Images of Essence

On the Oeuvre of Heiko Börner

Since time immemorial it was the human figure that the sculptor fashioned: the gods of the Greeks had human bodies, as did the saints, the angels and the devils. Undeniably, the image of humans also dominated painting—but not with the same exclusivity as in sculpture.
Until the end of the 19th century, even well into the 20th century, sculptors were able to render their religious, social, ideological and allegorical ideas visible only by means of the human figure.

It was not until the 20th century that sculpture underwent a fundamental change: it lost some of its classical smoothness and finality of form. It became an expression of spiritual tensions and the intangibility of feelings and emotions, enabling new ways of seeing for the viewer.
Since then, the classical question in sculpture, CONTENT or FORM, has determined the discussion. Each form possesses its own content and each content has its own form. In sculpture, the artist deals with the relationship to material, the relationship to nature and the roots of things’ appearances in general—he outlines all of this in his sculptures.

Börner’s work is all about “flash” in the photographic sense. His objects are spatio-temporal entities. They make processes tangible. The seemingly folded, twisted, stretched or squeezed sculptures amaze the viewer, who rubs his eyes and asks: is this really made out of wood? If it is wood, how were such objects created? Is it possible to melt wood and cast it into forms, or do the sculptures consist of different pieces that have been assembled in a manner that hides the joints?
The truth is each of these wooden sculptures was made from one piece. This requires an artistic vision, perfect control of the material and great sculptural mastery of the artist!

The snapshots in time that Börner’s works are about are also manifest in his graphic film sequences. These videos reveal the principle of each sculptural work—as in a flipbook, a part of the piece of wood breaks away. Although the piece remains connected to the initial block, it stretches, virtually twists in the air and then returns to its original place and shape. Everything is as before, but for a moment, Heiko Börner captures a sequence of the process of movement in his artworks. For us as viewers, this means that we have to think the form back and also take it further, completely against both our familiar visual experiences and our experiences with wood as a material in general. Even though the film sequences facilitate the viewer’s understanding of the momentum of the objects, Börner wants the videos and charcoal drawings to be understood as works of art in their own right, not as sketches or drafts for the sculptures.

How are Börner’s wood sculptures created? He always begins with a piece of wood, such as a log or block, and then develops the objects—generally based on geometrical forms—out of this piece. The transformation of basic geometric forms is the basis of all of Börner’s works, not only his sculptures, but also his charcoal drawings and videos. The ideas he has in mind take shape—as enigmatic sculpture-beings with a life of their own. With the wooden sculptures this also includes the fine linear texture that covers the surface of all of the objects. This is so finely crafted that one automatically assumes that it was created with sculpting tools made especially for the purpose. Far from it! He strikes the grooves into the sculpture with the axe or the chisel. When he starts to work on the log, Heiko Börner has an idea of the object he wants to create, but the final form is created in the course of the working process. The sculptor Tony Cragg very aptly called this “thinking with material”. For Börner, the sculpture is completed at a moment in time, namely when the material is transformed in such a way that it is, for him, fixed in a certain state that is nevertheless in flux.

With Heiko Börner, sculpture is articulated as the vibrant and processual result of an artistic action. The integrity of the material is never violated or distorted. On the contrary, the specific characteristics are explicitly emphasized. Defects, such as knotholes, are integrated in the work. Nevertheless, the wood looks bent or folded. It exceeds the extent to which the material can in reality be transformed—and the fine, transparent white varnish applied at the end of each creation underscores the process and gives the sculpture a touch of “artificiality” to go along with its “naturalness“.

For the viewer, the perception of art is accompanied by direct experiences. The works make movement their subject on the one hand, and static forms on the other. The representation of the lifelike image as a depiction of existence in perspective with carefully developed, spatially ordered layers is not relevant for Börner. Instead he is concerned with forming aesthetic volumes in space, creating sculptures and wooden reliefs with organically flowing forms that no longer visualize the appearance of nature. The perception of the sculptures depends on the viewer’s point of view and changes from every perspective. In addition to playing with changing perspectives and their perception, Börner takes on the themes of gravity and balance as physical problems of mass and space. Weight and counterweight are carefully balanced. This evokes lightness in spite of the works’ monumentality and heaviness. Structures emerge that try to evoke nature between abstract and organic form.

Heiko Börner rejects aspects of content and attributions of meaning to the material. His work cannot be grasped in art-historical terminology either. He wishes the objects to be free of all narrative and metaphysical intentions and references.

And yet: in search of harmony and universal form, he searches for images of essence rather than appearance. Inspiration means capturing the moment of particular grace, the moment of beauty. Börner’s sculptures unfold an archaic, nuanced play of forms: woods are transformed into fascinating figures. His idiosyncratic, imaginative formal language ranges from the simple to the opulent, from the exuberantly sensual and chaotic to the coolly abstract, perfectly arrayed. The works are fragments of a fantasy world that survive the fleeting moment. They link tradition and modernity poetically.

Despite all the bold twists, the spatial limits of the material of wood are always visible and perceptible. Perhaps this explains why the sculptor Heiko Börner also works with expansive installations made of monochrome barrier tape. In these installations, space has no limits, and he connects architectural structures with each other in an exciting way. Although the material of plastic foil is in no way related to wood, these tours de force are immediately recognizable as his work, with their twists and final forms—and they also allow the viewer to look inside them, which is hardly possible with the solid wood pieces. This gives the artist Heiko Börner another chance to capitalize on space in order to amaze the viewer.

Angela Holzhäuer
M.A. art historian