‚Laudatio: A Journey to Insight‘ by Heike Catherina Mertens

Any great realization is only half completed in the brain’s pool of light;
the other half is formed in the dark soil of our innermost being,
and above all it is a state of the soul on whose furthest tip the thought sits perched, like a flower.
—Robert Musil

It is a special pleasure and honor for me to give the laudation on the occasion of the awarding of the Willms Neuhaus Prize 2020 to Berlin- and New York-based artist Jenny Brockmann. The joy is based on the deep conviction that, with Brockmann, a committed artist is being honored, someone who thinks in terms of networks and dedicates herself with tireless energy to gaining knowledge through art. As a sculptor, performer, and draftswoman, she opens up spaces for thought and works in an interdisciplinary way, at the intersection of the most diverse sciences. For her many projects, she invites experts from various disciplines to contribute their findings in dialogue. However, Brockmann’s installations are not staged knowledge. She does not betray the true character of art, whose power lies not only in its appeal to our cognitive abilities, but also to all of the human senses. And she makes no lesser claim with her work than that it should bring forth „great realization … in the brain’s pool of light“ and „in the dark soil of our innermost being.“

This artistic practice corresponds beautifully with the motto of the award’s organizer, the Willms Neuhaus Stiftung – Zufall und Gestaltung (Chance and Creation). The foundation directs its attention to a rarely investigated phenomenon: chance as a driving force for development, evolution, and innovation. In the eleven years that I have worked for foundations, I have not come across a more interesting statutory purpose, since chance plays a role in the philosophical, psychological, and sociological layers of both the history of the natural sciences and the arts.

In philosophical and theological discourse, chance traditionally forms the antithesis to fate. The belief in a divine plan, in an influence over humanity that is determined and directed by a higher power, collides not only with the assertion of free will, but also with the existence of chance. The witty theory presented by Luis de Molina in 1588 in his Concordia on the compatibility of divine providence and human freedom caused a controversy that—since Pope Paul V forbade any further disputes about it in 1607—is still today considered „undecided.“
In my early years, I made a rather strictly divided taxonomy of humanity in which two groups were based on the contrasting concepts of chance and fate, since these concepts, for me, expressed a categorical attitude toward life. The believers in chance were rationalists who could not find poetry in life’s unexpected encounters and events; while the believers in fate were so much richer in my imagination, as the world was open to them in its entirety of known and unknown phenomena, which art tries to address through visual means of expression.
In his 1992 bestseller The Discovery of Heaven, Harry Mulisch found a wonderful narrative framework for this contrast between chance and fate. His protagonists Max Delius and Onno Quist have no idea that their lives follow a divine plan, steered by two angels in heaven. They thus perceive their lives as chains of successive coincidences, while a higher power plans each of their steps in order to—so the story goes—dissolve the covenant between God and mankind. In his story, the author and artist combines the two controversial attitudes that embody chance and fate, in a brilliant work of art that stimulates our thinking.

Until today, chance has played a subordinate role in art-historical research. As in the natural sciences, where experiments conducted according to fixed rules are at the center of knowledge production, greater attention is paid to the artistic concept, to moderate composition, than to chance or intuition. However, the history of science is full of experiments whose hypotheses were intended to prove a concrete theory but instead led to completely different findings. Just think of the discovery of penicillin or the twelve moons of Jupiter. Many of these accidental discoveries were made at interdisciplinary interfaces, such as where someone with an unbiased view, in contrast to someone familiar with the theory previously established, evaluated data from scientific experiments. There is a beautiful word for this: „serendipity“—the happy coincidence or unexpected discovery.

But what does chance have to do with the awardee of the Willms Neuhaus Prize 2020? At first glance, chance plays no role in Jenny Brockmann’s work. Starting with terms that often describe conditions (Out of Balance, Cold—On Sensitivity, Irreversible Moment) or a characteristic (Nature of Knowledge—The Uncertain Structure, Informed Desire, Alignment), her complex exhibitions and installations are planned down to the smallest detail. At the same time, the artist gives chance a significant place in her work, consciously keeping her spaces for thinking open to new, preformed thoughts. One could even put it more pointedly: she virtually invites chance in, in the sense of Louis Pasteur’s bon mot, “Chance favors prepared minds.”[2] With her sculptures and exhibitions, Brockmann creates places for visitors to dialogue and have experiences that prompt new insights. Her workshops and installations for interactive exploration are based on sound research but are left unfinished, making a place for congenial effects that can arise by chance. They operate in a field of tension, between innovative creation and scientific knowledge, that continually expands and renews itself.

Embodied Knowledge and the Body as Medium
Jenny Brockmann’s artistic projects begin with an open and novel questioning, with the unbiased view that underlies all great art (and, by the way, also all great scientific findings). She uses the freedom of art to „poach“ from other disciplines in order to meet her vehement demand for a multifaceted production of knowledge.

Two aspects play a central role in her artistic practice: the integration of scientists from different disciplines, and the embodiment of knowledge. Let me first demonstrate the relationship between thought and body on the basis of concrete works.

The installations from her series Rooms are an early example of an investigation into the interplay between the human body and its movements in space, and thus into one’s perception of space. In Shy Room (2010), for example, the four walls of a standalone room close as soon as a person approaches. The visitors therefore have no chance to experience the interior of the cube. Nonetheless, the perception of the outer creates a mental construction of the interior. This relates to our bodily awareness, since human perception is bound to this implicit, incorporated information. Anyone who has been locked in a confined space for a long time has a different perception of such spaces than someone to whom these spaces are unfamiliar. This „embodied knowledge“ is anchored in the subconscious and often not even cognitively retrievable. For example, we might learn to ride a bicycle at the age of three to six years, and we do not lose this ability, even when we do not ride for a long period of time. But hardly any of us would be able to describe the necessary coordination processes of the human body and the physical interactions that go into riding a bicycle. Our body knows how to ride a bike even without this knowledge. From epigenetics we know today that even the experiences of our ancestors can lead to genetic changes that can be inherited accordingly. This embodied, unconscious knowledge influences our perception.
Brockmann plays with these scientific findings. Works such as Shy Room are based on the idea of breaking familiar patterns and enabling new, conscious experiences. The installation Out of Balance (2012), for example, reacts to the shifting weights of two or more persons standing on scales, encouraging them to readjust their own perspectives. In the large-scale installation Alignment (2011), the visitor moves through three rooms, each with three doors that are positioned one inside of the other, and that close and open according to the movement of the people in the room.

Immanuel Kant’s great discovery was that space and time are not entities that exist on their own—as Newton, for example, assumed—but rather pure forms perceived by the cognitive subject. Jenny Brockmann builds on this knowledge and assumes that the architectural and urban space designed by us also “shapes” our movements and actions in space. Time and again, rulers have appropriated the effect of monumental architectural spaces to intimidate people and teach subservience. Jenny Brockmann, on the other hand, does not want to impress visitors with her rooms, but to instigate conscious reflection.

Reflection through physical experience is also the theme of the large-scale installation Cold—On Sensitivity (2019), which was presented in a pavilion in Weimar’s Park an der Ilm during Kunstfest Weimar. One person at a time was able to expose themselves to cold air currents for twenty minutes in a spherical room made of aluminum tubes. The almost clinical, aseptic-looking construction also radiated a certain coldness.
The sensitive experience of cold on the one hand, and the interplay between technology and the human body on the other mirror our mechanized and digital society. Personal human encounters are increasingly replaced by digital communication, via e-mail or short messages. Today’s communication is largely based on words alone; emotions are obscured. Albert Mehrabian had already proven in a 1960s study that feelings or attitudes are communicated only 7 percent by words, 38 percent by tone of voice, and 55 percent by body language. A society that communicates in writing needs emojis in order to convey not only facts but also features of interpersonal relationships. Pictures are substituted for words to convey emotions in digital communication. Jenny Brockmann is—for all the interdisciplinarity of her works—a sculptor in the true sense of the word. But she does not carve only from stone; she welds, solders, hammers, and constructs complex sculptural works. The images she creates evoke thought processes and sensitive experiences, and thus bring mind and body into balance.

In this sense, Cold—On Sensitivity, created in the context of the 100th anniversary of the Bauhaus, can be read as a monument to teacher Gertrud Grunow, whose “theory of harmonization” was part of a preparatory course held during the first semesters of the Bauhaus in Weimar. In her “theory of harmonization,” Grunow combined color, sound, and movement in an interdisciplinary way that focused on balance and concentration, and on the intellectual development of her young students. Grunow left the Bauhaus in 1924, when it became more strongly oriented toward commercial purposes. However, her interdisciplinary thinking and teaching had a great impact on future Bauhaus students, and Jenny Brockmann, who rediscovered Grunow, continues to be inspired by her teaching today.

Let me use a concrete example to introduce Brockmann’s interdisciplinary thinking. In 2016, I met the artist through the art historian Horst Bredekamp, with whom she had exchanged views on her research for „Irreversible Moment“ (2014–ongoing) in the Image Knowledge Gestaltung Cluster of Excellence at the Humboldt University in Berlin. This led to the idea of holding an exhibition at the Ernst Schering Foundation, where I had founded a project space for contemporary art at the intersection between art and the (natural) sciences in 2009. The theme of the “irreversible moment” raised by Brockmann—that is, the point in time in a process when something cannot be reversed or undone—was predestined for an interdisciplinary approach. Irreversible moments exist in politics and history, but also in chemistry and physics, for example, in thermodynamics or acceleration processes.

Jenny Brockmann imagined the exhibition Open Lab “Irreversible Moment” as a space for knowledge where experts in science and art could meet. These were the chemist Kevin Bethke (Institute of Chemistry at Humboldt University), the accordionist Franka Herwig, the art historian Christina Landbrecht (Image Knowledge Gestaltung Cluster of Excellence at Humboldt University), the physicist Andreas Menzel (Institute of Physics at Humboldt University), and the dancer and choreographer Jeremy Wade. For this open laboratory Jenny Brockmann created Seat#12 (2016), a kind of seesaw that can hold twelve people. This provided a physical experience of an irreversible moment for the experts, and for the participants of the workshops that took place during the exhibition. An irreversible moment could occur, for example, when people on the seat lost their balance due to sudden movements, or when the seat itself slipped off its axis.
Further elements of the exhibition included a staircase with a platform from which the visitors were forced to turn back because it ended in a dead end. They also had to decide when entering the exhibition space whether they wanted to take the stairs or enter into it directly. A large-format drawing, white pencil on black paper, encapsulated the relationships between the concepts and phenomena from the various disciplines discussed during the course of the project. In addition, several sculptural experiments—such as sand vibrating on a loudspeaker, or a mass of formerly liquid wax solidifying in cold water—vividly demonstrated the various facets of the irreversible moment. Together they formed a space for cross-disciplinary discourse produced by fundamental structural and spatial changes, including the movements of the body in space.
Jenny Brockmann does not answer the questions raised so far about irreversible social, ecological, and economic turning points. Her artistic practice aims at a discursive aesthetic that does not pretend to have found the truth but is continually searching for it. And we as viewers can participate by seeking and thinking ourselves in this process.

The Thinking Hand
The processual nature of Jenny Brockmann’s work becomes particularly clear in her drawings. Each project is „accompanied“ by them, and they are not simply a byproduct of the artistic work. They do not serve as a blueprint. Rather, the drawings are dedicated to the thought process itself and thus to the heart of the artistic work. Horst Bredekamp has repeatedly emphasized the importance of the “thinking hand” in art in various publications, and in his revised publication on Galileo Galilei he even included it in the title.[3]

The fact that the movement of the drawing hand has a higher claim to objectivity than the contemplative thought has been part of the basic conviction of the paragone since Leonardo da Vinci’s treatise on painting. The exploration of this thinking that takes place “in the hands” (nelle mani) has moved art history since the sixteenth century; thus the disegno theory attempts to understand how the interaction of mind and body in drawing can shift to the level of the visible.[4]

For Cigoli, a painter and friend of Galileo, drawing was not only a condition of reproducing nature but also of thinking and seeing. According to Cigoli, “a mathematician, however great he may think himself, is, without drawing, not only merely a half-mathematician, but also a man without eyes.”[5] For Cigoli, drawing forms the basis of all knowledge. In this sense, Jenny Brockmann’s drawings can be understood as the central means of design in a continual process of cognition.

Questioning our own thought structures and reflecting on the limits of knowledge systems culminate in Brockmann’s project Dialogues on a Future Communication (2019), realized with curator Niama Safia Sandy and presented at 1014 in New York. It brings together years of research on aspects of resilience, critical reflection on race theory, and evolutionary biology. On the artistic level, Jenny Brockmann uses established media such as drawing and sculpture, but also increasingly turns to exhibition design. In addition to a large-format drawing and the newly developed Seat#16, which can accommodate up to 16 interlocutors, Brockmann’s Archive of a Future Memory (2019) is an architecture that, for the first time, is composed of aluminum, reminiscent of a double helix, and it can meander through the exhibition spaces, presenting content and materials in a way that can be expanded upon as desired. At the center of this is the concept of „alterity,“ i.e., the “other,” that creates and forms identity. In philosophy, alterity as a concept is discussed mainly in post-structuralist theory. Deconstruction since the late twentieth century and up to the present day has also drawn attention to fundamentally heterogeneous characteristics of identity. Otherness is regarded as constitutive for the formation of identity.

In this project, Jenny Brockmann, who studied architecture and philosophy before completing a postgraduate degree under Rebecca Horn, turns her attention to the transcultural identity of societies, which, despite all claims to the contrary from the populist camp, are characterized above all by diversity and alterity. While in the United States, a country with an accepted history of immigration, transcultural discourse has been pursued for decades, in Germany discussions are still focused on the „German Leitkultur.“ The exhibition Bewegte Zeiten: Archäologie in Germany, on display at Martin-Gropius-Bau in 2018, showed very clearly that Germany’s population history is one of international migration, and that cultural identity is not a question of nationality.

In Dialogues on a Future Communication, Brockmann encourages a fruitful transatlantic exchange on the formation of the identity of the individual and society through the Other. In doing so, she also reflects upon the critique of the canonical Western academic system—formulated by many cultural institutions—that has been smoldering for years. The economization of knowledge, the preference for STEM subjects over so-called dispensable non-European languages, has led to a self-referential condition that Brockmann seeks to break up with her interdisciplinary, transcultural, and interactive approach.
It is fitting that the artist begins her publication for Dialogues on a Future Communication with a quotation from the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem of stereotypes is not that they aren’t true, but they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”[6] Adichie warns of the danger of the „single story.“ Those who recount the history of Africa only as that of the poor, oppressed continent will always have an obscured perception of it. To this day, we still speak of Africa as a single place, not as a continent with fifty-five culturally, politically, and economically different countries. We know little more than what is expressed in the repetitive reporting on colonial history, poverty, and refugees. What Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie demonstrates in literature through introducing new narratives that include multiple perspectives, Brockmann achieves in the visual arts by creating radically new spaces of thought and knowledge. The artist understands transculturality not only within traditional folklore but much more expansively—for example, with regard to emerging artificial intelligence technologies.

Accordingly, Brockmann uses the most modern technological achievements in her works. For example, the SciArt project, Nature of Knowledge—The Uncertain Structure (2019), is generated by a real-time experiment at the Joint Research Centre in Ispra, the third-largest research center of the European Commission. The project transfers data dealing with the consequences of climate change to an installation that takes the form of a spiral at the Bozar museum in Brussels. This data influences the materiality of the spiral. Both random and intentional factors, such as the paths taken by visitors through the space, or physical data like temperature and pressure, lead to variables being created in the experiment. These processes are complex; they are not meant to be gimmicky or consumable high-tech art. In this multilayered project, Jenny Brockmann relies on the individual experiences of each visitor, prompted to ruminate on their relationship to climate change. Nature of Knowledge—The Uncertain Structure reveals the brilliance with which Brockmann, thanks to her craftsmanship—she designs and builds almost all the components of her installations herself—visionary creativity, technical chops, and encyclopedic knowledge, is able to create works that in their complexity require their own publication.

The Aesthetics of Pure Reason
Finally, let me briefly say a few words about the film Informed Desire (2019), presented at Kunsthaus Dahlem in connection to the award ceremony of the Willms Neuhaus Prize 2020. The film documents a discussion between various researchers from Rostock University on how to deal with „uncertainty“ and its effects. It was made in the context of the six-week exhibition Experiment Future at the Kunsthalle Rostock, in collaboration with the University of Rostock, about probable, possible, and fictional futures.

In the face of climate change, our future is more uncertain than ever, and perhaps that is why we need so many forecasts today that are based on reliable data but still offer no certainty. For Informed Desire, Brockmann invited seven scientists to discuss topics such as the communication of scientific uncertainty, expected uncertainty in simulations, the role of chance in nanophysics, and uncertainty in computer science. On these matters, one could assume that Jenny Brockmann is fundamentally pessimistic about scientific findings. However, she is not concerned with critiquing the scientific system, but with the Kantian approach that claims the „safe course of science“ can only exist as a form of criticism, as she herself puts it. Reflecting critically on the limits of both scientific research and our own thinking, which is not least subject to the principles of an established system, the artist finds that our knowledge remains provisional.
But unlike Kant, Jenny Brockmann, with her complex artistic approach that can only be sketched out superficially in a laudation, has developed an aesthetic of critical reason that, unlike Kant’s pure reason, includes sensual experiences. The sculptures, installations, and drawings by the artist create aesthetic spaces for thought in which mind and body are addressed as one. Even if the artist, through her aesthetics of critical reason, constantly draws our attention to the fact that there is no valid truth, in her works one is sometimes suddenly and unexpectedly confronted with a more profound truth. It is not the concrete, data-based scientific findings that trigger this presentiment, but rather it is Brockmann’s art that makes us feel that what we have just seen or experienced penetrates more deeply into vital dimensions than anything we have seen before.

Congratulations, dear Jenny, for receiving the Willms Neuhaus Prize 2020!

[1] Robert Musil, The Confusions of Young Törless, trans. Mike Mitchell (New York and Oxford, 2014), p. 161.
[2] “Pasteur Vallery-Radot, ed., Œuvres de Pasteur, vol. 6: Maladies virulentes, virus-vaccins et prophylaxie de la rage (Paris, 1933), p. 348.
[3] Horst Bredekamp, Galilei: Der Künstler. Der Mond. Die Sonne. Die Hand (Berlin, 2007). Translated as, Galileo’s Thinking Hand: Mannerism, Anti-Mannerism, and the Virtue of Drawing in the Foundation of Early Modern Science, trans. Cohen Mitch (Berlin and Boston, 2019).
[4] “Daß die zeichnende Handbewegung einem höheren Anspruch auf Objektivität folgt als der kontemplativ bleibende Gedanke, gehört sei Leonardo da Vincis Malereitraktat zur Grundüberzeugung des paragone. Die Erforschung dieses „in den Händen“ (nelle mani) ablaufenden Denkens bewegt die Kunstgeschichte seit dem sechzehnten Jahrhundert; so versucht die disegno-Theorie zu verstehen, wie sich die Wechselwirkung von Geist und Körper in der Zeichnung auf die Ebene des Sichtbaren verlagert.” Ibid., p. 7.
[5] “Ora io ci ò pensato et ripensato, nè ci trovo altro ripiego in sua difesa, se non che un matematico, sia grande quanto si vuole, trovandosi senza disegno, sia non solo un mezzo matematico, ma ancho uno huomo senza occhi.” Cigoli to Galileo, August 8, 1611, in Galileo Galilei, Le Opere di Galileo Galilei, vol. xi, ed. Antonio Favaro (Florence, 1890–1909), p. 168.
[6] Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The Danger of a Single Story, TED talk, 18:34 min., July 2009, (accessed May 28, 2020).