.

The use of a host of media constructions causes the gaze to penetrate through these media, while their materiality as such fades into the background or dissolves. The question raised involves the transparency of the medium at hand and its possible dissolution in space. In terms of intellectual history, Matta Wagnest here ties in with Jean-Paul Sartre’s model of transcendence, which centers on a transcendence of the ego within which the human being is no longer trapped, instead becoming omnipresent as an essential being. The space of the ego is opened and thus correlates with visual space, which is not subject to any material boundaries. Kant’s transcendental philosophy takes a similar position. Kant devotes his attention not only to the objects, but to the cognition of every object and the individual’s experience of it.

Since the mid-1990s, Matta Wagnest has been delving into the possibilities offered by the material glass, continually employing it in new constellations to shape spatial structures into which the individual can enter without encountering any spatial limitation, i.e. materiality barrier. The effect is achieved through the use of blue float glass in a natural setting, whereby a direct connection to the sky and to the surrounding area is experienced through a tinted perception. Glass Construction III (2001), for instance, consists of two glass spaces positioned next to one another by a water pool at the Swarowski Kristallwelten in the Tyrol. It represents a sort of modular system, which could be continued infinitely, lining up spaces next to each other. Users are captured in the space, and they see into the neighboring space without being able to enter it.

The model of setting up float glass panes in an outdoor setting is continued in Glass Construction IV (2005), an installation at the Österreichischer Skulpturenpark, in which the glass panes are set up in the form of a labyrinth within view of Schloss Unterpremstätten near Graz. This work thematizes the path as space and the unavoidability of arriving in its center, which users only reach when they proceed once clockwise and thereafter counterclockwise. The transparence of the space as an ephemeral structure situated in the landscape brings to mind the position of art in public  space as a fleeting element that integrates itself into the surrounding space and then, unnoticed, so to say, leaves it again: an ordering of space as an architectural component that gives meaning. The glass space becomes a projection surface and an expanded camera: as a photographic dispositive of the environment and a site-specific aesthetic intervention it demands an interaction with the localized surroundings, into which the individual integrates himself and then removes himself again.

The first work from the series of glass objects, Glass Construction I, was created in 1999 and takes the form of an orange house. This installation, conceived for the Steirischer Herbst festival, works with the dissolution potential of space, which makes it possible to enter a glass room (of the house) and also to walk around it. Thus the work succeeds in intruding into the space while simultaneously penetrating it; on account of the transparent surface it can be experienced in a similar way from both inside and outside. One side of the house is continually flooded with light, ensuring that beholders are confronted in a variety of positions with elements such as sun, warmth and energy flow, which do not delineate the subject, but rather conceive it as a structure in the surrounding space. In this model Wagnest was anticipating experiences like those which Ólafur Eliasson’s Weather Project at London’s Tate Modern (2003/04) condensed into a megalomanic large-scale installation.

Glass Construction II (2000) was also created using blue panes of glass, which are put together in the form of an outdoor glass cube. In this art project in public space, the roof of the construction again disappears in favor of a permeability of light and an opening to the geographic sky, which, however, only simulates a boundary and in its haptic quality is just as intangible as the light flooding in through the panes of glass. The colorism of the material selected melds with the psychical laws of air and light, opening the space within a transcendent, philosophically founded universe.

An approach to modular functioning similar to that of Wagnest’s glass sculptures can also be found in a project that VALIE EXPORT realized in Vienna in 2001. In her installation The Transparent Space, EXPORT created a glass pavilion under one of the archways of the elevated railway on the Vienna Gürtel, which has also been dubbed the “Women’s Bridge” in an effort to bring into contact the diverse ethnic groups populating the neighborhoods bordering on this main thoroughfare, especially their female members. EXPORT is also concerned with letting the individual dissolve into a larger unity and with making possible a transcendental experience through the transparency of glass.

Most recently, Wagnest has concentrated the individual’s encounter with such transparent surroundings into a more intimate sort of personal experience in Tunnel of Glass (2006). In a glass tube formed into a semicircle, the users of this installation can recline on the grass and through a protective glass roof experience a direct connection with the sun, the sky, and the spherical quality of an atmospheric existence. In this work Wagnest thematizes the function of the horizon as an element that advances into the immediate vicinity and again recedes into the distance through the transparent glass surface, letting the distance between the self and existence per se glide into infinity. In this respect there emerges the critical philosophical distinction between transcendental and transcendent. While in the Kantian sense transcendental addresses those conditions under which objective knowledge first becomes possible, transcendence involves the crossing of the boundaries of experience. Both are significant in Wagnest’s work: the experience of artistic materiality as well as the crossing of a materially experienceable boundary, which opens space for further thought processes.

Walter Seidl

Translation: Christopher Barber