Bethan Huws: Haus Esters Piece

Given: 1) Haus Esters, Krefeld, Rheinland, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, built 1928–30, ground floor, now an exhibition space for contemporary art, empty, spring 1993. 2) Sheet of paper folded once, handmade paper, text in English and German, distributed to all visitors.

A connection between the space and the text is suggested or assumed. A work of art is presumed somewhere between the space and the text and the process of walking around and the act of reading. At first sight the connections are little short of hermetic; but the form of the work is entirely literal: the real rooms in this house, the legible words on the piece of paper, the person registering all this. A, B and C – albeit not linked by any signs yet. Like a test bed, where the aim will only be determined during the experiment.

This work in Krefeld had been preceded by Bethan Huws’ first text work, The Lake Piece (1991), which in essence established an associative relationship between words, space and viewer/reader. Four separate texts covering twenty-four hand-written sheets were presented on the walls of the upper gallery of London’s ICA. The texts are calm, purely descriptive accounts – differently expressed – of a visit to a lake. A connection is made between the outdoors of Nature and the indoors of the urban setting. The visually unobtrusive intervention in the space changes it insofar as the visitors reading the texts imagine the outdoor setting described there, adjusting their sense of being bodily present in this gallery in the heart of the metropolis to include their imagined presence by the lake, either as an extension or pitting the two situations against each other. As in Huws’ earlier floor pieces, where the floor of a space was partially doubled to create a kind of platform, The Lake Piece also explores the reality and notion of what we call ‘place’, that admixture of space, time and self. But now for the first time it is the word, as it were ‘articulated’ by the hand-writing, that  introduces this sense of intense presence and a growing awareness of one’s own existence. Yet the text is completely free of emotions, allusions and metaphors. It is as though – operating entirely phenomenologically – it is homing in on the Dasein of things themselves, on the unavoidability and at the same time the perplexity of the matter in which we both find ourselves and are part of.[1]

Haus Esters Piece continues this process and radicalizes it, by relating it to art itself. The artist’s own experience with this work prompted her to fundamentally question what she herself was doing. Between 1993 and 1995 she produced over 1300 pages of Origin and Source, six volumes of notes and texts. These not only contain commentaries and reflection on Haus Esters Piece, they also show how the piece in the building by Mies van der Rohe marked the critical turning point for the artist’s subsequent work, where her declared aim was ‘to be entirely CONSCIOUS of what you are doing’[2] (B.H.). Almost like a second training, an act of self-reflection – albeit one that is realized within an existing body of work and as a work in its own right.

But back to Haus Esters Piece. Initially the invitation was to present an exhibition in this building. As she engaged with the task and the place, Bethan Huws increasingly felt that there was no need to introduce a work of art into this venue because there was already one there, by another artist: the architecture of Mies van der Rohe, the house itself. In the spirit of the conceptual art praxis that first emerged in the 1960s, she took this situation as the point of departure and theme of her work. And in so doing, she was also responding to a fact intrinsic to this venue that every artist who works here has to face up to. The architectural aspirations and the spatial qualities of this and the neighbouring Haus Lange, their palpable, self-evident witness to the original impetus of Modernism – and the changing interpretations that Modernism has been subjected to – are fundamental to the reality of this institution. Be it more or less, consciously or subconsciously, as a spur or a hindrance, these factors have an impact on what happens in every exhibition here.

Since the early 1960s in Haus Lange, and since the 1980s in Haus Esters, there have been exhibitions where the artists responded to the architecture as both springboard and subject matter. Of the many instances, there were some notable examples that ended up with, or tended towards, an empty space. In 1971 Christo obscured the views of the garden – that dominate the visitor’s experience of the space –by pasting paper over the glass panes of the very large windows. In addition to this, the parquet floors were also completely covered over with pale protective sheets, of the kind used by painter-decorators. By this means he in effect reduced Mies van der Rohe’s architecture almost to nothing, returning it to its raw state. At a stroke the rooms had been stripped back to their stereometry and robbed of their precision. The ensuing void was achieved, so to speak, by removing all the artistic design elements from the space. – In 1982 Michael Asher took a different approach in his installation, and at the same time complemented the concurrent work by Daniel Buren in the neighbouring house. Asher superimposed the related ground plans of Haus Lange and Haus Esters, one on top of the other, and rotated the latter by ninety degrees. Following this, he had the notional walls crossing and extending beyond Haus Lange erected as white-painted, wooden partitions. The outcome was a kind of labyrinth that was based on a paradoxical contradiction within similarity. The resulting rooms were not ‘empty’ in a material or sculptural sense (quite the opposite), only in the sense that they negated the coherence of Mies’ spatial design by literally skewing its original principles and simultaneously compromising the function of the house as an exhibition space. – In 1984 Maria Nordman chose yet another form of negation when she turned Haus Esters into a mixture of Black Box and Camera Obscura. She let down all the external rolling shutters; in just a few places judicious slits allowed a little light to penetrate the interior. This residual light projected very weak, instable images of the outside world in the interior and here and there created a sense of surfaces somehow being manipulated. Nordman’s emptying of the space all but wiped it out because it specifically removed one basic condition for its perception: the light. The focus was no longer or barely on the actual architecture, its physical or symbolic nature, but on perception itself, on the way it functions in the space under something like experimental conditions.

As far as identifying the historical point of departure (at Haus Lange and Haus Esters) for this kind of artistic response to the exhibition space goes, we would do well to look briefly at what must be the most renowned intervention, Yves Klein’s Room of Emptiness – a completely empty room. He created this in 1961 as part of his exhibition in Haus Lange, in order to give visual form – in this panorama of his various groups of works – to the notion of the void as an expression of ‘immaterial sensibility’ (Y.K.). It was an attempt to incorporate the idea of the exhibition Le vide (presented in 1958 at the Galerie Iris Clert, Paris) into the context of a retrospective. For this piece Klein used a very small side-room, not part of the original architectural design, which he painted entirely white with a rough-textured paint and equipped with a neon light. This room was to serve as a conduit between two other parts of the exhibition, devoted to paintings and sculptures respectively, in a sense as a zone of purification. Since this room was preserved after the exhibition, albeit generally kept locked shut, it was known to many artists who exhibited here, and soon took on an almost mythical significance as the secret, ‘empty’ core of the house. A few, such as Jannis Kounellis (1981) and Jean-Marc Bustamante (1990), alluded to it more or less clearly in their own work.

In the run-up to her own exhibition in Haus Esters, Bethan Huws no doubt acquired a working knowledge of most of the works mentioned here from catalogues, texts and anecdotes. Accordingly there was a kind of site-specific foil for any decision of her own to leave the exhibition space empty. But she was scarcely in need of any encouragement from other examples: in works realized while she was a student (Scraped Floor of 1987 and Royal College Piece of 1988), in various floor pieces (1988–91) ,with instructions only for the lighting in the exhibition space (Vienna 1992) , and of course in The Lake Piece (1991), she had already altered spaces in the most sparing manner and, in so doing, had already touched on the idea of a supposed void. The new, significant aspect of her reaction to the space in Krefeld was her perception of the house itself as a work of art, as a self-sufficient sculpture that could be viewed completely independently of its erstwhile function as a dwelling house or its newer one as an exhibition space. Confronted with the way that the space was occupied by itself, by its own origins and history, she found herself in a situation similar to the one she alluded to very much later in one of her text display cases: ‘WHAT’S THE POINT OF CREATING ANY MORE ARTWORKS WHEN YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND THE ONES YOU’VE GOT?’[3]

Reading the hand-out in Haus Esters, the visitor was initially confronted by a quite baffling text. In the very place where one would be hoping for enlightenment regarding the work – in the text – there were multiple omissions dominating the picture. The printed words appear alone or in small groups of two and three at various, considerable distances from each other. The material quality of the tactile paper, the exclusive use of upper case and the sequence of the words in keeping with some unknown rhythm all underline the physical nature of the work, that’s to say, the material ties of the verbal statement. At the same time there is no hint of the person, the individuality of the author, as in the hand-written texts for The Lake Piece. In the sense that poetry can be concrete, the text for Haus Esters Piece could be described as concrete: its visible and palpable form is not only the self-evident vehicle, but also part of the meaning. In the context of a visit to Haus Esters, it gives the work a physical presence that draws it closer to the physical experience of the space itself. Holding the sheet in one’s hand and allowing one’s gaze to travel to and fro between it and the architecture, reveals not least a similarity in the proportions: the ratio of the edges of the paper to each other seem to chime with the horizontally anchored yet upright dimensions of the architecture. Ideally, as visitors read the text they are constantly finding new positions within the space. Thus the visual and physical exploration of the place progresses in parallel to one’s sensual and intellectual perusal of the text. Ever since Antiquity the notion of perambulating perception and cogitation has been a topos of philosophical and poetic production. It connects the act of thinking and speaking to one’s physical being, to one’s orientation in a space, to the rhythms of life. The physical and situative conditions surrounding the reading of this text thus highlight the presence that is the focus of this work.

The linguistic components of the text consist solely of a limited number of pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions and the auxiliary verb ‘to be’. What it’s all about is never said. Something (or several things) ‘WAS’ or ‘IS’ and relates in various ways to other things. Only occasionally is there an ‘I’ or a ‘YOU’, suggesting a dialogue. In fact, as it happens the text is based on a conversation with the artist Thierry Hauch about his work. But this was reworked to remove all direct references so that it could be transposed into the situation in Haus Esters. At the same time, the general nature of the formulations makes it clear that the text is not about the specific historic, aesthetic or institutional qualities of Mies van der Rohe’s design, but much more broadly about what it is ‘to be confronted with STRUCTURE (=ARCHITECTURE)’.[4] It is about a work of art per se, and in Origin and Source this is expressed in even wider, more fundamental terms: ‘Haus Esters is the world. THE FACTUAL. a WHOLE situation.’[5] Later on Bethan Huws annotated one of the hand-outs used in Haus Esters; in upper case and encircled are the words ‘BEING HERE’.[6] It is as though she were returning to her early works, not least to Boats (since 1983), which explore her own current – and also ontological – situation. But now her own position is not defined in relation to a geo-biographical place, a landscape or some exhibition space, but in the confrontation with an Other that is recognized as a work of art and distinguished by two qualities: Haus Esters is a fact, a real, material presence, not a mental construct. And it is an entity in its own right, the sum of different qualities and, as such, not arbitrary but complete and coherent. In the real situation of a presence in Haus Esters, what is more alluded to than described in the handout, and what arises from Bethan Huws’ own later analysis of the work, is nothing less than the formulation of a fundamental challenge to herself in her own work. According to this self-imposed demand, henceforth in its conception and realization her work must take into account each and every aspect of a situation and must come to a coherent conclusion. Accordingly, since the mid-1990s her works – much more than ever before – have been based on extremely comprehensive and detailed research recorded in both written analyses and drawings, an undertaking that, at most, may only be sensed in the work that is ultimately made public.

Thus Haus Esters Piece and its consequences in Origin and Source mark the transition to a body of artistic work founded on Bethan Huws’ engagement with language(s), regardless of the form of the individual piece. And this linguistic basis of the work goes hand in hand – after Haus Esters Piece – with the refocusing of the artist’s interests, shifting away from questions of individual locus and identity and turning instead to social constructions. Remarkably, this process of growing awareness and extension of Huws’ work by means of and into language was triggered by a situation defined by an apparent void, by supposed nothingness. The extreme openness, even indeterminacy of Haus Esters Piece that Bethan Huws felt to be necessary, but also inadequate, had its roots in this almost-nothingness. Without in any sense wishing to mystify the artist’s experience with this place and this work, there is clearly a structural similarity here with classical purification scenarios, associated with deserts and isolated cells. But the emptiness in these places and in these moments is deceptive. In reality it is the precondition for the plenitude, the dynamism and the intensity of what may be achieved here. The emptiness is not the point. It is merely a moment, a no-man’s-land leading into the world – and it is activated by the word.

[1] See Emma Dexter, ‘The Lake Piece: To See Everything For The First Time’, in Bethan Huws – Selected Textual Works 1991–2003, Dieter Association, Paris, Kunsthalle Düsseldorf 2003.

[2] Bethan Huws, Origin and Source, vol. 1, p. 13.

[3] See Untitled, 2005, aluminium, glass, rubber, plastic

[4] Origin and Source (as note 2).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Origin and Source, vol. III, p. 38.

Translated from the German by Fiona Elliott

(Published in: Voids – A Retrospective, Centre Pompidou, Kunsthalle Bern, Centre Pompidou-Metz, 2009, pp. 133-139)