“Wood may only comprise a single syllable but it represents a world of beauty and wonder.”
Theodor Heuss (1884-1963)

Against the Grain

On the Work of Heiko Börner

Upon first encountering Heiko Börner’s wooden sculptures, you rub your eyes in amazement and wonder “How is this possible?” These objects seem as if they had been folded, compressed, twisted and stretched – or as if they were flowing. But they are not shaped in such ways, or assembled out of pieces, instead they are carved from a solid piece of wood. Forces appear to have imposed a form on the material that is essentially alien to it. Or, to be more precise, shaped it into a form that runs counter to our visual experience, because it clashes with our habitual ways of seeing. Strange metamorphoses are under way: angular structures seem to have been drawn out and twisted or bent. In other cases, a whole appears to have been divided. The separate parts are linked, as if the solid wood had become some kind of malleable mass that can be stretched out until it eventually rips apart. In contrast to the smooth surfaces of two opposed parts, this connecting piece between them looks almost like a cluster of rough fibres or the bark of a tree. In other sculptures, a drop-shaped structure crops out of a block and clings to it fluidly like a drop of water to a faucet.

Shapes derived directly from the natural world, or even anthropomorphisms, are foreign to Heiko Börner’s visual language. There are only very distant resemblances to organic forms, the funnel-shaped calyx of a flower, or the head of a mushroom. Dynamically slanting planes and edges contrast with bent, rounded or twisted areas, their splintered, jagged surface is partly created by an axe, and renders the course of the forces applied to it visible. Or, to put it more precisely, they serve the purpose of an ingenious optical illusion, as wood can only be bent or twisted to a very limited extent. Heiko Börner is a master of his material and the methods of giving it form. After attending a vocational school for woodcarvers and a school for master craftsmen and studying at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna under the sculptor Bruno Gironcoli, the artist has the means at his disposal to make the seemingly impossible credible, using visual evidence to convince us that what we think we see is real. In the last decade and a half, Heiko Börner has used his material as a point of departure to radically purify his artistic expression, reducing it to elementary shapes. Objects of dynamic beauty are the result, owing nothing to superficial effects, but originating in the mastery a sculptor who knows how to aptly translate his concepts into material.

Heiko Börner holds a very distinctive position among contemporary artists working with wood. In a way, it seems as if the renaissance of wood as a material for artistic production that began with Modernism is perpetuated in his work. In the last century, it was especially artists who were interested in the elevation of expression who chose to work with wood, including illustrious names like Ernst-Ludwig Kirchner, Ernst Barlach and Constantin Brâncuşi, as well as Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth in England. Albeit to varying degrees, the reason all those artists decided to use wood was because of the natural material’s special feel and organic warmth. It is understood that for Brâncuşi, the choice of the medium was determined by the substance of the artwork. Marble lends itself to the poignant contemplation of the origins of life, while wood works well for the tumultuous expression of life’s contradictions.1 Evidently, wood is inherently suited for the expression of vital forces, even the animistic, and the above-mentioned artists exploited this potential for their anthropomorphic or at least para-organic sculptures, even if clearly not all of them would have gone so far as Brâncuşi, who claimed that the art of woodcarving had been preserved only by Rumanian peasants (…) and those African tribes which had escaped the influence of Mediterranean civilization, ‘thereby retaining the art of reanimating matter.’

For other artists, an animistic animation of matter was and is not of interest. These are artists with a constructivist practice in the broadest sense, the creators of strongly altered wooden objects and assemblers of assemblages. They tend to downplay the materiality of wood, using paints and varnishes up to the point of completely effacing the natural structure. Constructivists proper like Alexander Rodchenko and Vladimir Tatlin used plywood and building timber. A desultory use of the material is characteristic for their work. Like other artists with a similar creative dynamic, their focus was obviously not on wood’s external surface as an agent of subjective expression or energetic presence. Instead, their objective was the creation of visual equivalents to the laws at the basis of perceptible reality. Ultimately, this too serves to elevate life. In 1944, Naum Gabo, one of the foremost theorists and important sculptors of Constructivism, put it this way in a letter to his friend, the English art critic Herbert Read: (…) ‘Abstract’ is not the core of the Constructive Idea I profess. This idea means more to me. It involves the whole complex of human relation to life. It is a mode of thinking, acting, perceiving and living. The Constructive philosophy recognizes only one stream in our existence – life (…). Any thing or action which enhances life, propels it and adds to it something in the direction of growth, expansion and development, is Constructive.

Heiko Börner’s artistic position is close to Constructivism or, in more contemporary terms, to constructive art. Although he admires sculptors like Rudolf Wachter (1923-2011), he could not concur with him in citing nature as the starting point for his artworks. Wachter let the material itself speak, giving it a shape in accord with its natural structure, its growth rings, furrows and knobs, without imitating the natural shapes. Börner’s wooden sculptures do not deny the character of their material, but their creator gives no recognizable consideration to the direction of the wood’s growth or its grain. In spirit he is closer to Naum Gabo. Börner, too, aims to find a visual articulation for something that lies behind reality as we perceive it, but that cannot be experienced through the senses per se.
When Gabo worked in stone, which in fact did not happen often, he was able to relieve the hard mass of this material of its appearance of solidity and weight through incisions, and thus to “create an impression of space that circulates through and around the mass”4 (as in Construction: Stone with a Collar, 1933). One of Gabo’s central themes was the definition of space. He subscribed to Einstein’s concept of space-time when he declared he felt that the visual character of space was not rectangular, but of a spherical nature when it came expressing it by sculptural means.5 The lines that Gabo sometimes incised into the surfaces of his spatial constructions – as did his brother Antoine Pevsner – and which highlight the directions in which those planes extend, like rays, correspond to the jagged, groove-like features of the fluid-like parts of Börner’s sculptures. In the 1930s, Gabo began to use wires or threads instead of solid planes, drawing his inspiration from mathematical models that physically represented developable surfaces.6 In some of his works Börner revisits this method. For instance his installation with string and sandstone of 2008, or his installations using barrier tape, but also his sculptures made in 2005 for the Stadtwerke (public utility works) of Arnstadt, Germany, and in 2008 for the Sächsische Landesgartenschau (Saxon horticultural show) in Reichenbach im Vogtland, Germany, using wood and steel rods.

Much like the Constructivists, who tried to find visual metaphors for the space-time continuum, Heiko Börner has long been interested in the fourth dimension – time – which is not accessible for the classic sculptor. His objects are spatio-temporal entities in a non-trivial sense: They make processes tangible. By their very nature, sculptures are static, provided the are not mobiles. Yet Heiko Börner summons all available means to virtually force the spectator into reading his objects as frozen instants of movement. His works are reminiscent of film stills, which optically arrest split seconds of film sequences but intimate their movement. Without metaphysical excess they ultimately visualize metamorphoses in which bodies change their shape, taking on new forms. In this, they pass through transitional stages and at the end arrive at a state that may be new, or similar to the original one. As it were, Börner’s sculptures fold the successive into the simultaneous. His piece for the Sächsische Landesgartenschau, for example, which in reality consists of two wooden blocks connected by steel rods, gives the impression of an executed movement by one block, obliquely poised and touching the ground with only one corner: As if it had risen up vertically, then turned left and moved forwards, finally settling in a horizontal position. Of course the steel rods that connect both blocks, visually forming curved surface, trace this movement.

Heiko Börner’s drawings and prints have an even stronger focus on visualizing movements and processes than his sculptural work. These are created parallel to the three-dimensional objects without being a sculptor’s sketches in the usual sense. They are sequences showing the progressive stages of transformational processes. A body emerges from a plane, changes its shape, reverts to its initial shape, and disappears. Two bodies unite in order to become something new that in turn changes its form, or one body divides into several. These processes may be cyclical, or they may be prolonged indefinitely. The print series are the point of departure for short animated films and videos that call to mind the experiments of the Swedish filmmaker Viking Eggeling (1880-1925), who had anticipated kinetic painting in the 1920s, which turned abstract forms into sequences of rhythmic development.

To encounter wooden sculptures that are persuasive, fascinating visual metaphors of abstract, complex correlations is a rare aesthetic experience. Heiko Börner charges wood, his material of choice, with a new and different meaning in the context of contemporary art. He neither lets nature speak directly, nor does he cause his material’s specific properties to vanish altogether. Distinct formal aims and the language of the material converge in an oeuvre that unites tension and harmony, realizing a visionary contemporary interpretation of art’s constructive principles.

Andreas Kühne and Christoph Sorger

  1. Ionel Jianou, quot. in: Read, Herbert: A Concise History of Modern Sculpture, London 1964 p. 191
  2. op. cit., pp. 187-189
  3. quoted in: Read, Herbert: The Philosophy of Modern Art, London 1964, p. 239
  4. Nash, Steven A.: „Naum Gabo – die Transparenz der konstruktiven Form“, p. 36, quoted in: Nash, Steven A . and Merkert, Jörn (ed.): Naum Gabo. Sechzig Jahre Konstruktivismus. Munich 1986.
  5. op. cit., p. 38
  6. ibid.

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