Beyond Space and Time

Marion Hoffmann, 2021 for the catalog published on the occasion of the solo exhibition at Wichtendahl Galerie

A fascination with sublimity, purity and immutability or even reverence for their inaccessibility–the sight of lofty mountain peaks evokes strong feelings in every observer. This fascination is not only expressed by their veneration as “holy mountains”, from the Bussen in Upper Swabia to Mount Kailash in Tibet. There is also an impulse to domesticate their wildness. Alexander von Humboldt succumbed to this impulse as early as 1802, when he measured, explored and attempted to climb the 6000-metre-high Ecuadorian volcano Chimborazo. Throughout history, this fascination with untouched mountain landscapes has also been reflected in painting, whether those aiming to portray their wild sublimity, as in “heroic landscapes” from the 17th century onwards, or from a devotional aspect, as in 19th-century Romanticism.
Mountains have always been a symbol of the unknown and the unattainable. This is also the case for Ulrike Heydenreich: “I am fascinated by this primal human longing for untouched nature and the distant unknown. I see snow-covered high alpine landscapes as symbolic of that longing.

The icy, rocky landscapes of mountainous areas are the subject of her works, whether in drawings, collages or folded pieces. Artistically, she focuses only on the motif by stripping away everything that does not seem essential. People, for example, play only a subordinate part–if they find their way into one of these works of art at all. The key role is clearly played by inanimate nature: rocks, snow and ice.

The lofty mountains are always captured on paper, creating a powerful tension between the materiality of the image carrier and that of the motif itself: Delicacy stands in opposition to wildness, pliability to rigidity, lightness to heaviness, transience to permanence. In addition, the highest of mountains, the broadest of snowfields, in short, the infinity of the mountain landscape unfolds on the extremely limited format of the papers.

Ulrike Heydenreich’s work has nothing to do with classical landscape painting. Instead, she opens up completely new ways of perceiving this traditional subject. In her pencil drawings, for example, our gaze is not led gradually from the foreground into the distance, as is customary in classical landscape painting. Instead, the remote expanse of icy rocks is the exclusive subject of the staging. Inspired by various photographs, the artist draws these distant motifs so meticulously that we wish to get very close to them, to make sure that they are not actually photographs but drawings; it is a technique whose small, fine lines diametrically oppose the gigantic dimensions of the motifs, just as the close-up style of representation presents a tense contrast to the distance of what is depicted.

This contradictory interaction of smallness and immensity, closeness and distance is a theme, just as much as the issues of form, place and time.

In different ways, Ulrike Heydenreich develops the tension between the irregular, natural appearance of the rocky massifs and her purely artistic geometric forms. In her collages of duplicated old photographs covered by several layers of almost transparent glassine paper, she also glues in narrow strips that merge into crystalline shapes; in another group of works made using detached pages from a photo book, she stretches threads across the motifs. Can the lines be interpreted as symbolic of humanity’s appropriation of the landscape? As survey lines of reality? As an attempt to systematise the world? Do they show the stylised outlines of the mountains before wind and weather erosion eradicated the tops and edges of the peaks? Or do they refer to the tiny crystal forms from which the rocks have amassed into mighty colossi over millions of years? Whatever the answer, here the artist is playing a subtle game between amorphous-irregular and geometric-straight elements, between natural phenomena and constructed forms, between depiction and abstraction.

Ulrike Heydenreich also elaborates these contrasts in her drawings by embedding them in geometric forms made from perfectly cut and folded paper, and presenting the whole work in object boxes reminiscent of showcases in natural history museums. In addition, there is a subtle reflection on the theme of space. On the one hand, the illusionistic spatiality of the drawn mountains contrasts sharply with the flatness of the sky, which is not lost in the infinite distance but–on the contrary–consists only of the white paper surface. Elsewhere, the drawings are surrounded by slanting paper surfaces, so that depth is created not only illusionistically but also in a very real way. Other drawings are part of sculptural objects that the viewer can enter and then be surrounded by graphic mountain landscapes. In another group of works, the drawings are fitted into bowl-like, flat objects standing on the ground, which we look down on from above. Thus, we not only experience an unusual approach to the topic of spatiality, but can also view the tremendous height of the mountain landscapes from the still higher vantage point of a bird in flight.

The artist also adopts a very unusual approach to the production of space in a new group of works: here, she stretches threads so tightly over her images that they curve the paper and turn it into a spatial phenomenon, which enters into an exciting dialogue with the purely illusionistic spatiality of the motifs. And when the artist folds historical mountain panoramas in her most recent works, she transfers the sheets, which are essentially two-dimensional, into the third dimension. This is accompanied by a meticulously conceived play with shading and highlighting. Ulrike Heydenreich’s method is highly complex: Before actually working on the paper, first she builds models to align the perfect distances and angles for her folding work, as well as to plan the arrangement of the multi-layered paper sheets and any gaps. We usually encounter such accurate folds in fine pleated fabrics or elegant fans–objects of high culture, in other words, which embody an absolute contrast to wild nature. At the same time, she initiates the paradox of contrast between the natural process of mountain upfolding, which takes millions of years, and the artistic folding completed in just a few weeks. Similarly, she responds to the irregular and rough surface reliefs of the mountains with the smooth surfaces and geometrically exact folds of the paper. In this way, the works highlight the contrast between wildness and civilisation beyond their study of spatiality.

The phenomenon of time is also an important aspect of Ulrike Heydenreich’s work. It is virtually suspended in the drawings: Nothing that could suggest the passage of time figuratively can be seen here. There is no cloud in the sky, no wind blowing, nothing that might move. The mountains seem removed from time and place.

The choice of originals for her collages–photographs from the early 20th century–enables the artist to open up another aspect of time, namely that of transience: for the most part, the glacier landscapes that the alpinists–dressed in old-fashioned attire–are contemplating in the photographs have probably melted away. Perhaps for this very reason, the reworked images are set behind layers of translucent paper. As if half-hidden behind a veil, the motifs blur and recede into the distance like memories of a time long past.

An excursion into early 20th century alpinism is also possible with the folded panorama prints of the most beautiful mountain peaks, which were once issued as annual supplements to Alpine Club yearbooks. At that time, humanity’s view of the mountains and the way they were treated had changed radically. Whereas previously, mountains had been the wild antithesis of everyday life–which usually followed predetermined, narrowly defined paths–whose dangers people were careful to avoid, a development was beginning that continues to this day: People conquered the mountains by hiking, skiing and climbing and sought to “tame” them by building roads, and surveying and naming all the peaks. These panoramic prints are vivid evidence of this, now being “tamed” a second time by the playful folds to which the artist subjects them.

Ulrike Heydenreich’s work offers us a new, invigorating view of ancient mountain landscapes. It is a play with distance and proximity, with the amorphous and geometric forms, with depiction and abstraction, all linked to a questioning of place and time–witty, inspiring and exceptionally aesthetic.

Text: Marion Hoffmann / 2021
Translation: Lucinda Rennison