What is the task of art, visual art in the digital age, what relevance does it have? For Johanna Reich “actually, perhaps the most important function of art given the effects of digitalisation is to… be aware of the freedom (of art)… This freedom means to see things, connections, roles or social patterns in a new and open-minded way”, as she stated in an interview in Witten in October 2019. In her exhibition “ALL THE WORLD’S A FRAME” here in the Kunsthalle Leverkusen, she projects onto the rear wall a computer-simulated perspective of a darkened room closed off from the world. A kind of stage is produced, an experimental field, immersed in the slightly blue, almost unreal light of the projection. “Pictures” are projected into this fictitious space – of a hand holding a floating 3-D cube, turning it, holding it up for the viewer’s inspection. There comes another hand that crumples a sheet of paper – the age-old carrier of information – and flattens in again: then formulas and algorithms from the first email ever sent. There are individual screens set up in the “stage” room, on one of which a hand and fire are projected, on another, small particles that move towards each other, dock, repel, disappear or increase in number. Dead branches, twigs, stalks and driftwood from the banks of the Rhine stand and lay on the floor. They are like witnesses, relics from the analogue, tactile world – our world. They appear to be strangely out of place and simultaneously anchor points, moorings between the “partially automated projections travelling through the room” that throw fragments of text messages on the wall, into other projections, on our clothes, our bodies.
According to Johanna Reich, “If we look at our increasingly smarter surroundings, we see that the >digital< and the >analogue< are inseparably combined. The digital becomes more and more invisible, the internet as we know it today will disappear and will pulse like a heartbeat in our surroundings and all things.”
The artist moves consistently between these two worlds and combines the expressive possibilities she discovers in the world of digital technology with often more elemental “materials”. With clay, for example, real, genuine clay that clearly displays traces of its rudimentary working and thereby leads one to think of the origins of artistic expression. And with “fire”, the power that humanity learnt to use thus distinguishing itself from everything else around it. The hand repeatedly serves as the projection screen with which we have always touched the world. Through the tactile. Yet this access is noticeably in danger of becoming lost. Only the desire for this possibility of tactile development remains and will perhaps become stronger?
With the choice of her pictorial theme, Johanna Reich consciously quotes the different possibilities and various intellectual approaches with which humanity has tried since prehistoric times to understand and master the world. Whether with an image or a mathematical formula, whether analogue or digital. For Reich, these diverse references and cross-connections are about the pictorial visualisation of this continuous process of appropriating the world. Individual works, such as “à la lumiére” in which there is the attempt to incorporate, climb and measure ammonites, those stony witnesses to the beginnings of our world, can be read in terms of ALL THE WORLD’S A FRAME as indications that this process has not yet ended. She sees her continuous process of finding and questioning images then as outside this “FRAME”, this framework, more as her striving for a vocabulary that allows her to “master” her, our world.
Yes, the digital is more seductive than ever in taking note of the technology used in an artwork, in wanting to analyse it and being fascinated by it but also being made anxious. However, for Johanna Reich, the digital is above all an instrument, a “material” with which she can formulate her questions. Questions about the borders of natural scientific explanatory and interpretative approaches that are slowly abandoning the idea that the world can be deciphered down to the smallest detail. And questions about the chances and perhaps also the as yet uncomprehended dangers of digital pictorial and ultimately reality production. “ The primary existential question seems to me to be… is there still a place for humanity in the digital world.”
Intellectual games, thought-provoking visual stimuli, open-minded, presented – as in an epic theatre piece of a Berthold Brecht – not to provoke empathy and emotions, but rather “socially critical insights.” Therein lies the relevance of art – today and tomorrow.
Susanne Wedewer-Pampus, January 2020