DIE DRITTE KAMMER 1995 – 2004
The Picture The House The Word The Grove
Re-Visions of Art and Nature
by Doris Krystof
tantôt le monde est irréel (je le parle différemment)
tantôt il est déréel (je le parle avec peine)
Roland Barthes «Fragments d’un discours amoureux», 1977
To where no Eye can See
The picture of a basin girthed by a wall, in a wood. Through the oblique light from the sun low on the horizon, the
shimmering green nigh-unruffled water surface like a mirror reflecting the surrounding trees and bushes. Over it the blue
sky obscured here and there by cloud. At the corners of the square pool rise four squat towers built up of strangely symbol-like punched-out ashlars. A soft velvety covering of moss in irregular patches over the grey-brown stones whose edges bear the marks of fracture and decay. An abandoned place, magical, quiet, like an archaic site of ruins from another time.
Since the advent of the autonomous landscape painting in the sixteenth century the depiction of the outer world beckons the beholder to wander in the imagination through
the landscape spaces of the picture. The achievements of perspective and the illusionist representation of space perfected in painting continuously from the Renaissance into
the nineteenth century, are capable of drawing the eye into the depth of the picture; and the landscape painting has always stood for places which are not necessarily real but certainly of the imagination and entered by eye, mind, soul.
The image of the pool projected by Caroline Bittermann and Peter Duka, with its four letter-towers, likewise enchains the eye by suggestion. Standard props of landscape, such as grounds staggered like stage-sets, plant growth gone wild, overcast skies, obliquely falling sunlight, overgrown architectural relics and glinting water, seduce the eye into copious explorations of the space depicted, gradually to become acquainted with the topography of the terrain. At the lower edge of the picture, a cross-section through the basin makes for a blatant crack in the convention of representation of the spatial continuum customary in landscape painting – now one’s gaze tumbles into the depths of the pool till it strikes bottom. Again in perfectly illusionistic likeness, the horizontal strip conveys a richly subdivided underwater landscape lit by the rays of the sun striking the water surface, radiant in a gentle, light green light.
It looks as if a fourth wall, of glass,were integrated into the enigmatic picture of the landscape to close off the pictorial space from the foreground. For all the fascination that such a view offers, it undermines any identifying stance on the viewer’s part – no emotive sinking into the landscape or fervid ecstasy of nature here. The landscape image is an artificial construct betrayed as such by the mesh of artificial illusionistic space and diagrammatic mode of representation, which has notions ranging from the picture-frame stage or the aquarium to the standard scientific geographical cross-section pass the mind’s eye. It is revealed as a system of visual ideograms of different orders; and it harbours a direct play on the notion of the instrumental eye, for only with recourse to diving goggles, the camera or other optical apparatus is it possible to venture into regions to ‘where no eye can see’. The more detailed and closer to reality a depiction of such remotenesses becomes, the more explicit is the avowal of the manipulative power of the image. That power was amply and controversially debated in the times of pre-modern painting and with reference to landscape painting in particular. Ultimately the legacy of Plato’s Cave allegory, the notion of the deceptiveness of illusionistic pictures which only ever show the shadows of things but never the things themselves, survives in various guises. The picture completed in 2004 does not pretend to stand in any other tradition. It operates in its virtuoso way with effects of spatial depth such as shade, translucency, reflected light – and so is an explicit snub of the dictate of flatness in the painting of the twentieth century.
The topographical prospects that Caroline Bittermann and Peter Duka have developed on the computer using special imaging software and then printed, or again, painted in oil or alkyd paints, are a manifold reflection of the history of illusionistic painting and a test of its usefulness for contemporary artistic practice. With this process, the couple, who have been working as an artistic team since 1995, are resuming a line of tradition which modernist art thinking has at best largely ignored if not disapproved of as negatively Romantic, backward or even reactionary. Developed from 1995 to 2004, Bittermann & Duka’s project, Die Dritte Kammer (The Third Chamber) runs counter and looks at this tradition anew and without nostalgia, as part of an artistic quest for other possible (outward) spaces in the present. The question of representation and constructions of nature in contemporary visual art, of the role of nature in a Western world largely urbanised and capitalised, is unfolded in Bittermann & Duka’s hands before a broad historical backdrop.
To “direct one’s gaze from the past to the future and no longer only ‘back to nature’ but also to ‘nature before us’, its fast vanishing confronting us with new tasks, is a categorical demand today”, as a text has it in articulating a central issue for Die Dritte Kammer. It finds a rich source in the historical context of the transitional period from the Baroque to Romanticism, when a strict rationalism was displaced by allencompassing notions that would have man and nature as part of a oneness. Particularly the art of landscape gardening from the late seventeenth century into the early nineteenth offers a diversity of approaches linked by the goal of shaping an archetypal nature-bound space of the imagination out of a nature then already extant only in domesticated form. The physical outcome was guided no little by the painted landscape convention. That is the agenda that underlies artists from Claude Lorain (1600–1882) to Hubert Robert (1733–1808) and Caspar David Friedrich (1774–1840) in their use of images of nature, landscape and gardens to articulate social criticism, desires, ideals or set goals. In that tradition, landscape painting hardly ever pursued a purely descriptive representation of existing landscapes without an agenda, and this circumstance is taken up by the visual constructions ofnature and landscape produced by Bittermann & Duka. Their pictures, like those of their antecedents, stem from the imagination and not from a description of outer reality, but they do regularly incorporate reality in that their whimsical scenarios are inspired most often by real landscape situations, of problem areas in the urban environment. Bittermann & Duka’s art is about a constant exchange between the construction of images and process-based artistic projects involving real plants, gardens, plots of land and a range of collaborative partners; this continual transfer between virtual and real space is to be regarded as the quintessential hub or fulcrum of Die Dritte Kammer.
Excerpt from the text by Doris Krystof for the Artist Book Bittermann & Duka “Die Dritte Kammer 1995-2004”, Salon Verlag Cologne, 2006