Embarking into the Virtual World
Walter Pichler's Futurist Visions
Since the 1960s, Walter Pichler has been working in the borderline area between sculpture and architecture, designing models of utopian cities and objects such as his legendary "TV Helmet." Many of Pichler's works are owned by the Deutsche Bank Collection. The 1996 exhibition "Joseph Beuys / Walter Pichler. Drawings," conceived by Deutsche Bank, juxtaposed a significant group of Beuys drawings with paper works by the 1936-born Austrian. Silke Hohmann introduces the inventor of the "Portable Living Room."
||A figure is sitting at a long worktable. Turned three-quarters of the way away from the viewer, it's darkly shaded, yet transparent. The perspective lines of chair, table, and even the axes of the limbs and spine penetrate it. Extending between the head of the draftsman and his right hand, which is holding a pencil, is a thin shadow. Or is it a different kind of connection alluded to here between the mind and the acting hand, one that is just as immaterial? A kind of data stream, perhaps, that translates thought into visibility? Sitting Draftsman is the laconic title of a 1991 work by Walter Pichler from the Deutsche Bank Collection, as though the artist had sketched one among many possible activities. Yet the internal tension in the figure, the way its body is cut through by construction lines, its unstable, almost cowering pose leave no doubt that this is an existential pose.
Around twenty-five years previously: a person wears a white helmet that is submarine-like in the way it extends to the front and back. His entire head disappears into the futurist capsule; only the title betrays what is happening inside it. The TV Helmet of 1967 is a technical device that isolates the user while imbedding him or her in an endless web of information: closed off against the outside world, the wearer is completely focused on the screen before his or her eyes. This work by Walter Pichler doesn't merely formally anticipate the cyber glasses developed decades later. He also articulated questions of content in relation to the media experience long before the "virtual world" was even discovered. Pichler called his invention a Portable Living Room, and this is usually interpreted as scathing sarcasm. When at least the tube is on in the living room, then we can easily do without varnished cabinets and potted violets, the title seems to say. But that is not the only way to interpret it.
Even back then, Walter Pichler was probably already a media critic; he's remained one to this day. But he is also a conceptually thinking artist who explored space early on—beyond the four walls and the structures of cities. His pioneering designs, The Prototypes, are pneumatic plastic living bubbles from the sixties that sought answers to the questions of tomorrow's individualized life somewhere between the areas of design, architecture, and art. With their reference to space travel and modernist materials, Pichler's futurist sculptures inspire a desire for the future to this day—even if his messages are said to possess a skeptical undertone.
In the sixties, after studying at the Hochschule für Architektur in Vienna, he worked with his friend, the internationally renowned architect Hans Hollein, on a new concept of architecture. In 1963, the two exhibited together at the Galerie nächst St. Stephan under the title Architecture. Hollein and he explored utopian architectonic designs; they countered the growing subdivision of the city with a larger modernist vision made from cement, declaring architecture "freed from the constraints of building." This statement can easily be extended to the TV helmet if one were to view it not merely as a blinding device, but conversely as a free-thinking extension of space: who needs four walls when you can have the whole world?
In his media-theoretical standard work Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, which was published in Germany one year after Pichler exhibited his TV helmet, Marshall McLuhan famously declared that "the medium is the message." At first, McLuhan was interpreted in just as one-dimensional a way: the culturally pessimistic interpretation of his thesis was that the technical device is so powerful that it even functions without content. Stupidity, social and physical disorders, conformism seemed inevitable. Yet McLuhan was far more the sober observer and affirmative analyzer than a warning Cassandra.
To understand the cultural significance of Pichler's TV Helmet, it is irrelevant whether or not the work was conceived as a cynical commentary on the social isolation resulting from excessive TV viewing—even while it seems improbable that the studied architect, a perfectionist, would have been satisfied with a work motivated solely by sociological concerns. Whatever his intentions, the work—together with only a very few other works, such as Ivan Sutherland's Head mounted display of the same year—marks the quantum leap of the physical into the virtual world. It addresses less the individual psyche than it seeks to redefine space.
To this day, Walter Pichler has remained true to the motif of imbedding, even if his means have changed dramatically. Pichler is one of Austria's most important living artists, although he'd rather not be. "I haven't wished to be called an artist for a long time now," he told the newspaper Zeit a few years ago, which visited him on the occasion of a Berlin exhibition at the Contemporary Fine Arts Gallery in his country home in St. Martin in the far reaches of Burgenland. Pichler has been living there since 1972, shortly after the tumultuous late sixties; he deliberately sought distance from the museum and exhibition establishment. "Most people aren't interested in anything but getting rich and famous."
But what most concerns Walter Pichler? To try to reduce him to a single position seems impossible—his first pop works from the sixties are too different from his current works. Was he a visionary back then, and retrograde today?
To this day, Walter Pichler's architectonic drawings and sculptures are characterized by a thought process that crosses the borders between disciplines. For his hominid sculptures of metal and wood, he built his own exhibition spaces that were somewhere between a temple and a container. And they never depart from them: Pichler regards this interplay between space and object as crucial. The one would never be complete without the other. One has to go there to see them. And he, too, for the most part shuns the art establishment public.
Walter Pichler's systematic renunciation fits well with his former critical approach; similarly, one could term his lived statement of rootedness a clever spatial concept, because it calls all contemporary givens into question: mobility for all, wireless communication, globalized art world. His timeless Sitting Draftsman of 1991 is a relative of that TV helmet-wearer tuned in to the data streams ahead of his time. Both figures are representative; they ask "what do we want to be, and at what price?" Walter Pichler hasn't bowed out from answering these questions; he has merely decided more clearly than many other artists.