Colour begins where it no longer corresponds to natural colouration.
Tamara Grcic’s three-part sculpture project 46 Farben (46 Colours) refers to the natural-historical colour designations for rock samples. The artist allows colours to speak in various ways. In a video shown in museum space in Graz, 46 people are whispering the names of 46 colours. The same designations appear in ephemeral lettering in public space in the City of Graz before disappearing again: pupils from local schools use chalk to write the words onto city streets and also onto the walls of buildings. 46 mouth-blown bodies of glass are installed along a rock face at an protected natural site near Klöch in south-eastern Styria. Exhibition space, public urban space, and natural space—46 Farben interrelates three different places. The work shows colours in translations that lend expression to their inner form—not the physical characteristics, but the social life of colours.
The point of departure for the artist’s project in Graz is the natural history collection of the Universalmuseum Joanneum. Hundreds of rock samples originating from all over the world have been on exhibit in two large display rooms since 1811. All crystals are neatly sorted, labelled, and compiled according to categories like phosphates, nitrates, sulphides, et cetera. The taxonomic order is elaborated down to the last detail. Two of the free-standing showcases in the first room contain stones which, in addition to provenance and classification, feature characteristic colour names intended to be of descriptive nature. This function of description is first noticeable when we start reading words like milk-white – smoke-grey – velvet-black – pale sky-blue – leek-green – orange yellow – flesh-red – clove-brown. Unfolding in the descriptions of the stones is a latent poetry into which Tamara Grcic taps through her work.
Abraham Gottlob Werner (1749–1817) introduced these colour designations for identifying crystals in his groundbreaking book A Treatise on the External Characters of Fossils (1774). He developed a nomenclature meant not only to characterise the chemical or physical composition of rocks but also to faithfully render their colouring. The geologist taught geognosy in the Saxon town of Freiberg. As an empiricist and sensualist, Werner placed importance on using language to label, as unambiguously as possible, the exterior features of stones according to their basic appearance: “The name of a body must indeed have some relation to the body it is associated with.” For Werner, the colour name becomes a mediator of the experience, with language thus maintaining an empirical connection to reality. The “associated name” must be correct. As such, language operates as a mediator that is meant to maintain contact between humans and nature. Although Werner espoused the scientific claim that his characterisations were only meant to convey facts, the terms actually express more than a simple message. The compounds function like linguistic miniatures. Grcic reveals the poetic veins of the colour expressions by transferring them into other materials, contemporary places, and technical media. Her artistic intervention spotlights the difference between the simple communication of content through language and individual speech in a language. It is thanks to this discrepancy—which lends expression, singular meaning, and a face to a general linguistic regime—that the social life of colours commences. How is this represented in museal space?
The Mineral Room
The rock samples from the mineral collection are presented in a space-consuming way in the Natural History Museum. All four walls of both display rooms are furnished with glass cases. Centrally positioned at half height are free-standing cabinets, two of which show representative crystals grouped as if in a tableau, arranged according to Werner’s colour designations. One of his students, Friedrich Mohs, laid the scientific foundations for the presentation of this local collection. Aside from colour, there were other criteria for classifying exterior features, including hardness, fissility, cleavage, lustre, and translucence. The public collection in Graz has been supplemented on a detailed level and further refined over the course of several decades. Thanks to the clear classification approach, the exhibits in the two Graz mineral rooms are visually engaging. The unity conveyed by their look and haptic quality emphasises the sensory perception of abstract classification systems and their materiality. In this sense, the exhibits deliver Werner’s holistic and empiricist-sensualist conception of nature into the present day and encourage an immersive approach to viewing. Exhibition visitors plunge into the historical world of rocks that almost completely envelops them. These spaces are governed by the language of symmetry and taxonomy. Like a crystal that has been carefully dispersed inside, the diversity of the stones is rendered through a self-contained system. Each term used appears realistic, with its aptness immediately verifiable. The blue spar has a dappled shimmer of pale sky-blue, the straw-yellow hue remains dull, the green lead ore has an olive-green sheen. The ancient inorganic material of the public collection appears nearly muscular in its almost baroque splendour.
Tamara Grcic allows this emblematic structure of the collection to be embraced by an utterly different dimension, namely, the resonance of voices and the faces of people who are quietly whispering, one after another, 46 colour words. The video shifts the spatial atmosphere in a lasting way. Each individual colour word assumes a distinct air, each attaining its own sound and becoming associated with a single person. In the video, rocks and language are no longer mutually engaging in an appellative relationship. Yet the transfer of words from rocks to individual persons fosters a latency, as if undiscovered potentials were lying dormant in the relations between thing and human. Stones are individuals, just like humans. The candid faces of 46 people of varying ages, both genders, absolutely different backgrounds, and diverse linguistic dialects arise in the steady rhythm of the film. Everyone—be it woman or man, adult or child—seems concentrated and relaxed. Each direct gaze is steadfastly and attentively trained on the museum visitor for a few seconds at a time. With a gentle rotation of the body, they pass the word assigned to them along to the next person, behind a cupped hand but still clearly audible. Each person enunciates their own word. Slowly, right to left, the 46 faces move across the screen, a process that repeats again and again. The colour names interconnect the row like a secret word or a social code. All participants originated from the artist’s extended circle of friends and acquaintances. It was her decision to invite them, to show their soft gestures and facial expressions, to ask them to wear colourful clothing. The artist likewise determined which word would be assigned to which person, along with the precise sequence to be followed.In her video, Grcic takes up the systematic nature of the mineral collection, but she also disengages from it slightly and paves the way for audio material and, accordingly, for a different narrative than the one pursued by the didactic format of the collection itself. The voices do not explain anything but are simply present in the room. A charged relationship arises between the human and non-human elements. At the same time, the video offers a glimpse of a circle of friends. Yet it is not the retrospective naturalisation that is so special about the social life of colours, as if the staging within the video were actually an informative sociogram or as if the colours were truer than the natural colouring itself while immersed in the resonance of language. No, in the work of Tamara Grcic the denotation of a word first ensues when translated into other materials, media, colours, and forms, which means that there is a plane of meaning that remains in abeyance. This method is characteristic for her artistic approach. With the implementation of things, her art disengages fixed meanings, reveals layers and interstices, and eludes clear messages.
In what is perhaps her most famous work—exhibited in 2009 at the Venice Biennale—several signal-red life rafts garnered attention near the Arsenale. They bobbed up and down in the harbour basin under elevated wooden beams and were anchored in positions selected with great precision. Ringing out across the water surface from loudspeakers sited in the roof construction were hard-to-understand voices . Visitors to the area became immersed in the impression of something acute, in a tension catalysed by subtle means. A special, space-generating hallmark of her artistic work is evident here. Tamara Grcic combines individual elements to create groups; groups beg to be localised; localisations give way to situations; situations engender form; form gains momentum. Such an impulse actuates physical space or even the percipient beholders. This is exemplarily illustrated by one of the artist’s early works in Frankfurt am Main. At a squalid downtown site, encircled by guardrails, chipped-off bottlenecks were sunk into the ground for a short period of time. The exhibition was present for only one day, from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Plunged upside down into the earth, the sharp glass morphed into dangerously dark blossoms by daylight, just as radical and immediate as fascinating, but also just as defenceless as liberated and enclosed. The pictorial effect of this tableau was impressive, and many missed the work after it was removed. Another piece by Tamara Grcic was presented for a similarly brief period in the interior space of an exhibition venue: hundreds of luscious yellow honeydew melons were spread across seventy white-clothed tables, permeating the room with their sweet aroma. The installation was taken down after twelve hours. The muskmelons were subsequently donated to an aid organisation that distributes food to those in need. During the short time the melons were exhibited, they not only developed a heightened sensory presence through hue and scent, but also offered inspiration for contemplating social responsibility.
In the work of Tamara Grcic, colour is an important source of stimulus, among other elements. With 46 Farben, this particular aspect is the thematic focus, even if she is not concerned with a vitalism of colour, as can be discerned in the nature-mystical facet of Werner’s colour approach. The artist is equally disinterested in the humanisation of things. Instead, she is fascinated by the initiation of a conscious aesthetic process that is also directed towards those who do not visit museums regularly. The institutional limitations inherent to publicly accessible interior space bound by four walls perhaps do not provide the most optimal place for working in a fully independent manner. However, the pooling of knowledge and history provides a good point of departure for forays through public space outside and in nature.
In collaboration with teachers, the artist introduced her ideas for a project to several school classes in Graz (at three different schools: BORG-Monsbergergasse, Modellschule, and Freie Waldorfschule). The youths and children were tasked with using chalk to write the 46 colour words from the mineral collection in different places throughout public space—on walls, streets, fences, or street furniture. To this end, each pupil received his or her own practical linen bag for holding both the chalk and a small notebook with a page dedicated to each of the 46 colour designations. As a prelude, some of the students gathered in the exhibition room of the Natural History Museum. Others embarked on their first excursions near their own school. The participants at the museum were briefly introduced to the project and then given leave to swarm about the environment. The colour words became dispersed throughout Graz public space and were photographed by the children and youth before they could disappear again. They attracted the gazes of many passers-by, who became attentive as soon as they read “orange yellow” on a red park bench or “ash-grey” at the bottom of a fountain. Liberated from the museal context, the words appeared isolated, removed from their original attachment to the crystals, but they had soaked up the presence of their locations, with the individual touch of handwriting. The poetry of the mineralogical language trickled into public space in a way that was both incidental and transient.
It soon became clear that not even public space is simply open for usage of any kind. What is allowed or prohibited has always been an issue, but in the scope of playful activity both places and words change and may re-emerge as symbols of wavering meaning. Many of the pupils continued working on the task. Moments shift, familiar paths receive fresh impetus, and some colour words elicit different moods or are an expression of preferences or aversions. Continuity triggers personal memories, comparisons become possible, and repetition shows that doing the same thing does not inevitably have to be similar. Repetition lends itself to following one’s own time frame for processing and dealing with constellations and signs.
The resulting photos indicate how the originators of the words actually view the connection between word, selected site, and personal vantage point. The pupils became authors who are directly involved in the perpetuation of the project by Tamara Grcic. There were many authors producing diverse significations, spreading them throughout urban space. Even if the origin of the words cannot be understood without explanation, the words still challenge the pedagogical objectives and the hierarchical tableau of the museal system of colour. After engaging with face and voice in the museum context, here it was the writing in an unusual place that opened up the social dimensions of colours.
The Space of Nature
In a third step, Tamara Grcic brings the hues back into the space of nature and dissolves their ties to Werner’s colour systematics to the greatest extent possible. Her glass sculptures emit their own colours. They are reflected in the fragile bodies of glass, embedded in a tuff cliff of volcanic origin, exposed to fluctuating daylight just as to the passing seasons and the constant erosion of the rock. At a remote, little-known place in the Zara Forest near the town of Klöch (Styria, Austria), the 46 spherical glass bulbs are affixed to the layers of rock using individual rods. They are arranged in five groups across an area ranging up to thirteen meters in height and thirty meters in breadth. The white, grey, and black shades are casually interspersed. As in the video and the project in public space, the artist avoided rendering the stringent colour system one to one through colour nuances. She consciously embraced the shade that each glass bulb ultimately turned, influenced by the necessities and contingencies of the production process. Her work order merely defined the basic tones and made no further specifications as to the colour gradation expressed through the colour designations. All the same, only one glass factory was capable of carrying out Grcic’s order. Located in the town of Waldsassen (Upper Palatinate, Germany) is one of the last such glassworks of its kind, able to produce several hundred different mineral tones through hand-based artisan processes using three furnaces. The brilliance, radiance, and variegation is attained through oxide compounds of gold, silver, copper, iron, manganese, and other minerals that are mixed into the melted quartz sand. The hand-blown globular forms are the precursors to the elongated cylinders from which plate glass is usually fashioned, used for church windows and in glass restoration. In creating the glass sculptures, the work process was concluded sooner, the bulbs were evenly rounded, separated from the blowpipe, and cooled off. The special form and shading of the 46 Colours were therefore not the result of an artistic design, but rather an intermediate product, which was actually created through an everyday routine. It is part of Grcic’s concept to decontrol processes of design, for it is her intention to emphasise the capriciousness of colour designation, on the one hand, and the special meaning of multiple authorship, on the other. This approach manifests in the elaboration of her various projects, be it in her video, in the writing in the public space of the City of Graz, or now in the colouring itself.
The Language of Stones
The fragile glass bulbs shimmer against the steep, precipitous, and slightly overhanging tuff cliff. Some shine for moments in the sun. Natural light sheds colour on individual sections of the rock face for minutes at a time, evoking dapples of light with a variegated glow. The shadows of deciduous trees, along with the diagonal layering of cooled lava veins and its angular disaggregation, enhances the picturesque effect—not only of the coloured glass, but also of the rock face. The superimposed forms hover above the coarse stone and afford the greatest imaginable contrast to the elementary power of creation that is just barely intimated in the cooled tuff. The crust of the earth compounds its entire mass—folding, squeezing, rotating, tearing, and pressing it together along the surface. Mountains, basins, or volcanoes are pushed, banked up, sunken, or ejected. Remnants of these forces read like an open book about geological time in space, addressing anyone open to its perusal.
Throughout history there have been very different ideas about the formation of the earth’s surface. Older geognosy, represented by Werner, surmised that there had been a primeval ocean that left behind sedimentary rock, which is worn down by erosion. This so-called Neptunism was replaced by geological Plutonism, which essentially ascribed the texture of the earth’s surface as having resulted from a force emanating from the core of the earth, the activity of volcanoes, and the tectonic movements of the earth’s crust. In the southeastern part of Styria, several such geological phenomena coincide. The Graz Basin emerged not only through subsidence resulting from plate-tectonic shifts; it was also geologically shaped by huge volcanic eruptions later (in two phases, eleven million and two million years ago respectively) and by erosion. Eons before there had been a sea here, and its umpteen-million-year-old sedimentation still today offers proof of the changes it effected in geological history.
This landscape forms the backdrop for the third part of the work by Tamara Grcic. In a figurative sense, the crystal colours make their way back to their very origins, where they had been ejected from the earth’s core as liquid mineral mass, compressed by the force of tons, or chemically metamorphosed into new compounds. On this very unique tuff wall in Klöch, the language of colours is connected to a language of stones, which inspires, perhaps even more impressively than the museum exhibition, fantasies about the immeasurable length of earth’s geological history, about a period devoid of human life. Human language continues to layer its expressions, and its word-images strive for proportion and reality in the constellation of the “most exceptional embodiments of the elementary, nameless, unaccountable forces that, in chaotic disarray, make up nature. Depending on whether these are forces of wear and tear, they engender opposing forms, some soft or even elusive, and others raw and torn at the same time. Developing between the two extremes is the geometry of the crystals, by way of which an order evolves, extending into the stagnant material.” The escarpment near Klöch conveys a sense of such forces of wear and tear, the elementary conditions of heat and pressure, their raw power in the subterranean melting pot, and the process of cooling in a dizzying period “with a much more stagnant patience than found in swift human perseverance”, as described by Roger Caillois.
The Language of Colours
It is first here, where the coloured glass bulbs set against the rock are basking in the light of day, that the conceptual resonance and visual precision so characteristic of Tamara Grcic’s oeuvre find completion, in interplay with the memory of the artistic activities in Graz. The colours, liberated from their somewhat stiff museal nomenclature, now appear softer and more diaphanous, sometimes surreal. At the same time, they continue to exist in word form, as a self-contained linguistic unit that becomes poetic through the enunciated sound material, in the individual image of lettering, or as luminous light colour arising in the space of nature as if painted. It follows that the same designations appear, in the various contexts, abstract, even autonomous, yet here they seem to have more strongly found themselves at the same time, for they are more closely connected to their arbitrary character.
This is astounding. Colour, in particular, arises in the eye as a highly mutable, insubstantial, and evanescent quality of things. It sparks visual stimuli of perception that do not correlate with physical reality and create a unique aesthetic reality, whether immersed in the synergy of colour resonance or as tense states provoked by colour contrasting. Colour is inevitably conceived as a complex perceptual phenomenon with multiple visages. Although its wavelength is precisely definable, it remains autonomous in terms of overall effect. Colour is neither a substance nor an attribute of light; it rather arises through subjective sensation that registers light waves as a stimulus and processes it at varying intensity. Interacting here are physical, physiological, psychological, medical, and even linguistic aspects. Colours are like individuals, like stones and people, distinguished by their mutability and reciprocal interaction. On the one hand, they are impacted by human perception, yet they elude human influence, on the other, due to their physical facticity. Colours are a conflicting phenomenon, which painting in particular is very apt at harnessing productively. Josef Albers identified colour as a deceptive hybrid creature and differentiated between vision as a subjective sensory experience, the “actual fact”, and the objective-physical world of the visible as “factual fact”. Albers considered illusory colour to be the “the most relative medium in art”, which attains its true purpose and sole sensory reality in the deviation from its inherent colourfulness.
Tamara Grcic’s emblematic colours blossom in radiant glass against an angular rock face of volcanic rock, they become animated through a group of 46 people, and they surprise passers-by or bring urban law enforcement to the scene when the ephemeral chalk words lining the walls and streets of public space, having been fashioned by the hands of pupils, are read by the “wrong” people. In her work, the artist traces a formally densified and principally open-ended relationship between humans and the things of nature, with both poles discovering a common language. In 46 Farben, the artist creates situations at three sites within Styria which make communication possible not only between people, but also between things and people, and things and things, inasmuch as she applies the expressive language of colours to the rigid language of stones.
The tuff, basalt, olivine, and haematite, as remnants of volcanic periods, bring into play a temporal geological dimension that transcends living memory. Today, in the twenty-first century, in the age of human agency, the question remains as to how the non-human realm of nature, animals, and things can be reconciled, in view of the disastrous balance of civilisation, with the social disposition of humans. We are materially encroaching upon an antecedent presence when our legacies mark the surface of the earth in a way that will outlast our species by millions of years. Art may not be able to adequately address this issue, but language assumes the role mediator in this fundamental conflict. The work of Tamara Grcic reminds us that things and colours and people engage with a language capable of expression. What we call the social life of colours rewrites the exchange among people and between people and things. This can only play out through forms of translation. The artistic work illustrates processes of translation and thus an inner principle of language. Language is more than just expression and message. Words carry with them “emotional connotations” and the portrayed shows non-immediate remnants that are “weighted with a heavy, alien meaning”. Tamara Grcic detaches from the crystals the original symbolizing capacity of the colour words and translates them into her own—spatial, visual, and spoken—language of art. Thus liberated from the meaning of the message, language itself engages in action in Grcic’s work, and herein rests—more so than its social life, even—the soul of the 46 Farben.