The aesthetics of encryption

October 19, 2011

German architect Jürgen Mayer H. has been collecting ordinary mailing envelopes for the last 10 years. His collection spans hundreds of items and is growing all the time, thanks to submissions from fans and followers.

It may sound like a banal sort of collection, but the envelopes’ plain exteriors hide their fascinating insides: complex monochromatic encryption patterns that prevent causal scanning of private data and that constitute the real draw for Mayer H.

Over 100 examples of these visually complex objects have been enlarged and turned into prints, and are on display in Architectural Drawings Gallery 24 at the Art Institute of Chicago through January 22nd.

The prints themselves are taken from a large format book from the German publishing house Hatje Cantz. WirrWarr, the title of both the book and the exhibit, means “confusion” in German.

The prints are fascinating things. Unfolded and splayed open, deprived of what little physicality they once had, it’s easier to focus on, and enjoy, their patterned insides. You can read them, not as the record of actual paper objects, but as examples of the aesthetics of encryption, reminders of the patterns in everyday objects, the prettiness in the practicality.

Their patterns call to mind such things as typewriter typeface, jumbled and superimposed; topographic maps; chevron; houndstooth; tiny coats of arms; and wallpaper, too. In fact, for the 2008 Venice Biennale, Mayer H. created a wallpaper version of the prints.

The prints can seem at once old fashioned, because of their association with postal mail, and highly futuristic, evoking the complex streams of visual data that characterize modern digital life.

This, says curator Zoë Ryan, helps explain the visual and conceptual appeal to a contemporary architect like Mayer H.

“He’s interested in trying to find a formal language in buildings, which have both a public and private form,” Ryan explains.

Mayer H. uses these patterns as inspirations for his buildings, such as the Hasselt Court of Justice in Hasselt, Belgium. Like his envelopes, buildings have an inside and an outside, a public and a private face.

"Jürgen Mayer H.'s WirrWarr" is on view at the Art Institute of Chicago through January 22, 2012.