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Charlotte Posenenske installation time-lapse
Charlotte Posenenske installation time-lapse

A summary of the four ways in which Charlotte Posenenske’s modular sculptures were configured throughout the exhibition Five Artists: Sites Encountered.

Charlotte Posenenske’s (1930–1985) steel-and-cardboard works Series D and Series DW Vierkantrohre (Series D and DW Square Tubes) were first created as modular sculptures in the 1960s. Her unusual approach allows for them to be assembled in various shapes according to the display space and the desires of the owner. To highlight this, the works were reconfigured three times over the course of Five Artists: Sites Encountered by three invited guests from different backgrounds. This was likely the first real performance of Posenenske’s work done in Asia.

Posenenske’s ideas about art combine sameness and variability in an unusual way, so showing different configurations of her work allows audiences to see multiple responses to the space. To offer viewers the full experience of all four configurations even if they couldn’t witness each one in real time, they are individually summarised below.

1. Initial configuration

M+ curatorial team

Installation view of the first configuration at the M+ Pavilion. Photo: M+, Hong Kong

Pauline J. Yao, exhibition curator: I put together the initial configuration of the sculptures with my curatorial team members Vera Lam and Ethan Cheng. Overall, the way we approached the configuration was as a formal exercise in thinking about what shapes and configurations would work best in the space, and then creating the best views and sight lines in relationship to the other works.

Two images side by side. The image on the left is a monochrome photograph of a galvanised steel sculpture resembling ventilation ductwork on the ground next to a bus. Its shape resembles a U with a pointed end. The image on the right shows the same sculpture in the same formation inside a white-walled gallery space.

Left: Charlotte Posenenske, Series D Vierkantrohre (Series D Square Tubes), 1967, hot-dip galvanised sheet steel and screws. Temporary installation on a traffic island in Offenbach, West Germany. Courtesy of Mehdi Chouakri, Berlin, and Take Ninagawa, Tokyo. Photo by Burkhard Brunn

Right: The same shape at the M+ Pavilion in 2019.

I wanted to include a few historical configurations that the artist had come up with during her lifetime, which I’d seen in photos. The freestanding steel piece that looks a little like a magnet is one of these. It’s very dynamic, and is a rare case of a configuration that allows for 45-degree angles while still maintaining balance. Another historical configuration is the chimney-like shape, which we did in both cardboard and steel. This is a very strong shape and had also been used during Posenenske’s lifetime.

Three cardboard sculpture sections inside a gallery space. One of the sections resembles a tall chimney standing against the wall.

The historical ‘chimney’ shape in cardboard. Installation view of the first configuration at the M+ Pavilion. Photo: M+, Hong Kong

The design process was more difficult than we thought it would be, because there are so many potential combinations and we wanted to do them all. After a while, my eyes began to zero in on the formal qualities of the components and I only saw lines, angles, and shapes and how they would best fit or be placed in the room. It was like the work drew my attention to the geometries of the space, which I wouldn’t have noticed otherwise.

This first configuration is the only version in which all of the components in the M+ Collections are shown, as some of them were removed in subsequent configurations. Bits of this arrangement also showed up in other set-ups, some staying until the very end. Each configuration was new, but they also built on one another.

2. Reconfiguration by Sara Wong

Artist and landscape designer

A woman speaks into a microphone inside a gallery space. She stands next to cardboard sculpture parts that resemble ventilation ductwork and lie on the floor.

Sara Wong during the reconfiguration process of the sculptures according to her design. Photo: M+, Hong Kong

Sara Wong: Before I started to design the new configuration of the sculptures, I needed to understand the relationship between the objects and the gallery space. I tried walking through the gallery to see the possibilities of viewing Posenenske’s work. What’s interesting to me is that there are certain limitations when designing the shape of the sculptures. You can change the angle of each modular piece, but it can only be 45 degrees or 90 degrees. There are rectangular tubes and square tubes that are both linear, and then there are transitional and angular pieces to use if you want to change the overall shape of the sculptures. My final design was an acknowledgement of the flexibility of the sculptures within the space.

White-walled exhibition space containing an installation consisting of cardboard sculptures that resemble ventilation ducts winding their way through the space, starting on the floor and then going up to the wall. A person is kneeling and peering into one of the sculptures.

The M+ technicians installing Sara Wong’s version of Posenenske’s sculpture. Photo: M+, Hong Kong

When I designed the new configuration, I started with a few keywords in mind. The first one was ‘gravity’. Renzo Piano said, ‘As an architect you spend your life fighting against the force of gravity’. The architect has to be aware of what gravity does to architecture. For example, the design of dougong, an important element in traditional Chinese architecture, has to do with mechanics and gravity. Another keyword was ‘balance’, which was an extension of the challenge of gravity. I was careful to visually balance the design in both symmetrical and asymmetrical configurations.

A third keyword was ‘illusion’—the illusion of the sculptures being suspended in the air. I thought about how I could combine the pieces of the sculptures to create a suspension effect to ‘fight against gravity’. I hung a section of the sculptures on the wall, and let it be suspended. I also wanted the tube to ‘pass through’ the wall, to suggest an imaginative space inside it.

Two people put together a cardboard sculpture inside a gallery space. The sculpture, which is hollow resembles ventilation ductwork, lies in a U-formation on the floor. The left opening of the sculpture is larger than the right.

Sara Wong’s finalised configuration of Posenenske’s sculpture in the M+ Pavilion. Photo: M+, Hong Kong

3. Reconfiguration by Lydia Li

Senior Building Services Engineer at the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority

Two people put together a cardboard sculpture inside a gallery space. The sculpture, which is hollow resembles ventilation ductwork, lies in a U-formation on the floor. The left opening of the sculpture is larger than the right.

The M+ technicians installing Lydia Li’s version of Posenenske’s sculpture. Photo: M+, Hong Kong

Lydia Li: The concept for my design of the sculptures was based on my understanding of the M+ gallery’s ventilation systems.

The bigger cardboard section was inspired by the design principle of keeping galleries under positive pressure conditions. Air should flow out rather than in, to keep away outside air that can disrupt the precisely controlled conditions inside the gallery.

A group of people pose smiling in front of a cardboard sculpture. The sculpture, which is hollow resembles ventilation ductwork, lies in a U-formation on the floor. The left opening of the sculpture is larger than the right.

The M+ Team with Lydia, posing in front of the cardboard section representing the ventilation system design that keeps the gallery under positive pressure conditions. Photo: M+, Hong Kong

I designed the left side of the cardboard piece to be larger than the right. The larger side represents where air is entering the gallery space, and the smaller side represents where air is discharged to the outside. This is to demonstrate that we pump more fresh air into the gallery than we expel out of it. The same ventilation design concept also applies to the galleries being built in the M+ museum building.

I arranged this cardboard section on the floor to connect to the placement of the ventilation system design in the M+ museum building. In most buildings, this type of ductwork is situated in the ceiling, but in the M+ building, most of the galleries have adopted the displacement ventilation design, where air-supply ductwork sits underneath a raised floor.

Two sections of a galvanised steel sculpture resembling ventilation ducts lie next to each other on the floor of a gallery space. They each have an identical shape, like that of a horizontal L with a bent tail.

The galvanised steel section of Lydia Li’s version of Posenenske’s sculptures, based on the concept of modularisation. Photo: M+, Hong Kong

Finally, there was the section made out of galvanised steel. I based this design on the concept of modularisation, which is an important concept in today’s building services installations. Modularisation essentially means that you have standardised individual units so that they can be easily produced and repeated for multiple building designs. It means that we can standardise the installation process and reduce the time and materials needed for construction. I represent this by repeating the same shape using the galvanised steel section of Posenenske’s sculptures.

4. Final reconfiguration by Tsang Man-tung

Artist and stage designer

A tall cardboard sculpture resembling a vertical ventilation ductwork stands in the middle of a gallery space. Two people in black robes are walking away from it. A person sits behind the sculpture on the floor surrounded by lit candles, banging a gong. Onlookers sit watching on the floor.

Tsang Man-tung’s reconfiguration process, showcasing the ceiling-to-floor cardboard section. Photo: M+, Hong Kong

Tsang Man-tung: I designed three structures:

  • A cardboard section, from the wall to the floor.
  • A cardboard section, from the ceiling (sky) to the floor (earth).
  • A galvanised steel section, connecting the inside (building) and outside (nature).

They symbolise three tunnels—or channels—of energy flow, linking one world to another.

A person sits on the floor surrounded by gold and copper coloured bowls and lit candles. Behind him, two people lift and move a galvanised steel sculpture resembling ventilation ductwork.

Tsang Man-tung’s reconfiguration process, moving the redesigned galvanised steel section. Photo: M+, Hong Kong

The whole reconfiguration of the sculptures was a performance. Participants used their senses of sight and hearing, as well as body gestures, to experience and witness the transformation of the artwork.

There were no utterances throughout the entire process, as participants were encouraged to use their senses and awareness to open up their imagination and allow them to step into the tunnels/channels, experiencing self-reflection and inner peace.

Posenenske’s idea of reconfiguration made me think of Tao—letting everything go within the flow of the space.

A galvanised steel sculpture that resembles vertical ventilation ductwork stands in the middle of a gallery space. Two people in black robes stand on either side of the sculpture holding bowls.

Tsang Man-tung’s reconfiguration process. Photo: M+, Hong Kong

Learn more about Five Artists: Sites Encountered, which closed on 20 October at the M+ Pavilion. This article was originally published on M+ Stories.

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