Kathrin Köster’s recent works are constellations of research, painting, a specific (exhibition) space and, often, practices of performance or presentation. Within these constellations, a dynamic interplay takes place between two-dimensional visual material, spatial analysis, art-historical knowledge, modes of installation/display, actions or even demonstrations. As suggested by the Latin demonstrare (to show, point out), the elements and aspects of a given work involve space and time in particular ways. The Latin monstrare derives from monere (to admonish, remind). Admonishing and showing are both strongly present in the monstrance, a liturgical display vessel. And demonstrate in the sense of to pronounce or prove something (“quod erat demonstrandum”) implies publicness and publication.
Köster’s current version of demonstrating thus overlaps to some extent with the processes of translation involved in recent contextualizations of painting under the label of “transitive painting”(1). The Latin transire (to traverse/go across and, crucially, to change into) combines a spatial and a temporal dimension; passages and passing are involved. Over the past five years, this spatiotemporal actualization has manifested in Köster’s work in the figure of the fold, a figure in which movement and knowledge come together. The fold represents both a figure of knowledge and a practice of knowledge: an argument can unfold, one issue becoming explicit while another remains implicit. Of course, folding and unfolding, wrapping and unwrapping, enveloping and developing can also be understood as manual, material activities whose cognitive value is generated via sensory experience and the aesthetic.
Under this premise, the following remarks on Köster’s work will seek to redefine the relationship between transitive painting and motifs, gestures, forms and techniques in painting that inherently involve transformation through space and time. In this way, transitive painting will be taken out of its frame of reference in art discourse and out of the circular debates on the status of painting within institutional critique, refocussing attention on the processual quality of the prepositional (“beside”) objectness or tangibility of painting. Primarily, this involves garments and their relationship to the human body, the character of the textile, and the spatiotemporality of the fold – which also renders obsolete the traditional opposition of figurative and non-figurative painting. I am not interested in an iconographic reading of Köster’s works. Instead, the question is which painterly and conceptual means characterize a painting after its transition, after its alteration by a “transitive” setting? And I mean “after” here in both the temporal (following what went before) and the modal sense (in the spirit of, based on, channelled through) (2).
Köster’s most recent work Velum, 2018, is based on motifs from the early Renaissance Venetian painter Giovanni Bellini (circa 1437-1516) (3). In the spirit of the age, he developed a distinctive version of Christian devotional imagery and biblical scenes, but he also made portraits of clerical and secular potentates, visualizing legends and constructing allegories. In her six chosen works by Bellini, however, Köster leaves out the individuals themselves as she sets their garments free, taking their folds and volumes as her theme. In this way, she foregrounds the way textiles began to take on a “life of their own” in the Renaissance. The garments stand for themselves: they need no wearer, no body to define by enveloping and to lend them their justification. Because they are the visual result of the way the folds fall – a dynamic that swirls, ripples, bunches, billows, binds and knots.
In contrast to the works from which they are taken, her textile surfaces made of ink and paper no longer tell stories of devotion, adoration or magnification, speaking instead of movement and “making space” per se: by means of the flowing of the paint, still detectable in its dry state, into which is folded the metaphorical flowing of fabrics and garments. In shades approximating to the spectrum of the original, the colour washes organize themselves before our eyes into patterned fabrics of differing texture. The visual impression of touch is reinforced by the way the cloth seems to bulge, flutter or press forward. As well as the optical effect in the work, Köster also deploys a physical operation. Made on a 7-meter length of paper and hung in an S-shaped curve in the space, the work seems to undulate, while the shape itself has something of a simple fold. The materiality of the robes appears palpably fragile; at the same time, they shimmer like pieces of brocade, silk or velvet that time has rendered physically brittle, but without robbing them of their brilliance and radiance. Confronted with the Bellini figures in the form of their garments, as cocoons, their radical formal abstraction conveys something sublime to the viewer – something of the living sensuality and now enigmatic quality of these 500-year-old works. It is as if Köster makes her material gesticulate, to perform itself rather than representing gestures: personifications of annunciation (Gabriel, Mary), of martyrdom (St. Sebastian), or of erudition (St. Hieronymus). In this way, the artist intensifies the afterlife of pictures from classical antiquity in the Renaissance in an afterlife of Renaissance garments in a transitive painting.
In German, the term Faltenfall (fold fall) refers to a looselooking arrangement of gathered fabric, regardless of whether it is “natural” or draped. By the laws of physics, everything that falls follows gravity and is not caught until it reaches a horizontal obstacle. In Ninfa Moderna (4) Georges Didi-Huberman explores Aby Warburg’s interest in nymphs (Ninfa fiorentina), a category of figures appearing between the Renaissance and Baroque periods that were no longer vertical and static but conceived of dynamically, dramatically even, “performing” themselves. As impersonal figures, he argued, these female characters had slipped out of the vertical principle of posture and clothing. And while the female bodies themselves may not have slumped, at least their garments, veils and scarves had slipped into the horizontal, detached from the body (as “la substance imaginaire du désir”(5)) or torn to shreds (violence, rape). During this period, he continues, fabrics mutated into a metonymic residue of their wearers and, centuries later, testified to the afterlife of the ancient nymphs in the modern age in the form of anonymous rags. This provides a link to Köster’s exhibition Die Falten werden durch Löcher ersetzt, (Holes Replace Folds) at Kunstverein Bochum in 2016. In a work combining performance and installation, the artist laid two lengths of watercolour paper rolled up from both ends on the floor, like lengths of fabric divided into two bales (or, in architectural terms, like inverted volutes), the loosely interconnected motifs in inks and washes wrapped up inside them. This textile appearance was only revealed, however, when performers unrolled and partly rerolled the two 2 x 10 metre lengths of paper and manoeuvred them between the horizontal and the vertical. Finally, they were stood upright as shrouds of colour, re-establishing the link to the body. In imaginary terms, they now contained the bodies of the actors and the audience.
I would now like to further explore the fold as an operative principle that functions on a material basis and takes place in all three dimensions (6). More explicitly than in the case of Velum, the fold shapes the installation ex plica in sepia mania, made four years earlier in 2014. Here, the fold “makes” the picture, appearing multiplied (originally from the Latin, multiplex, having many folds) in a monumental format of 9 x 12 metres. The surface of the fabric is almost entirely covered, and even if the folds are more sharply constructed on the front than on the reverse, the painting passes through the fabric – just as a fold can never affect just one side, always involving the whole as a material operation.7 Only a horizontal strip along the bottom edge remains unpainted, like a hem, visually linking the garment hanging from the high ceiling in a free curve with the wall, “lifting” the folds and making them float and intensify. It may seem odd to speak of a garment rather than a curtain or drapery, but it refers to the way the non-figurative work relates to the architecture (8). Realized by manual folding and dying using a giornata-like approach (9), the picture shows folds. They appear as the trompe l’oeil of a visual form not simulated by painterly means but processed by hand “as itself.” More specifically, a surface is first transformed by folding into a three-dimensional structure, the sepia ink then soaks through the fabric to varying degrees, darker towards the outside, getting lighter deeper into the folds, with the pleats clearly visible. When the fabric is later unfolded, we see the illusionistic crumpling effect that causes a fold on the surface of the cloth to appear infinitely duplicated. This mode of production is based on the fold, with folding understood as a process that is extensive and intensive in equal measure, a process that never rests but always leads on to further un/folding. And how big would the cloth be if all the virtual folds were smoothed out?
Such thinking aims not for solutions, revolving instead around movement and ongoing unfolding – in Köster’s practice, the unfolding goes so far that her show Die Falten werden durch Löcher ersetzt (Holes Replace Folds, 2016), was conceived of as the “unfolding of an exhibition”. A further comment on this work (which is also unfolding in this text, showing new inherent qualities from fold to fold) concerns its title. As Köster has mentioned, it derives from a wrongly written down quotation from Deleuze, who in his book on the Baroque wrote: “Folds replace holes. The dyad of the city-information table is opposed to the system of the window-countryside”(10). What is remarkable here, however, is not so much the error itself as the (perhaps unconscious) decision to keep the mistaken wording. I would like to briefly speculate on the potential meaning of this inverted substitution (holes for folds): could it be that, with this articulation of the dominance of holes over folds, Köster wishes to render the body more present in Deleuze’s architectural reference? Her point of departure is not the urban constellation of “city-information panel” versus “window-landscape” but that of body and garment, both in motion. Beyond this, even in the wrongly quoted version, the fold and the hole remain the central phenomena. It is almost as if the contradiction produced by the two contrary paradigm shifts – fold versus hole, hole versus fold – reinforce the relationality of the two terms.
Historically and technically speaking, fold and hole have a lot to do with each another. If one approaches the fold and folding not in generalist terms (as if they were “at work everywhere”(11)) but in terms of media technology, then the link soon becomes apparent – the double link between fold, woven fabric, and code. With its structure of warp and woof, woven fabric can be understood as a materialization of the digital logic of zeros and ones; it displays traits of the alphanumeric, of computational and writing operations written using lines and columns. The mechanization of weaving took place by means of punch cards on which the binary logic of hole/no hole was stored (12). In graphic terms, the individual gaps represent discrete, isolated elements that control a continual process via a mechanism. Their programming made it possible to imagine an infinite repetition of the same pattern. In their essay “On Folding”, the mathematician and philosopher Michael Friedman and the cultural theorist Wolfgang Schäffner write: “Weaving itself is a synthesis of discrete elements – from the holes in the punch card to the creased points of the thread while being weaved – and continuous movement – the movement of the whole loom”(13). The fold unites the analogue and digital. It is to be understood as spatial and fundamentally local, the material precondition for a symbolic operation. Köster offers an aesthetic experience of folding in specific spaces, and the local quality of the fold emphasized by Friedman and Schäffner14 is apparent in her works in two ways: in their link to specific exhibition locations and in their reflection of historical paintings, which in turn have links to both a time and a place: Bellini, for example, is associated with the Venetian early Renaissance (and not the Florentine or Siennese).
Köster’s painterly and performative operations with folding and drapery are not illustrations of the fold as a theoretical model. But they can be viewed as singular expressions of the operative principle of the fold. In this light, another detail may point to an overlap between interdisciplinary research qua fold and autonomous visuality: the artist works with coloured and sepia inks. The German verb tuschen (to paint in inks) was derived in the seventeenth century from the French toucher, to touch. Etymologically speaking, once again, this important detail of the artistic materialization (15) evokes the haptic qualities of fabrics, garments, shrouds. But the use of inks also reminds us of word processing, of script and writing, techniques associated with the book medium. Based on this view of writing as a storage medium, another aspect of the fold and folding can be developed, an aspect that manifests itself when Köster expands one of her works to include a booklet (as in ex plica in sepia mania, 2014). This stands as a format in its own right, not offering art-critical texts but showing folds between ornament (16) and space. Under the title When a boat reaches a certain speed a wave becomes as hard as a wall of marble (a quotation from Deleuze) the booklet contains a collection of ornamental structures sprayed through a stencil made by folding and cutting (using one of these same stencils, a discrete tattoo was also applied to one wall of the exhibition space). But why is the booklet plausible as part of an exhibition in the context of the fold? In historical terms, the book is the result of a spatial reorganization of the alphanumeric code. In order to read a text on papyrus, the material had to be unrolled by hand and freed of all its creases and wrinkles; only in this way was it possible for text and image to emerge from their micro-folded storage medium into visibility and legibility (in turn recalling the rolled up pictures in Die Falten werden durch Löcher ersetzt and the effort required to roll and unroll them). In late Antiquity, the spatial arrangement of signs on a roll changed with the advent of codices consisting of layers of folded parchment and then, from the thirteenth century, folded sheets of paper; continual scrolling was replaced by sequential turning of pages. Such acts and ideas may be found in Köster’s transitive painting – as the act of the fold.
Conceived of in terms of folds, Kathrin Köster’s garments, shrouds or cocoons are not merely outside, because the outside itself is not a rigid boundary but flexible matter, animated by rhythmic contractions and expansions, by folds and folding, that are attributed to an inside. But this inside is not something (qualitatively, logically or even materially) different from the outside, but precisely the inside of the outside. As Deleuze puts it: “It can be stated that what is folded is only virtual and currently exists only in an envelope, in something that envelops it”(17).
Translated by Nicholas Grindell