Lost and Found - in Signland

Erkki Huhtamo
Los Angeles

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Iconosphere, Adscape, Infospace – these are appropriate words for describing the cultural condition in which we all live today. Whether we perceive them or not, signs – persuasive, seductive, informative - envelop us, wherever we go. There is no escape: they even penetrate our dreams, and so they are meant to do.


The situation began to develop some hundred-fifty years ago, hand-in-hand with the relentless onslaught of commercial capitalism and a number of related developments: urbanization, increasing social control, new means of transportation, and the introduction of mechanized technologies of visual representation, such as chromolithography and photography.


From the early nineteenth century on, a fierce competition for the eye developed. Advertising broadsides covered fences, walls and – more often than not – each other. The ensuing palimpsests became sites of struggle, even in a concrete sense, when billposters countered revenge with revenge, pasting their messages over existing ones, and engaging in fistfights.


Messages became larger and more iconic: quick perception and penetration of the mind was what mattered. Advertisers targeted not just the day, but also the night: electric light made it possible to illuminate the "sky-signs," giant letters and figures erected on rooftops. When neon tubes, and eventually super-bright LEDs, were introduced, the relationship between day and night became even more relative.


While all this was happening, other kinds of icons also proliferated: traffic signs, trade signs, infosigns of all types. Life was increasingly regulated by visual formulas that did not need a textual caption to anchor their meaning; it was already in the head; the sign only reinstated its authority. This is how traffic signs work; the advertisers would like their brands to function just the same.


In the late twentieth century iconic signs found a new realm in the digital expanses of the internet. 'Smileys,' those omnipresent visual shortcuts for emotions, came handy in the increasingly nervous pace of on-line lifestyles. From the 'desktops' of personal computers to the touchscreens of Blackberries and iPhones, visual icons were what we increasingly communicated with.


As self-evident as all this may seem, none of these developments took place naturally. Signs have always been 'signs of the times.' They are sites of struggle. Cultural identities are negotiated by gazing into the mirrors of coded sign systems. Acts of semioclasm – attacks on signs, and purportedly on the realities they represent – are not unusual. Still, whether smashing signs ever leads to an escape from their spell is doubtful.


By and large, this is the cultural background from which Christoph Hildebrand's art emerges. Whatever medium it adopts, it always seems occupied with signs, and not just with their formal qualities as signifiers, but also their contexts and connotations. Hildebrand's art is about semiosis: the 'lives' of the signs that surround our everyday lives. Over and over again, and in ever-new combinations, it appropriates them, juxtaposes them, displaces them and replaces them.


But don't look for assaults or aggression: there is no sheer iconoclasm. Hildebrand's approach is more subtle, more reflective. The signs he has collected – and often concocted himself – accumulate, forming clusters that haunt and often envelop the observers. They evoke ideas and associations, but refuse to arrange themselves into constellations with fixed denotations. Meanings are suggested, and immediately deconstructed, over and over again.


Hildebrand's creations take many forms: a huge matrix of neon signs installed in a public building, visible to the passers-by on a street; a transparent glass house; projections on gallery walls; a glowing spiral-like structure in a museum lobby. In none of these cases are Hildebrand's signs repulsive; rather, they attract a passer-by's attention, invite the gaze (and often, the body) and seduce the observer, somewhat in the manner of the public signs they emulate.


This is, of course, all deliberate. For the seductive power of these works is only the first impression, a surface effect. It is only after the observer has been attracted to their sphere of influence that the workings of other forces become apparent. A process of perception, discovery and questioning is unleashed, when one notices that the (il)logic of Hildebrand's sign complexes does not quite match the expectations and rules governing their everyday manifestations.


So what is at stake here? Perhaps Hildebrand really presents us a kind of dreamscape, where familiar signs have broken loose from their customary contexts, leaving behind their prosaic meanings. The signs seem to be floating down a stream of associations that glows and sparks, attracting one's gaze, and yet making it impossible to stare without feeling dazed. One is forced to close one's eyes; the afterglow feels at the same time soothing and distressing. What is there behind these translucent signs, one asks. Opacity, or else?


Erkki Huhtamo ©2008