Escape from Planet Earth

Emily Kerr, Exhibition Catalogue, 3 June 2003

Experiencing nature was not enough, so we sought to understand it. 

Understanding nature was not enough, so we seek to control it. 

Controlling nature was not enough so we seek to enhance it. 

Enhancing nature was not enough, so we seek to reproduce it. 

Reproducing nature is not enough, so we seek to replace it. 

These are all human pursuits, but it’s only through digitization that we are able, now, to take them to their ultimate conclusion.


Richard DeGrandpre


Simply put, the inhabited grid has become the irreducible sign of the world we live in today. 


Dan Cameron




Below his seat, the ground begins to tremble. A roar fills his ears and suddenly, he is pinned to his seat as the aircraft gains momentum and lifts into the air. Cruising at altitude, the plane tilts to the right and left, making minor course adjustments as tiny earth whizzes by in a blur below. Torben Giehler’s landscapes are a view from the cockpit. High above the ground, civilization turns into a patchwork of color featuring an occasional boxy piece of architecture or globe-topped communications tower. In the distance, mountain ranges come into view, their craggy peaks still too far away to awe us with their scale. Each painting is a challenge to the gravity that keeps us tethered to earth and the limitations of our physical bodies. Like flight simulation computer games, they fulfill a simultaneous fantasy of escape from and dominance over the landscape. But their effect is physical, and viewers are propelled forward into Giehler’s brave new world.


It’s unclear how high above the planet we are in these paintings, but one thing is certain – there are no ant-like people or tiny farmhouses visible at this altitude. In ‘Circling Overland’ (2002), the plane flies over a landscape dominated by a white grid and swoops down to the left so that the horizon nearly disappears into a wedge at the top of the canvas. The painting shares a title with a song by the Belgian electro-music band Front 242, which describes a midnight surveillance flight over Western Europe. The year is 2029 and intelligent robots do the bidding of their military commanders by monitoring the activities of humans below them. Two paintings with a similar composition, ‘Badredandblue’ (2002), and ‘Nite Train’ (2002), feature layers of blue and purple sky hovering over an ominous, blood red horizon. Suddenly, we’re in the future, we’re being watched, and we don’t know what’s coming next.


Not all of these flights are night missions, however. One of Giehler’s trademarks is his use of bright colors that neutralize the darker edge of the digitally enhanced world he depicts. ‘Ziplock’ (2002), for example, is a spaghetti junction of thick, overlapping lines in orange, green and white. As if Barnett Newman’s famous ‘zips’ have gathered for a party, the grid has loosened up and lines overlap at random. ‘Push’ (2003) is a crazy quilt of distorted rectangles each pulling down toward the bottom left of the canvas. Although it has spatial distortions similar to Giehler’s aerial views, there is no horizon and the sunny yellows, peppy oranges and pinks, and mellow blues and greens are the subject of the painting. The pattern resembles the patchwork of colors that underlies the white grid in ‘Circling Overland,’ suggesting that this painting is a partial view of the larger piece. ‘Ziplock,’ may look like a busy junction, but it also resembles fibers under a microscope, magnified to reveal the component parts of a larger structure. If ‘Circling’ is an aerial overview from a surveillance flight, ‘Ziplock’ and ‘Push’ are the data gathered, snapshots taken by a zoom lens. 


Whether the perspective is micro or macro, Giehler’s pixilated aesthetic is familiar to anyone who has used a CAD program, played a combat video game, seen flight simulation or watched a manga cartoon character fly through a futuristic city. Computer mediated reality and virtual reality, less common in painting, permeates daily life. The ubiquitous grids that lie over the surface of the earth in the paintings are a visible manifestation of the ever-expanding web of human communication accessible through the Internet, e-mail, cell phones, satellite beams and TV signals. So while Giehler might, through Front 242’s lyrics, envision a futuristic race of free thinking machines serving man as they cruise the airspace, his paintings are resolutely set in the present. Hidden communications networks are made visible, but these webs exist now and deny his work the designation ‘futuristic.’


During the last century, artists were no strangers to scientific progress, sometimes adapting the latest findings in their artwork. The Impressionists’ daubs of paint and the Cubists’ fractured picture planes occurred in tandem with scientific advances in understanding the structure of reality. But while the Futurists, for example, were in awe of the material world, others like Kandinsky and Mondrian investigated a way to communicate the unseen, spiritual structures that they felt dominated 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 Mondian’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. 


Circuit boards, microprocessors and the Internet may be the innovations of the present day, but they’re also the platform for tomorrow’s advanced technology. Giehler references both present and future in every image. With one foot in fact and one foot in science fiction, the artist reminds us that the difference between reality and virtual reality is sometimes one of perspective. By painting specific places, like ‘Lhotse’ (2002) and ‘K2-North Spur’ (2002), Giehler counters the anonymity of his other landscapes. Titled or not, the mountain paintings suggest real places, whether they are laid over with a patchwork of light and shade, as in ‘Untitled’ (2002) or bask in the setting sun, as in ‘Untitled (Brown)’ (2002). Side by side on the wall, mountains and vast planes push and pull the viewer between the present and the future, the real and the virtual. But what is specific to the mountain pictures and particularly the Himalayas, are their identity as a final frontier for adventurers who pit their strength and wits against Nature. They symbolize the last remaining real life challenge to human dominance of the planet.


As our communities become increasingly virtual, when we can shop, pay bills and do our banking on line and then take a break to converse in chat rooms or e-mail a friend, convenience increases alongside impersonality. The premise for Giehler’s paintings, visions from the air, posits the lone individual against the masses below. The pilot whose viewpoint we share has broken free from his fellows and speeds through the atmosphere alone, a free agent. Below him, the grid remains in force, but unable to extend its grip to his freewheeling ship. Inevitably, the pilot must sooner or later return to his rightful place and whatever mediated version of reality he inhabits. As he descends back into the colorful architecture of the ‘Downtown’ series (2001), he resumes his participation in the dream that is progress, still a citizen of a cyberspace that is, “...a conscious reflection of the deepest desires, aspirations, experiential yearning and spiritual Angst of Western man.”

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