Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language: Nora Schultz

Nora Schultz is a German artist working in Berlin whose work is currently included in the group exhibition Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language, on view until August 27, 2012. The exhibition—the brainchild of Laura Hoptman, curator in the Department of Painting and Sculpture—explores the moment when language as a system of signs is freed from the rules of purposeful communication and the confines of the page and treated instead as a medium, like a sculptural element or paint. Visual art and language have been playmates for centuries. In the show, a physical timeline of artworks guides the visitor through an abbreviated history of language experimentations, charting the diverse activities of such artists as Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Kurt Schwitters, the de Campos brothers, Robert Smithson, Bruce Nauman, Henri Chopin, and Ian Hamilton Finlay, among many others. This section sets the stage for a group of 12 contemporary artists, including Schultz, whose diverse artistic projects might carry the seeds of language-inspired art of the past century but whose interests and creative output are distinctly of this moment.

Nora Schultz. Discovery of the Primitive. 2011. Steel, camping mats, PE foam, paper, ink, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and dépendance, Brussels. © 2012 Nora Schultz

Schultz is interested in the origins and formation of language; how, as a system of communication it affects the objects and images that shape our wider cultural topographies. Much of her work emerges out of the nebulous hotbed where cognitive processes, remnants of visual observation, and historical memory all comingle and eventually, by way of association and relations, become a thing, a picture, or a word. At what point do disparate elements coalesce into meaning? Is it our subjective associations, cultural conditioning, an object’s material make-up, the name we assign to it? Such are the questions that Nora Schultz’s work tosses into the spaces it inhabits.

Working primarily with scrappy industrial materials that she scavenges from sites around her Berlin studio—metal grates, mats, rods, tires, tubes, etc.—Schultz’s practice can be described as process-based. She assembles her “found footage,” as she calls it, into fragile, precariously balanced abstract sculptures which frequently double as analog printing stations. These interactive structures have made appearances in many of her past exhibitions, most recently in her solo show at the Portikus in Frankfurt.

For Ecstatic Alphabets, she installed Printing Station with Tunnel-Press and Counted Mats (2010) and Discovery of the Primitive (2011).The former is a floor assemblage including a stenciled mat, a metal roll, a belt, and sheets of paper, printed with numbers in the countdown from 10 to zero. The latter is also a “printing machine.” Prior to its current upright and assembled state, each element of Discovery of the Primitive served as support material for a labor-intensive manual print cycle which involved “inking” the metal armature and foam pieces with wet paint and then pressing or rubbing paper against them. Patterns emerged on the paper, closer to prelinguistic images or utterances than to any legible text, reflecting, Schultz has said, “the process of building language.”

When the artist was here installing her works, I was struck by her mode of working. Moving around in the space, focused yet elusive, she was assembling the sculptures as if she was in a kind of inner dialogue, creating a space that only she inhabits but that generates a broader energy field. A sort of self-sustaining feedback loop of actions was taking place, with her setting up the different scrap elements, followed by the physical act of printing, and concluding with the vertical assemblage of all parts. To me it was the production of sculpture with all its contingencies—materials, space, time—each step in the process part of a larger stance toward the physical things in the world that define us and through which we define the world. Schultz does not give us the assurance of structured narratives but precisely because the work flies in the face of explanations, it opens up passages, offering a terrain where disparate objects enter into a humming conversation of possible meanings.

Here are some images during the installation.

Installation of Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2012 Nora Schultz

Installation of Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2012 Nora Schultz

Installation of Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2012 Nora Schultz