When attitude becomes many forms:
How I see Sara Christensen’s work
When did you last laugh while visiting an art show? No really, I mean it: when? I am not talking of that malevolent little snort with which we sometimes like to comment on the work of our – perhaps more successful – rivals or those artists, who take an interest in things we ourselves find irrelevant. What I am thinking of is a light-hearted, mind-opening laugh, a laugh, which takes us by surprise and which seems to burst out of our bodies almost in spite of ourselves. As we remember remotely from the times of transition between childhood and young adulthood, this moment of silliness can be most constructive, a moment which releases a subversive energy, which in turn can change not only our point of view but also that of those we infect with our joyful giggles. This phenomenon, a humorous perspective taken to the extremes of silliness, is a fanstastically efficient means of communication. Considering this vast potential, it is beyond my imagination why attacks of silliness in an artistic context are not applied as a method more widely1. Is it because there are few who have the right kind of temperament to explore this energy? Here the artist as an enlightening clown enters the picture, and there is of course a history which carries many ringing names: Marcel Duchamp, the Dada-boysgroup, Gilbert & George, Dieter Roth, Robert Filiou, Fischli & Weiss, Christian Boltanski, Sigmar Polke, John Baldessari. They all look at daily life, its indifference to human needs and wishes, and they twist and tweek it a little to point this out. Do you notice what is missing in the list of names? Exactly. Theory claims that women are not part of this cheerful pedigree, because they lack the male sex’s laid-backness, its originality and aplomb2. This is, of course, utter nonsense. So, let us celebrate Sara Christensen’s aptness at all the above!
This funny streak in her work is, of course, only one of the mental temperatures in which the artist immerses her viewer. Christensen is also a serious researcher and collector: an “Eye of Prey” as Samuel Beckett aptly phrased this tendency to walk around and snatch material from one’s surroundings, and then, by either re-enactment, condensesation or mimetic comment, transform those found things into art. Christensen’s paintings-in-textiles are a feast of tactility: at first contact, the viewer’s groping eye as well as her sensitive fingertips are drawn into this interplay between texture, line, plane, depth and motif. The works have a format one immediately wants to walk in to, and they are both highly accessible and deeply mysterious. At times even slightly disturbing in their combination of motifs, sculls or decapitated torsi, which are presented on the same structural level as the zips, illustrative clouds or the pleasing patterns of the fabric. But there is nothing scandalous about this choice of icons, as they are presented in the style of underground-comics. This analogy combined with with the tactile beauty of the cloth makes these grim motifs “manageable” without reducing them to mere ornaments, thus taking the edge off them. It is, incidentally, the inverse act of reception one passes through when noticing the way the sewn material has had to be painfully strained into the shape of the stretcher. All this gives a productive tension to the pleasing aspect of the fabric. There is, of course, a historical line here too, which leads us back a few centuries to the lushious textures of sculls next to light-reflecting glass or shiny gold beakers, to silk brocade table spreads and piles of colourful, sometimes flyblown fruit in Dutch 17th century still lives. Here the precisely choreographed inventory of feasting and joy meet its shadowy depth: “Denckt opt End”, was the Memento Mori warning written on those paintings.
Sara Christensen, as I see her, is a cheerful empiricist, a cheerful analyst and I would even say, a cheerful scepticist. Should I be asked to place her historically, I would call her more modern than post-modern, as the eager seriousness which underlies her energetic playfulness is never fringing out into any kind of direction. Underneath the surface of her light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek humour her work is sternly crafted.
I probably should not have used the term “surface” for that deep and shifting, tactile and boldly variant materiality of Christensen’s forms of expression, as I probably should not have called her artistic approach “stern”. But it is so rare a thing to find a firm structure underlying a heterogeneous body of work as with the artist in discussion here, that I would like to stick to my choice of words.
1A wonderful academic research project on the subject has been launched in Germany, see: Michael Glameier and Wolfgang Till (ed.), Gestern oder im 2 Stock. Karl Valentin, Komik und Kunst seit 1948. Munich, 2009; Lisa Steib, Albernheit als Methode in der Kunst der 1970er und 1980er Jahre, Magisterarbeit, Hochschule für Bildende Künste, Braunschweig, 2010. by Michael Glasmeier. See exhibition catalogue: “ … gestern oder im 2 Stock”
2E.g.: Peter Bamm, „Über die Albernheit“, in: Bamm, Die kleine Weltlaterne, Munich, 1953.