Viernheim, 70 kilometres south of Frankfurt, is not exactly a fixture on the international art world calendar, but once again the town’s art society has hosted an impressive installation by Julia Ziegler. The exhibition space is located in the basement of a building that is over 500 years old, dominated by four imposing pillars. Some years ago the Berlin-based artist had temporarily sealed off and divided up a series of rooms by stretching threads between them, creating new ones in the process (Fadenarbeiten, Thread Works, 1994–6). The textile approach she used in that piece had a peculiar, unexpected force, and this new work, Proposition 1 (2004), showcases a material that in Ziegler’s hands once again reveals a surprising strength.
Daylight enters the vaulted cellar at a dramatic angle, through high windows. When the sun shines in, the pillars throw powerful shadows. The room is entered via a steep, straight flight of stairs down the side of one of the walls. As one descends, one overlooks the whole vault, a fact Ziegler exploited for dramatic effect: this view revealed the work in its entirety at the same time as seemingly promising physical interaction with it. But this expectation was frustrated: the bottom of the stairs was as far as it went, with a loosely slung cord barring entry.
The reasons for this go beyond abstract considerations of dramaturgy and reception. Ziegler completely covered the cellar’s stone floor with wallpaper. She cut lengths with different patterns into squares, with each side corresponding to the width of industrially manufactured rolls. But these remained identifiable because they ran either crossways or lengthways through the room, alternating with squares of other patterns. In other words she had interwoven various different wallpaper designs, and used them to make a new design of her own – a meta-pattern.
For all the diversity of the designs she selected – most of which came from a dealer who specializes in supplying film and television productions – Ziegler was careful to ensure that none of them triggered too obvious associations with any specific period: there were none of the large curving patterns in garish colours, for example, that are so often used as visual prompts for memories of the 1970s. In her installation tightly intertwined flowers met with regular checks, circles with lines, saturated colours with pastel shades. In the distance one could also make out embossed wallpaper, but the peculiarities of the individual types spread out before the viewer were lost, becoming unimportant as they merged to form an overall spatial impression.
The title of Ziegler’s piece comes from Owen Jones’ book The Grammar of Ornament (1856), whose first proposition reads: ‘The decorative arts arise from, and should properly be attendant upon, architecture.’ Although wallpaper is actually the substrate for ornament, Ziegler’s work relieves it of this function, making it no longer attendant on the architecture but transformed into an architectural element in its own right. While access to the room itself was denied, its Gothic style was matched with a modern, right-angled antagonist; the statuesque immutability of the vault was given a dynamic perspective by the optical effect of the strips of wallpaper getting thinner as they receded into the distance. All of this taken together revealed that by her specific use of wallpaper Ziegler did not adorn or decorate the room so much as rebuild it.