The Top of the World
Under her feet, the slick blue Surface trembled and flashed. Yoshimi steadied herself, then quickened her pace toward the tower. Once inside the yellow cylindrical base, the elevator lifted her quickly to the viewing dome. Through the grey smoked glass, she was just in time to look down and see the color of the plaza at the base of the tower change from Blue to Crimson. In the two minutes it took to ascend, Crimson had purchased the building below and instantly color-converted it. Turning to look out at the landscape, Yoshimi was amazed once again at how Surface can look so flat. Hundreds of meters above the earth, it was impossible to guess the frenetic activity of Tronic Park’s underground world.
Yoshimi tried to control her growing unease. In front of her, the early morning sky was an accordion of brilliant, orange and red bands. Below, the multi-colored rooftops of the city merge together as one continuous expanse. The patchwork stretches up to and over the mountains just visible on a clear day in the distance, if you squint. To the left, the ghostly towers of System HQ have just come back into view as the cloaking shield is turned off and the buildings gradually solidify. A week ago, she’d have been sitting at a desk over there, instead of standing here trying to glimpse inside. Every day she has gone to HQ hoping that somehow her security pass will work again, her sudden and unexplained redundancy a glitch in the System’s computer. Refused access, she comes to the observation tower to run things over in her mind.
Yoshimi belongs to Orange. Her hand, resting on the handrail is a brilliant tangerine, offset by the subtly different apricot and peach shades of her uniform. Looking out at Surface, she could see isolated patches of Orange land on the right, a few more further away to the left. Below those rooftops lived and worked many more who looked like her. Their self-sufficient world was replicated in the Pink buildings next door, again in the Green buildings, the Purple buildings and so on.
At this early hour, few people had joined her on the platform. To her right, about a third of the way around the circular deck, stood a man who kept glancing over. Opposite him, a couple of lovebirds giggled together. The solitary man was also an Orange, but Yoshimi didn’t recognize him. Some distant member, she thought, although his constant glances were starting to unnerve her. She walked to the elevator. The man followed. She punched the call button. He was standing right behind her. Trying to appear casual, Yoshimi turned and strolled back toward the windows, keeping close to the wall. She drew near the exit to the stairs, suddenly spun toward the door, threw her weight against it and bolted into the corridor. Taking them three at a time, she began flying down the stairs as the heavy door slammed behind her.
From the Mountains to the Prairies
We're surrounded. Non stop, 24/7, overhead and underfoot, electrical and telecommunications networks criss-cross the land, crunching space and time into manageable increments. Torben Giehler’s paintings translate this largely invisible mish-mash of signals, waves, wires, roads and cables into abstract landscapes. In each canvas, he fuses the grid’s many components into a patchwork of geometric shapes in day-glo colors and applies it to the surface of the earth. The resulting paintings don't explain the grid, they revel in it, feeling its velocity. Giehler’s digitized aesthetic, familiar to anyone who has used a CAD program, played a video game or seen a flight simulation has the dizzying intensity of virtual reality. From the computer gamer’s God’s-eye perspective, Giehler invites us to see for miles across flattened plains and mountain vistas. By contrasting the unrecognizable flat lands with specific mountain peaks, Giehler makes a bid for total control over the planet.
Over time, Giehler has perfected the anonymity of his landscapes. While earlier paintings often included a select few pieces of space-station architecture, more recent work eliminates all obvious references to the built environment. The lollipop-shaped tower and oversized streetlight in ‘Tronic Park’ (2000) and the red cylinders of ‘In the Flat Fields’ (2000) disappeared by 2001. Gone, but not without a trace, they seem to have morphed into less easily visible structures. A group of transparent yellow planes in the lower right corner of ‘Tronic Park’ hints at the way Giehler has buried his buildings underground and cloaked them with optical illusion. The three yellow surfaces both blend into the surface and rise above it like a ghostly building. In ‘Flat Fields’ horizontal red silos are located near a pattern of yellow, blue and red pixilated shapes, which stand out from the blue and purple background as if they, too, were built for a functional purpose.
Although Giehler has gradually imposed abstracted flatness on earth and sky, by contrast, he has also simultaneously created a group of mountain paintings. ‘Great Nord’ (2001), ‘Matterhorn’ (2002) and ‘K-2 North Spur’ (2002) are the counterpoint to the plains, although they, too, are treated with the same grid patterning. ‘K-2’ is a riot of color, one face painted in a checkerboard of light colors, the other in dark blues with a green and yellow sky in the background. We usually think of the world’s highest peaks as awesome and majestic – the subject of documentaries highlighting the bravery and endurance of climbers who conquer them. Giehler’s version of the mountains is no less beautiful, but by subjecting them to his pixilated aesthetic, they become less formidable. Broken up into 0s and 1s, the world can be understood and mastered.
The Earth from the Air
On the way down the stairs, it occurred to Yoshimi that she couldn't possibly beat the elevator to the lobby. Fortunately, when she reached the bottom, she didn't see a soul. Striding across the plaza, she headed to the nearest lift platform that led from Surface to Ground. As soon as she stepped on the huge black square, it began to move downwards. By the time she was halfway down, near the 20th floor, the elevator was so crowded she opted to get off and walk through the air tunnels. Hopping off the platform at the last minute, she heard other passengers mutter as someone came barreling off the elevator. Turning at the commotion, Yoshimi recognized the man from the tower.
The elevator was a lone square of neutral territory that bordered on Green, Fuchsia, Yellow, and Red blocks of land. Orange maintained a series of wide, transport tunnels, one of which intersected with the elevator. Yoshimi had been planning to take it to the Flat Fields, where she could get a coffee and plan her next move. Suddenly, she was running again. Although the Orange corridors were to the right, she'd turned left into a Green parking garage. The first thing she saw was the racing pod of an off-duty Green cop who had his back turned while chatting with the garage attendant. As luck would have it, the vehicle was the same model on which her uncle had taught her to fly. Jumping behind the control panel of the open vehicle, she slammed the roof closed and turned on the current. Followed by angry shouts, she sped out of the garage and into the exit shaft adjoining the elevator.
Once she reached the White, diagonal highways over Surface, Yoshimi headed South toward the Orange suburbs. She needed to blend in and think. Why was this happening? Who was this man? And of more immediate concern, how soon would an army of Green cops be on her? She pulled up, out of the lane towards the free air over Surface. Circling overland, higher and further from the city than she'd ever been, it was hard not to be distracted by the scene below. From this height, colors were less distinct - Pink didn't just border on Blue, it seemed to merge. A nice thought - the various colors living together. Too bad it'd never happen. Still, it was a beautiful sight. Absorbed in the spectacle, she failed to notice a black speck on the horizon. When she finally did look up, the speck had materialized into three fighter pods, now close enough for her to see the pilots inside dressed in the System’s black uniforms. She sent the pod into a nosedive, falling out of the air like a stone. Yoshimi tried to right the craft before it gained too much speed but it was hard to get fine moves from a commercial machine. Careening towards earth, she held her breath and hit the eject button.
Throughout the last century, painters transferred information about the concrete world around them into the language of abstraction. In abstract art’s early days, Kandinsky and Mondrian investigated a way to communicate the unseen, spiritual structures which they perceived as dominating life. By elaborating these hidden relationships in line and color, Mondrian set a precedent for artists like Giehler, who depict the invisible, wireless world. Mondrian's unfinished, final painting, 'Victory Boogie Woogie,' (1944) is a tribute to his intoxication by the energy of wartime New York and his continuing meditation on the meaning embedded in his grids. Giehler quotes Mondrian in his own 'Boogie Woogie' (1999) and a similar piece titled 'Yeah, Yeah, Yeah' (2002). Each is a painting within a painting - a close-up on the surface of a gridded canvas. Like Mondrian's, Giehler's lines resemble a circuit board, broken up by squares of color that give the composition the energy of a dance step and the speed of a microprocessor.
Lately, Giehler has been pulling closer to his subject, zooming in on close-ups of the grid's surface. 'Cry Baby' (2000) suggests that this is a periodic occupation to which he has returned. In this painting, the horizon is gone and the shapes drift toward the right, the canvas like a tablecloth being tugged off a table from one side. Likewise, in 'London Calling' (2003), there is no horizon but a strong sense of receding space is still conveyed by the pattern that converges toward the upper right corner of the canvas. Distant vistas once dominated the paintings, but Giehler is gradually giving more time to his inclination to focus on smaller and smaller pieces of territory.
"Mondrian...went right against his own work, putting totally at risk the stability and equilibrium which had been central of his achievement," says Bridget Riley. "It's as though a certain momentum demands opposition, reversal and even contradiction." Likewise, Giehler’s investigations lead him to flip between a macro and micro perspectives. In one canvas, we see the grid pulsing below us; in the next, we’re plunged straight into the tangle of color and light. The blocky and distorted shapes in ‘Ghost on a Highway’ (2003) and ‘Nomenklatura’ (2003) bear comparison to Riley's own paintings from the late 80s and early 90s. Her rhomboid patterns of blue, green, purple and peach convey her usual hallucinatory sense of movement while dancing with the same energy that Giehler’s paintings tap. Both are the opposite of Gerhard Richter's color charts, for example, not satirizing Minimalism but giving it life. Like Ellsworth Kelly's 'Spectrum Colors Arranged by Chance' series from the early 50s, Giehler’s canvases distill the essence of concrete, real-life subjects into abstract, gridded form. Whether his matrices represent unseen networks, real life buildings and roads or something else entirely, they have new meaning up close. Under the microscope, they connect to a history of geometric abstraction in which there are many ways to see reality.
Out of Thin Air
Yoshimi fought to open her eyes. She lay limply on her side, still strapped into the pod’s seat, the parachute partially covering her legs. Dizzy from the descent, she barely felt herself drop out of the chair onto the hard, slick surface. Cold hands lifted her under the arms and pulled her upright. She put a hand to her head and tried to make sense of what she was seeing. Something had pulled her to her feet, but she didn’t see anyone standing near her. She didn’t see anyone at all, in fact. Her vision was a mess, she thought, a whirl of color and a jumble of lines moving on all sides. She frowned as she tried to focus on one grouping that seemed to move in unison. The effort was too much. She slumped to the ground, unconscious.
When she woke up, Yoshimi was lying on the ground next to her pod. To her amazement, someone or something had reunited her with the vehicle, although at a glance, she could tell it would never fly again. The next thing she noticed was the heat. The space between Ground and Surface in Tronic Park was carefully climate controlled. Windstorms swept periodically over Surface making it impossible to live above the roofline. Sweating lightly, Yoshimi climbed to her feet and looked around at her brightly lit environment. As far as she could make out, she was in a vast hall that reminded her of Flat Fields, the indoor park where she took her daily walks. Before her, a bubbling fountain spilled water over flat rocks, and potted trees stood at intervals around the floor. But unlike the Fields, this park seemed to have no ceiling. Instead, looking upwards for as far as she could see, transportation lanes criss-crossed between buildings of multiple colors. Glancing around her, she remarked to herself how odd it was that no other people were here, then she noticed movement in her peripheral vision.
About 100 meters away, a multi-colored, jumbled form descended from above and touched down on the ground. Pink, purple, orange and blue outlines danced around each other, combining, then bouncing away, changing shape until gradually, their movements slowed, they joined together and solidified. The lines had come together to form a pod. Then, Yoshimi knew where she was. As a child, she’d heard stories of Helios, a place in which the laws of neither physics nor color distinction applied. The scientists of Helios had perfected the art of manipulating physical matter through thought control. The idea of actually flying a pod that was unstable matter a few minutes ago was a little disconcerting, but she needed the transportation. Climbing in gingerly, she tested her new multi-colored machine. Edging forward slowly, her eyes wide open in anticipation of the sights that awaited her, Yoshimi maneuvered the pod upward, into a hard-boiled wonderland of colors more intense and energetic than she had imagined possible.
Too Close for Comfort
The matrix “flowed, flowered for him, fluid neon origami trick, the unfolding of his distanceless home, his country, transparent 3D chessboard extending into infinity.” Thus begins the protagonist’s mental journey into cyberspace in William Gibson’s classic cyberpunk novel, ‘Neuromancer.’ It also handily describes the new world into which Giehler has plunged. Always presenting viewers with close up and distant views of his imagined universe, Giehler has lately entered into new territory with paintings like ‘Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots,’ ‘Sputnik Sweetheart’ and ‘Hard Boiled Wonderland’ (all 2003). The grid system is there, but distorted and no longer an association of squares; it has been relegated to the background. Lighting bolts of orange, green and purple shoot through ‘Yoshimi.’ Intersecting vectors render the outline of some kind of huge bird or airplane in ‘Sputnik.’ Totally abstract, yet hinting at architectural blueprints or faint outlines of living beings, the subject matter of the new paintings is reminiscent of Gibson’s vision of a parallel universe in which ‘bright lattices of logic’ adjoin ‘rich fields of data.’
Giehler brings his focus even closer in paintings like ‘Audioslave’ (2003) and ‘225’ (2003). Although the compositions are as energetic as ever and still composed of lines and blocks of pure color, they are a significant departure. If these are images of the grid, they’re from a perspective too close to recognize. Strong, diagonal lines in black and white partition ‘Audioslave’ while distorted panels of color suggest that it has been painted from a number of perspectives. At the center of the canvas, a cluster of dark lines ricochet around two white enclosures. It’s just possible to imagine an upright figure, an ultra-abstracted ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’ painted with Lichtenstein’s heavy outlines. From the bird’s eye perspective of his landscapes and closer, to the pure pattern of ‘Nomenklatura,’ Giehler intimates human presence without giving it a physical frame. In the extreme close-ups, however, the human body makes a heavily disguised appearance.
In these paintings, the concept of the matrix goes far beyond Gibson’s idea that it is a visualization of computer code and a place to enter and leave. Like our real-life systems, Giehler wraps the grid around the planet, over mountains and across the plains. Not content to paint exhilarating views from afar, he goes in for a closer look, imaging what exists beyond the surface panels of color. The layered scenes he creates hint at recently discovered worlds with new sets of relations between color, line and form. The titles of his paintings reference books by Haruki Murakami, a veteran creator of mysterious worlds; popular indie music; and movies. Maybe the titles are a random log of the books, films and songs he has enjoyed lately. Perhaps he just liked the way the words sounded. Or maybe this is Giehler’s matrix – a world in which a painter from Germany lives in New York, reading literature by a Japanese writer and watching a film set in Mexico (‘From Dusk ‘Till Dawn’). Like an intellectual trail of breadcrumbs, the paintings and their titles lead viewers through diverse and fantastic tales. Together, they invite viewers to invent their own story.
i. Robert Kudielka, ed., Bridget Riley: Dialogues on Art (London: Zwemmer, 1995), p. 53.
ii. William Gibson, Neuromancer (New York: Ace Books, 1984), p. 52.