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REINHOLD HAPPEL
IN THE REFLECTION OF PERCEPTION

Light reflecting bodies and surfaces, which according to their respective quality and processing of materials not only have a lusterous shine but also provide reflections of reality, have been and still are fascinating man. The observation that objects, when immersed in water, appear bigger to the human eye, and that under certain lighting conditions the water surface is able to provide a mirror image of its surroundings, already in antiquity caused mathematicians like Euclid and Archimedes to search for the natural laws of the refraction of light and bring them into association with the principles of human perception.

The history of optics and optical instruments can be described as a history of the continuous expansion of man’s visual field into macro and microcosm. While from the late Middle Ages on, spectacles with their ground glasses enabled the short or long-sighted eye to get a clear view of the surrounding world, the field glasses and mirror telescopes constructed by Galileo and Isaak Newton and their followers expanded man’s view of the universe, and the microscopes revealed the secrets of the inner structure of living organisms. Until today, lenses and special prismatic mirrors for the refraction and direction of light are essential components of modern optical instruments, from telescopes to photographic technology to electronic microscopes. As well as the history of scientific technological development, the lens and especially the mirror have left deep marks in the history of civilization, illustrating how deeply man’s experience of the world is influenced by his visual perception. In his writings on painting, Leonardo already referred to the primacy of the eye, which is able to disclose “ in the richest and most wonderful way the innumerable works of nature” to the intellect. The ambivalence of the mirror image plays a decisive role for the symbolic meanings ascribed to the mirror. It offers an exact reproduction of reality and yet remains a fleeting appearance; it seems to expand the real space and yet only transforms the three-dimensional space into a two-dimensional surface and it offers a person the visual encounter with his or her own image, which according to the person’s mental state and mood can be experienced as pleasant, embarrassing or frightening. The long tradition of the motif of the mirror in ancient and European culture, which is fraught with very different meanings, reveals how deeply the ambivalence of the mirror image has permeated the collective memory. Apart from its early use in the context of magical-ritual acts, the mirror appears in allegorical representations of both human virtues and vices, as an attribute of “Prudentia”, i.e. as an instrument of reflection for the impersonation of truth and self-knowledge, and also as a medium for the deceptively blinding reflection of lavish “Luxuria” or of arrogant and selfish “Vanitas”. In the famous fairytale of “Snow White” by the Brothers Grimm, the mirror becomes the objective examining authority, when it shows the vain queen her beautiful face in all details, yet does not hide from her that she is not the most beautiful woman of all. Truth and deception, appearance and reality, science and aesthetics form the peculiar and contradictory system of coordinates, in which the art of the refraction of light by mirroring glasses and materials is rooted.

Werner Klotz’ objects and installation, whose appearances are determined by mirrors, glass and lenses, also take place within this system of coordinates. His mirror boxes with viewing tubes or openings remind one of the technical gadget used in scientific laboratories. Yet in contrast to laboratory equipment, which is intended to provide checkable observations that are as free as possible of interference for an exact, objective registration of an object or a scientific phenomenon, the user of Klotz’ devices experiences confusing optical surprises.

Lenses do not focus light, but disperse it, they expand the visual field and represent both the close range and the distant range in identical focus (Cheval-Syndrom). It is a situation that contradicts the nature of the human eye, which adjusts itself to a chosen fixed point, so that in this case the eye is constantly forced to change its perspective. In other devices, the glass tube has a reflective coating, so that the section of reality caught by the tube is depicted in extreme distortion on its curved side – so to speak a reversed anamorphosis, in which an undefinable structure of colors on a pictorial plane is only turned into a recognizable form by its reflection on the curved surface of a cylindrical body. A connection between the section of reality and its extreme mirror image can hardly be established. The reflection appears to be an autonomous phenomenon, though with regard to physics and to the laws of the refraction of light, it depends as much on the mirrored reality as any normal mirror image on a flat surface.

Yet if the viewer’s eyes receive different visual impressions –for instance, when in a telescope-object by Klotz one eye is reflected in a concave mirror, whereas the other perceives a section of a landscape –after a short while, both perceptions overlap as on a projection screen, forming a new image which only exists in the viewer’s brain. A temporary, unreal artificial image is created, for which both poles of perception –the eye as the organ of visual perception and the perceived object –become one. The “image” evoked by this viewing-instrument can also be regarded as a symbolization of the subject of perception, produced by means of optical laws and their mental digestion. Thus Werner Klotz raises the old question about the truth of the images of reality, about how much man’s mental activity contributes to the construction of these images of reality, and about the relationship of subject and object.

These short and exemplary descriptions of one’s experience with Werner Klotz’ devices make it clear that they can hardly be conventional instruments for observation. When they are used, the object of observation is completely obscured by the visual impressions and distortions. The mirror-boxes and the telescope-objects therefore can be defined as devices for the perception of perception. Klotz himself ironically and ambiguously calls them “perception devices”. All that which optical instruments in scientific and technological research try to exclude with regard to exact, objectifyable results, is here admitted. Because the act of perception by means of Klotz’ devices does not function without faults, perception as well as its constituent factors can be grasped as a complex cooperation between external conditions, such as mirrors, lenses, tubes, lighting conditions, and the specific activities of the eye as well as the control and digestion of the seeing process by one’s consciousness. This cooperation engenders the “construction” of the image.

The starting point of all these experiences of seeing are the instruments of perception, which Werner Klotz does not set up in scientific research laboratories, but in an art exhibition. Therefore the devices are not bare, functional constructions, but they are objects which radiate a fascinating effect by themselves, an effect produced by the specific ambivalent combinations of materiality and design. The formal design derived from telescopes and comparable observation devices on the one hand suggests plain functionality, yet the mirror surfaces, on the other hand, not only obscure the devices’ volumes but also conceal their actual mode of operation, thus giving the devices a somewhat mysterious quality. The appearance of these perception devices already queries the content and meaning of visual perception.

On the basis of his own experiences and reactions, the artist obviously relies on human curiosity, on the fascination of visual events and on the joyful drive to play and to know. Thus for Klotz, visual perception is not reduced to the absoluteness of a one-dimensional measurability of the world, in contrast to the history of science and technology that, since the Enlightenment. Has regarded it as a seemingly compulsory precondition for a merely utilitarian recognizability and controllability of nature. At least in art, visual perception can be a multilayered, extremely sensual, active process combined with emotional sensations and meanings, a process in which aesthetic and rational dimensions complement one another in a playful way.

Thus Klotz approaches an integral conception of human perception and recognition, as it existed from ancient times until the Enlightenment in different degrees. Science and art, utilitarian research, speculative thinking and purpose free play were not regarded as opposites, but as complementary elements of man’s experience of the world, according to the example of divine principles.

This attitude was clearly expressed in the predecessors of today’s museums, i.e. the collections of art and miracles of the 16th and 17th century, in which all kinds of specimens of natural history as well as works of technology and art were united into a large image of the world (“God’s collection of art”) and its organizing principles. Interestingly, such playful thinking full of associations seems to regain relevance in a highly mechanized society that is largely determined by electronic media. In connection with computer generated simulations of evolutionary biological processes, computer scientist Stephen Todd advocates bridging the gap between art and science in order to try to enrich both cultures. From the background of science, Todd raises the same question that Werner Klotz touches on with his perception devices: The problem of the annulment –or at least the questioning – of the boundary between science and art, which is still considered irrefutable.

Klotz’ references, in the titles of his works, to the tradition of ancient times with its abundance of associations and myths, do have a deeper meaning, no matter how playfully he deals with them on the surface. Works such as “From the Collection of Dionysus” and the recent variant of “Dionysus’ Travel Bar” seduce the viewer quasi to sink with his eyes in mirror coffins full of mirroring wine glasses and bottles. The fascinating endless reflections of the glasses and bottles that mirror each other appear to be a picture of the unfathomability of dyonisian inebriation, in which fleeting appearance and steadfast being, chance and regularity can no longer be told apart. The new photo works by Werner Klotz show similarly fluid transitions of forms. Invited by the artist, his friends and acquaintances entered a cabin with distorting mirrors constructed by Klotz, thereby risking a visual metamorphosis of their bodies into bizarre forms and colors.

This is a joyful principle of virtual transformations between the frightful and the comical, between recognition and alienation, closeness and detachment, cognition and play, which hides Narcissus’ search for his Self and the truth of the changing images and self-enactments.