On time and material

A walk through shimmering charcoal landscapes

Black mountains. A view down to dark stones. Deep brown forests up ahead. Grey chunks of wood, shimmering violet. Dark branches twist through the room, in segments, lingering. The time? Standing still, it seems. Black cherry stones are scattered across the floor. Ulrike Mohr’s woods are home to many species: lilac and hazel, climbing plants, maples, a peanut in its shell. Every detail, every pore and grain is recognizable, their form is unaltered but their colour suggests a very different world. Even the moss on the bark – pitch black. The soft needles of the Nordmann fir extend in every direction but are entirely black. Yet Mohr’s plants, bits of wood, fruit, and branches have nothing disconcerting let alone post-apocalyptic about them. To the contrary, her charcoal objects and installation have a placid, calm, somehow prehistoric feel. Perhaps they hail from another time all together? The colour spectrum of her black landscapes opens up on closer inspection. Every object reflects the light differently, no two blacks have the same hue. Reduction gives way to abundant variety; one bit of charcoal appears blue next to a second, which glows unexpectedly green.

Charcoal reaches all the way back through the history of the earth. In her cultural history of charcoal, Barbara Freese speaks of the dense green swamp forests of bizarre trees and giant ferns that covered the surface of the earth before the dinosaurs or mammals roamed, even before the continents split. (1) It was this vegetation that sedimented into brown and black coal, an energy reservoir of bygone life forms that once dominated the planet. In its compressed and concentrated form we release this ancient energy again. (2) Since the 19th century coal has fundamentally altered the face of the Earth – literally and metaphorically. We dug tunnels to access the compressed subterranean remains of those ferns and trees. With their junctions and interconnections the corridors and shafts hollow out the earth and run through the now buried, petrified flora, branching out once again into an “underground forest”. (3) Coal left its mark on generations of men with their dust-smeared faces and miners‘ lamps, with the dangers of colliery gas and fire damp. (4) The shaft towers jutted proudly into the sky, entrances to another world, invisible to most. (5) In open-pit mining, by contrast, entire landscapes are displaced or destroyed for coal. It has claimed many a peak in the North American Appalachian Mountains. In “The Last Mountain”, documentary filmmaker Bill Haneys reported on the battle of the Coal River community to save the last remaining peak. (6) The industrialisation of the 19th century would never have been possible without coal’s high fuel-value, which enabled trains and steam engines to travel the distances and speeds that changed and accelerated the world. (7) Coal’s image is often diametrically opposed to that of its half-brother, oil. Often referred to as black gold, oil is associated with wealth, whereas coal is linked to hard labour and even poverty. To strike oil is to be singled out by luck. Coal, however, is all about hard graft. (8) Had coal been a scarce resource from the start, it would now be displayed in museum vitrines next to its closest relative, the diamond. (9)

When it comes to art, we can start with Monika Wagner’s material iconography and coal as a natural substance, a found object that is assigned “a significance very different from that of the painted image.” (10) In this sense coal is more than paint from the tube or cast metal, because it already exists. In an art context natural substances can be used as an expression of natural history per se; as objects trouvés, however, they are also “witnesses of singular events (…).“ (11) But particularly if they apparently hail from another age, one that predates the artwork itself, they are charged with an additional power of testimony and authentication. And this is exactly the impression that Ulrike Mohr’s charcoal works give. (12) The fine branches that describe a black line through the white exhibition space or spread out in a dark circle, feel like material from a lost world. Never before have we seen shrubs and bushes, kernels and sticks so dark. But precisely because they are not prehistorical, but were charred by Mohr herself, they assume a unique and fascinating role in the material authentication that Wagner describes. It is not just that they have been created surprisingly recently, but because charcoal retains its form over an almost infinite period of time, Mohr also directs their power of testimony into the future. As preserved relics of a moment, a summer in which the cherry tree produced this particular branch, Mohr’s objects stand for the “unlimited constancy” of which cultural production so often dreamed, as Aleida Assmann writes in “Erinnerungsräumen“. (13)

If this means that a particular temporality is inherent in Mohr’s works, we must first clarify our definition of time. Especially if we wish to think of time as an concept made tangible by “moving through space and overcoming distance”. (14) We understand the movement of a clock’s hands, for example, as the passing of time. Proverbially speaking, we often link time with movement, when time seems to stand still or even runs away from us. Thus time itself is understood through properties that manifest themselves as spatial changes, and the faster these take place the faster time appears to be passing. This is something Mohr references in her arrangement of material. In Anthrakothek (2013), 86 charcoal branches are suspended at eye height in the centre of an exhibition space in Berlin. The charred bits of tree found in an allotment across the road from the gallery form, as the title suggests, a charcoal archive (anthra-kothek). Like her installation the previous year in the Nash Gallery in Minneapolis the objects are presented in such a way as to suggest an abrupt coming to a halt, a freezing in mid-flight. In Minneapolis the pieces of wood seem to be heading in one direction; in Berlin they radiate out from a central point in space, expanding concentrically, like a miniature Big Bang, where the pieces are scattered and arrested at once. Here, it might be constructive to look at one of the paradoxes of the pre-Socratic philosopher Zeno of Elea. In the 5th century BC Zeno stated that if time is an infinite continuum, and space can be broken down into endless sections of space, each of which is unmoving – movement itself must be an illusion. (15) Zeno illustrated his point with the example of an arrow. “The flying arrow is at rest,” (16) he argued, “for if everything when it occupies an equal space is at rest, and if that which is in locomotion is always occupying such a space at any moment, the flying arrow is therefore motionless.” (17)

In material terms, Ulrike Mohr’s charcoal branches in Berlin and Minneapolis were transformed into an eternal state through the process of charring. They have become immutable. On the brink of transformation from perishable to imperishable state, the material was in motion, and now, having reached the point where it extends into eternity, it freezes in mid-flight. The individual branches, now reaching into an eternal existence, leave behind them a trail of endless sections of one infinitely long distance behind them. And for this reason they have frozen before our very eyes in the gallery. Times seems to stand still because movement through space has stretched into infinity.

Ulrike Mohr’s installations give form to often site-specific research, and grant aesthetic sovereignty to the medium of charcoal. Her exhibition With your Hands Black at the Heidelberg Kunstverein is exemplary in this respect. (18) On the terrazzo floor of the studio in the Kunstverein Mohr lays out a landscape of charcoal objects like an archaeological dig: curved branches, pale-coloured sand, barrel hoops, clay and vines are positioned inside and traversing the grid on the floor. In abstracted form Mohr shows an ensemble of the products involved in the production of pomace, the grape residue from the wine press. The furthest corner of the exhibition space is particularly interesting. Tiny fragments of charcoal are piled like coarse, dark sand into a rectangular area in the corner of the room. A copper plate lies on top of this black rectangle and emits a beam of light that flickers on the grey walls.

In formal terms the presentation echoes the language of 1960s Minimalism, although Mohr’s material bears none of that movement’s insistence on non-referentiality. Nor is Mohr’s presentation overloaded with the aesthetics of research-based work, which often seems accessible only outside the realm of phenomenological experience. Mohr’s presentation in Heidelberg derives from her research into the history of Frankfurt Black, a pigment extracted from charred pomace. Here we see charcoal in historical and social terms: as a by-product of wine harvesting and as a means for producing pigment – which, used in the printing process together with copper plates, leaves your hands black. Seeing the minimalistic rectangular patch of charred pomace on the floor, the copper plate on top of it and the reflected beam of light on the walls, you can almost hear the crackling of the coal, glowing under the copper in the corner. The beam of light inevitably conjures up an image of an abstract flame, flickering upwards from the coal.

Here, as in so many of her works Ulrike Mohr retains her sense for the poetry of the material, without running the risk of impeding intellectual engagement with sensory-aesthetic experience.

Nico Anklam, 2014

(1) Freese, Barbara. Coal – A Human History. Penguin. London. 2003. pp. 3-5.
(2) Ibid. p. 4.
(3) Sieferle, Rolf Peter. The Subterranean Forest. Energy Systems and the Industrial Revolution. The
White Horse Press. Cambridge. 2010.
(4) Farrenkopf, Michael. Mythos Kohle. Der Ruhrbergbau in historischen Fotografien aus dem Bergbau-Archiv Bochum. Aschendorf. Münster. 2009. p. 47.
(5) Ibid pp. 36-37
(6) Haney, Bill (director). The Last Mountain. Dada Films and Uncommon Productions. USA. 2011.
(7) Freese, Barbara. Coal – A Human History. Penguin. London. 2003. p. 2.
(8) Ibid.
(9) Ibid. p. 234.
(10) Wagner, Monika. Das Material in der Kunst. Eine andere Geschichte der Moderne. C.H. Beck. Munich. 2001. p. 110.
(11) Wagner, p. 109
(12) Wagner, p. 110.
(13) Assmann, Aleida. Erinnerungsräume. Formen und Wandlungen des kulturellen Gedächtnisses. C.H. Beck. Munich. 2009. p. 348.
(14) Nüning, Ansgar (ed.), Metzlers Lexion der Kultur- und Literaturtheorie, Metzler, Stuttgart, 2004, p. 719.
(15) Kunzmann, Peter et al. dtv-Atlas Philopsophie. dtv. Munich. 1991. pp. 32 -33
(16) Aristotle, Physics, W. D. Ross (trans), in The Complete Works of Aristotle, J. Barnes (ed.), Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984, 239b. p. 30
(17) Aristotle, Physics, W. D. Ross (trans), in The Complete Works of Aristotle, J. Barnes (ed.), Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984.
(18) With your Hands Black. Part of the series Das Serendipitätsprinzip. Heidelberger Kunstverein. 22.11.2013-2.2.2014.

Translation: Lucy Powell