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Text of the catalogue Wolfgang Robbe - Underwaterrooms Heidelberger Kunstverein 2001. You could be forgiven thinking that you had some depiction of a strange leisure-time scenario before you ­ captured using elaborate photographic techniques. The eye is caught by a rectangular basin of water that, close to a wall with greenery, has been inset into a floor consisting of square stone slabs and stone benches. Even more astonishing than the absence of rails round the pool, which is filled almost to the top, are the three figures standing on the blue squares of the pool’s base, with its border of blue and yellow: red monochrome clothed figures who evidently have to make no special effort to survive under the water. The alienating impact of the situation is at loggerheads with the strong plausibility the image suggests: the sunlight bouncing off the firm bodies structures things clearly in terms of light and shadow, reveals the transparent quality of the water and yet is also deflected by it, illuminating the tiling. Indeed, the structure and growths on the rear wall add their mirror image to what we can see through the water. A figure in the bottom right corner alludes to some ostensibly historical origins of the scenario ­ for it cites Auguste Renoir’s bronze statue Large Washerwoman of 1917-8.

However swiftly you may identify the artificial qualities of the scene, only close examination reveals that the image is not some customary photograph but has been generated by a computer. Indeed, what we are looking at is imaginary, a print-out of an idea for the sculpture garden in the Berlin Nationalgalerie which relies on all the refined strategies of digital deception and combination. The idea of enhancing the garden to include a swimming-pool-like basin is not only intended to create a paradoxical state ­ for many may find that the ambience of a museum does not jell with the ostensible luxury of a pool. More important is the fact that, together with its staff the pool belongs to a sphere which, while being bound to reality thanks to the medium of water, at the same time exhibits a kind of magical autonomy. The surface of water, with its twofold ability to reflect the eye and allow the eye to penetrate it, separates and links the world of fact from the world of imagination ­ a world in which familiar natural laws suddenly seem to no longer be written in stone ­ and precisely for this reason imbue the real world with an unexpected aesthetic and poetic potential.

The ”Underwater room for three figures” made in 2000 belongs to a group of works produced mainly as of 1998 and which Wolfgang Robbe classes as ”simulated projects for real locations”. These projects all exist only as digital pixels and plotter print-outs, even if they could definitely be realized. What they have in common is that they all make use of the medium of water as well as figures/props or just props. ”Dancing in the park” is designed for a pool in the garden of Schloss Charlottenburg ­ an ensemble of two moderately animated figures, both of whom are presented in a uniform red that contrasts with the blue and green tones of the lines of tiles on the pool’s bottom. In the project devised for Düsseldorf and entitled ”Ehrenhof. Small parlor game” we see three red figures against a gray pool bottom, whose bright pattern is reminiscent of a board game. A similarly structured ground with a single red runner is to be found in the project ”Running time” intended for Potsdamer Platz in Berlin, while a second idea for the same location entitled ”Stop and Go” features a pool bottom covered with a time-line and as an underwater prop an auto in monochrome blue. For a fountain and basin in Charlottenburger Garten, Robbe conjured up the ”Underwater room for Schloss Charlottenburg environment, consisting of a table and five chairs ­ all of them painted yellow and standing out from the bright blue pool bottom.


A series of other works leaves the question as to location open ­ for example the ensemble entitled ”Pool for five chairs and a table” ­ a variation on the above, whereby the one chair is placed outside the pool but close to its edge. Or the versions ”Pool for bike and chair” and ”Pool for bike and two chairs” in which the bicycle is a bright outline underwater, whereas the chairs are half immersed in the water, so that the images and mirror images conjoin to form some bizarre parody on furniture. The relationship between the two chairs is subject to an amusing dramaturgy ­ they are juxtaposed to each other on overlapping, carpet-like ornamental surfaces in a shallow basin with a bottom boasting red clouds; ”Pool for Two” can be construed as highlighting the narrative aspect of a fountain from which it somehow descends ­ and which was devised by Robbe in 1999 as his contribution to the competition held for a fountain for the inner courtyard of the Ministry of Technology and Economics in Berlin. The ”Federal pool” featured a flat circular pool in which 16 chairs made of matt-blasted stainless steel had gathered on the colored pattern of the underlying mosaics. The plan envisaged the water, which formed a tranquil disc in the pool, flowing gently into a lower basin, so that the sonorous sound of splashing radiated into the main foyer of the Ministry. The project ­ which thus also essayed to include the acoustic level, too ­ did not win the tender, possibly given some innate fear on the part of the state of seeing its acts reflected at the level of a highly intelligent and flowing setting.

In a twofold sense reflection is a meaningful term with which to address the works discussed here: physically speaking we see a system of reflections that depends on the properties of the reflective medium and the specific conditions governing the reflection (such as the angle of light falling on the water, and the locations of the pools); and philosophically we are encouraged to contemplate external objects and think about thought itself. Robbe believes that differentiated sensory perception forms only the basis for any insights into conditions of being that exceed those which manifest themselves visually. Initially, viewing these works is so exciting because we are so astonished when encountering their hitherto unknown contents, forms and colors, so fascinated by the reflections and deflections, which change with each step we take, each new aspect of lighting, and so unsettled by the optical inconstancy of the water. It is true that the static designs require a certain amount of fantasy on the part of the viewer if he or she is to imagine all these possible effects. On the other hand, the 2-D print-outs, if only given their perfection, have a quality of their own ­ specifically where they do not try to be some fictitious trompe l´oeil, but instead grant the abstract graphic elements a status of their own. Just how effective is Robbe’s feel for free and yet logical constellations of form and color in the designs for the ”Federal pool”!

For Robbe, as important as the sensory perception are the intellectual insights that it enables. He terms ”the wall, the surface of the water: a membrane, a skin” and states that the viewer must ”penetrate the shimmering play of the surface, extract from it a short glance at the core,” thus imbuing the juxtaposition of real space and underwater world a symbolic status. In the final analysis, it is not the figures or things which we spy in this unreal sphere that are significant. Instead, the focus is on the recognition that there is a dividing zone which separates the familiar from the unknown, and, to Robbe’s mind, this quality of the unknown constitutes the ”absolutely largest part of everything”. The fact that it is the rational instrument of the computer which is used to trace this symbolic dimension of formal inventions is just as little a contradiction as was the fact that it was paint and fresco brush which first enabled the pictorial illusion of Baroque heaven. However, the sovereign dexterity with which he uses the computer says much about Robbe’s own rationality.


Robbe’s endeavor to develop concepts such as those above together with architects is likewise no contradiction. Last year, together with the HPP architect’s office he devised a entrance area permeated with surfaces of water for an admin. and cultural center in Egna in Northern Italy. The entrance resembled a jetty and the project also revealed ”usable relaxing islands with a view out over the countryside” and a ”restaurant spread across isles”. Reflections were to be used together with the changing ambient light to offer visitors ”an infinite number of perspectives and configurations”. Another project which won first prize in the respective competition but has not yet been realized was likewise devised together with HPP: the design for an extension wing to the Allianz insurance company in Munich. The plans hinge on two underwater rooms populated with red figures such as those outlined at the outset and inserted into an expansive biotope basin. The combination of the shallow water of the biotope and the two deep pools conveys an impression of especial spatial complexity.

We need to bear the history of Robbe’s work in mind if we are to truly put our finger on the quality of the new pieces. I first encountered his oeuvre in 1989. At that time, Robbe was one of a large number of applicants for the Lehmbruck Stipend awarded by the City of Duisburg. He and Robert Schad, as well as Italian Gianpietro Carlesso won the scholarships and spent 1989-90 in the Gothic ”Three Gables House” in Duisburg. What impressed and astonished the jury so much about the works Robbe submitted was the way space was presented as a controllable and yet enigmatic quality. It went without saying that the jury was seeing not just some new version of illusionism but a profound discussion of issues of perception and recognition.

In this phase, Robbe was already able to boast a quite considerable oeuvre. While still studying in Erich Reusch’s master class he created pieces such as ”Magic eye”, 1981 and ”Ultimo” 1982 which attracted a great deal of attention. Both made use of water, which triggered reflections in a flat bitumen pool with a bottom of blue pigment, suggesting unfathomable depth. In the case of ”Ultimo” the surface of water joined two rooms connected by a narrow slit in one wall such that in the one room a section of the other was visible as a reflection and vice versa. Robbe extended this process of virtual spatial expansion, and it always includes undermining any fixed spatial identity, in various directions. In his Düsseldorf installation ”Real” 1982 a flat pool with a cloudy red bottom forged an optically confusing bridge between two rooms; in the installation ”Kurt Cast- Centrifuge commends”, 1983 the foundation for the machines in an old factory were used to locate a canal-like system of water surfaces; one of the structures in which depth emerged and in which it was at the same time obscured by reflecting water was given the ironical name: ”Grand Canal”.

The dialectics of space come to bear in a different way in a group of works which essentially tackles the issue of identity. In 1985, Robbe transformed an old storage room at Altes Museum Mönchengladbach such that in the ensuing installation ”Storage room” in the ”Wiedereröffnung (reopening) Haus Waende” exhibition an enigmatic situation arose. From outside the dilapidated door you looked into a spick-and-span room with an aluminum window tilted open directly opposite. On closer inspection, the window pane did not offer a view out at all, but transpired to be a mirror showing a section of the old entranceway with mementos of earlier users ­ including a small ”brown cross” by Joseph Beuys. Such tilted windows were also used in an installation which Robbe contributed to the ”Chambres d‘amis” in Ghent in 1986. Into two axially related rooms in a villa he inserted two partial rooms with windows that did not open outwards, but into the original rooms. A carpet bisected by one of the inserted walls gave one room a strong sense of being improvised, while the house owner’s art collection (carefully guarded by a weighty uniformed watchman) remained out of view, with the exception of the inconspicuous edge of one picture. And another instance where tilted square aluminum windows were involved was the ”spatial sculpture open to visitors” ­ the installation was entitled ”On yesterday and tomorrow I”, 1990 at the Wilhelm Lehmbruck Museum in Duisburg. Both sides of the inserted wall ­ they are symmetrically coated with plaster rectangles, but the colors emphasize the right and left ­ were designed as identical, but the opposite angled tilts of the respective windows pointed up the difference. For all the knowledge that what was involved was only a purported identity, when walking around it you inevitably lost your sense of orientation ­ and Robbe’s preferred maxim of ”here is there and there is here” only served to point up the uncertainty felt. On the other hand, the attentive viewer had many an opportunity to notice deviations such as were even innate in the fine differences in illumination on the two wall sides.

Also at an early date, Robbe was already experimenting with simulated wall sections and surprising light effects away from existing spatial structures. Works such as ”Everyday workshop”, 1984-89, ”Workshop at Dusk”, 1984-87 and ”On yesterday and tomorrow II”, 1990 are essentially mobile works. The common denominator, in addition to the structure which shows them as segments of larger wall sections, is above all the split identity which results from the separation of the entity we physically expect and the fictitious entity itself. In the case of ”Werkstatt im Alltag” the actual relief from an old-fashioned wall panel made of painted outlines is doubled up ­ the lines, as proven by a black-&-white photograph that is attached to the work, are arbitrarily defined by the lighting. In the case of ”Werkstatt in der Dämmerung I” the fake wall made of wood, plaster and acrylic paint is irritatingly interpreted by a small color photo mounted on this background and presenting the artwork in weak light, but with the bright reflection of a window. “Über gestern und morgen II” consists of a three-meter long flat relief which resembles a section from Robbe’s Duisburg studio at the time, reproduced negatively in fiberglass using a silicon rubber mold. Framed and covered in glass as if it were a picture this white surface with the pattern of bricks in it has a narrow window at the center which offers view of a second identical relief, which, as a small spy-hole suggests, itself covers a deeper level of the room. Things get even more complicated for in front of the rear level you can see the edge of a picture and above all reflections on the front glass may lead you to suspect that perhaps you are just seeing painted information in the window section ­ on closer inspection the suspicion transpires to be false.

Our eyes and mind are principally challenged by the works in which factual and fictitious light/shadow combinations compete with one another. ”Werkstatt im Alltag” is one such example, but Robbe has made even more complicated objects. ”Reflektor, modifiziert” 1991 is a narrow object resembling a display vitrine and purporting to be a section of a corner in a room; the differing brightness of the two symmetrical strips of wall and the painted reflection of light on the right give the impression that we are witnessing a quite specific instance of illumination. Yet the lighting does not concur with the actual illumination, as the playful presentation of reflections on the oblique front pane readily reveals. Corner-based objects such as ”Up = down, reflector, modified” 1993 are not framed in glass. Here, the luminosity of the painting has to assert the visual setting ­ which runs counter to factual conditions and yet has to co-exist with them.

Edge sections placed across corners come together in the eight-piece wall-mounted work entitled ”Multipolar four-color alternating generator, reflector modified”, 1992 to form a series with a strange dual character. Half respectively of the prisms is vertically and horizontally painted using specific printers colors on the CMYK scale such that a reversible sequence arises: If stood upside down, the image would be the same. In other words, the shadowed sides (which are actually merely the product of darker color tones) relate to each other in mirrored symmetry and therefore logically contradict each other. Painted shadows also form the special quality of an architectural sculpture which Robbe presented in 1991 as ”Pedestrian Chapel” in downtown Hanover and a year later in a slightly modified version as the ”Sydney Harbour Chapel” not far from the Opera House and close to the Sydney Museum of Contemporary Art. He painted the respective right side complete with bench of the crossed walls featuring four identical sections slightly darker than the left side ­ as a consequence, for all its purported shade the left-hand side only offered a cooler place when it coincidentally was out of the sun. This visual confusion with its concealed/aggressive thrust is admittedly a tactic Robbe has seldom used.

The strategy of kindling curiosity and at the same time failing to offer the goods (or only offering limited satisfaction), such as was to be encountered in ”Das Lager” or ”Über gestern und morgen II”, is also to be seen in ”View of the Kaiser Collection”, 1989 a bipartite arrangement in the left section of which we can see but the passe-partout of a picture, while on the right a spy-hole, invisibly backed by a mirror, prompts you to encounter your own pupil. Another instance is the installation ”Still life, flowing”, 1982ff which Robbe has presented in various layouts, for example in 1987 unter as ”Vis à vis” in Musée St. Denis in Reims, and in 1989 at the Kunstverein für die Rheinlande und Westfalen in Düsseldorf. There, a glance through the spy-holes positioned respectively in the middle of five identical walls offers a perception of a distorted and unnaturally distanced ”space beyond”.

More complex are those works which make use of both light/shadow trompe l’oeil and real reflections ­ and they also play a more important role in the further development of Robbe’s work. The ”Composition major-minor key I” and ”Komposition dur-moll II”, which includes a small pictorial insert, both bear the sub-title ”Reflector, modified”, 1995 and the pair of objects ”Reflector zone, modified”, 1995 located in the Federal Technical Academy in Brühl, all make use of a metal-framed section of blue wall covered in glass and with a deep-red lower segment. At first sight the series of strips of shadow and window reflections do not seem to be part of the painting on latex plaster but merely a fleeting phenomenon on the glass. Closer inspection soon shows that these are permanent components of the picture, elements which evidently interact with the visual occurrences on the reflecting glass surface depending on your viewpoint and the respective lighting conditions.


One group of works stands out for taking part in the strong fiction of pictorial qualities and instrumental use of painting, and it brings together many of the experiences Robbe had gained. Be they paintings on customary backings or paintings on glass, all of them make use of the reflective capacities of water as an intrinsic property of the painting itself. The ”Water Corners”, 1998 represents a technically most elaborate group of works. Each shows an oblique view of the corner of a room with water covering the floor and in which a door opening onto a darker room is reflected. The setting brings to mind the ”Real” installation of 1982 except that now the painting achieves what the physical medium of water originally did. Several layers of acrylic are applied to the front or back of a pane of acrylic glass with a wooded base; the paint is in part transparent, in part gloss, and thus itself reflective, in part (as in the area of white plaster) matte and opaque. The shapes and colors are articulated here with the sensitivity of a hyperrealist. Yet the impression is less that of a depiction and more of a construct that completely imitates reality.

The counterpart to the blue-green ”Water Corner” is ”Water Corner II”, in which red predominates. Here, Robbe has not included the layer of acrylic glass so that outside reflections are captured by the zone in which gloss paint is used ­ it is quantitatively the largest. The pictorial and yet sculptural works using the effect of painting on the reverse of glass include ”Pool” (several different versions, 1997 and ”Pool, accessible light”, 1998, as well as ”Unterwater room, figure ­ waiting” and ”Pool ­ house behind mirrors” two trapezoidal compositions (1998) within a neutral setting created using a monotonous opaque paint. The second type includes works such as ”Underwater room with entrance” and ”Island piece”, both 2000. It bears mentioning that Robbe started painting on the reverse side of glass while still a student, as a glance at the painting ”Pool” made in 1983 shows. Likewise, the concept of underwater spaces complete with figures and objects also dates back to the 1980s. The building project ”Underwater rooms: two pools for a couple” combines two pools with chessboard-like patterned bottoms and one figure respectively and was first devised in 1985 ­ and then revised in 1995; he was thinking of the spatial alignment of the persons thus ideally linked by the angle of vision and of their possible localization ”in public places or in part inside a building, part outside”.

In recent years, the theme of underwater rooms/space has become of great importance to Robbe, not only on account of the fact that he can now design such settings using the tool of the computer, but also because of his need to intervene more strongly in the public domain and on behalf of the public sphere. This need was always present in his work and prompted action art such as ”Slalom” ­ a game he staged in 1987 together with Heike Pallanca involving opening a fictitious gallery of the same name on Düsseldorf’s Burgplatz ­ and subsequent projects entailing scooters in Hamburg 1988, Tielt in Belgium 1989 and at the Kunstverein für die Rheinlande und Westfalen in Düsseldorf (likewise 1989). In a more intimate way, we can discern this public thrust in works such as ”Reflector domain everywhere” A) B), 1986-90 or in a wall sculpture such as ”Workshop at dusk” which bears a rack mount for postcards on the right. The postcards simply present a photographic view of the object itself, bathed in soft light and increased by means of it reflection in a window. This postcard, a removable picture within the picture (it can be disseminated in greater numbers), is tautological and yet the variant on the picture that goes beyond reality by poetic means. At the time of writing, Robbe was planning a similar work that factors in the special spatial characteristics of the Heidelberg Kunstverein and which is intended to become a permanent piece of PR for him.

Robbe’s development as an artist exhibits a convincing logic and consistency. It should have become obvious that for all his pleasure in things aesthetic, all his virtuoso achievements, at heart he focuses on serious subjects. His work, or so he once stated in a letter, is the ”constant attempt to create a poetry of the permeable surface and of infinitely many relations open to the senses.” And he added: ”This refers in particular to the relation of human existence and all its implications.” To my mind, it is more important to reiterate this cognitive potential in his approach than to enumerate to what extent he takes part in current trends in painting, in the relation between architecture and 3D art, in installations and performative art, and not least in computer-generated art. Robbe’s oeuvre invites us to immerse ourselves in subtle perception, and is thus likewise an appeal to us to understand the world more carefully.

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© 2003 by Wolfgang Robbe., VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, Germany
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