Translated from the German by Tim Jones
On the roof of the glass vestibule of the Casino Luxembourg, known as the “Aquarium,” stand seven strange, pale yellowish figures. They are in a row, equidistant from one another and arranged according to size: a lion, two men, and various geometric and organic, abstract shapes. The group has something awkward about it, as if the figures had assembled for a parade on the roof. It is a strange assortment of the type of sculptures familiar to us as common urban fixtures; a bit of ab straction and a bit of history, a few local artists and a few heroes in a pleasant mixture.
These sculptures on the roof are all different in shape, but their materiality is identical. Their bright, milky bodies negate any kind of statics or solidity. They seem to have been cast from soap, and the darker it becomes, the more a slight glimmer from their bodies seems to become perceptible. At night, they appear to have completely lost their materiality. Like ghostly apparitions, they glow with a greenish yellow, phosphorescent light. These seven sculptures are part of Simone Decker’s twelve-part Ghost series: Ghost Auguste, Ghost Carl, Ghost Lucien, Ghost Winston, Ghost Ulrich, Ghost Daniel and Ghost Michi are the titles of the protagonists on the roof. The names do not give much away; rather, they suggest the kind of familiarity that exists within a family or among friends. And, in a sort of way, this familiarity may actually exist for visitors of the exhibition. For Simone Decker’s sculptures refer to existing sculptures by other artists on public display in the city of Luxembourg. Their titles are either the names of the sculptors or the peo ple represented. Simone Decker has installed five more objects in the basement of the art gallery; their luminosity can be seen much more intensively owing to the complete darkness there.
A close inspection reveals the technique used by the artist: one can see layers of what look like plaster bandages. The sculptures are casts of the art works found in the city. Simone Decker made them using thermoplastic support bandages together with epoxy resin and photoluminescent pigment. The technique has deliberately not been concealed. The simplicity and speed of this specially developed casting procedure made it possible for Decker’s Ghosts to be made directly from their models in the streets of Luxembourg. However, wrapping the works in bandages led to the loss of the subtleties of the surface structure and contour; sharp outlines have been replaced by softer and seemingly more fragile lines and edges. In their external appearance, Decker’s casts seem rather like mummified copies of their models. This produces a finely rendered shift that goes beyond the geographical one and is typical of Simone Decker’s work.
The path to a sculpture’s being set up in the public sphere is laborious. The process mostly causes long and heated discussion. This does not occur solely for ideological or economic reasons. An urban space seems to change its own hierarchical structure so much when a work of art is introduced that the users of this space feel irritation and the need to protest. After some time, however, when the objects have found their established place and have become a familiar fixture, they are as a rule simply accepted, and often ignored. Despite having walked across the same square countless times, we only discover the statue on the fountain after many years because our gaze comes to rest upon it by chance. Or for months we try to avoid the monument with its voluminous pedestal, but cannot resist answering the dead regard of the person it honours one more time. And we have never been able to stand the cubic clump of stone in the pedestrian precinct. Art works in the public sphere generally have something ghostly about them. They appear to us at irregular intervals; they can pursue us or leave us in peace, excite us or bore us. And we are very often astonished to realize that they are still there.
Simone Decker’s Ghosts present the familiar and unfamiliar, beloved or unloved art works to the visitors to her exhibition once more, no longer as physical bodies, but as afterimages, as if the original objects had etched themselves onto the retina of the passersby during the daytime and begun to glow again at night as a negative apparition in front of the façade of the Casino; or as ghosts of the sculptures, which eke out an existence somewhere in the city and, thanks to Decker’s work, can now mingle with their own kind for a time, if only as glowing casts.
The use of photoluminescent pigment gives the sculptures a new concept of time. During the day, the paint molecules store up energy that they give off again at night in the form of the typical green light. As in the case of human biorhythms, activity and regeneration are determined by the cycle of the sun. Decker’s sculptures thus seem suddenly to have a cyclically organized life, something which is diametrically opposed to the existence of their models. Like every memorial or monument, the latter have been put up with the motivation of permanence, or even immortality; however, even they fight against the aging process.
Simone Decker’s selection and artistic appropriation of the sculptures, and the installation of the reproductions in her exhibition, encourage an interrogation of habits and systems of order. The objects on the roof have each been detached from the architectural setting of their individual presentation, becoming instead part of an installation in which they are positioned solely according to the criterion of size. The cast of the statue of Winston Churchill and the cast of the geometrical abstract sculpture of Ulrich Rückriem, for example, are neighbours only because their models are of a similar height. This arrangement of the sculptures according to purely formal aspects is the expression of a very personal approach to the different motives of bourgeois representation, whose expression sculptures in the public domain always are.
The ghosts are an alternative proposal to habits of perception that lead to art works in the public sphere being taken for granted. They offer a shifted perspective that recognizes the urban space as a personal space and a city’s public art collection as an active element in the lives of its inhabitants. Simone Decker’s ghosts become old acquaintances that have already waylaid us a few times: Ghost Amalia, Ghost Maggy, Ghost Fabrizio, Ghost Henri, Ghost Bernar.
The motif of perspective shifts and particularly the exploration of the way public space is arranged are frequent elements in Simone Decker’s work. Some examples are works like Chewing in Venice (1999), Prototypes d’espaces infinis (1999/2001), Jérémy (1999), Pavillons im Musterbau und drumherum (2000), Seaworld Biel-Bienne (2000), 20 Pavillons pour Saint-Nazaire (1999) and Glaçons 1–9 (2001). All of these works consist of photographs, mostly series of photographs, that propose sculptures or architectural elements for the public domain. They are documentations of real outside installations of these objects. But it is only the perspective of the camera that lends the works a visual presence and a dimension that puts them in the relationship to the urban or architectural environment desired by the artist. In Chewing in Venice, for example, the chewing-gum objects only become sculptures that fill squares and lanes by virtue of the fact that they are photographed right in front of the lens. Owing to their organic shapes and their elastic surfaces, these works can be called anti-forms of classical sculptures in the urban space. Here, too, Decker is looking for the opposite of the static, the fixed, the permanent, the finished.
In her photographic works, Simone Decker again manages to appropriate public space, although in a reversed sense. Whereas with the sculptural work Ghosts she takes the works of art that shape the public space and transfers them to the context of her own work, here she uses photographic documentary devices to make whole squares, streets or lanes elements in or backgrounds for her work. The artist occasionally adopts an ironic attitude, something which is apparent above all in the photographic works that suggest an independent narrative, such as Turtle show (2000) and Le va-et-vient du Mont Saint-Watou (2000), or Recently in Arnhem (2001), a series of four large photographic prints that tell of a very unconventional natural spectacle near the Rhine bridge.
There are two other works that must be examined in this context. So weiß, weißer geht’s nicht (2000) is a series of night-time photographs showing various streets or houses. In each of the pictures, the wall of a house or even an entire house shines out completely white, as if the real façade has been replaced by a gigantic light source. In reality, however, the buildings themselves have been brightly lit up by powerful stage lights. The effect that makes the façades look white can in turn only be seen through the medium of photography. A slight overexposure makes the houses appear to give up their materiality, structure and solidity, and they become sources of light. This was not visible on the spot to the naked eye.
In this work, Simone Decker again intervenes directly in her surroundings, since, in reality, the houses in So weiß, weißer geht’s nicht were illuminated. But there is an interesting contrast between this action in the small city of Borken and the docu mentation of the action, which is at the same time the work’s end result. At the location itself, the buildings and façades became unusually prominent, but in the documentation exactly the opposite occurs. The photographs tell of an absurd paradox: that something is lit up to become invisible. This is only made perceptible through the introduction of the time factor of the exposure in the camera. Here again, there are a number of small shifts that Decker uses to interrogate habits. The house façades seem to have been erased; they literally shine by their absence. It is this concept of absence, which has to be clearly distinguished from the phenomenon of emptiness, that Simone Decker uses to make things visible. The artificial lighting makes the photographs look like film sets, and in this way the snow-white shapes become projection surfaces upon which viewers have to fill in some of the gaps themselves: the presumed shape of the absent house façades, the history of the building and its residents, the future of this residential area, but also their own experiences, desires and fears with regard to life in a small town.
For Curtain wall (2002), Simone Decker photographed four different buildings in Toulouse and then had the photos printed on six-metre-high curtains. These life-sized architectural views were then installed in niches, unused corners or lanes in other districts of the city in such a way that the buildings seemed to have found a temporary new site there. This work had less to do with spectacular illusion than with minimal reconfigurations or modifications of the urban landscape. For the duration of the exhibition, new architectural juxtapositions were created that lent the surrounding streets and squares a new face, as well as connecting the different districts with their own very individual social profiles. By using free-hanging curtains, Simone Decker also succeeded in providing a very temporary and inconstant alternative to the static nature of urban architecture. For her exhibition in the Casino Luxembourg, she has adapted this work so it can be shown indoors, installing the curtains in such a way that an impression of whole streets with house façades and the edges of buildings arises as collaged fragments of the city of Toulouse. The exhibition space itself, in which the curtains are hung like partitions, has largely lost its own character, and even its own perspective and proportions.
In Ghosts Simone Decker chooses her own partners from the urban space, and in the above-mentioned photographic works such as Chewing in Venice she uses the city as a background for her interventions. In So weiß, weißer geht’s nicht and in Curtain wall, however, she works on the urban space directly as a backdrop. Curtain wall and So weiß, weißer geht’s nicht seem like two complementary aspects of the same approach. In the one work, there is the temporary removal of architecture by means of light, and in the other a temporary addition to the architecture using curtains. Again, the artist succeeds in making a subtle alternative proposal that suggests that we recognize the urban space no longer just as a backdrop, but as a changeable backdrop to our own lives.
In Simone Decker’s œuvre, the photographic works are on an equal footing with the sculptural works and installations. Materials, techniques and dimensions seem to result solely from the exigencies of a particular project. All the works tend to use strange shifts rather than spectacular effects to tell of a large number of possibilities and an enormous potential. They seem to be the expression of a belief in mutability. Like the photographic works, Simone Decker’s sculptures and installations always have the character of prototypes, of models for completely different, new interventions. The adaptation of the Toulouse curtain work as an indoor installation in Luxembourg could be an example of this. For Simone Decker, any form of hierarchy separating a concept from its execution, a copy from its original, or a work from its documentation does not seem to exist. Instead, her works suggest that public space can, or perhaps even must, be occupied, and that it does not matter whether an intervention in the urban space can be carried out on a large scale, or only with the available means or a slight shift in perspective.