Renate Puvogel


You would think that it is irrelevant in which of the Ludwig Forum’s side galleries Bea Otto was to set up her multipart installation, for, after all, the rooms strongly resemble one another in terms of their atmosphere thanks to having approximately the same dimensions, height, and whitewashed surfaces; everywhere the industrial character of the building is emphasized by the support constructs with pillars and struts. In reality though, the assigned space — nothing less than the zone of the main entrance to the former umbrella factory — is ideally suited to Bea Otto’s intention. With her work Bea Otto responds to the specific location, scrutinizing its history and its architectonic structure, exploring the space as a shaped entity and shapeable essence, and in doing so embracing the boundaries of a space separating the inside from the outside. As I would like to show, it is precisely in this specific space that the relationship between outside and inside comes to play an exceptional role, and not just in light of the different uses of long ago and today, but also because the very circumstance of this relationship is reflected architectonically. Since the artist is particularly interested in the criteria of space, place, and time, they are to be found in her multipart installation in diverse ways, in the ambivalence between inside space-outside space, between shell and core, fullness and emptiness, history and the present, built and lived space. Here Bea Otto takes up the problem frequently discussed by city authorities, namely that the Ludwig Forum is hardly noticeable from the street — an access road to the center of town — and thus not appealing enough to lure visitors. A visible entrance zone could help to overcome this fear of the unknown, not least for a public for whom a cultural institution like the Ludwig Forum is new ground. Curiously enough, this is particularly the case for the residents of the surrounding neighborhood.

Bea Otto’s first step was not to open the former factory entrance, as could have been expected, but rather to demonstratively barricade it with a timber boarding. Assembled out of transformed materials from the Ludwig Forum’s stockpile, the constructed side of the boarding with its struts faces the street, so that inside and outside are switched around and what is usually concealed now revealed. Furthermore, she filled a second former entrance niche on the long, inhospitable frontage with a photo of a detail of a slanting brick wall. Already during the run-up to the exhibition she had drawn attention to these places of transition thematically, namely through two strange, indeed absurd large photos: one showed a gray curtain, the other the rear of a ripped poster. With these irritating interventions she thwarted the expected. And it is not by chance that with the latter she evoked the Nouveaux Réalistes, who critically took to the streets with their aggressive poster actions around 1960.

As if in passing, the interventions at the entrances moreover draw attention to the architectonic peculiarity that the exhibition does not take place on street level but approximately at the height of the protruding awning above the former main entrance. Accordingly, Bea Otto’s exhibition space is not just located beyond the bulwark of the wall but also above it, in other words in a labile zone of transition. Then it must have been in this area that the stairs providing access from the street to the factory’s administration and onto the manufacturing level were once located; today it is still that of the spacious central hall and the side galleries. This moment of difference, solely reconstructible in the imagination, remains present in the interior space itself — and indeed in a way that seems inherent to every intervention, namely ambivalently, and thus open to various interpretations. Firstly, here in the interior the artist launches a counterattack against her outside installation. She unblocks the round window, covered over for the preceding exhibitions, and removes the high skirting boards and the section connecting the wall to the floor behind them. This reveals the auxiliary structure of the plasterboard walls fronting the original wall, now also visible behind it. The original wall is now, so to say, blocked on both sides. And yet the space, into which even light penetrates due to the missing skirting, expands in the direction of the industrial building and seemingly even outwards. It founders, now caught in an intermediate state between museum and factory, and indeed between reality and illusion. The steps Bea Otto takes have more in common with the changes made by a Michael Asher than the interventions of artists from the 1980s, for they are conceptual, initiate a shift of context, and query the role of a White Cube for exhibitions, while not excluding the relationship to the industrial utilization of a space. The expansive, bright space now perceivable in reality is turned into a place where things convene and to which intellectual ideas respond and unfurl.

Such thoughts are expressly fuelled by a rectangular insular platform that, enclosing one of the two pillars, hovers just over the floor. A second level, the panel once again takes up the question as to the raised plane of the Forum’s exhibition space and asserts itself as unassailable, undermining any clear-cut associations with pure sculpture on the one hand or useful architectural elements on the other. How is the panel to be interpreted then? As the sample piece of a floor covering? As a pedestal? As a protective board? As a safe haven? As a black square? Or entirely differently, as a raft rescuing from peril? In any case, the simple paling-board construct coated in black paint sets itself apart from the existing dark-brown museum floor out of tropical timber. Rougher in terms of its material, the square is very precisely cut so that it narrows on one side. Held precariously in balance, the associations offered are not confirmed, but rather the slant of the former stairs surfaces once again in the viewer’s mind. Irritated, the viewer is moved to gradually leave this field and cast an eye around the whole room, pondering. And because Bea Otto, discrete in her calculations, leaves it almost empty, her concept of sparing settings, as radical as it is subtle, comes to light all the more clearly.

Responding to the hovering timber panel protruding out of the center is a used greenish sleeping mat lying on the floor in the dimmest corner of the room. Although in its flat geometric form comparable, here the scale is more clearly oriented on human dimensions than those of architecture, without this guaranteeing any sense of stability however. Merely a temporary place to stay, a makeshift bed for someone passing through, is all the provisional arrangement seems to promise. As plain and indeed worn-out as its material is, it is positioned very explicitly. Bea Otto delights in working with contrasting moments or qualities like these, for they allow her to evade conclusive ascriptions and associations, keeping an intervention in an enthralling, ambivalent state that raises the level of attention. It is through a careful handling of the materials and their exact placement that precisely the everyday, the provisional, gains an aesthetic of intellectual incisiveness. Located at a discrete distance from the mat is a cross-country ski pole, set tilted in a crack between the floorboards, marking a point, a spot, and as Bea Otto conceives it, an approximation of a place much in the same way the Readymade, an alien element serving completely different purposes, was transferred into the space hitherto reserved for art and joins together two different spheres. Etymologically, the Old High German meanings of ‘Ort’ (place) are instructive here. ‘Ort’ not only designated a geographic position, a geometric place but also the tip of a bladed weapon, so that the object appears to give the place a meaning. The motif is by no means chosen haphazardly. But uncertainty remains; although the pole is carefully worked and precisely positioned, it fails to promise anything reliable, nothing for our perception and even less for the ‘thing in itself’.

The viewer believes to be able to make out — in the extended visual line of the ski pole — a small dark camera at eye level on the white wall. But upon coming closer the black figure turns out to be merely a gap, a segment sawn out of the wall in the shape of a camera. It remains open in which direction the ‘virtual’ camera is pointing, into the dark depths or out into the bright room. Again this intervention characterizes a situation of transition, here the threshold from a used to a feigned space, from the real to the imagined spatiality. With the camera as subject, Bea Otto closes the circle to the video still in the anteroom to the exhibition. There a beamer projects a photo on the wall that shows an installation at a completely different location. While the direction of the projection links it closely to the exhibition, the photo is based on Bea Otto’s contribution to a group exhibition in an Aachen allotment garden. The latter stems from an important initiative by the Aachen von der Milwe Gallery in 2008, precisely as the garden area had to make way for a car park to service the new Tivoli Stadium. For her installation landauswärts, Bea Otto chose a summer house, albeit one which only the massive whitewashed walls testified to previous lively goings-on. The current projection reverses the original situation by hauling, doubled as it were, the outside into the inner space. Back then she placed a slide carousel in the ruined interior of the small summer house so that, passing through a window frame, the beam was cast outside, projecting images of nature in the open, i.e. into the invisible. As soon as someone stepped into the beam of light, the one-time blooming idyll became visible on their body. In a staging that was as forceful as it was simple, Bea Otto unequivocally succeeded in creating an allegory for the sacrificing of a functioning social fabric in favor of a building promising commercial profit. The future, however, would soon make a mockery of that project. Here in the Forum the focus is placed on other levels of meaning, namely self-reflectively on that of the projection of a projection, on the other hand on that of the window, the framing. The viewer looks at the slide carousel, placed in front of a half-demolished wall; with its sharp beam of light pointing at him/her like a gun, he/she is caught between two sources of light, one of which has meanwhile gone out. Conflicting lines of vision confuse orientation, point to dislocations between inside and outside, between here and there. Not least the situation is about weighing up between decline and preservation. The contrast between the dismal situation at the time the photo was taken and the current clean museum ambient is acutely felt.

The frame as such, here the immaterial one of the immaterial picture on the wall, marks eo ipso a borderline situation. It focuses the gaze on a detail and ensures the transition from one zone of reality into another. Bea Otto once more takes up the motif of the frame from the summer house and the projection by leading the visitor — who proceeds from the projection back to the exhibition room — over a threshold, a metal construction site fence, of which however only the stable rod system remains. In its unrigged state it is self-evidently of no use either industrially or in the museum realm. Reduced to a mere frame, the bars are moreover stripped of any possibility to function as a barrier and protect or demarcate something, guiding the visitor’s gaze and sparking curiosity for the staging. And so the circle is closed. In the fence Bea Otto repeats the geometric form and with the empty center also echoes the negative figure of the camera. It becomes apparent that one part of the exhibition always refers to another, a web of main themes emerging. This strategy of formal, intermediary and content-specific correlations pervades all of Bea Otto’s work. The situation created in the Ludwig Forum Aachen has to be seen as nothing other than almost ideal for her argumentation, while the visitor, since Bea Otto’s exhibition, is moved to take in and comprehend the spaces of the Ludwig Forum anew, from the ground up.

Translation: Paul Bowman