Cosmic Knots – Illuminated Knots
Ursula Panhans-Bühler

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Beginning in the second half of the nineteenth century, artificial light changed night-time in our cities on a grand scale. Illumination, first by means of gas lamps and later with electricity, dimmed people’s fear of moving about on the streets and squares and thus extended life past the limits of daytime in a whole new way. Tubes filled with illuminating gas – initially neon – joined the spectrum in the early twentieth century. They emitted their light less for the purpose of brightening up the surroundings than to draw attention to the words and signs they formed as advertisements for products and business establishments. Artists began using this new form of light as material in their work in the late fifties; Dan Flavin and Maurizio Nannucci, for example, were among the first.
Knots are an element of ornamentation with origins far back in the history of mankind. Yet they are equally important as a cultural practise within the framework of carpet weaving, in the fastening of harnesses and stabilizing of tents, and not least of all in the rigging of ships. Within the context of a long scientific research process beginning in the eighteenth century, they have become a special area of mathematics. The theory of knots is meanwhile a central aspect of topology.
In the mathematical sense, a knot is the incorporation of a circular line, i. e. of one or several rings, into three-dimensional space. Depicted by means of projection on a surface, a knot forms a pattern of closed curves – loops or slings – with a certain number of intersections. Two knots are defined as mathematically equal or isotopic if they can be converted into one another through distortion (isotopy) without the “strings” being cut. The stages undergone in this process can appear formally different even if their mathematical point determinations are identical.
The theory of knots moreover forms an interface between microcosm and macrocosm, namely in the investigation of DNA protein structures in biochemistry on the one hand and the description of the universe in theoretical physics and cosmology on the other. One of the questions currently preoccupying physics is whether the geometry of the universe is elliptical – i. e. Euclidean – or hyperbolic.
The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan used and transformed knots for the description of structural models of the emotions. His “RSI” depiction – the graphic representation of the interrelationship between the real, the symbolic and the imaginary – is based on a transformation of the famous seventeenth-century Borromean knot, consisting of three interlaced circles. The latter open up into parabolas, each of which point to infinity, whereas their intertwined core continues to be formed by the knot of circles. Dissoluble only at the risk of the subject’s demise, this nexus obeys a dynamic tension between centre and periphery. Lacan’s depiction of the RSI knot owes its graphic “flattening” to the limitations of the book page and the viewer’s eccentric position: the knot must be imagined as overlapping spaces whose extension and contraction remain dynamically open, and as a figure whose centre and periphery describe the subject’s position beyond the boundaries of the observation of its depiction .
In various workgroups, and with a wide variety of materials, Mariella Mosler has explored the structure and semantics of ornament again and again, in room installations as well as in ephemeral objects. The serial formal elements are articulated in constantly new constellations. As soon as the viewer proceeds from physical involvement in the movement to the dissociated visual axis, the ornamental course of lines can be seen as a path in time, while its intersections – as superimpositions in space – appear as the jumble typical of knots. Wickerwork and knots form the space-time structure underlying the ornament. Knots are thus – strictly speaking – a relationship between the loops and the viewer’s space; they vanish as soon as the viewer begins following their path, as can be demonstrated with the Moebius strip.
In the course of Mariella Mosler’s preoccupation with knot structures, these loop forms have departed from a direct relationship to classical ornamental forms. They have become more cosmic, as it were, and thus at the same time more dynamic – free curves whose direction, superimposition and extension into space is tailored to each specific architectural environment. Recognizable repetition as a characteristic attribute of traditional ornaments no longer plays a role here.
The hyperbolic illuminating gas tubes – -Cosmic Knots – go to a new extreme. They translate the latently spatial quality of many of Mosler’s early knot works into a three-dimensional movement – a hyperbolie – and lend the chaos of the curves and loop movements space and dynamic as unpredictable as if a random generator was involved, represented in this case by the viewer moving around it and its cluster-like group structure.
Energy which is invisible to us is sent through the tubes: electricity, creating a tension which in turn changes the gas atoms in their constellation and makes them start glowing, now visibly. The animated light, however, hardly expands in space in the manner we are familiar with in typical light dispensers such as electric lamps, candles or torches, but remains captive in the tubes like the neon signs or icons we know from advertising and art. Mosler’s works differ from these images, however, in that – in a quid pro quo – the light does not appear to “freeze”, but to determine the dynamic movement of the knots. It is as if the artistic translation were confronting us with a usually invisible, vibrating
Our experience of the objects vacillates between being swept into the charged motion of the luminous lines and the endeavour to conceive of them as sculptural entities in space – entities which constantly reroute our movement through that space in chaotic manner. Our perception is thus itself charged, and at the same time parallelized by the optical-energetic process which not only takes place physically, in the knots, but also dictates their artistic appearance in the room.
Mariella Mosler first presented two light knots a number of years ago within the framework of an exhibition in honour of Karl Jaspers. She has meanwhile developed a proposal for a knot installation in the service hall of the Bremer Landesbank. Rather than merely amassing the knot objects, the concept derives new possibilities from the difference between a mathematical knot figure and the empirical-aesthetic appearance of a knot. Two clusters of five knots each are to be mounted at slightly varying elevations within the room. Nuances can be detected not only in the knots’ structures – i.e. in the topological course described by their rings – but also in their size and degree of extension into space. They thus confront the viewer with the rapidly ensuing sense of being overwhelmed: the knots’ – mathematical – identicalness evades recognition because we are fascinated by their differing appearances. Randomly distributed in the space, the figures moreover evade the Euclidean geometry of the architecture.
A mathematician would link the knots’ order to the countable overlaps, while probably also enjoying the wildly zooming movement of the artistic knot artefacts. The viewer approaching the objects as art, on the other hand, experiences confusing and fascinating beauty in the observation that light can occasionally be contorted in clever artistic manner, and that his own movement around the hyperbolic knots subjects their contortions and distensions to an additional free play of uncontrollable change. In other – somewhat philosophically tinged – words: his individual mobility and his own contribution to the experience of the works are granted plenty of scope.
In the open “structures” created by an artist such as Sol Lewitt, an interplay ensues between the static grid structures and – due to their overlapping in space – the changes in their appearance as the viewer moves around them. In the works by Mariella Mosler, on the other hand, the chaos and speed of the dynamic knot motion is activated and the viewer thus confronted with an experience that takes him into a realm beyond the limits of calculable perception in space – even though, objectively speaking, the Cosmic Knots move, expand and contract in our own tangible space. The fact that they are dynamic light knots, however, confronts us in our artistic imaginations with unsolved riddles about the interrelationship between matter and energy.