‚The Quest for Knowledge: Artistic Process and Individual Experience in the Work of Jenny Brockmann’ by Dr. Birgit Moeckel

Jenny Brockmann examines the world with unflinching curiosity. Her series are discursive, communicative, and always participatory. They are model-like, resembling one-of-a-kind prototypes that fill spaces with their presence, or bring it precisely into focus. Yet they are all inextricably linked to life, urban spaces, times, cultures, and societies. Beckoning with a promise of knowledge, they can be experienced with all the senses. A touch of poetry is characteristic of every one of Brockmann’s projects and kinetic sculptures, no matter how technical they may appear, just as the Enlightenment is at the core of every project, regardless of how utopian that may seem. All of her works stand firmly on solid ground, reacting to scientific data, transmitted facts, movements of people, and generally valid natural laws.
Using the most varied media, materials, and richly associative experimental installations or arrangements, Brockmann traces connections between body and space, experience and construction, and “irreversible moments,” uncertainties, and social processes. The artist presents found objects, samples, measurements, drawings, and documentation, and other sources that she accesses in the context of her artistic expeditions, as traces of climatic, social, cultural, and historical connections—selectively elucidated and accompanied by dialogues with researchers of the most varied disciplines. Her works transform exhibition venues into laboratories of the experimental and existential, linking spaces of action and thinking by means of interaction and open communication. Synesthesia is approached in a new way. In each of these spaces of knowledge, the artist establishes a fragile balance of cessation and movement that has to be sounded out through exchanges with all fields and processes of constant diversification—in the interest of a stable balance of multiple perspectives.

Each new project involves research and in-depth reflection on how to provide a question with adequate scope, and how to give it an aesthetically valid shape. With each new body of work, Brockmann develops situations and forms that are rich in connections, and either establish or convey analogies, adaptations, and definite connections to the (natural) sciences while retaining the vocabulary of the artist and sculptor. Basic principles of philosophical thought regarding time and space are demonstrated in a surprisingly natural way and implemented with materials and techniques that are directly applied and processed by the artist’s own hands. The foundation of every idea and concept is basic research, a vocation that, in terms of its programmatic openness, profoundly connects art and science, and leads to the most surprising, pioneering discoveries—including those arising from coincidence.
The extensive notebook that accompanies the artist in her performative events, during which she makes white inscriptions on black sheets, is filled with a rich trove of ideas, notations, sketches, and designs. Reminiscent of mind maps, the latter are as associative as they are informative. These large-format sheets, rolled out during the artist’s presentations as dark backdrops, show key terms, symbolic sketches, interdependencies, and concordances. Serving as loose “thought nets,” they catch nodal points or interfaces that are related to Brockmann’s overall oeuvre and survive as drafted interventions. In addition, the “research units” of every exhibition are recorded on video, evoking associations of the days of artistic “happenings” that had their very own way of raising awareness.
The various sequences of movements, reactions, and constellations of experimental systems that are associated with the exhibition objects—similar to laboratory props—are revealed to the viewer only for short moments at the individual “stations” of a series or installation. Events transpire in petri dishes, light boxes, and other apparatuses; they become independent, consolidate, or dissolve as long as there is electricity or an impulse of magnetic energy. Once grasped by the viewer, they trigger trains of thought that either develop further or evaporate.

Brockmann is inquisitive about the world. The artist travels, collects, documents, films, draws, questions, plans, constructs, and builds—and she shows the fruits of her efforts in the places where all threads converge, where discourse is felt in society, and where it embeds itself in the minds of individuals. The exhibition space, not the studio, is her laboratory for artistic experiments. Inspired by scientific exchange, and with the means, media, and methods at her disposal, the artist generates actual thinking spaces that viewers access and complete.
Seat#12 (2016), her moveable communication module that points in all directions while uniting the participants congenially, enables visitors to experience this comprehensive concept in many locations. The participants are always enclosed by a circle: from traditional roundtables to fishbowl conversations, a circle encourages concentration in hierarchy-free gatherings. Seat#12, which Brockmann created for her Open Lab “Irreversible Moment” in the Schering Stiftung, Berlin, in 2016, vividly presented the idea for the first time. Each visitor was expected to remain seated as long as the conversations lasted, so as not to disturb the balance of the person sitting opposite—as well as that of the other participants. Through reports that were delivered from each of the individual seats, tension and relaxation were playfully indicated with the body, resulting in seismographic “irreversible moments” as the participants collectively regained equilibrium.

From the perspective of the individual and of the community, the sculptural concepts of balance and location are evidently linked in this work. From Berlin and Rostock to New York, the work was the starting point for forward-thinking discussions and a new intertwining of institutions, researchers, and people. The idea will continue to travel, and in other places it will also sound out the depths of social conventions and characteristics, challenging individual points of view or roles, and opening and expanding horizons in a complex intertwining of various positions and perspectives.

There is no question about it, sculptural and spatial thinking has always challenged borders; indicated proportions, voids, and interstitial spaces; established relationships between outside and inside; and negotiated in an all-encompassing manner. The starting point was the human being, and the human being remains the frame of reference to this day, at least as a viewer. Since the 1960s, the concept of sculpture has expanded in every respect, incorporating and exploring new materials. The connection between art and science, once closely related in antiquity and the Renaissance, has been forgotten to a great extent, that is, after the Enlightenment and its subsequent specializations. In installations and performances from the 1960s on, ways have been found for these disciplines to mutually approach one other. While alchemistic ideas have continued to flare up—Sigmar Polke’s show at the German Pavilion of the Venice Biennale in 1986, for example, was explicitly devoted to the subject of “arte e scienza,” giving it an unforgotten painterly stage—at the turn of the millennium more and more artists were explicitly inquiring into scientific contexts, beyond the focus on nature and environment that had constituted the beginning of the dialogue. In 1999, the German journal Kunstforum published a special issue, entitled “Dialogue and Infiltration,” on scientific strategies in art, in which not only artists were allowed to speak, but also agents, curators, and scientists—individuals who would communicate their own diverse views in light of the virulent environmental issues and radical developments in genetic technology.
The movement that began at that time is now omnipresent and cannot be ignored in the current discourse on exhibitions and art production. “Art research” was the buzzword, which is now even being defended “against its advocates.” In a recent exhibition, photographs on the subject of “studio + laboratory,” as visible results of the artistic research project, revealed mysterious “workshops of knowledge” to museum visitors, and presented parallels and connections between spaces that are organized and characterized by the particular logic of the experiments that take place inside. Brockmann, however, does not illustrate. Her intention is instead to disclose and transfer scientific discourses and individual experience into the exhibition situation. Only this physical translation, as it were, refers consistently to her belief in direct communication between art and the beholder—a comprehensive concept that was touched upon not least by Joseph Beuys in his concept of social sculpture.

In addition to Beuys and Brockmann, many artists have pursued other kinds of training, studies, occupations, and interests before they found their calling. More and more of them are combining different experiences, expanded perspectives, and related ideas in their work; they are also seeking to expand their own horizons and their view of the world by fixing their gaze on science or on other forms of knowledge. Or can it be that the public is just more aware of them at the moment? Who would not like to learn more about this world—especially in times of monumental change? Who would not like to understand more about experiments, research, and possibilities? What can art and artists contribute to our understanding?
The list of artists who have approached or used the wide fields in all forms of knowledge production is long. It extends from the Fluxus artist George Brecht to Joseph Beuys, who, along with Marcel Duchamp, was one the most radical innovators concerning the concept of art, to contemporary artists such as Carsten Höller, Olaf Nicolai, Mark Dion, Ólafur Elíasson, Tomás Saraceno, and Alicja Kwade, to name a few. More and more frequently, artists—mostly male, with only a few renowned women as exceptions to the rule—are opening the eyes of a curious public to experimental systems and research in the natural sciences. They reflect physical laws, chemical reactions, molecular processes, basic forms of nature, and optical appearances as universal experiences. These experiences take effect beyond the borders of language and culture, awakening curiosity and fantasy, and inviting visitors to get involved in this world that was to a great extent unknown before—playful, marveling, willing to experiment, and watchful. Was art not always a utopian way of looking at the world in a new manner?

There is no such thing as a standstill. There is movement in everything we do—and it is closely linked with human beings, beholders, and recipients, without whom Brockmann’s work is not complete. Her art repeatedly invites us to become a part of the work, sculpture, or artistic process. It can be the mere impulse to look into the distance and experience nothing less than the horizon, in order to compare one’s own view with official views. Brockmann always highlights the embodied knowledge that we all have. She created, for example, a room that “shyly” closed when approached. To mirror Temple Grandin’s experiences with autism, she built a stiff wooden radius that surrounds people as the active person pushes a button and noisily activates a “hug” generator. Each impulse releases an echo of physical, sensual experience. None of her sculptures or objects remain static: blocks of granite weighing tons seismographically move in harmony with distant temperature changes. Dark drops dissolve in a petri dish when a visitor approaches, only to reconcentrate and refocus in a state of rest. Frigid zones sparkle until a bolt of lightning causes everything to reach the dew point, temperature differences cause the view through a “smart foil” to be cleared or obscured, and spatial forms enable the viewer to not only see but to also physically experience proportions by putting them into a relationship with the surrounding spatial body when they follow the indicated tracks.

Experience (of the world) through art and science reveals itself in Brockmann’s work as an existential intertwining and experiment. The viewers and recipients are invited to follow the path offered and thus also the discourses that are linked to them, to tread unknown terrain, and, with open eyes, to be tempted and guided by color, light, air, movement, and spatial concepts. The continual quest for knowledge is constantly searching for new modes of experience. This is the case for artists and recipients alike. Over twenty years ago, “Bridge the Gap!” was the title of a dialogue with curator Hans Ulrich Obrist that referred to the link between not only art and science, but also to the “fact that there are multiple interfaces … art-architecture, art-urbanism—art-literature … and that they become a form of quotidian practice.… This is the case with processes that need time.… I believe that you cannot just seat people at a table and expect that a dialogue will happen. You cannot invent something like this. There are projects that can trigger dialogues. These are, for example, laboratory situations, interdisciplinary laboratories in whose framework dialogues take place and then continue outside of the projects, and ideally develop an autonomy of their own.”

In Jenny Brockmann’s work, this autonomy has become reality and can be experienced as artistic practice. The interfaces have multiplied and allow more and more ideas to lock on. With these interfaces, people become a part of the open discourse in the triad of experiment, research, and art. In spatial constellations that are intellectually and aesthetically deliberated, experience is constituent as a subjective perspective. In forming a community and encouraging communication, the work is forward thinking, purposefully intertwined in unexpected discourses and always completed with its recipients from all fields of knowledge and places in this world.