Earthly Galaxies or: Stratigraphy
of the Third and Fourth Dimension
On Birgit Jensen’s Cityscapes
(translated into English by Katherine Houghton)
when the neuroscientist Wolf Singer, in a state of utter exhaustion,
was on a flight from Boston back to Germany and saw a lobster crawling
down the aisle of the airplane, he began to have some concerns about
his state of mind. The information that live lobsters can be purchased
at the airport of this North American city and taken onto the plane
and that this particular exemplar had apparently escaped from its
carrier taught him that he had viewed this scene entirely correctly
(1). If someone could have viewed Birgit Jensen’s cityscapes
more than a hundred years ago, they probably would have been illegible.
the neuroscientist, that person would have perceived the image as unreal
and interpreted the paintings as abstract designs. In contrast, imagination
and experience allow us to recognize Birgit Jensen’s cityscapes
as such today and enable them, through her postmedial handling, to
become contemporary manifestations of artistic technique in the depiction
the themes of city and landscape.
In the early modern period landscape painting liberated and asserted
itself as an independent genre in painting. While it was originally
the goal of painters in the sub-category of urban landscape to choose
most realistic and recognizable represen-tation of a particular city,
subjective representation came to play an increasing role in the century
before last, through which it was attempted to reproduce the individually
experienced mood, the atmosphere. At the beginning of the 20th century
it was above all the artists of futurism, who, alongside the depiction
of the city, were inter-ested in the visualisation of electric light
through the medium of painting as a symbol of technological advancement.
In the 1910s and 1920s artists used the static medium of painting to
express movement and, indirectly alongside it, time as a synonym for
modernity. And where can movement, speed and dynamic be better seen
than in the city?
The American painter Agnes Martin once stated in regard to her minimalist
landscape paintings that only one line is necessary to depict a landscape.
Everything additional can be evoked through the viewer’s power
of imagination. “Anything can be painted without representation.” (2)
In reality, human perception is organized in such a way that only two
defined, horizontally opposing surfaces of different coloration are
a canvas—or, according to Agnes Martin, merely a single line
on a white back-ground—to enable an association with a landscape
(3). How do images form in our minds, before our intellectual eye?
it that the human mind is able to construct something that appears
familiar to us out of simple, literally abstract lines or individual
have been examining this question for a long time. It can even be said
that “knowledge of the illusion has no influence on perception” (4).
The brain is so conditioned by a mixture of experience and expectation
that it wants to discover something rational and tangible, even in
initially unfamiliar structures.
This becomes apparent with a painting like Birgit Jensen’s CCS
I: a sea of bright dots spreads across a background black as night – at
first a completely abstract, unsystematic pattern. Through the high
placement of the horizon, and above all, through our understanding
of electrified cities from night photography of metropolitan areas,
ultimately, through the experience of flight, during which urban areas
by night seem like earthly galaxies to the traveller, it is possible
for us to interpret the painting CCS I as a visualized rendition of
a well-light urban landscape. Buildings and houses are components of
city. Yet we don’t see actual architecture here. Instead we see
only painted light reflecting out of the buildings and into the night.
The immaterial needs material in order to be seen, in order to make
the houses imaginable to our eyes. Agglomerations, aggregations and
suggest broad streets and plazas in CCS I, where light concentrates
and darkness disappears. This is achieved through the technique of
in which identical or different views of cities are lay-ered. The fourth
dimension, time, is brought into the image with both spatial and temporal
Electric light and commercial advertising came very early to a mutual
understanding (5). Already in the 1920s the metropolitan areas of the
western world were filled with the bright lights of large companies’ billboards
and display panels, initially as light bulb typographies, later as
colorful neon tubes. Today entire building façades flicker with
LED-animated advertising slogans and commercials, although advertising—with
Times Square as a prime example—leads ad absurdum to diminishing
returns, eco-nomically seen, due to its incredible overabundance, exceeding
our capacity to take it in. Advertising indeed advertises a product,
but more so, it advertises itself—the apparently self-referential
spectacle. In some of Birgit Jensen’s urban landscapes advertisements
and billboards run riot: “NOW”, “ALL YOU CAN EAT!” Herein
lies a referentiality targeting existing images: the icons of advertising
used in varying de-grees in 20th century visual arts as an affirmation
of their respective contemporaneity. Advertising builds a sort of ligature
between light—as a prerequisite for everything visual and, thereby,
as a visual confirmation of our very existence—and the city as
the center of consumption. “I shop therefore I am” proclaimed
Barbara Kruger in a reformulation of René Descartes’ well-known
dictum. Consumption is an existential condition, which is becoming
increasingly relevant. The 21st century is the century of the consumer.
Birgit Jensen’s cityscapes belong, on the one hand, to the tradition
of the painterly representation of urban spaces as already described,
but are also an expression of the contemporary creation of art. Her
paintings make a variety of references to differ-ent artistic techniques
previous century and generate independent visual solu-tions for the
representation of the landscape out of these references and connec-tions.
In the previous
century a radical change of course occurred in regard to artistic production
and recognition. The starting point for the artist’s creation
of an image was no longer primarily the visually and sensually experienceable
environment in all its different facets, but increasingly the image
through the media. Peter Weibel observed that the painting of the Second
Modernity emerges out of “a horrible dis-covery” that “the
basis of the image is already an image.” (6)
Images communicated through different media also underlie Birgit Jensen’s
city-scapes. They show a media-driven, or even a multimedia-driven visuality.
The world (with cities as primary sources) was photographed and the images
were digitalized and transformed with the computer, and finally layered
both virtually and through silkscreen—the technique of mass media—before
being transferred by hand to the supporting medium of the canvas. Furthermore,
her paintings are contextualized because they show cities as social structures
through the canonized medium of painting. The reverberation and consolidation
of the various visual media both in and on Birgit Jensen’s canvases
is a reinforcement of these as both a time-tested and, at the same time,
future-proof site for artistic representation. This is ultimately a parallel
to our current living conditions, as the 21st century human inhabits
a dialectical ten-sion between comparatively archaic ways of life, barely
changed over centuries, and highly artificial technology. Just as painting
garnered creative energy out of the inven-tion of photography and film—which
were initially considered threats to painting’s monopoly on representation—it
is possible today to use this proverbial flood of im-ages, however they
were generated and with all their positive and negative implica-tions
in our everyday lives and in art, in painting.
Birgit Jensen’s urban landscapes are abstractions of the spatial
world onto a two-dimensional surface, oscillating between street map
and illusionary, would-be three-dimensional reality through their perspective.
One can mentally stride through these visual worlds. The images seem
like mental maps, like superimposed elevations—which they technically
are—expanding nebulously before the viewer out of the memories
he has collected as a reflective person. More and more people are con-tinually
being drawn to metropolitan areas. Cities, as substrates, are increasingly
contributing to the formation of identity and the guarantee of livelihood. “It
is the scandal of human existence that one can find himself without
having looked (…) and can discover, while crossing the street
or while a keychain falls to the ground, that one really exists.” (7)
Birgit Jensen’s paintings remind us that we exist—here
1 Wolf Singer, “Das
Bild in uns – Vom Bild zur Wahrnehmung“ in: Iconic Turn.
Die neue Macht der Bilder, Christa Maar and Hubert Burda, eds. (Cologne:
Dumont, 2004) 58.
2 Agnes Martin, Writings / Schriften, Dieter Schwarz, ed. (Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje
Cantz Verlag, 1998) 37.
3 Birgit Jensen referred to her work Little Landscapes during a conversation
with the author, which features two horizontally opposing surfaces of different
(as shown in: Site 5 (2001) 68-71).
4 Singer (2004) 66.
5 See my essay “m&m+M=3M. Lichtkunst auf dem Weg zum ReADy-made“ in:
Light Art from Artificial Light: Light as a Medium in 20th and 21st Century Art
/ Lichtkunst aus Kunstlicht: Licht als Medium der Kunst im 20. und 21. Jahrhunderts,
Peter Weibel und Gregor Jansen, eds. (Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2006).
6 Peter Weibel, “Pittura/Immedia. Die Malerei in den 90er Jahren zwischen
mediatisierter Visualität und Visualität im Kontext“ in: Pittura/Immedia.
Malerei in den 90er Jahren, Peter Weibel, ed. (Klagen-furt: Ritter Verlag, 1995)
7 Peter Sloterdijk, Weltfremdheit (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1993) 17-18.
CCS I 2005,
140 x 200 cm, acrylic/canvas (Foto: Birgit Jensen)