Philip Ursprung

Notes on the Underground

One of the finest exhibitions, in my view, in the burgeoning Zurich art scene was A Night at the Show (1995). Under the curatorship of Harm Lux, some of the most interesting artists worked together in the short-lived 'Fields' (previously a factory building). They intervened on, around and under a vast stage, which took up almost the entire space and which was the focus – every evening during this short exhibition – for performances, vaudeville-like acts and readings. The borders between the visual arts, the performing arts and the emerging 'events culture' in privately run bars blurred to create an atmospheric ambience that effectively pervaded a regional art scene that was soon to become internationally known as the 'Swiss wonder'.

I spent many hours at that exhibition. Above all I remember the distances I covered. Under the stage there was a complicated system of low passages and chambers which visitors could stoopingly explore. Some of the chambers were occupied by artists. In one there was grass growing. And in some places it was possible to catch sight of what was happening on stage. Some of the performers used these gaps to make their entrances. But sometimes visitors, standing in the openings, found themselves right by the performers. With their elbows on the floor of the stage, they could observe the performers from immediately below them – gazing upwards like a souffleur at actors or a mechanic at the underneath of a car.

Bob Gramsma was the author of this system of 'underground' passages and of the bracket-like openings. A Night at the Show was one of his first exhibition pieces. The motif of the underground passage or tunnel – and the contrast- ing, exposed plateau – has been intrinsic to his work ever since. Again and again he leads visitors to his shows along convoluted pathways into dark, tube-like spaces, only to reward them with a sudden striking contrast, a picture or a view. Whether one has to squeeze through openings, grope one's way forwards or simply move through a darkened space – his artworks always create the effect of an unfolding narrative in which one has a performative part to play. It is as though one were perceiving things from the margins, able to look behind the scenes and into the infrastructure.

Although Gramsma physically involves the exhibition visitor and prescribes the course of certain movements, so although the works of art have a narrative structure and unfold in front of and with the viewers, there is no plot as in a classical performance. Rather than indicating the nature of the contents, at most the titles he chooses convey a rhythm. In fact they are no more than numbered and dated abbreviations for 'object installation', 'video installation', or 'photograph'. Interestingly they always begin with a dash and a comma, as though one were hesitating for a moment, searching for a word that was on the tip of one's tongue. In the case of A Night at the Show the titles are –, OI#9525, 1995 for the underground passage and (...), OI#9524, 1995 for the openings. They function like the mysterious markings that loom into view inside motorway tunnels or are seen on aircraft wings or maps. In other words, they look like information needed for orientation purposes but which are clearly intended for specialists and only make sense as part of a system. They suggest that the individual passageways in Gramsma's work are all interconnected and that in each case we are in fact dealing with fragments of a larger undertaking.

Is there such a system in Gramsma's work? Does Gramsma have the master plan? Is he deliberately letting us stumble about in the darkness so that one day he can show us the right path? I think not – for like all those who grew up in the 1970s, the decade of the Thousand Plateaus, Gramsma has no desire to pin meaning down. He wants it kept open. Without doubt he is a fan of films like Stanley Kubrick's 2001 – A Space Odyssey (1968), notably the scene with the tiny control room in the landing zone that oversees the docking procedure of the shuttle – a scene which probably also inspired Brian O'Doherty's text Inside the White Cube (1976). What- ever the case, Gramsma was certainly fascinated by Clemens Klopfenstein's Geschichte der Nacht (1979), that grainy black-and- white film of a seemingly endless night-drive through European cities. And he has clearly been touched by the scenes in Ridley Scott's Bladerunner (1982) where Harrison Ford tries to hide from the replicants in the dilapidated architecture of a late 19th-century building. Perhaps he also knows Thomas Pynchon's novel Gravity's Rainbow (1973), the roman à clef of postmodern literature, set in dark ruins, bunkers and underground systems in East Germany during the turmoil that followed the Second World War.

I assume that he admires the work of artists such as Gordon Matta-Clark, whose investigations into the abandoned subway routes and water canals under Manhattan – as in his film Substrait (Underground Dailies) (1976) – are very much in keeping with Gramsma's own expeditions. And lastly, there are of course the links to the installations Bruce Nauman was creating in the 1970s. Gramsma's installation 154 inch finger-scape, OI#0169, 2001 – in his own words, a 'polyester cast of the traces of the tips of Gramsma's fingers in wet clay (391 cm)' – is obviously a paraphrase of Nauman's preoccupation with parts of his body or his first name.

Rather than providing answers, Gramsma presents in ever new variations the dispositive whereby meaning is constituted, although it may neither be finally defined or fixed. In –, OI#9843, 1998 three lamps directly face and light up a wall – the kind of lamps that look as though they might have come from an archaeological dig or a photographer's studio. They normally make close observation of a particular object, a wall for example, possible. Only these ones illuminate the wall so garishly that one is all but blinded and cannot see anything. Although light is needed for us to see things, this particular type of light is also a projection that swamps them and makes them disappear.

In Gramsma's hands light is not just a sculptural material for creating atmospheric effects. It is also always a metaphor for 'discovery', 'recognition' or 'insight', one might say. And it strikes me as important that he always draws attention to the edges of the illuminated area. Whether the light source is a lamp or a video projection seems to be secondary. Of course it makes a difference if a film is projected or if it is a light beam. However, Gramsma is not out to reflect or to celebrate the possibilities of the media he uses, but rather to demarcate their limits. That he nevertheless has a mighty instrument at his disposal, is most vividly apparent in his art and architecture installation –, PD#0382, 2003 in Magglingen, where he seems to cope heroically with the sedimented strata of the entire Jura Mountains by illuminating the rocks exposed during construction work for a new hotel.

Gramsma's installation in Magglingen also seems to me to strike at the heart of his involvement with the 'subterranean'. But why is it that he prefers to choose subterranean sites for his installations? It may have some- thing to do with his affinity for the literally subversive. But it may well also be a reaction to the excess of the light, the harmony and the euphoric deployment of technology that is rife in the art scene today and the corollary, that is, the uncanny, the magical and the abject. For even if Gramsma's installations seem at first sight to fit well into the 'Gothic' camp, his irony and scepticism go entirely against the Gothic grain. In his best works, Gramsma momentarily also gives us a glimpse of the chasms that are usually ignored in the art scene. 'Depth' and 'distance', as Frederic Jameson has shown in his book Postmodernism, or,The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991), are the most fragile, problematic categories in the context, as he describes it, of the over-arching, explosively expanding surface of culture where 'depthlessness' reigns and where spatial juxtaposition has become more important than temporal succession. Grams- ma does not claim that he either could or would withdraw from this altered spatiality or from the tyranny of the present. His 'depths' are self-evidently artificial, and put together in a makeshift manner. Nevertheless, they demonstrate that their author is convinced of the existence of such a thing as a 'behind' or a 'below' and that, as ever, there is distinct pleasure to he had from trying to discover a point of access to it.

Notes on the Underground (Cambridge, Mass., 1990) is a richly informative book by Rosalind Williams which casts light on the history of the tunnel from the point of view of cultural history. Williams' title is itself a reference to Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground

Firs published in: Bob Gramsma, Works 2003 (Translation Fiona Elliott, Zürich, 2003)