Michele Robecchi

From Neverland to Paradise-The Fictional Space of Bob Gramsma

When Rosalind Krauss wrote her seminal text Sculpture in the Expanded Field (1), inviting a series of poignant reflections on the relationship between objects and their surrounding space, she reasoned that sculpture in its modern form could be quintessentially considered as the non-part of landscape and architecture. Bob Gramsma's work, whilst a brainchild of those theories, displayed from the very beginning manifold intentions that, on the one hand, resonate with the concept of spatial intervention as a way to intervene in an existing situation, and on the other hand resist the notion of plain institutional critique. More at home with Robert Smithson's model of incompleteness as an asset rather than with Michael Asher's and Hans Haacke's prosecutorial approach, Gramsma's sculptures, while forcing viewers to renegotiate themselves within the space, disable the idea of this co-existence as a simple marriage between positive and negative forces, seeking instead for more cohesive solutions even when in critical mode. This is a stance already evident in crack, OI#9411, the centerpiece of his maiden solo exhibition at Torch Gallery in Amsterdam in 1994, and one that is interesting to compare with what Asher did at the Clare Copley Gallery in Los Angeles exactly twenty years earlier to better illustrate this argument. Whereas Asher had a wall removed, eliminating the barrier between the gallery and the office space and questioning art's commercial implications, Gramsma added an extra partition at the entrance. Split between the outdoor and indoor space, built with materials that qualified it as blatantly different from the brick walls of the building, crack, OI#9411 mimed the architecture while claiming an intrinsic sculptural value, acting both as obstacle and invitation to come in and see more, and revealing all at once its ambiguity. The sentiment was also underscored by the title of the exhibition, Verbouwing/Neverland, a reference to the fictional island created by James Matthew Barrie as the ultimate metaphor for escapism. According to the late Scottish writer, Neverland was the alternative to Mainland, the world we normally inhabit. Gramsma's renovation proposal subverts the rule. Neverland and Mainland inhabit the same restricted world, but rather than being divided into two realities-one practical and one unattainable-they merge to the extent that it becomes difficult to acknowledge what is what. To volunteer a theater metaphor, it could be said that Gramsma is interested in the representational force of the stage just as in the energy running behind the wings-the indefinite dimension traditionally hidden from the public that alters the identity of all the persons who trespass it. Total installations like –, OI#0279 at Stadtgalerie Bern / Kunstverein Ulm in 2002 or –, OI#0486 at the Centre PasquArt in Biel in 2004 offer additional evidence in this sense. In the first case, a ventilation shaft leads to a dark room illuminated by a hot cooking shaft on the floor, with a normally invisible body (the airshaft) being made ostensibly noticeable and a normally visible one (the features of the exhibition area) conversely turned into a concealed space.(2) In the second case, a paneled structure affirming its sculptural autonomy reveals, once entered, a modified Swiss Air airplane cabin, subverting what is normally regarded as a claustrophobic environment into a voluminous, empty ambience with the internal aseptic and external handcrafted sides reinforcing the overall sense of duality.

Made during the liquidation of Swissair, in an historical time where the world was still coming to terms with the aftermath of 9/11, –, OI#0486 successfully touched on socio-political issues without betraying the distinctive subtlety of Gramsma's work. More in tune with Andy Warhol's and Gerhard Richter's attitude of an art 'political by definition' than with Asher's aforementioned denunciatory strategies, Gramsma let his materials develop their own dialectic, dealing with any potential political message coming across the board as with a consequential factor. Furthermore, he refutes the neutrality of the space by acknowledging its materiality, form and gestalt, as well as its inherent and productive role. In doing so, the vernacular, almost ordinary quality that informs his visual vocabulary, being a group of open fridges mounted in order to function as corridor side panels (–, OI#0171), or the railings of a balcony planted in a rock wall overlooking the waterfalls of a river (wandering mind, OI#09126), transcend their ready-made initial condition to embrace process and production, redefining their status of chosen/recontextualized objects and the one of the premises they engage with. Similar subtleties also delineate the landscape made of newspapers interrupted with lighted cavernous spaces protected by car doors presented at the P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in New York in 2003 (fox holes, OI#0383). Dismantled car bits and returned papers are hardly politically uncharged materials, but their specific arrangement, as if to recreate a natural scenery through the deployment of artificial elements, partially camouflage this characteristic, promoting a direct interaction that flirts with theatricality to put into question the spectator's connection to the space. Fox holes, OI#0383 is worth analyzing for other decisive aspects: that, with time, two staples in Gramsma's work have been instituted-the adoption of recurring components to assemble his installations and the fascination for hollow spaces and their form, and how their instalment corresponds with the creation of a significant amount of energy and volume.

The recurring components, here specifically in the form of car parts, have been reprised at the VII Venice Biennale of Architecture (2000), where six automobiles are parked in front of the entrance of the Swiss Pavilion with radios at full blast, broadcasting about topics such "forming a social hope" and "creolization;" or for the cemetery of vehicles around a concrete compound in the forest of Kaudorf (Frieda, OI#08120); or for the forty car tops (top chop, OI#08121) in front of the Kunsthaus Zurich at Shifting Identities (2008). Their interchangeable character is a reminder of how Gramsma's personal lexicon assumes new meaning once put in dialogue with different contexts. Yet, most of his works appear independent of place. They operate in undefined settings while still managing to instigate a reflection on the site where they are installed. If further proof is needed, it is enough to cast a glance over Gramsma's frequent outdoor sculptures. Works like the floating fence delimiting a moving area on the lake of Zurich (local motion, OI#0489), the mould of a discharged truckload on the grass of Bex (runaway concrete, OI#11154) or even the boat buried upside down in the vicinity of Zurich (–, OI#06108) are as alien from their elected destination as they can be but still set up a very fluid correlation.

The fascination for hollow spaces, which is spread through Gramsma's practice in multiple shapes and sizes, from tunnels to channels and manholes, literally finds new ground in a leap into paradise, OI#10135, a sculpture made of a variety of materials including acrylic plaster, aluminium, glass, metal and pigments. Devised as an object hanging from the upper ceiling, it consists of an external view of a hole-giving shape to something normally (and in the artist's world, erroneously) considered intangible. Originally exhibited at the Dienstgebäude Art Space in Zurich, a leap into paradise, following art's disposition for starting as one thing and slowly developing into something else, gives precious indication of where Gramsma's art stands today if examined within Hard and Fast, his exhibition at the Kunst(Zeug)Haus in Rapperswil.

In line with his previous efforts, Hard and Fast doesn't treat the exhibition space as the threshold and the frame but as a larger circuitry of entities. Ladders, doors, and railings are still conspicuous, but their rendition is far more abstract and, perhaps not coincidentally, more handcraft-oriented. Sparse in its presentation, the exhibition transforms the entire space into a gigantic conduit, emphasizing once more Gramsma's inclination to utilize a spectrum-rather than a binary-to describe sculpture and architecture's accommodation of language conventions and property relations. Despite the futuristic vibe suggested by the title, Hard and Fast is permeated by a meditative feel. The few concessions made to monumentality (as in the Utility Pole series) are counterbalanced by more intimate moments (like the bronzed soak power point, OI#13193 or the discreet silver bullets, OI#13173–175), so that it has none of the heroizing, large-scale attributes typical of minimalism and post-minimalist art. Majestic but strangely vulnerable, a leap into paradise emerges in all its urgency to exemplify Gramsma's continuous quest for a multi-dimensional truth, ultimately standing as a testament for what Dante Alighieri had argued over five centuries ago-namely that Heaven and Hell are places on earth.

  1. Rosalind Krauss, "Sculpture in the Expanded Field," October, Vol. 8, Spring 1979, pp. 30–34.
  2. An even more pertinent example to prove this analogy is –, OI#9524 (1995), a network of tunnels the artist built under a stage platform at Fields in Zurich, giving visitors a new location where to experience theater performance.

This text is published in: Bob Gramsma, IN – Works 931–14209 (Zurich, 2014)