Thermal Envelopes: Heat and Warmth in Installation Art − Gunnar Schmidt


After World War II the neo-avant-garde revolutionized the notion of art by using a wide range of natural and culturally produced materials in order to give them an expressive quality. By way of transgressing the traditionally dignified materials (i.e. oil paint, marble, bronze, wood) art expanded the field of aesthetic sensibilities and demanded a new type of art connoisseur. It is a noteworthy fact that within this context heat and warmth were only rarely used as means for aesthetic experience. It seems that the anti-visual quality of the thermal cannot be seamlessly integrated into the historically evolved terrain of differentiated design concepts in which the guiding sense of seeing reigns. Accordingly, thermal perception remained an aesthetically underdeveloped area. With the focus on a number of art works from the 1960s until today the paper discusses the problem how thermal conditions can be conceptualized as artistic material. The author proposes six functions which help to analyze aspects that up to now have not been considered by artists as well as critics who mostly are conditioned by the visual paradigm that so predominantly rules the history of art.


Art is commonly thought to be dominated by the visual para-digm. We look at a work of art—and even if we were tempted to touch it we would not necessarily gain a deeper understanding of or enjoy art more profoundly. This tacit consensus is the reason why thermal aspects in the history of art have never earned the hallowed status of aesthetic means: heat and coldness exclusively address our sense of touch.

Nevertheless, there are two very different concepts in which the visual and the haptic are combined in order to transfer thermal impressions. First, there are many artworks that represent hot or cold situations – for example Adolf Menzel’s Das Eisenwalzwerk / The Iron Rolling Mill (1875) or Caspar David Friedrich’s Das Eismeer / The Sea of Ice (1824). In front of these famous paintings the viewer may draw on personal experiences involving open fires or icy landscapes and may superimpose internal and external images, enliven the one with the other. But even if we as viewers are unable to supply this association, the idea of heat or coldness is nonetheless transmitted to us.

Second, and far more abstract, is the metaphorical use of thermal terms. In his Aesthetic Theory Theodor W. Adorno makes a short remark, in which he critizises a tepid warmth that is increasingly supposed to pass for expression: ‘Expressive impulses produce a type of contact in which conformism rejoices’ (2002: 43). It is not the predicate of this statement that is of interest, but the rhetoric of figurative speech. Warmth is a very conventional metaphor belonging to the thermal vocabulary of emotions: cold, hot, warm, frigid, lukewarm, boiling, chilly, scorching. As art is often associated with the emotions it is hardly surprising that thermal rhetoric is applied to describe or analyze works of art (fig. 1).1

Neither of these two approaches to art will play a role in the following study on installation art.

In this survey of hot or warm art the focus is on works that actually employ thermal radiation as a means of artistic elaboration. This implies a transgression of traditional forms of reception of art via seeing or hearing (Johnson, 2002: 61–74; Schmidt, 2015: 185–200). Considered from a historical point of view, the introduction of thermal parameters into art forms part of the aesthetic revolution that took place after World War II. In one fell swoop a material turn was performed in which almost any conceivable substance could be enlisted for art. Nonetheless, key impetus continued to be directed towards visual comprehension. So it comes as no surprise that within this burgeoning realm of experimentation thermal objects have remained very uncommon within the arts.

In the following a few examples from the field of installation art will be discussed. As an analytical tool six functions will be proposed, intended to clear up the relations between sensorial perception, mediality, and artistic regime. These three terms denote an interrelational structure.

The process of perceiving something with the senses depends decisively on the object of perception. In the case of art, the consumer is confronted with more than a material fact. Art addresses the consumer as a medium, as a carrier of meaning. Both aspects, perception including body awareness and meaning, are interwoven in a complicated way and are structured by wider cultural concepts and art philosophies. These aspects are summarized in the term artistic regime, a term coined by Jacques Rancière.

The questions involved concern the poetic status of materials and the reception of art based on cutaneous sensation.

Illustrative and affective

As a starting point, let us examine one of the major works of Edward Kienholz. Five Car Stud was presented for the first time in 1972 at the 5th documenta in Kassel. The installation was displayed in an inflatable, semi-globular black tent (fig. 2). Inside the dark dome the visitor was confronted with a scene of violence: the headlights of five cars illuminated a group of five white men wearing Halloween masks. These aggressors were shown in the act of castrating a black man (fig. 3, 4). Since visitors were allowed to step into the midst of this environment and become an integral part of the figurative composition, the haunting intensity of the scene was markedly heightened (fig. 5).

On some days during that July an extreme summer heat prevailed. Hot air was constantly pumped into the tent by means of an air blower to keep the dome inflated—with the effect that the temperature inside rose to intolerable levels. In general, overheated rooms impair the visitor’s concentration or willingness to contemplate a piece of art. In this case, the ambient conditions, while merely contingent and unintended by the artist, suited the ensemble perfectly for two reasons. By chance the heat emulated the typical climate of the southern states of the USA where race discrimination and Ku-Klux-Klan violence were inscribed in regional tradition. Even the press officer of the documenta argued in favor of this unforeseen realism: ‘The tropical heat enhances the realism. It perfectly recreates the atmosphere of the Dixie states’, he reasoned (Hessische Allgemeine, 1972: n.p.) (fig. 6). The press officer’s comment is an expression of the first function of heat – the illustrative function. Yet of greater significance in terms of artistic logic is the affective function2. The breathtaking and very oppressive mood of the installation found its equivalent in the viewers’ corporeal response to the heat. Kienholz’s scenario, together with this artificial climate, created an atmosphere in the double sense of the word – climatic and emotional. The visitor was confronted with relentless aggression on both levels: sensorial and semantic.

From this description the inevitable question arises whether the climatic situation here achieved the status of aesthetic value. Argued from a poetical point of view, it lacks the quality of transcendence or spiritualization (Vergeistigung) since heat was not intended as a means of confronting the viewer with a mode of aggression. Parallel to the sphere of artistic production the aesthetic experience on the side of the spectator seems problematic. According to a widespread theory art has the potential to create distance. Distance is the prerequisite for reflectiveness from which the experience of art’s alterity and semanticity evolves. Only two references shall suffice to illustrate this tenet. One is Aby Warburg’s well-known term Denkraum3 (space for reflection) (Warburg, 1920: 22, 70), which is a metaphor for the ‘consciousness of distance’ (Distanzbewusstsein) (Warburg, 2009: 277) expressed in artistic production: symbolic representation fosters detached restraint and curbs all consuming affects. One might say that from Warburg’s psychological perspective art is a cooling system. The second reference is a remark made by Adorno in one of his lectures on aesthetic theory, in which he tells his audience that the smell of apples on the stage of a theatre play has no lesser result than to negate art (Adorno, 2009: 81). Following Warburg’s and Adorno’s defensive actions against sensorial and emotional immediacy, are we then to deduce that the ambient heat of the Kienholz exhibit at Kassel and the viewers’ experience of sweating and urgently wanting to escape the space were in fact anti-aesthetic reactions? Or do we find ourselves at a new historical juncture where art engenders a de-sublimation that runs the risk of subverting the traditional concept of art – an art that may involve sensuality, but primarily as an embodiment of the spirit of sensuality.4


A leap 45 years ahead might shed light on the ways in which new aesthetic parameters that had previously been precarious have not only become an established part of an artistic concept but also led to a widening of the field of experience. In 2017 German artist Michael Sailstorfer for the first time presented his installation Brenner (Burner) (fig. 7). In its original state this work consisted of six skeleton-like chassis of different Volkswagen automobiles. Each of them was fitted with one or two stoves that were heated with burning wood (fig. 8). Long stovepipes funneled the smoke up through the high building to the outside.

Sailstorfer’s work is not only reminiscent of the industrial assembly line, it can also be experienced as a traffic jam or as a graveyard for deceased automobiles. We see ash-gray skeletons in which fire is still burning, eating – as it seems – the cars away rather than firing an engine. Crematorium and cremated become one and the same (fig. 9).5

While in the case of Five Car Stud heat deepened the manifest meaning and emotional aura, in Sailstorfer’s installation it gives rise to a number of associations that allow a symbolic appropriation of the object. First of all, the technology of the combustion engine, a key technology of the industrial age, is ironized by transforming the burning process into a simplified, self-sufficient procedure void of any usefulness. Neither are the immobilized rudiments of the automobiles able to transport anything nor will they ever reach the state of being released from the production line as completed objects. Energy is wasted for no purpose or it regresses to an archaic state of pure incidentality.

In this sphere of both creation and death everything – barring the fire and smoke – has come to a standstill. The constellation stands in contradiction to the spirit of industry – also in the strict sense of the Latin word industria (activity, effort). The installation transmutes the industrial object and process into a sarcastic memento mori. The irony is given another turn of the screw by the fact that the exhibition space was formerly a church. In this respect the stovepipes appear as spiritual power supply lines to heaven, whereby the smoke alludes to the incense used in religious rites to transmit prayers.

For all the wealth of connotations the context of the gallery space also offers an immediate sensorial experience of heat, especially in close proximity to or among the cars: these death images seem to be innervated by or animated with ruthless animosity. As spectators we are caught in an ambivalent position: on the one hand, we find ourselves in a space of growing thermal amplification that triggers cutaneo-psychical reactions (Griffero, 2014: 55). On the other, we have to cope with a number of meaningful concepts that are communicated through the objects. In order to deal with this double-edged operation a third term is required to accompany the illustrative and affective functions: the reflexive function. Although illustrative and emotional aspects are at work in Brenner the overall thermal condition is dominated by the reflexive function. To the same degree as heat generates immediate connectedness, it also opens up the possibility of going beyond the work of art, of reflecting on wider issues relating to a culture based on combustion.


Returning to the starting point where perceptive sensibilities were critically questioned, it should be pointed out that as a genre thermal art brings something to the fore that is inherent in the overall dispositif of installation art. Italian philosopher Mario Perniola gives an interesting description that emphasizes the reversal of roles within art installation spaces:

Installations must not be considered the object of a visitor’s evaluation. The relation with a visitor is completely reversed with respect to the traditional visit to museums and galleries. It is the installation that feels the visitor, welcomes him, touches him, feels him up, stretches out to him, makes him enter into it, penetrates him, possesses him, overwhelms him.

(2004: 107)

In addition to Perniola’s characterization one could argue that thermal conditions play the role of reevaluative agents: the position of ‘masterful panoptic egotism’ (Sloterdijk, 2011: 86) is weakened in favor of a poetic occupancy harbored within a sensorial interior. It cannot be denied that this change of paradigm involves the risk of making art a culinary item.6 But at the same time instantaneity, immediacy, and immersion are the ingredients for an enhanced mode of reception.

Another installation – Sam Lewitt’s More Heat than Light (fig. 10) – gives a clear impression of this shift away from symbol, allusion or referent, towards atmospheres, presence, and pre-symbolicity. It is noteworthy that this installation also incorporates a reference to the automobile, but contrary to Kienholz and Sailstorfer it appears in a modus operandi whose iconographic power has been almost entirely erased.

In the exhibition space Lewitt reroutes the electrical current used for lighting to create heat instead. Within the white cube of the museum he disrupts one of the exhibition space’s primary functions. To effect this disruption and as exhibits he employs a number of custom-made, flexible, ultra-thin heating circuits that either lie across the floor or are draped over Volkswagen engine blocks. The heaters are enlarged versions of industrial technology intended to regulate heat in highly controlled closed environments. In the art space they are used as aesthetic machinery. One critic wrote about his experience:

To enter the back spaces is to feel the thermal energy more pronouncedly than in the main gallery, where heat diffuses quickly in the cavernous space. Either way, the heaters are not meant to create a radiant blast of heat, nor to hold onto it; they create only as much heat as the institution’s lighting grid will ‘feed’ them.

(anon, 2016: n.p.)

As the documentary photographs show, there is not much to see. Instead, the artist expects visitors to scrutinize the technical setup. In doing so they will identify sensors (fig. 11), thereby grasping that movements in the room, sunlight, a draught, or the body heat generated by visitors create slight fluctuations in temperature. Sam Lewitt says: ‘The numbers [on the detectors] really dance […]. They go up and down, and register your presence in the space as a sort of environmental disturbance’ (Greenberger, 2016: n.p.).

What is at stake here is less the work of art as a material object, although it does offer certain visual and verbal clues – phrases made of buzzwords from the commercial-capitalist world (Belong Anywhere. Flexible Control. Custom Profiling. Get Connected) imprinted on the thermal sheets, numbers, engine blocks, and cables, all imbued with the possibility of being metaphorized. Art critics and the artist himself have mainly commented on these objects as carriers of meaning, which ‘navigate ideological and socio-political characteristics’ (Huberman, 2015: 183; Filipovic, 2015: 184–185; Gilligan, 2015: 186–191; Lewit, 2015: 192–196). Such intellectuali-zations belong to art discourse but say very little about the installation’s capacity to induce visitors to become involved in it in various ways. With regard to thermo-atmospheric envelopes it should be pointed out that any appreciation of Lewitt’s piece requires heightened phenomenological awareness and an inclination to self-observation on the part of the viewer. The slightly dimmed light and marginal rise in room temperature, the moderately modified micro-atmosphere, and the various activities causing it are agents, which establish a new type of aestheticized space. Lewitt’s avoidance of visual expressivity forces the viewer to enter into a different relation with his work: no longer requiring imaginary projection, it is about yielding to one’s senses to intuit the material process and, moreover, to register the way it is integrated into the overall spatial context. Homo interior is invited to move about within the spatial arrangement, imbibe the atmosphere, physically feel the constitution of space and objects, and, in this case, their temperature too. But there is yet another aspect to this, which likewise plays no role in the visual arts: as visitors we have to take note of our own body heat, to monitor what usually goes unobserved. Not only does the technology focus on thermo-dynamics, the body too must be acknowledged as an engine of heat. Lewitt made this explicit by using a thermal camera to document the exhibition (fig. 12). Denied their habitual visual appearances, visitors are represented as orange flames walking between and around the hot sheets on the floor. They are simultaneously both agents and objects of a new aestheticism of heat.

A brief note on the word aestheticism: the term is used here as an index in reference to the historical movement of aestheticism around 1900. At this early stage of the development of modern art we find traces leading to the expanding field of aesthetic experience and the revolt against representative art. Joris-Karl Huysmans’ novel Against the Grain rebours, 1884) – one of the key texts of this movement – is an impressive document of this process as it charts the obsessive sensorial experiments of the protagonist Floressas Des Esseintes. The essential aspect in this new regime of art and art consumerism is the abandonment of the traditional hierarchy of superior and inferior art forms. Des Esseintes, having retreated to a house in the country where he indulges in gratifying his complex aesthetic sensations, does not distinguish between painting, literature, gemstones, textiles, rare flowers, food, liquors, perfumes, or music. What can be termed as Des Esseintes’ hyperestheticism spawns a locus aestheticus in which the activities of sensibility and the imagination are the ruling parameters. In the words of Jacques Rancière: ‘The aesthetic state is a pure instance of suspension, a moment when form [and materiality] is experienced for itself’ (Rancière, 2005, 24). In chapter thirteen, Huysmans describes a situation in which the protagonist is assailed by a heatwave. It is remarkable how the author intertwines natural climatic conditions with Des Esseintes’ private sphere of art and artifacts, his sensorial experiences, and imaginary reactions. All this is described in a series of metaphors and analogies that infuse the scene with an atmosphere of aggravated psychic irritation:

As the season advanced, the weather, far from improving, grew worse. Everything seemed to go wrong that year. After the squalls and mists, the sky was covered with a white expanse of heat, like plates of sheet iron. In two days, without transition, a torrid heat, an atmosphere of frightful heaviness, succeeded the damp cold of foggy days and the streaming of the rains. As though stirred by furious pokers, the sun showed like a kiln-hole, darting a light almost white-hot, burning one’s face. A hot dust rose from the roads, scorching the dry trees, and the yellowed lawns became a deep brown. A temperature like that of a foundry hung over the dwelling of Des Esseintes.

Half naked, he opened a window and received the air like a furnace blast in his face. The dining room, to which he fled, was fiery, and the rarefied air simmered.


He drank a few drops of wine that pricked his stomach like points of fire. He wet his face; the perspiration, alternately warm and cold, coursed along his temples. He began to suck some pieces of ice to overcome his troubled heart—but in vain. […]

He tasted a drop of this liquor and, for a few moments, had relief. But soon the fire, which the dash of wine had lit in his bowels, revived. He threw down his napkin, returned to his study, and paced the floor. He felt as if he were under a pneumatic clock, and a numbing weakness stole from his brain through his limbs. Unable to endure it longer, he betook himself to the garden. It was the first time he had done this since his arrival at Fontenay. There he found shelter beneath a tree which radiated a circle of shadow. Seated on the lawn, he looked around with a besotted air at the square beds of vegetables planted by the servants. He gazed, but it was only at the end of an hour that he really saw them, for a greenish film floated before his eyes, permitting him only to see, as in the depths of water, flickering images of shifting tones.

(Huysmans, 1922: 246–247, 250)

The interplay of body, soul, and surroundings seems to transport the individual into a mystic state, in which the subject-object distinction is eliminated. The abstracting images, mental effects of the strenuous experience of heat, may be interpreted as psycho-pathological symptoms; in hindsight, they foreshadow situations generated in synaesthetic psychedelic multi-media shows.

Des Esseintes’ installation unleashes a mode of experience very similar to the one in Sam Lewitt’s work: as observers we simultaneously register the aesthetic particularities in the outer world and the response of our inner, physio-psychic system. Imbued with emotions, the heat in Des Esseintes’ refuge shares with More Heat than Light an aspect of central importance to the aesthetic regime: both environments put the sensorial function to work. This function is not exclusively related to purely physiological animation, through which the visitor ‘feels’ the heat, it also includes the conscious act of using excitation as a vehicle for aesthetic experience, i.e. for an escape into ‘heterotopia’ (Foucault, 1984: n.p.).

The tension between meaning and sensoriality – expressed in the title More Heat than Light and invoking Nietzsche’s binary opposition of the Dionysian and the Apollonian – also comes to the fore in an installation from the period of the neo-avant-garde. The images of meandering ‘flames’ on the thermal photographs of Lewitt’s installation are isomorphic to one of Yves Klein’s installations, although at first sight the artwork in question appears wholly unrelated to the cool conceptual aesthetics of Lewitt.


In 1961 Yves Klein had his first retrospective in Krefeld. In the garden of Haus Lange he installed a fire wall and a fountain of fire about three meters high (fig. 13). This sculpture poses the question of whether it is a form of abstraction or if it is intended as concretion: in the first instance it is a conveyer of some sort of meaning, in the second a self-referential entity. For the time being it is the second possibility that will direct our analysis.

Klein’s preoccupation with mono-chromaticity finds material presence in this sculpture, because all his favorite colors are subsumed in the flame: blue, white, pink, gold. But this would only be half the truth were the visibility of the immaterial sculpture to be judged while ignoring the palpability of heat. Both aspects involve a rawness and directness, which were in tune with the program of New Realism, of which Klein was a devotee. With reference to Charles Sanders Peirce, the function that underlies this approach to art should be coined indexical.7 From this perspective, heat means fire, nothing more – no metaphysics, no metaphors. In the same way as we enjoy the play of meaningless colors in the flame, we also feel the radiated heat to various degrees, depending on how closely one dares approach the flame. Klein’s fire fountain is not far removed from Lewitt’s heated room when he states that ‘sensibility enables us to pursue life to the level of its base material manifestations’ (Klein, 1961: n.p.). Sensibility is one of the keywords in Klein’s discourse as well as in the discourse of New Realism. The word is symptomatic for the post-war era since the attention it received expressed a form of defense against all kinds of ideological constructs as well as the wish for an intensified way of living. From this point of view it is logically consistent that, according to Klein, ‘the indefinable pictorial sensibility’ constitutes the virtue of art.

It would be a simplification to argue that the fire column is nothing more than a presentational expression of itself. However paradox it might seem, it is precisely in the immediate effect of the fire, the real danger it poses rather than the idea of danger that it becomes over-determined. The stream of colorful heat is an abstracted image of the human body endowed with quivering, living warmth as well as paraphrasing in miniature form the fire column of the atom bomb that so insistantly pervaded the collective imagination of that epoch; likewise, the flame evokes the warming hub of the primeval meeting-place as well as the image of burning man in modern-day visions of the apocalypse.8 In his ‘Chelsea Hotel Manifesto’ Klein himself wrote (in the same year as he constructed the fire fountain): ‘Truly, fire is […] essentially contradictory, […] since it is both the sweetness and torture that lies at the heart and origin of our civilization’ (Klein, 1961: n.p.).

This statement is evidence that the installation is more than a self-contained artifact, that it embodies an ambivalent reaction: fear of the devastating effects of atomic deterrence scenarios and a longing for utopian beauty. This double-edged perspective also plots Klein’s making of his fire paintings. In a documentary we see how—instead of using paint and brush— he employs a flame-thrower, thereby transforming the sensuous bodies of the female models into fragmentary flat shadows. Contemplating these images there is no doubt that we are lured to peer into hell (fig. 14). With these abstractions we may associate the shadows that populate the mythical Hades, but they could also evoke the victims of modern atomic warfare. In one his texts Klein made a remark about the nuclear shadows of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (fig. 15), the imprints of bodies caused by the bomb’s thermal radiation (Wagner et. al., 2002: 96). Without question, with these words he was implicitly giving a description of his Anthropometriés: ‘The shadows of Hiroshima in the wastes of the nuclear catastrophe, terrifying evidence without doubt, but nevertheless evidence of the hope of survival and the endurance of the body, even if only immaterial’ (Klein, 2007: 187). Klein’s art exemplifies how difficult it is to undermine or avoid aspects of representational art. The index is always in danger of being concealed beneath an avalanche of meaning.

By contrast, Wedding Therese (1984), an installation by Hermann Pitz, is a remarkable work in that it can be seen as an artistic reflection on precisely this problem. In particular, the media of light and heat in the context of the ensemble lead the process from symbol to index, from meaning to material. At first sight, Wedding Therese (fig. 16) resembles a mise-en-scène of an apartment. At odds with this impression is the counter-illusionistic character of the installation, which affords a kind of behind-the-scenes view: the walls are mere canvas frames, the window is supported by just a fragment of a wall, black curtain fabric is thrown over a wooden panel. Suspended above the empty miniature room are four powerful work lamps altogether alien to the cozy atmospheric lighting of a living room. As much as the installation questions concepts of realism by playing on the traditional equation of picture frame and window frame, it also deconstructs traditional pictorial formulae. This interpretation can only be understood if one considers the work’s title. The word Wedding is the name of a borough in Berlin. Indeed, the installation was shown for the first time in an abandoned factory in this same Berlin district. But what about Therese? Was she the inhabitant of the room (Freybourg, 1999: 597)?9 The viewer might be prompted to think about the working-class history of the Wedding district, or to consider the antagonism between the traditional proletarian neighborhood and the quasi-religious art space into which the work has been transposed. Or one might associate the name Therese with Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s well-known sculptural ensemble Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (1647–1652).10 In regard to this sublime piece of art and to Wedding Therese it becomes obvious that the imagery of light is central to both works. In the case of Bernini’s sculpture it is the lux divina that streams from above. It represents the invisible God as well as the transmission of Teresa’s visions. Light here functions as an icono-religious concept. The same can be said of the drapery that so luxuriantly envelops the mystic’s body, providing an inscription of pure pathos. Light as featured in the installation of Hermann Pitz is of a totally different kind: visitors will immediately notice that the secular device of electric illumination radiates physical warmth into the museum hall. The closer one gets to the installation the more this warmth grows into searing heat. It is less the symbolic value than, to an extreme palpable extent, the material aspect of light, its profanity or indexicality, that imposes itself upon the sensorially aware visitor: it becomes more heat than light. Likewise, the drapery that seems to flow into the room like a black waterfall, insistently displays its textile characteristics. The allusions to Bernini are hints that art has abandoned the space of holy or metaphysical representations and has disseminated into spaces of palpable sensorial reception.


Coming back to Yves Klein and his influence on present-day artists, one should also mention Jannis Kounellis, Olafur Eliasson or Jeppe Hein for having both worked with open fire. With respect to the image of the body as flame, it is interesting to consider two interior designs by the architect Jürgen Mayer H.. These two works reveal how formal similarities in the visual sphere can stand in contrast with semantic, perceptual, and behavioral distinctions.

Heat Seat (2015) and In Heat (2005) (fig. 17, 18) operate with a temperature-sensitive coating enabling body warmth to create temperature shadows; the body – similar to Klein – symbolically melts into the surface of the objects. These forms are of temporary existence because they disappear as soon as cooling sets in. Here we find the same poetic paradigm as in More Heat than Light: the body as combustion engine exerts an influence on its surroundings. A sensibility to one’s own physiological activity emerges from aesthetic play. We may call this perception ecological awareness on a micro-level, or we can describe it in terms of thermo-dynamics as Michel Serres does in his book The Five Senses. His account of two bodies in relation to heat actually can be read as a conceptual outline for art installations like those of Sam Lewitt and Jürgen Mayer H.:

One hardly dares say that the two sources, confronting each other, hot and cold, and deviating for this reason, are antithetical to each other. If stability or synthesis is to return, a transfer must take place from one body or source to the other […]. Now combustion continues in the warm body, the deviation from equilibrium is again produced, the transfer perpetuated. We all recognize a familiar cycle that we will accurately call circumstance. […] Circumstance becomes the whole motor.

(2008: 292)

The word circumstance may, without effort, be replaced by the word installation. What takes place is a creative confusion of art, viewer and space, of situation and process. Exchange and transformation are the central categories for the relational function. According to Nicolas Bourriaud, relational art no longer serves to form utopian realities, but offers ‘models of action within the existing real, whatever scale chosen by the artist’ (2002: 13).

Viewing the iconographic and performative similarities between Yves Klein’s and Jürgen Mayer H.’s works, it is clear that these are only of marginal interest. It is the historical and cultural context that marks a vast difference between these analogous forms. At one time it was the holocaust or mythical fires that inspired artists to evoke images of heat. Now is the urge to experience the self within a sensitive space where both react towards one another in order to establish relational thermospheres.
Olafur Eliasson’s Heat Pavilion (fig. 19) is another simple but significant example that shows how space, place, object, warmth, bodies, and choreographic figuration organize a field of various sensibilities. The transcendence of the traditional work of art is not only a rupture with tradition, it is to like degree also antithetical to modern visual media culture with its cold screens, informational overflow, hyperactivity, and denial of the body. Heat Pavilion literally incorporates the body into the picture and mediates sensoriality, our sense of organization and freedom, of communication and contemplation. And last but not least, the skin – counter-sensorial to the eye – transfers to intimacy and endows itself with poetic capacity. The skin experiences a semiotic space, one which is not controlled by signification but where contact, nowness, libidinous enveloping, and vacillation on the margins of meaning take place.


  1. Beyond art discoursethe hot-cold dichotomy has reached theoretical relevance, prominent in the writings of Marshall McLuhan and Claude Lévi-Strauss.
  2. The affective function is meant as receiver-directed. As such it stands
    counter to Roman Jakobson’s notion of ‘emotive function’, which is related to the addresser and his internal state.
  3. In the English version
    of Warburg’s canonical text Schlangenritual (The Snake Ritual) the term Denkraum was translated as ‘scope for reason’ (Warburg, 2009: 292).
  4. ‘Even subjectively, the mediate and the immediate are in turn mediated in each other aesthetically and in knowledge. Not genetically, but in terms of its constitution, art is the most compelling argument against the epistemological division of sensuality and intellect’ (Adorno, 2002: 174).
  5. See also Sailstorfer’s video/photo series 3ster mit Ausblick (2002) which demonstrates the same logic.
  6. Adorno argues that whoever perceives only the sensual side of an artwork, remains in a ‘pre-aesthetic‘ or ‘culinary state’ (Adorno, 2009: 162, 166).
  7. Diedrich Diederichsen argues that the ‘index effect’, as he calls it, is the central constituent of the aesthetic revolution of around 1960 (Diederichsen, 2017).
  8. Alongside the sensibility paradigm Yves Klein created a varied mythology of fire. For reference, see Restany, 1993.
  9. The title is also a play of words with a hidden private meaning (email from H.P., August 21, 2017).
  10. In reply to my question if a reference to Bernini was intended, Hermann Pitz replied that he had not had the sculpture in mind, but that he is very familiar with Bernini’s group in the Cornaro Chapel and that it had made a deep impression on him when he was 12 years old (email from H.P., August 21, 2017).
  11. Hermann Pitz instructs that all four lamps are allowed to be turned on (email from H.P., August 21, 2017). Yet in the Berlin exhibitions (2012, 2017) only one was lit. One can only surmise how heated the room would have become with all four lamps ablaze.
  12. The term semiotic is used here as conceptualized by Kristeva, 1984.



Fig. 1: Newspaper clipping (Hot and Cold in Kassel. The fifth documenta between Realism and Individual Mythologies), Die Zeit, 09.07.1972.


Fig. 2: Inflatable tent, Documenta 5, 1972 (Image: Documenta Archiv).


Fig. 3: Edward Kienholz: Five Car Stud, 1972 (Image: Documenta Archiv).


Fig. 4: Edward Kienholz: Five Car Stud, 1972 (Image: Documenta Archiv).


Fig. 5: Edward Kienholz: Five Car Stud, 1972 (Image: Documenta Archiv).


Fig. 6: Newspaper clipping (Kienholz’s installation was the hottest), Hessische Allgemeine, 19.07.1972.


Fig. 7: Michael Sailstorfer: Brenner, 2017 (Image: Gunnar Schmidt).


Fig. 8: Michael Sailstorfer: Brenner, 2017 (Image: König Galerie, Berlin).


Fig. 9: Michael Sailstorfer: Brenner, 2017 (Image: König Galerie, Berlin).


Fig. 10: Sam Lewitt: More Heat than Light (Basel), 2016 (Image: Kunsthallte Basel).


Fig. 11: Sam Lewitt: More Heat than Light (Basel), 2016 (Image: Kunsthallte Basel).


Fig. 12: Sam Lewitt: More Heat than Light (Basel), 2016 (Image: Kunsthallte Basel).


Fig. 13: Yves Klein: Monochrome und Feuer, 1961 (Image:


Fig. 14: Yves Klein: Peinture de feu (F 80), 1961 (Image:


Fig. 15: Nuclear Shadow, Hiroshima, 1945 (Image:


Fig. 16: Hermann Pitz: Wedding Therese, 1984, Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin 2012 (Image: Marc Wathieu).


Fig. 17: Jürgen Mayer H.: Heat Seat, 2015 (Image:


Fig. 18: Jürgen Mayer H.: In Heat, 2005 (Image:


Fig. 19: Olafur Eliasson: Heat Pavillion, 2000 (Image:


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