FIGURE — GROUND 1 introduces the eponymous theme of the year at the KunstHaus, which brings to the fore the relationship between figure and ground in the image. Seven moving-image works, created between 2004 and 2021, are presented. Each of them plays with figure-ground relationships to open up distinct approaches to the much discussed and often contested question of identity, its particular historical and social nature and the way it changes over time. The seven works are shown in parallel, with a total length of around 100 minutes.

With this theme of the figure-ground relation, it may appear that the exhibit is committed to very little that is concrete. The subject is bound neither to a clear theoretical approach nor to a definite art historical era; nor are the concepts of figure and ground associated with a specific artistic medium. Rather, the question of the relationship of figure and ground is directed towards a fundamental methodological consideration, which can be applied to nearly every formal analytical examination of art works and which always refers back to the singular object of observation.

The most obvious association with the theme is the relationship of the painted figure in the foreground, whether abstract or not abstract, to the middle- or background in the painting. How does the figure react to or interact with the ground? To what extent must the contour of a figure be worked out through paint, so that it remains recognizable as a figure and adequately distinguishes itself from the picture ground? How can the ground bring forward a figure? At what point does the ground merge, contrast, or compete with the figure?

As may already be evident, in the very concept of the ground one can also detect the ground as foundation, the earthly basis, to which it pertains: The surrounding space, the ambience, the environment of a figure exercise a power over it, influencing it. In this sense, the question of figuration “exhausts itself not in vague, abstract, linguistic expressions of figure and ground; rather it poses the additional question concerning the political valence of the figure in relation to its ‘ground,’ (whether environment, place, space or community).”¹

The seven moving-image works selected for this exhibit orbit just such a field of tension between figures and their social, political and architectonic surroundings. Created between 2004 and 2021, each of these works feature an individual figure, a single body, who narrates or is the subject of narration. The theme, figure and ground, directs the gaze toward the gestures and postures of these impressive and simultaneously puzzling protagonists of the films, their theatricality—the way that, visually and narratively, they are brought near and carried away, sometimes coming into sharp contour and sometimes disappearing into the surrounding space.

All seven works confront the question of identity. The conceptual coupling of figure and ground helps us to see that identity here does not constitute a solid unity; rather, it is interdependent on and to a certain extent driven by historical and social conditions. It turns our gaze toward relationships of high tension and contrast. The ancient Greek concept for “figure,” schḗma, which can refer to “posture,” “gesture,” “form,” or “appearance,” demonstrates the instability and dynamic of these differences. The somewhat dance-like figures represent gleaming, highlighted moments lifted out of a movement. Correspondingly the concept of figuration is invoked to make us think about the phenomenon of the moving image and to ask ourselves how “the counter force of kinesis and stasis interconnect to form a consistent visual experience;”² hence the decision to introduce the year’s theme, FIGURE — GROUND, with seven moving-image works.

1 Amelia Jones: “Figuration and the (live) body,” in: Texte zur Kunst 122 (2021): 78.
2 Gottfried Boehm, Gabriele Brandstetter, Achatz von Müller: “Zur Einführung,” in: Boehm/Brandstetter/von Müller (eds.): Figur und Figuration. Studien zu Wahrnehmung und Wissen, Boston 2019: 7.

— Rafael Jakob & Rahel Schrohe

(Translation: Carolyn Prescott, January, 2022)

Die Ausstellung wird unterstützt durch