Günther Oberhollenzer - Harsh material and delicate form

The complex artistic work of Katharina Mörth

Sculpture is the art of the hole and the lump,
the art of capturing the play of light and shadow on forms.
Auguste Rodin

Katharina Mörth is a passionate sculptor who forms up to life-sized sculptures from metal,
wood and stone. The artist works intuitively. She understands her material and has
developed over many years her own independent stylistic elements with anthropomorph and
vegetative echoes. Does her method and sensitivity as a woman differ from that of a man?
Likely so. Are her sculptures consequently less powerful? Did she wrest less tension and
meaning from the material? No, on the contrary. It is impressive what harsh materials and
great volumes the artist is able to handle physically while none of this exertion is visible in the
finished work. With curved lines and smooth surfaces, cocoon-like objects, meshed
structures and organic, heavenward branching, Mörth forms the material according to her
ideas and wishes. Her work centres around the intrinsic nature of the material, exploring its
boundaries, comprehending what strength, what expression it might harbour. “To me it’s not
about the efficiency of a sculptural technique”, the artist says. “It’s about feeling the
immediate resistance of the material and finding forms as an expression of my thoughts.” But
is all that still in keeping with the times? Is this traditional artistic approach still valid in the
multimedia world we live in?
In postmodern art, an exact definition of what a sculpture is often remains unclear. The
traditional concept of it is a body forming work with the specific characteristics of three-
dimensionality, positioning within a physical space, and being haptically experienceable. But
in the 20 th century, this concept is cracked open and critically expanded by artists. For
centuries, sculptures were portrayals of the human anatomy. In the early 20 th century,
however, artists started to abandon the figural principle. This is a time when the process of
abstraction set in, concreteness is cast out and crushed while sculptures become objects.
The so-called “Readymades” come to mind, ordinary objects and industrial objects of utility
are transferred into art and declared sculptures. The expansion of the sculptural concept,
initiated in the 1960s and 1970s by Joseph Beuys and Fluxus but also by art forms like
conceptional art, minimal art and Arte Povera, created fundamentally different and in part
completely new prerequisites for artists and brought with it a varied choice of materials and

forms of expression. Artists now start to experiment with different material and aggregate
states. They expand the traditional sculptural concept by the fourth dimension, time, and
develop an interest in making visible the artistic process and the energies thereby at work.
They engineer extensive multimedia installations or invite the audience with instructions to
participate. Sometimes the objects become works of art only by being operated. With it
comes a reflection on the artistic possibilities an autonomous sculptural work of art presents.
The line between sculpture, action and performance starts to blur. A sculpture can now also
be a verbal utterance, a text or an instruction, a photo document or a social sculpture. (1)

Does this mean, the “classic” metal and stone sculptures have served their time? It comes as
no surprise that the answer to this question, not just regarding Mörth’s work, is a no. The art-
historical outline must not be read as a purely linear evolution. The expansion of artistic
techniques and forms of expression does not have to come at the expense of traditional and
established media, materials and themes. As with painting, which is often portrayed as
antiquated in the face of new media, its topicality and modernity regularly questioned, the
traditional sculpture, whatever is meant by it, is also sometimes considered outdated.
Everything seems to be tried, to be said, to be told already. And yet, apart from the constant
expansion and new definition of the sculptural concept, particularly today, in a fast-paced and
often virtual present, there is a persistent longing for figurative sculptures made of bronze,
marble or wood. The longing of the artist to engage with material and form directly and
analogically, with their body and bare hands to create body images, but also the longing of
the viewer to feel the surface, the sensuality of an object and, based on that object, ask
questions about corporeality and existence. Artists like Mörth withstand the zeitgeist. They
give sculpting a new, strong impulse. The sculpture can appeal to its innermost strengths
that have existed since time immemorial: a direct engagement with material, form and being.
And it can enter into a dialogue with the here and now. (2)

Mörth’s works are traditional and current at the same time. Imagining and sculpting a body
form, scraping out an idea from harsh, cumbersome material is a central artistic thought.
More than the emerging form though, it is the in-between, the omission that seems to carry
meaning. Many of Mörth’s sculptures are reminiscent of cocoons, the carapace of animals
like butterflies or spiders. The shell, built of secretion, serves to protect the animal’s eggs or
its own adolescent forms. The sculptural shells of Mörth’s objects though are never
completely closed. They are permeable and breathing. In rusty steel plates, the artist cuts
round, square, elongated holes or ornamental patterns. Illuminated from within, the object
then throws fascinating sketches of light and shadow onto a wall. From cast-iron grates of old

gas stoves, she builds a filigree, egg-shaped body. From woods like oak, larch, eucalyptus or
cedar, she carves lying and standing volumes of primal force. From sandstone and
limestone, marble and granite, she creates wondrous bodies of delicate beauty. When
working with stone especially, Mörth goes to the limit of the material, even hazards its
breaking, and consciously plays with the contrast between harsh, solid material and gentle,
organic form. She finds her inspiration in nature, in mussel fragments collected on a beach,
in fruit skins, branches, thistles or cactuses. Soon she frees herself from her reference and
starts to drift until the natural object morphs into a new form and the original cannot be
recognized anymore, though still be felt. Whether in metal, wood or stone, Mörth’s works are
always reminiscent of archaic archetypes or arcane cult objects that mystify us with their
function and meaning and tempt us to touch them, to enter into a haptic dialogue.
Similar to the artistic positions of Josef Bauer or Franz West, Mörth revokes the strict
separation of art object and viewer. She provides an option for the human body to interact
with a sculptural object and makes a work of art physically usable. The viewer can get a
different perspective. “They can feel the material, experience art immediately”, the artist
says. As early as in 2005, Mörth designed wearable objects and still interacts with them. In a
performative act, she slips into a cocoon made of industrial waste that she installed at the
tram depot Stammersdorf. The boundary between private and public space is permeable, the
naked, crouching human at the mercy of an industrial environment while at the same time
shielded by the egg-shaped shell. Or does this second skin provide no protection at all but
constricts the body and its freedom even more?
From a cultural and historical point of view, the human skin is imagined as a protective but
also concealing and deceptive shell. It serves as a means of dissociation, a boundary
between human (the inside) and environment (the outside). It hides and covers but can also
be ripped open and hurt. One point of view states what is authentic lies under the skin,
hidden in the body, invisible to other people’s eyes. The skin is thus different from the self,
even alien to it, an extrinsic concept. Another point of view sees the skin as identical to the
subject. The essence does not lie under the skin, hidden inside a person, rather the skin
represents the whole human being. Behind these concepts are two basic perceptions of the
skin representing two contrary models of relationship between body and soul that are still
predominant today: The skin as shell and the skin as I. The skin as a home, a layer covering
a subject, is diametrically opposed to the skin as a felt boundary that can be experienced
through sensory perceptions like pain or lust, an organ for exploring the world and at the
same time a prison. (3) The skin in Mörth’s works is detached from human and environment
and yet communicates with them. According to the artist, we often put on a carapace as a
form of self-protection, which is in part determined by our environment. It is a corset of
society, for example our adhering to fashion trends. A few years ago, Mörth created a

tongue-in-cheek collection of wearable metal objects that were modeled at a fashion show
performance, thought-proving quirky and futuristic, restrictive and expansive body coverings
that reflect on the function of clothing.
Mörth’s artistic work is truly versatile. She also works as a painter, drawer and photographer.
Photos of individuals wrapped in linens are the starting point for developing her sculptural
cocoons. Photography is used here less as an image than an abstraction. Apart from that,
she also creates independent photographic works: pictures of individuals, sitting or
recumbent, naked or covered, with silk screen printings in red and blue hues applied on top
of them. The artist often uses a soft focus and distortion to emphasize colour and surface,
thus making the photographs reminiscent of paintings. It is no wonder these photos also
serve as working tools and inspiration for experiments in painting. Sensual and vividly
coloured are the light boxes that combine abstracted photographic motifs with delicate
figurative drawings or, more recently, morph them with small sculptures. Nature studies
become blurred with the lights of a nightly car park and coloured clouds are created. Animals
and plants drawn on tracing paper are reminiscent of Japanese woodcuts. An exciting
dialogue of different media, of line and surface, of two- and three-dimensionality, of light and
shadow. Pictures with high sensual suggestion and auratic effect.
“Art to me means involvement, process, understanding and sometimes struggle”, Mörth
points out. She is an artist who knows her media and her craft, someone who is not content
with the status quo but always pushes the envelope regarding depiction and material. She is
a sculptor who works through body, skin, and environment, through the inside and outside
and who has found the cocoon to be her strongest motif, a symbol of protection and
transformation, but also of constriction and loneliness. She is a photographer, painter, and
drawer, who, through layering and texture, melts different media in fascinating illuminated
objects. This way, an oeuvre is created where much is to be discovered. All one has to is
engage with it.


Günther Oberhollenzer