On Nina Annabelle Märkl’s Practice of Drawing

A frequently quoted phrase from Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities asserts that where there is a sense of reality, there must also be a sense of possibility1 The notion that there exists a different perspective of the world’s life forms, beyond what is usually acknowledged by nature and physics, is conveyed in a most light and playful way by the drawings, objects, and installations created by Nina Annabelle Märkl. It is not for nothing that she calls her series of works „Possible Spaces“ or „Possible Sculptures for a life somehow distracted“, and if you listen to her, or read her texts and interviews—like the ones in this volume—then you’ll notice how clearly her works are grounded in the possible, as a form of artistic inflection of the impossible, or, as Friedrich Dürrenmatt put it: “the real is only a special case of the possible.”2.

Elsewhere in Musil’s novel, which is known for its propagation of an “essayistic form of life,” the author talks about the “paradox of precision and indeterminacy.”3 And this also reads like a description of Märkl’s expanded practice of drawing. On one hand, the drawings display great precision on a formal, visible level. Sharp contours outline shapes that speak with absolute plausibility of one’s own physical existence. They have concrete weight and volume, which seems to give them the right to exist in a physically clearly defined space, even though, paradoxically, this space doesn’t exist at all.

They appear to have a sheer factuality that cannot be diminished, an internal logic that removes all of the possible ways to argue with them. In their absurd form of existence, the things seem grounded, substantial, material. On the other hand—and Märkl’s entire oeuvre unfolds within this fundamental paradox—semantic, ambiguous figures seem to be inscribed in precisely these bodies, constructions, architecture, and manifestations; meaning is liquid, flowing like a stream of quicksilver from one form of meaning to the next. In its own, idiosyncratic way, Märkl’s art of fluid meanings and mobile perception formulates an alternative to the sober, rational paradigms of a scientific order, as well as a self-confident alternative to the dogma of the expressive line as a barometer of more profound emotion.

Often in the context of her work you’ll hear the word„Wunderkammer“, or cabinet of curiosities—an assembled display of nature and art, science and technology, encyclopedia and world concept, in which both the macro- and the microcosm are reflected. A pre-modern order, characterized by Michel Foucault as a system based on the principles of analogies, similarities, and correspondences. And, interestingly enough, Märkl is not alone in her enthusiasm for the Wunderkammer as a source of inspiration. For several years the Wunderkammern has been enjoying a boom, not just from an art historical perspective, but also within the system of contemporary art.4 For Märkl, it’s not simply about imitating the structuring of this type of collection, nor is it about re-creating or adapting the concept as an installation—as Joseph Cornell or, more recently, Mark Dion have done, even though their display cases full of objects should certainly be considered a deliberate allusion to this historical, traditional kind of display. The Wunderkammer, as Märkl understands it, is more of a figure of thought that bestows meaning or sense, a model of pre-linguistic presentation that always breaks through the order of established categories to question it.expressiven Linie als Ausdrucksbarometer tieferer Emotion.

The artist’s shaping eye structures and orders various interpretive options within a system that seems to be open in all directions. As Märkl’s main instrument, the drawing itself is a hybrid medium, and in this respect the most appropriate of all media for generating multiple meanings, while at the same time, it leaves the form open enough so that it can always be read as a polyvalent sign.

On one hand, the abstraction of lines—drawn, folded, or cut—creates boundaries. The forms inside of them are clearly outlined. At the same time, these boundaries remain porous, like a membrane. By continually combining individual elements—a kind of „ars combinatoria“combinatoria—one can see an essential, basic feature of Märkl’s work methods. She regards the line as an idiom in and of itself; it creates the cohesion, and depending upon the different requirements of a complex installation context, it materializes in various forms. Hence, in this system, visual assonances, such as picture frames that recall polyhedron-shaped sculptures, can be integrated as a particular form of lineature. A line of ink finds its counterpart in a corner, a folded line, while straight cut edges are echoed in wire lines or shadowy gaps.

While previous generations of artists have explored the phenomenon of the line through diverse techniques in the field of expanded drawing, this has often occurred in separate groups of works: Julio González’s and Picasso’s “drawing in space,” which took the form of linear iron sculptures in the late nineteen-twenties, or Fred Sandback’s extremely reduced drawn/sculptural reflections on volume and space, dating from the nineteen-sixties onward. Sandback is known to have worked on paper as well as with dyed cotton threads in space, and occasionally also with lacquered steel bars; he also used a knife to scratch and cut lines into surfaces.

Folding teaches one about the association of material, form, and structure, which is why folding sheets of paper was part of the curriculum in Josef Albers’s courses at the Bauhaus.5 In the nineteen-seventies works such as Dorothea Rockburne’s Drawing which makes itself and Sol LeWitt’s Folded Drawing, which pursued this investigation of the sheet of paper’s surface, and in this respect, contributed considerably to the development of drawing, in the sense that it turned to the systematic analysis of the medium’s material foundations.6 Cutouts—“virtuoso drawing with scissors,” as exemplified by Matisse in his famous cycle Jazz in the nineteen-forties, to the works by contemporary artists such as Felix Droese, Gabriele Basch, or Kara Walker—lead the art of the line to the boundaries of medium, all the way to sculpture and object.7 Märkl is able to pool the ideas of these mostly discretely operating sub-discourses of drawing in virtuoso ways, synthesizing them into various aggregate states of the drawn form. And by doing this, she simultaneously erases the distinction between abstraction and figuration, combining the one with the other, without incurring any greater frictional loss.

Beyond constantly working on routine perception—both her own and that of the viewer’s—on the level of the motif, where there are figurations, one can see how the human being and the apparatus are hot wired together in different displays and continually new experiments. The existential is not lost inside of the playful, while absurdist humor and the abysmal keep each other in check. Often, the surrounding space is part of the complicated dispositive of object, drawing, and presentation. Through the clever use of reflective surfaces both the architecture and the observer are placed in relationship to the work—reflections of subject and object are fractured many times over.

Märkl’s iconographic system is flexible and supple; the fragmentation of the motifs and their isolation on the picture’s ground are never ends in and of themselves. They are visualized ways of questioning the artistic means of expression she uses. Processes of interpretation and understanding are initiated, while again and again, the standpoint is shifted and the observer misled. When a perspectival situation is depicted plausibly on a sheet of paper, this same structure that organizes space can be abrogated in the one next to it. It is as if one were both near- and farsighted at once, or as if an object always carries its own negation inside itself. Märkl calls it Shifting Perceptions, but one could also say shifting perspectives. What remains definite is that the certainties of visual experience are always shaken in a productive way.


1Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities, trans. A. Moseley, as the English edition was unavailable. Originally published as Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften, 1930-32. Here, see ch. 4.
2 Trans. A. Moseley, as the English edition was unavailable. See Friedrich Dürrenmatt, The Execution of Justice, New York, 1989. Originally published in idem, Justiz, 1985, p. 87.
3 Musil 1930-32 (see note 1), ch. 61.
4 For more on this, see the studies by Horst Bredekamp, Antikensehnsucht und Maschinenglauben. Die Geschichte der Kunstkammer und die Zukunft der Kunstgeschichte, Berlin, 1993; and most recently Assoziationsraum Wunderkammer, an exhibition project at the Franckensche Stiftung, curated by Nike Bätzner
5See Einknicken oder Kante zeigen? Die Kunst der Faltung, Museum für Konkrete Kunst, 2015.
6See Afterimage: Drawing Through Process, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 1999, p. 98.
7See Cut Scherenschnitte 1970-2010, Kunsthalle Hamburg, 2010

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