by Dilpreet BhullarNov 17, 2021
Austrian artist Brigitte Kowanz’s work negotiates the phenomenon of light to create peculiarly intricate and beautiful sculptural works. Having started her career in the 1970s, Kowanz today is a seasoned veteran who is continuing to grow her creative practice, exploring a marvellously experimental trajectory that includes photography, films, video, sculptures, installations and more. Kowanz, who was trained in the applied arts at the University of Applied Arts Vienna, has chosen to give back to her beloved cultural world as a professor in applied arts alongside being a practising artist. A dualistic role which has perhaps impacted her understanding of the art market as an artist creating and selling her work and as an educator who is responsible for shaping and inspiring the artists and creators of tomorrow.
“Teaching has always been very important to me. I have always enjoyed the discourse with my students. Obviously I have always been honest with my students about what really awaits them after their diploma,” says the artist, “But in the end they have to decide for themselves. Luckily some of my students can make a living from their art. Others found other disciplines or niches so to say, which is just as amazing. The art market has changed a lot since I started practising as an artist. It is what it is: something that incorporated a late turbo-capitalistic dynamic. And you either go with it or not. It is important, however, to always observe it with a distance.”
There is an interesting note of detachment to Kowanz’s creative philosophy, it is perhaps a mark of her own journey into becoming an artist which in itself was organic and dare I say, natural. Ever since she was a young child, she was artistically inclined, drawing away her time, the creative support she received in her high school prepared her for her studies at the University of Applied Arts Vienna. As a young student-artist, much of Kowanz’s interest lay in traditional sculptures, her time was dominated by classes that dealt with working in heavy stones. Here perhaps, she faced the early resistances to her artistic learning curve, being taught by men who did not truly appreciate women studying the form. “For me the context was way too conservative and so I changed to a more interesting class. I have always been interested in photography, film, and video and that way I started to work with light,” says the artist. “What I wanted to do from the very beginning was to work with new media and with space. Hence, I combined fluid paintings with fluorescent light installations. As you can imagine, my installations were not exactly what the art market asked for.”
While it is true that Kowanz’s work wasn’t exactly what the art market asked for, it wasn’t even what the market had as yet dreamt of. Her work with light in the context of space grew to include elements of code, videos, aluminium, mirrors, textiles and so much more. Light and space for Kowanz are inseparable and intrinsically interconnected. Her work with spaces that are generated by light are atmospherical and are often virtual in nature. “Most of the mediums I use,” she says, “ are light-supported. Light, language and code are information carriers. I encounter light as an autonomous medium. But what is light? Light makes everything visible, yet itself remains invisible/unnoticed. Light is language. Light is a code. Light is information. Light is what we see. Everything we see and know, we know through light. Through my installations, I am trying to make light itself visible and conceivable.”
The essence of Kowanz’s work is vested in her use of light, a notoriously liminal medium but one that is evocative of a poetically rich visual tradition, it is fascinating to understand the artist’s own inspiration and sources for her work, which she sites to be conceptual and minimal art. She has also mentioned the stimulus that was the work of Vilem Flusser, Peter Weibel and Paul Virilio upon her early practice. I think an oft overlooked aspect to Kowanz’s work especially in terms of how its shape over the decades is the communicative reciprocity of collaboration.
Kowanz’s art is both intellectually and emotionally in conversation with the viewer, this may be a result of the various roles she has donned through her career as an artist, an educator, the curator and the thinker. Much of these parts depend and feed off of collaboration and exchange. “Participatory moments are crucial to me. I have always wanted to include viewers into the pieces, I viewed them and their reception, their experience and interpretation as part of the pieces. I never wanted to predefine the result of the viewers reception, a direct approach is key,” she says. “Openness and responsibility are of great importance, certainly, if viewer decide to encounter my piece only aesthetically that is alright. If they are curious and take the effort to decipher the encoded/hidden information that lies within, then there is certainly something there to discover.”