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Szilvia Ortlieb: Anger Management


Such decent people
Well-behaved citizens, pious and still
They do exactly what
Discipline and order want

                                               - Erika Pluhar


Szilvia Ortlieb is able to transform anger into art. Out of that context rises her art, a poststructuralist feminist approach to objects, material, and status. Limoges porcelain, one could argue the finest of fine porcelain, is just good enough to make sculptures out of sponge wipes, sponges and her children’s old sport socks. She is strongly interested in and focused on the world that she has created as an adult woman: her husband, children, house and garden. This is certainly a nexus for her activities, in part because she came to Austria decades ago, and has created a bastion of her own against the “curse” of being foreign in Austria. And, without referring to failures in political policy, it is a fact that Szilvia Ortlieb has been forced, despite her „gelungene Integration“ (successful integration) – a phrase that in the meantime often sounds fairly cynical and even helpless in the Austrian framework – to retain her sense of being foreign, her sense of Otherness, which she translates with her art into a language accessible for the viewer.

Her sculptures are often there to fool the eye and deceive the senses, just as the usual person met upon the street or at an event cannot be identified as Austrian or not, foreign or not, simply through a glance alone. Sculptures of garden hoses, bicycle inner tubes, bathroom scales and tractor tires can be seen as “foreigners” in the art venues Ortlieb has been exhibiting in until now, despite an alleged collective societal understanding of her approach in the light of Pop Art and artists such as Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen.

A garden hose, in this case one from Szilvia Ortlieb’s childhood in her grandfather’s garden, is the basis for a long exploration, inspired by this family reality, into the nature of clay. Her first sculpture of this kind, using a method to produce long, thin cable like entrails of clay, took 10 kilos of material to make a compact block of individual strands. These strands were created with a meat grinder. Sometimes these garden hose sculptures have knots in them – a sign that Ortlieb sets as a marker of her territory. As she says, “Knots are not good for hoses”. Either with wit, reverence or by exercising power over them, as in the case of creating knots, Szilvia Ortlieb presents her exploration of the theme “hose/tube” in variegated ways, leaving the terra cotta in its natural state, or changing it with pigment or graphite.

What appears so playful and easily made is the result of consummate knowledge of the material, and is also testimony to physical strength and extreme patience. It is quite difficult to create long ropes of clay without them breaking. Additionally, it is just as difficult to knot the material, while keeping the integrity of the intention intact. From the production standpoint, the shaping of the object is only one part. The delicate and complex process of firing the clay object at the right temperature, for the precise length of time and under the correct conditions must be considered as well. It is the danger and risk for sculptors working with clay and porcelain, that the object, successfully made, does not survive the firing and drying process.


 I always knew exactly
That everything was being played without me


Recent works, such as the architektonische ausdrucksformen (Architectural Expressions) series, started in 2006, toy with Ortlieb’s so-called “home based” approach, which can be best perceived as a metaphor for self-reflection. At the start of the series, the clay structures had very small and few windows. These structures evoke resonances of dwellings in Mali and Le Corbusier’s béton brut constructions. These clay structures have been followed by one-to one reproductions of their forms and outlines in thick, “bulletproof” glass. Szilvia Ortlieb exhibits the sculptures in clay and in glass often in immediate juxtaposition, so that the viewer can see through her, and at her, and what she is trying to create, at the same time.

In one of her particularly fascinating sculpture series, resonanz (Resonance, 2007) she has taken a large stone and made reproductions of it in stoneware. Each further cast stone of clay gets smaller and smaller through the firing and drying process. The goal is to create enough generations of stoneware sculptures, shrinking infinitesimally, until the object disappears. A stone takes thousands or millions of years to create; making a stone disappear in this way opens the mind to concepts of time stretched beyond the borders of human life. The impulse is the opposite of the mother urge traditionally attributed to women. Instead of giving birth to children in order to continue the line of the family, Szilvia Ortlieb makes continual casts, first of the “mother stone” and then of its reproductions, so that they finally disappear.


The departure from the old tent
Into an inexact world
Is painful but not to be avoided
If you really want to see life


Cutting, tools, weight, fire, heat, burning, cooling, collecting, spotting, organizing and communicating enthusiasm are elements of Szilvia Ortlieb’s modus operandi. Ceramic, porcelain, stoneware, earthenware and such are an integral part of her artistic sensibility. These materials however do not limit her in any way. She allows herself to be inspired by a specific material, such as rubber (the series pneu), or by an idea, such as the capture, manifestation and catalyzing metamorphic properties of air (the series blubb-blubb). Her work has an aura of danger about it. Garden shears, sharp knives, meat grinders and other tools, menacing in the wrong hands, are necessary for the production of her works. Szilvia Ortlieb commands vital forces in the creation of her art: her understanding of the properties of fire, water and earth remind us of her profound comprehension of physics, and prompt us to tendrils of thought about alchemy.

Ortlieb’s pronounced interest in collecting is evidenced by her rubber objects, and her sculptures made of abandoned light tubes, telecommunication cables, cable binders and bathroom scales. She “finds” objects, often discarded industrial waste, such as the ropes of LED lights in the 2008 sculpture in.halt (Content: a play on words in the original German title), or uses found objects bought deliberately in a store (“found” only in the sense that, for example, in waagrecht für senkrecht [Horizontal for Vertical, 2012], an installation of 30 digital bathroom scales, the bathroom scales were spotted in a newspaper flyer advertisement).

Szilvia Ortlieb evinces a strong curiosity about the world around her. Her eye is ever watchful for outsiderness, even to the point of actively incorporating material into her work that is not perceived as valuable by society in general. She is like a researcher in her approach to her themes and materials. Pushing whatever ideas she has in her head and elements she has in her hands to their limits is fundamental for her. Therefore, she works in series, often titling the works in the series with the same name, exploring every aspect of the series until satisfied that she has exhausted its possibilities, and can move on.


I would like to know exactly
When the loving begins
And the beginning doesn't count anymore


Love for and exaltation of material, without any overt message to convey: is such a thing still permissible, so many years after Pop Art? Or is it even more necessary in current society, where information overloads and message conveying to the point of almost inconceivable triviality reign? Objects to please and sensitize the touch; to define space; to play with light and shadow in strong and basic colors – primarily but not exclusively shades of red, black, white and grey – are the product of Szilvia Ortlieb’s hands. Her palette is urban, although the objects she shapes and displays seem to be witnesses to life outside the city center. It is undeniable that her eye and tastes were formed elsewhere, despite her being based in Lower Austria for many years. Szilvia Ortlieb is an artist who is refreshingly international, free from sentimentality, and vibrant with healthy aggression and vigor.


© Text: Renée Gadsden, 2012
Erika Pluhar quotes are from the book Mehr denn je
(St. Pölten: Residenz, 2009)
Translation into English by the author

szilvia ortlieb
obere gwendtgasse 5, 3430 tulln a.d. donau, tel.:+43(0)699-10660880
fotos: rainer friedl und szilvia ortlieb