With the title of the current exhibition – mk/ULTRA – Scheibitz enters a field of historico-cultural study into the relationship between the human subject and reality, and how this relationship can be influenced or controlled with the aid of targeted information. In its alternative spelling, ‘MKULTRA’ is the code name of an American secret service programme that was in operation from the 1950s until the end of the Cold War. This experimental research project involved attempts to develop a ‘truth drug’ and other forms of mind control that were intended to make people divulge important information without any direct physical coercion. While mk was simply an abbreviated reference to a particular governmental institution, the Latin word ultra means ‘beyond, in excess of’. The term became popular during the 20th century, both in the realm of art and in everyday speech: it was a favoured expression among the Surrealists and the Ultra-Lettrists, ‘ultras’ is used to describe a subculture of football supporters, and a hardcore band from Chicago also called themselves MK-Ultra.
For his new exhibition at Sprüth Magers Berlin, Thomas Scheibitz has devised a specific configuration of works for the gallery space, which he has further transformed by incorporating a column into the existing architecture. This sculptural intervention with the coated pillar alters the perception of the space and historicises its basic structure. A similar interaction between painterly surfaces and three-dimensional volumes is set in motion in object-based works such as the sculpture Terrasse (2011) or the relief If Seven was Nine (2011): by deploying the materiality of rust – a product of corrosion – or the haptic qualities and structure of coloured fabric, Scheibitz uses untypical materials to imitate monochrome painting and its distinctive surface properties.
The versatility of numbers and letters, which are key components of Scheibitz’s formal vocabulary, is apparent in his painting Nachricht (2011) – a conglomeration of geometric forms, shapes, abstracted ground plans, architectural fragments and the numeral 1. His interest in logos and pictographs stems, among other things, from a preoccupation with the etchings of the Venetian artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720 – 1778), who constructed initial letters using elements drawn from the visual language of architecture. In Scheibitz’s paintings, linguistic signs and numbers are likewise integrated into a tectonic space, where tiered planes and overlapping fore- and backgrounds serve to generate a sense of depth. In the artificial parallel worlds of his works, the visual signs express their own, open-ended semantics as carriers of cultural meaning. In Kino (2011), the impression of a place where new images are generated is reinforced by the centralised perspective: alluding to the projection space of cinema, the painting focuses our attention on this medium which has fundamentally affected our visual memory since the turn of the 20th century, using moving images to create multiple meta-levels of reality.
Scheibitz’s works consistently convey the impression of a hidden, indecipherable message. His mode of influencing human consciousness is to create a visual overload of pictorial and graphic codes. With regards to mk/ULTRA, the emphasis is not on suspicious circumstances or conspiracy theories, but rather on the immediate viewing experience in front of the work that throws the viewer back upon his or her own experience of the world.