BY Jennifer Allen in Features | 09 SEP 08
Featured in
Issue 117

Social Patterns

In his sculptures, collages and films, Bojan Sarcevic explores the ‘ghost haunting modernity’: ornament and decoration

BY Jennifer Allen in Features | 09 SEP 08

Untitled (Film 4), from the series 'Only After Dark', 2008, film still. Courtesy: BQ, Cologne

No one tells ghost stories in Berlin. Bojan Sarcevic and I are sitting in his studio and wondering why we have never heard one, after living in the city for so many years. After all, someone died at every corner here in World War II. Near Senefelderplatz an entire block went missing when an Allied plane crashed with its full load of bombs. Then there are the Jewish Berliners whose names, birth dates and deaths in concentration camps are commemorated in compact golden plaques encased in the pavements in front of the houses where they once lived. Sometimes even the houses are missing. Digging in empty plots or gardens can unearth unpleasant surprises: undetonated bombs and skeletons of the fallen or the hastily buried. Yet how can so many dead be so silent? Don’t they haunt their old habitats? Bang doors? Appear in the night? Among the living, no one talks about such apparitions, let alone rituals to calm them. ‘Berliners don’t need to negotiate with the dead,’ says Sarcevic, ‘because they are always present.’

A strange presence seems to hover in Sarcevic’s series ‘1954’ (2004). One day the artist was looking around in the Karl Marx bookshop – which has since closed – and picked up a collection of the old West German architectural review Baumeister (Master Builder) from 1954. The fading black and white pages showed images of sleek interiors of buildings constructed across the country in that year, both domestic and public spaces, from living-rooms to lecture rooms. Every interior is devoid of people. Sarcevic took a penknife, carefully cut out a set of geometric shapes from each picture – diamonds, circles, triangles, squares – and then glued them back in new positions. In so doing, he made each paper image into a kind of jigsaw puzzle with the pieces assembled the wrong way. Once moved around, the modular pieces create kaleidoscopic configurations that both belong and do not belong to the interiors. The shapes cut out of the photograph come back to hover in a tight symmetry, like a whirling mass that moves according to its own logic. My favourites are the triangles propagating from apex to apex across the shelves of a living-room library and throwing all the books into disarray, like a little tornado. Or a poltergeist.

Sarcevic’s handiwork gives each interior two lives: a static room captured for ever by the camera and a dynamic surface pattern unsettling the harmony of the room with its own structured logic, which appears to perpetuate itself in the imaginary infinity of mathematics. These are pictures of history, as well as the eternal return of something that escaped the lens. Sarcevic – who speaks English, French and German in addition to his native Serbo-Croat – calls these surface patterns ‘engouements’, in the sense of the obstructions that can block arteries or pipes. But he speaks of them in relation to W.G. Sebald’s collection of essays Luftkrieg und Literatur (1999; literally, ‘Air War and Literature’, although the book’s title was translated as On the Natural History of Destruction, which suggests that bombs fall as naturally as precipitation).1 In the book Sebald describes not only the impact of Allied bombing on German cities but also the subsequent failure of most German writers, in both the East and the West, to address this collective experience in postwar novels. ‘The period of reconstruction after the war was meant to obscure this irrecuperable past’, says Sarcevic, who sees parallels in the brutal dissolution of his native Yugoslavia. Although what initially intrigued him in the antiquarian copies of Baumeister was the contrast between the brand new interiors and the yellowing pages of the magazines, 1954 also caught his eye as the ‘wonder’ year: when the Federal Republic of Germany won the soccer World Cup in Bern: one victory after a decade of reconstructing the ruins from total war and then total defeat. ‘Memory and heritage did not exist any more’, says Sarcevic. ‘Even the people are missing.’ Since no one is in the images the interiors appear as empty signs of progress rather than actual places to be inhabited and used. It’s as though architecture had become a pristine symbol; its functionality purely decorative. 

Patterned Surfaces

Finding the decorative in the functional – confounding the ornamental with the architectural – are gestures that run throughout Sarcevic’s oeuvre. The Viennese art historian Alois Riegl once defined ornament as nothing more than ‘a pattern on the surface’.2 The patterns in the pictures of post-WWII West German interiors are the result of not only surface work but also repetitive handwork. ‘1954’ may recall Photoshop effects – sending a geometric ripple through the plane of a photograph, like throwing a stone into a calm lake – but each work is precisely made by hand, with a repeated gesture that erases traces of authorship. Who was it that designed the triangle? In the projection Miniatures (2003) the artist’s hand actually appears, making yet another pattern, this time on a fogged windshield. The glass becomes a compact maze, only to evaporate back into its original function as a windshield, offering a clear view outside the moving car. However haphazard, this work also resonates with historical obstructions. While Miniatures refers to the Christian tradition of illuminated manuscripts with decorated letters and figurative icons, the artist makes the square kufic pattern in the glass – a pattern that takes its name from Kufa, a city south of Baghdad where 12th-century scholars developed the squared Arabic script that was used to adorn the façades of mosques.3 In the 13th century the pattern suddenly migrated from Muslim buildings across Anatolia and Central Asia to the needlework of aristocratic women in Christian central Europe. Like the miniature, squared kufic is both a functional and a decorative text. Unlike the miniature, the pattern is a non-figurative one, which could be easily scaled to fit a building or a piece of cloth. Drawing the square kufic pattern in the fog with a finger, Sarcevic evokes a trajectory that begins with ink, solidifies into brick, moves into thread and then disappears.

While creating surface patterns, Sarcevic is also happy to find them. Consider Working Surfaces (2004), a found object consisting of two black granite slabs that the artist purchased from a mine near the Mediterranean resort town of Cap d’Agde. Covered with a maze of lines and circles, the slabs are the miners’ variation of the butcher’s block – used over the years for cutting other pieces of granite destined for construction. When Sarcevic moves beyond the found surface to create a fully autonomous structure, he tends to evoke architecture without ever building it. Replace the Irreplaceable (2006) – a three-dimensional ‘J’ form made with solid layers of pearwood and brass that fan out like a massive pair of bellows – reverses the traditional hierarchy, in which architecture is the fundamental foundation and ornament is an added afterthought. The hook of the ‘J’ is wide and tall enough to accommodate an adult, yet the piece is so finely crafted that any architectural use appears secondary, if not superfluous. Why bother adding a roof and more walls to make a shelter? Other works combine created and found patterns. ‘Untitled’ (2006) – a series of sculptures made from delicate bars of brass joined together – is adorned with geometrically patterned silk scarves that the artist picked up at a Berlin flea market. In photographs the bars look like the lines of so many connected thoroughfares extracted from a city map; the scarves, folded around the bars, demonstrate that these works are actually three-dimensional forms, both protruding from the wall and using the wall as a floor support.

At the Corner of Ornament and Architecture

With such interventions Sarcevic is charting an obstruction of memory that goes beyond post-WWII Germany, former Yugoslavia, the intersection of Islam and Christianity or the forgotten labour of Europe. Ornament is the ghost haunting modernity and its many expressions – whether architecture, industrial design or painting. In his catalogue essay for the exhibition ‘Ornament and Abstraction’ (2001) at Fondation Beyeler, curator Markus Brüderlin calls ornament ‘the secret stowaway’ that went into hiding in abstract paintings from Piet Mondrian to John Armleder.4 Ornament has been on the run ever since being condemned in Adolf Loos’ diatribe ‘Ornament and Crime’ (1909), which accused it of being ‘degenerate’ on several counts, economical to ethical. Loos pithily remarked: ‘The evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament from objects of daily use.’5 Riegl, with his definition of ornament as ‘a pattern on the surface’, unwittingly supported what would become a widespread eradication; once defined as a redundant surface, ornament could be simply smoothed away, like a layer of old paint, without changing the underlying form, let alone its function.

Like Brüderlin, Sarcevic acknowledges the deep historical bond between abstraction and ornamentation, although many of his works, such as ‘1954’ and Miniatures, manifest this bond by unsettling figurative elements (the view into the interior and out of the car). ‘Ornament and Abstraction’ recognizes abstraction’s debt to Islamic art and its ban on figuration. Brüderlin begins by tracing the migration of ornament from architecture and design into abstract and non-figurative painting around the time of Loos’ diatribe – the curator identifies a both geometric strain (Rodchenko, Mondrian, Albers) and an organic one (Kandinsky, Matisse, Pollock) – and ends up finding the stowaway in everything from painting and sculpture to tapestries and computer graphics. Sarcevic follows another closely related trajectory: to show that architecture never got rid of ornament, that function and form never freed themselves of decoration.

Already in his graduate show in 1997 at the École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts in Paris, Sarcevic took bits of useful writing paper and rolled them into little balls to adorn a crack in a free wooden support beam traversing his atelier; stopping a draft did not seem to be the order of the day. Sarcevic’s work on corners best demonstrates how the criminal and the innocent elements are always bumping into each other, belonging and not belonging, mixing different times, fates and stories that have never been allowed to exist together. The stowaway is always showing up. For his début in Berlin in 1999, the group show ‘Soft Resistance’ at carlier|gebauer, Sarcevic extracted the lower corner of a room in a condemned Amsterdam house, as though it were a frieze on the ceiling, and reinstalled it in the gallery. Far from a salvaged Dutch antique, Coin du monde (Corner of the World, 1999) was a banal corner, albeit with a historical itinerary, linking the two cities and their contested urban renewals. With this project Sarcevic revealed that corners, however useful they appear, don’t really hold up a room, because if you remove or replace one of them, the walls don’t fall down. One of the most basic elements of architecture might be as redundant as a delinquent caryatid or a felon frieze.

Since then the artist has worked with the corner as a meeting place not just for two walls, a ceiling and a floor. Fitted into the upper corner, Spirit of Versatility (2002) is a maze of muqarna, the honeycomb-like niches that are traditionally used for corbels and vaulting in mosques. Placed on the floor, Spirit of Inclusiveness (2002) is a one-to-one replica of one corner of the Cologne Cathedral with its curved Gothic panels in brass, copper, steel and zinc. Both of these corners, while indented, protrude outwards; since nothing lies behind them, both act as decorative façades that round out the squared edges of the rooms where they are exhibited. They are corners for making circles out of squares. Where the Hand Doesn’t Enter, Heat Infuses (2003) creates an intersection with a free-standing wall and a glass sphere within an existing corner of the exhibition space; it’s not clear where the architectural support ends and the decorative begins. Using both rounded and squared corners, Sarcevic has also made a series of upright ornamental structures that evoke walls without actually being solid. Their poetic titles – Everything Makes Sense in the Reverse (2005), Wanting without Needing, Loving without Leaning (2005), Keep Illusion for the End (2005) – match their elaborately crafted appearance but stand in contrast to their simple materials: steel, brass, copper, oak, concrete.

Moving Pictures

Sarcevic’s most recent solo exhibition at the Hamburger Kunsthalle features his series of films ‘Only After Dark’ (2007), in which the artist has basically made moving pictures out of still sculptural forms: paper, stones, a slab of steak, a tree branch. ‘I see these pieces as actors’, says Sarcevic, who wanted to create the possibility of an almost social rapport between them. Of course, sculptures are not action figures, let alone actors with speaking parts; the movement comes only through the camera – changing frames, new perspectives, zooms in and out – as well as through the instrumental music score, which seems inspired by the more meditative manifestations of experimental jazz from the 1970s. While reducing the sculptures from three dimensions to two, the films lend them an illuminated texture as well as the depth of projected images. ‘But the films are not stories about these objects’, says Sarcevic. While forcing viewers to perceive the sculptures through the perspective of his camera lens, the artist gives viewers another sculptural experience by building a custom-made screening-projection room for each film. Each one gets a kind of mobile home for its travels, though Sarcevic calls them ‘pavilions’. In contrast to most projections – including his own early ones – ‘Only After Dark’ comprises both films and mini-cinemas. Everything – the walls and the ceilings, the churning reels of the projector and the moving images glowing on the wall – becomes a surface.

Of course, the final destination for all of these migrations is the public museum and the private collection, where every decorative and ornamental element, whether triangles or tree branches, will be appreciated as an art work. Their fate raises yet another spectre haunting contemporary art from the historical avant-garde to the present day. There’s a key sentence in Loos’ condemnation of ornament in his discussion of tattoos: ‘The urge to ornament one’s face, and everything in one’s reach, is the origin of fine art.’6 Many artists who sided with Loos would prefer to forget that he essentially wanted to free architecture and the applied arts from the fine arts; they wanted to free the fine arts from criminal ornament too. As Brüderlin notes, already in 1907 Paul Klee worried about distinguishing his work from ornament; by 1917 Hugo Ball sarcastically wondered whether abstract art would produce anything more than ‘a revival of ornament’; today calling an art work ‘decorative’ or ‘ornamental’ still constitutes an insult. Yet ever since Immanuel Kant put the fine arts and ornament together, they have shared the key criteria for aesthetic judgements: beauty and uselessness. Beauty may have since waned, but uselessness has not, despite the interactive drive of relational aesthetics and the spate of crossovers. Indeed, what is a ready-made, if not a useful everyday object taken out of commission: for example, a urinal that can’t be used since it’s only for decoration? Sarcevic not only embraces the ornament as a fully legitimate art but also shows that both ornament and decoration are vital social manifestations, which hold complex and often nomadic histories that link different cultures and time periods. By embracing ornament, Sarcevic has taken a very different path from many of his contemporaries, who have instead chosen to question the neutrality of Loos’ architectural Modernism, including Minimalism. Of course, that’s another obstruction.

1 W.G. Sebald, Luftkrieg und Literatur (On the Natural History of Destruction), Carl Hanser Verlag, Munich and Vienna, 1999
2 I take the quote, and many of my subsequent arguments, from Markus Brüderlin’s excellent ‘Introduction’ to Ornament and Abstraction: The Dialogue between Non-Western, Modern and Contemporary Art, ed. Markus Brüderlin, Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel, and DuMont Bücherverlag, Cologne, 2001, p. 20 The exhibition took place at the Fondation Beyeler, 10 June–7 October 2001
3 My subsequent definition of the square kufic pattern comes from James Trilling, The Language of Ornament, Thames & Hudson, London, 2001, pp. 126–7
4 Brüderlin, op. cit. 
Adolf Loos, ‘Ornament and Crime’ (1908), in Crime and Ornament: The Arts and Popular Culture in the Shadow of Loos, ed. Bernie Miller and Melony Ward, YYZ Books, Toronto, 2002, pp. 29–36. See also Das Schöne am Nützlichen: Ornament und Architektur (The Beautiful in the Useful: Ornament and Architecture), ed. Moritz Wullen with Bernd Evers, Kunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin, 2007. The exhibition took place at the Kunstbibliothek, 28 September–25 November 2007
Ibid., p. 29

Jennifer Allen is a writer and critic based in Berlin.