Minneapolis Black

Four years ago, Berlin-based artist Ulrike Mohr taught herself how to make charcoal. While most artists traditionally use charcoal as a tool for drawing, Mohr savors the aesthetic and conceptual riches of the deceptively modest material. She has explored and presented charcoal in sculptural form, most recently, at the University of Minnesota’s Nash Gallery as part of a group exhibition entitled Landscapes of the Mind. Her installation “Minneapolis Black” began with an elm tree on the river bluffs of the Mississippi on the university campus. Scheduled to be cut down, the tree was selected for Mohr’s most ambitious carbonization project to date: transforming the entire tree into pure carbon.

In nature, finding wood-based charcoal is rare. A tree, struck by lightning, would have to fall into a swamp while still burning. Covered by mud and thus effectively cut off from oxygen, the wood slowly emits its moisture and gaseous content before transforming into carbon. In Mohr’s practice, metal containers of varying sizes hold the wooden objects—branches, rulers, walking sticks. The containers, whose lids are punctured to allow gas and moisture to escape, are fired in a kiln according to a precisely calibrated temperature curve: fast, high heat followed by a slow cooling process. The temperature determines the specific properties of the charcoal. Depending on the wooden material, the resulting charcoal has a distinctive shade of black. In Germany, “Frankfurter Black,” is a recognized pigment, an idea that Mohr connects to with “Minneapolis Black.”

As a sculptural material rather than a drawing implement, charcoal maintains in detail the traits of the wood it once was. The whittling marks on a walking stick, the centimeter marks on a wooden ruler, the subtle, skin-like folds in the growth pattern of a trunk around a branch, all remain visible after the carbonization. A ghostly remnant, the pieces of black carbon distort the shape of the original: they shrink ever so subtly. A wooden ruler’s inch or centimeter marks no longer correctly measure distance. The ruler’s straight line curves and curls, no longer a reliable, standardized tool to measure the world with—but something else entirely: a material memory of the object that once was.

“Minneapolis Black” presents one such material memory. Suspended in space, Mohr invites us to see the elm in unfamiliar ways. Mostly—but not entirely–transformed into charcoal, the tree’s remnants hang in precise parallels from delicate translucent threads. The blackened branches strongly suggest a three-dimensional drawing made up of fragments, implied rather than continuous lines. The individual pieces do not quite touch. No longer whole, the fragments become melancholy objects, steeped in loss. But if looked at askance or from below, the lines in space begin to shift and shimmer: the gaps turn into openings for implied continuities that change with each adjustment of perspective and point of view—a landscape of the mind, indeed.

How we imagine our relationship to the world has long been a central theme in Mohr’s work. With quasi-scientific precision, she sets out to investigate how our point of view, our angle of vision shapes what we are able to perceive. Upon first entering the installation at the Nash gallery, a chaos of black branches awaits. Walking alongside them, the parallel lines of the installation’s structure become apparent. But once visitors begin to engage more interactively—squatting, tilting, squinting—new lines, different continuities emerge. Imaginary topographies exceed scientific maps and measurements.

In “Minneapolis Black,” the sculptural drawing extends to the surrounding walls and the grey floor, where shadows mirror the hanging objects. Their ghostly silhouettes create a second after-image, another after-life: pure carbon, the parched black essence of the formerly living tree, is transformed again into quivering, delicate shadows. Their ephemeral quality sharply contrasts with the resilience of charcoal.

Historically, the chemical properties of the material long made charcoal a crucial element in iron production. So widespread was the practice of coal burning that it is said to have contributed significantly to the deforestation of central Europe reaching back as far as the seventeen hundreds. Today, the environmental significance of carbon has changed: carbon emissions contribute to the warming of the atmosphere. While Mohr’s engagement with charcoal only indirectly alludes to the problem, its history and impact contribute to the material’s complexity.

Mohr’s installation invites us to take a close look at the deceptively ordinary material and marvel at its beauty. By placing carbonized branches too big or too small to be suspended in four vitrines, Mohr suggests a preciousness typically reserved for charcoal’s molecular cousins, diamonds. Massive and astonishingly black, pieces of the elm’s trunk lie stacked, the wood cracked and curved from the kiln’s heat. In the other vitrines, small sticks of carbon nestle together in seemingly impossible intricacy. All of this once was alive, part of the same flowering tree stretching towards sunlight. The poetics of loss embodied by the blackened limbs is profound.

But Mohr contrasts allegories of loss—one member of a species of trees doomed by Dutch Elm Disease—with possibility. On a small white pedestal, brown paper bags, covered in the smudged fingerprints of hands stained by charcoal dust, hold the remainder of the elm’s former branches. The ground-up pigment, “Minneapolis Black,” is ready to be mixed, spread, printed, painted, and transformed into yet another creative incarnation. Invisible but important: each bag’s bottom is stamped—in black, of course—with the title and date of the project and an identification of its contents: “Carbonized Ulme—Elm—Ulmus—Ulmaceae,” from German to English to the Linnaean species and family name.

The touch of science is important and has long been a recurring element in Mohr’s practice. She describes herself as a hitchhiker on scientific method, effectively parasitizing its process while strategically deviating from it whenever her work demands. She excels at setting up systems and parameters for her projects only to abandon them for conceptual, aesthetic, or practical reasons. Her re-assembly of the carbonized elm no longer resembles the growth pattern of the tree. Rather than faithfully map the proliferation of branches in the installation, she re-imagines the tree’s shape in a faint visual echo of the original elm’s growth. The departure invests the tree’s new form with an aesthetic telos that seeks to understand and harness the material’s metaphoric potential.

What began with gathering sticks four years ago in the streets of Berlin as a decidedly local project—using water from a well in the basement of a neighborhood house and patching cracks in the sidewalks with tar, a side product of carbonization—has taken Mohr to an elm tree in Minneapolis. Still site-specific, her work extends far beyond local significance by subtly alluding to the global concern of a changing climate through her aesthetic interventions. More than a material memory, “Minneapolis Black” is an invitation: to look, closely, and to understand how the perspective we choose determines what we are able to see—in the suspended branches of an exquisitely blackened tree or in the world at large.

Christina Schmid, 2012

Standing on a Surface

When we speak of a surface, we automatically imply that there is something underneath; a lower surface or a reverse side. The surface embodies the thing in its entirety, yet simultaneously remains only a part of the whole; there is more to every material substance than its surface.

The choosing of the surface as the view point and focus of artistic research is by no means superficial, the case is quite the opposite. Ulrike Mohr’s work is a metaphorical scratching on the surface of materials, making the individual layers visible and thus communicating the capacity for physical change implicit within each material substance. Standing on a surface involves acquiring a standpoint which is both very close to the object, literally touching the material in question, while also remaining distantly observant.

Investigative on the one hand, perceptive on the other, Mohr’s approach to materials and objects is just as refined a tightrope walk between prose and poetry as the writing of Francis Ponge. The French author’s most renowned work bears the French title Le parti pris des choses, which roughly translated means taking the side of things. If Francis Ponge had not used the title already, I would have suggested it be given to the work of Ulrike Mohr.

The core achievement of Ponge’s literary efforts was to illuminate the difficulties of the relationship between the certain, the concrete, and the possible, or potential. His success lay in developing a language that was both candid as well as expandable, yet also precise enough to articulate this tension. It is this language which Ulrike Mohr also speaks. Her scientifically exact interest in the transformation of materials from one physical state to another – wood to charcoal, charcoal to oversized drawing implements, leaving us with a fragile and tremulous wall drawing – is evidence of her profound sensibility of the substance matter; of a position parti pris des choses. At the same time it is accurate and sober, leaving the things –les choses – to themselves.
The changes of form, which Ulrike Mohr sets in motion may be radical, but they always remain within the boundaries of the naturally possible. As such they are descriptive.

The book Le parti pris des choses, first printed in France 1942, has been translated into English and published under various titles such as The Voice of Things, The Way Things Are and The Nature of Things. Each of these titles adheres to a specific interpretational approach to Ponge’s work, but, as a whole, they shape a magnificent synthesis of the problems of the concrete and the possible: of the many lives of things. A cat is said to have nine lives and some believe humans have more than one as well. The things, which comprise the material world surrounding us, have quite a few too. We find this verified in the work of Ulrike Mohr.

The voice of things becomes the voice of the charcoal speaking about the horizon on the ocean, as it touches the walls of the gallery. The way things are becomes the charcoal as a burned piece of wood, with its odour and colour, painting my hands black when I touch it. The nature of things is a constant flux. Le parti pris des choses means looking upon the surface of things as they appear, allowing them to speak and to live.

Alice Goudsmit, 2011

Between science and aesthetics

On 4th April 2006 the demolition of Berlin’s Palast der Republik was halted for one day. The artist Ulrike Mohr was to be allowed to undertake a systematic botanical survey of the trees and other plants that had colonized the roof since German reunification. This vast public building had fallen into a state of disrepair since the early 1990s and had become a kind of ecological laboratory for the study of urban change. Small fissures in the concrete and bitumen had allowed an accumulation of organic matter, and in addition to the typical adventitious species of plants one might encounter growing out of cracks in roads or pavements there were now well-established trees such as birch, poplar and sallow, indicative of the early stages of a rooftop forest in formation.

Mohr’s investigation of the ecological consequences of urban entropy entitled Restgrün [Remaining green] raises important questions about the intersection between science and aesthetics. The study of abandoned spaces is not just a question of aesthetic curiosity but also holds significant scientific implications: in the case of Restgrün, for example, one of the trees found growing on top of Berlin’s Palast was Populus nigra, which is on the Red List for regionally endangered species./1

For the 2002 project Versuchsanordnung Acer Platanoides [Test set-up Acer platanoides] Mohr chose a six-meter-high Spitzahorn, or Norway Maple, Acer platanoides, growing in the Künstlergärten Weimar, and stitched together the tree’s leaves with red thread so that they were unable to fall during the autumn. The entire leaf structure was then carefully removed by crane and put on public display in Mohr’s first solo show at the Kunstverein Hildesheim. With this “ecological interruption” Mohr performed a non-utilitarian intervention in nature: we are invited to reflect on the meaning of nature through its unexpected cultural appropriation so that there is both a temporal and spatial dislocation in a largely unnoticed yet remarkable everyday transformation: the annual shedding of leaves by a maple tree.

This notion of time in nature — referred to in ecological science as “succession” — connects with a fascination with the spontaneous re-arrangement of nature./2 Mohr plays on the boundary of human intervention in nature in two ways: first, by simply observing nature its meaning and significance change, bringing mundane elements such as a common tree or an assemblage of weeds into a profound form of aesthetic engagement; and second, by simply focusing on one element of nature and performing simple modifications, we contend with the scope and complexity of our relations with nature as an extension of ourselves. In this last sense, Mohr brings her exploration of nature into a historically specific scientific frame: her works connect powerfully with the development of urban ecology in post-war Germany as a form of intricate and passionate engagement with nature in cities. In particular it engages with the diversity of potential biotopes or habitat niches associated with the type of everyday instances of nature that have been largely neglected by mainstream ecological science./3

Among the most ambitious of Mohr’s works is the 2003 large-scale tree-planting project 750 Kiefern in militärischer Anordnung/Konversionsgelände Wünsdorf [750 Pines in military formation / Conversion area Wünsdorf ] in which hundreds of pine saplings that had sprouted spontaneously in the parade ground of a former Russian military barracks in Wünsdorf were dug up, measured and replanted. The trees were arranged in five precise formations of 150 trees, with the tallest trees placed at the front of each of the blocks to suggest an ironic confluence of forestry plantations with military discipline. Photographs of the site from above reveal the ambitious scale of the project, and also its spatial accuracy, so that the young trees in combination with their supporting wooden posts resemble a battalion of soldiers standing to attention. This is, above all, a landscape of control: an attempt to regularize nature that connects with the historic purpose of the site as a training ground for military discipline and the exercise of state power. After the completion of the project the site was allowed to revert back to a process of natural succession towards “secondary woodland” so that the work connects both with a sense of ecological time and also historical time since all cultural or institutional forms are temporally limited in their scope.

The tree planting also signals a counterpoint to Joseph Beuys’s mass action entitled 7000 Eichen [7,000 Oaks], installed between 1982 and 1987 for Documenta 7, where the placing of these trees alongside upright basalt columns was linked with an ecological critique of modernity in the context of pollution-induced Waldsterben [forest death], and also the nascent German green movement with which Beuys was closely involved. What clearly differentiates the work of Mohr from that of Beuys is her rational engagement with urban nature as an arena for cultural discourse rather than a hidden repository for ecological mysticism./4 It is Mohr’s critical distance from the German romantic tradition that renders her work especially interesting in an international context.

The art of Ulrike Mohr is characterized by an attention to detail: not just the subtle textures of everyday things, but also an attempt to uncover relationships between aesthetics and science, and between past and present. Her interventions break with neo-romanticist associations and are suggestive of a cultural synthesis with nature that is free from the baggage of transcendental meaning. Her interactions with nature and landscape are far removed from the heavy symbolism of some artists (the work of Anselm Kiefer, for example) or the shamanistic utterances of Beuys and his followers. In the work of Mohr we find a subtle irony that provides new insights not through further layers of mystification but through a calm insistence on the social production of meaning.

/1Definitionen/Ulrike Mohr (Bielefeld/Leipzig: Kerber, 2007).
/2Examples of cultural explorations of ecological succession include the photographic collages of Paul-Armand Gette based on the meticulous observation of specific sites. See, for example, Paul-Armand Gette, Exotik als Banalität / De l’exotisme en tant que banalite (Berlin and Hannover: DAAD, 1980).
/3Perhaps the key figure in the emergence of urban ecology as a specific branch of ecological science is the Berlin-based scholar Herbert Sukopp. See, for example, Herbert Sukopp, Stadtökologie: das Beispiel Berlin (Berlin: Dietrich Reimer, 1990). On the historical circumstances behind the development of urban ecology in a German context see Jens Lachmund, “Exploring the city of rubble: botanical fieldwork in bombed cities in Germany after World War II,” Osiris 18 (2003), pp. 234-54.
/4For a philosophical critique of Joseph Beuys and the role of mysticism in late modernity see Terry Atkinson, “Beuyspeak”, in David Thistlewood (ed.) Joseph Beuys: Diverging Critiques (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press and Tate Gallery Liverpool, 1995) pp. 165-76.

Matthew Gandy, 2010

Vom Kreis zum Strich zur Landschaft

Bewegt man sich nicht gerade im Gebirge, ist man geneigt – wie die Menschheit vor Galilei – Landschaft primär als Horizontale wahrzunehmen. Dieser eindimensionalen Wahrnehmung unseres Lebensraums als bebaute »Fläche« arbeitet Ulrike Mohr mit ihrer Arbeit »Kreisvermessung« entgegen. Es geht darin um eine andere – vielleicht abstrahierte, gleichzeitig aber auch bewusstere
– Wahrnehmung von Raum. Und es geht dabei, wie in vielen ihrer Arbeiten, um die unsichtbaren Koordinaten unseres (Lebens-) Raumes – welche zwar messbar, aber gerade in ihrer Messbarkeit wiederum willkürlichen Standards unterworfen sind.

»Kreisvermessung« bezieht sich einerseits auf den zu vermessenden Landkreis, andererseits auf die zur Landvermessung nötigen Geräte und Normen – Winkel, Zirkel, Kreissegmente etc. Die Berechnung am Kreis ist für die trigonometrische Höhenmessung unentbehrlich.

Um Raum in der Horizontalen wie auch in der Vertikalen vermessen zu können, braucht man zunächst einen Nullpunkt. Dieser ist von vornherein relativ. Man denke etwa an den Meeresspiegel, der lange im allgemeinen Sprachgebrauch als Null-Koordinate herhalten musste, obwohl er sich kontinuierlich verschiebt (zurzeit nach oben). Wohl nicht von ungefähr kommt das Wort »vermessen« – im Sinne von »überheblich« – von der Relativität des Vermessens an sich.
Die spielerische Dimension dieses Nullpunkts hat Ulrike Mohr sehr anschaulich am Beispiel der Stadt Berlin exemplifiziert: Ausgehend vom tiefsten begehbaren Punkt (der U-Bahn) und vom höchsten begehbaren Punkt (dem Restaurant des Fernsehturms) wurde ein Mittelwert errechnet, der sodann als gedachtes »Normalnull« Berlins fungierte – welches bei 88,5 Metern liegt. Wodurch allem, was darunter oder darüber liegt, eine spezifische Zahl zugeordnet werden konnte (etwa dem Dach des Palastes der Republik, das bei minus 54,32 unter dem Berliner Normalnull liegt).

Im Vergleich zur gebauten Vertikalität Berlins ist das Münsterland ein relativ flaches Terrain. Mit Ausnahme des Landkreises Hörstel, dessen vertikale Ausdehnung bei 35 bis 145 Metern unter bzw. über seinem geografisch festgelegten Normalnull (NN)/1 – welches wiederum von dem in der ehemaligen DDR gebräuchlichen Höhennormal (HN) differiert – liegt. Das heißt, der scheinbar flache Landkreis Hörstel erstreckt sich ganze (weitgehend unsichtbare) 110 Meter in die Höhe.

Um diese unsichtbare Dimension sichtbar zu machen, hat Ulrike Mohr zunächst 110 einzelne, per Hand in Dezimeter unterteilte und mit dem jeweiligen Höhenmeter von 1 bis 110 Meter versehene Messlatten in Form von Emailschildern hergestellt und sie aneinandergereiht – was den vertikalen Höhenunterschied in der Horizontalen als abstrakte Größe erfahrbar machte. In einer zweiten Phase der Arbeit wurden diese Höhenmeter jedoch in der realen Landschaft begehbar verortet. Das heißt, jedem einzelnen Höhenmeter wurde ein geeigneter, exakt nivellierter Punkt in der Landschaft zugeordnet, was einigen Aufwand an Geländearbeit erforderte. Hier findet die Vertikalität wieder zurück zum Kreis – und stellt gleichzeitig seine Definition in Frage, denn die auf den Karten verzeichneten Höhenkreise sind nun mal nicht mit dem Zirkel gezogen.

Ulrike Mohr verfolgte das Ziel, die Höhenmeter mit millimetergenauer Exaktheit an Bäumen, Häusern oder anderen vertikalen Objekten anzubringen/2 – etwaige Verschiebungen können zum Beispiel durch das Wachsen der Bäume entstehen. Gleichzeitig sind die einzelnen Höhenmeter jedoch auch stumme Zeugen unserer höchst fragmentarischen Wahrnehmung von Landschaft und ihren eigentlichen Dimensionen – ist diese doch zerstückelt durch private Grundstücke und agrarwirtschaftliche Felder; durchschnitten von Zäunen, Straßen, Autobahnen, dem Mittellandkanal, und nicht zuletzt von geographischen Grenzen. So setzt Ulrike Mohr die horizontale Fragmentierung in der Vertikalen fort.

Es gilt also, die Landschaft zu durchwandern, um sie in ihrer »Vermessenheit« auch erfahrbar zu machen. Und genau hier setzt der partizipatorische Teil der Arbeit an. Hier trifft der abstrahierte, berechenbare Ansatz auf die konkrete Erfahrbarkeit von Landschaft als Naturerlebnis – aber auch auf die Auseinandersetzung mit ihrer industriellen und kulturellen Nutzbarkeit und Begehbarkeit. Ulrike Mohr choreographiert einen Spaziergang, in dem sie die 110 Höhenmeter strategisch entlang der Wander- und Radwege sowie um die drei Ortschaften des Landkreises platziert. Der Weg zwischen den einzelnen Markierungen wird somit zu einem elementaren Bestandteil der Arbeit, und der Spaziergang wird zum kunstimmanenten Akt, an dessen Ende man die ganzen 110 vertikalen Höhenmeter des Kreises erklommen hat.

Die Arbeit von Ulrike Mohr bedient sich bescheidener Mittel, nimmt dabei aber schnell geradezu monumentale Dimensionen an und steht in direkter Tradition von Land Art und den Spaziergängen Richard Longs oder Hamish Fultons – gerade das Werk Fultons basiert ebenfalls auf abstrakten Koordinaten wie Höhenmetern und Breitengraden einerseits und dem realen Verhältnis von Mensch und Natur andererseits. Jedoch delegiert Mohr den Akt des Wanderns an den Betrachter und macht aus einem solitären Erleben ein kollektives.

Gleichzeitig liegen der Arbeit ein immenser wissenschaftlicher Anspruch und Genauigkeit zugrunde. In der Regel arbeit Ulrike Mohr mit einem Team von Spezialisten wie z. B. Landschaftsgärtnern oder hier Landvermessern zusammen. So verwundert es nicht, dass sich Mohr bei diesem Projekt nicht nur mit Planimetrie, sondern auch mit der von Lucius Burckhardt in den 80er Jahren begründeten und in Kassel gelehrten Promenadologie beschäftigt./3 Der Spaziergangswissenschaft geht es darum, den vorfabrizierten Bildern von Landschaft eine bewusste Wahrnehmung unseres Lebensraumes entgegenzusetzen. Ganz ähnlich geht es auch Ulrike Mohr darum, unserem Blick auf Landschaft eine andere Perspektive zu geben und unsichtbare Dimensionen sichtbar zu machen.
Durch minimale Eingriffe, doch mit maximalem Aufwand an Recherche und Kleinstarbeit schafft Ulrike Mohr Arbeiten, die in ihrem Ausmaß zwar nahezu unsichtbar, aber gleichzeitig riesig sind und sowohl Kopfarbeit wie auch Körpereinsatz erfordern.

Eva Scharrer, 2009

/1 Seit Mitte der 1990er Jahre wird das Deutsche Haupthöhennetz (DHHN) auf eine andere Höhendefinition umgestellt.

/2 Die in der Gegend häufig anzutreffenden Mountainbiker nutzen die Messlatten gerne, um die Ungenauigkeit ihrer GPS-Geräte an ihnen zu überprüfen.

/3 Dass auch hier mit Maßstäben gespielt werden darf, zeigt sich schön an dem 1985 vom Pariser Künstler und Documenta-Teilnehmer Paul-Armand Gette in dem Kassler Park Wilhelmshöhe installierten »0m«-Schild, welches zwei Jahre später von Annemarie und Lucius Burckhardt auf einem ihrer Spaziergänge auf den Walliser Furka-Pass getragen wurde mit der Aussage, dass der Beginn der Landschaft beim Betrachter liege.