Dressed in Heimat, I Am Waiting behind the Lake
Alexandra Matzner, 2015
Judith Saupper and Elisabeth Wedenig have embarked on a journey in parallel turns. The exhibition title “LAND SURVEYS”, the mapping of (un)familiar regions in the plural, is programmatic in several respects. While, in common usage, the word refers to people’s engagement with their environment, to their wish to understand the topography in order to figure out spatial and man-to-nature relationships, Saupper and Wedenig reinterpret the term and take it as a preceding reference to their performative explorations of the provinces. At the end of their path, the provinces finally do not turn out to be a new home/heimat, and their postcard correspondence has turned into a document of artistic exchange. At Bäckerstraße 4 plattform für junge kunst, provincial mail was pinned to the walls, airy poets touched upon Christine Lavant, birds and stones formed a procession … But let us start at the beginning.
A Formulaic Land Survey
The idea of working on a common project while continuing to live in completely different places, exchanging views and ideas via postcards and remaining stylistically and formally independent of each other, proved a viable method for both artists. Circumstances brought them closer in spite of their physical distance and led to surprising correspondences in their work.
“Land Surveys” is the title Saupper and Wedenig chose for their joint presentation. The dialogue between sculptural works and drawings and paintings established in Bäckerstraße 4 plattform für junge kunst transfers their stylistic heterogeneity into a complex weave of different issues: heimat, the province, memory, history and poetic appropriation of the world, to name but a few.
The measure of “heimat capacity” is the metre (). The result’s objectivity is only an apparent one, having been complemented by a subjective emotional barometer: for all that, the formula = g describes the “heimat capacity” of places. Derived from the calculation of the prototype metre, g for gravitational acceleration is joined to =. For Judith Saupper, Vienna therefore corresponds to 1 metre 24 centimetres. Villach scores 1.22 m, St. Veit an der Glan only 0.014 m; Hard, on the other hand, reaches a remarkable 3.93 m. As the current exhibition location, Vienna determined the emotional length and is represented with a mural on the façade. Other places from Saupper’s and Wedenig’s “Land Surveys Tour”, an exhibition that toured through the provinces, were and still are checked for their potential. Contemporary artistic life is conceived as a nomadic lifestyle, and experiences of uprooting, new arrivals and localising are the hallmarks of professional life. The importance of memory and mood in the heimat capacity equation becomes apparent in the high amplitude of 4.07 metres for Bildungshaus St. Arbogast in Götzis. It is in Vorarlberg, where Saupper comes from. In the basement, her hanging object “Silhouette (Heimat in Changing Lighting Conditions)” (2015) shows the research results in 3D. The fragile construction is reminiscent of a cabin, a deconstructed, damaged home, and in different lighting conditions it casts shadows of different lengths that are offset in white lines on the floor. Depending on the observer’s perspective, the assigned lengths of “heimat capacity” change once more. Far beyond geographic attempts at recording it, Judith Saupper confronts difficult issues, feelings and states, such as province, heimat bonds, childhood memories and their repercussions on her current life.
Experience Art, Future Hope
“Art is political by virtue of sharing (out) a certain space and a certain time, and because the objects it populates this space with and the rhythms it divides this time into determine a specific form of experience that coincides with other forms of experience or breaks with them.” (Jacques Rancière)
The spaces and experiences Elisabeth Wedenig and Judith Saupper engage with are personal as well as geographic. Over the past two years, they have intensively engaged with the province, surveyed it – that is, captured it for themselves – and written provincial mail. Since the ancient Romans, and in particular from the metropolitan perspective, the province has been considered a “backward region, remote from the social life of cities”. The adjective “provincial” describes a backwoods situation, a pastoral, slow life, or outmoded, out-of-date views. Recently, however, slowed-down rural life has come into high fashion – partly from romantic glorification and partly from a melancholic renunciation of urban life. But what are the qualities the backwater can really develop? What individual, artist-specific visual worlds and world images can be generated there? And does it really allow for a “different” life?
Even though a mathematical description of Vienna in the shape of a frame of lines decorates the façade, Judith Saupper’s and Elisabeth Wedenig’s art is nevertheless based on field studies; it rests on the sensory quality of spaces. The artists invite their audience to conduct an in-depth research into the essence of the province and approach it in prolonged stays, journeys and pop-up exhibitions, but also through poetry. Both artists come from the province, as the saying goes in Austria, and studied in Vienna. They know the cultural “difference” between the metropolis and the country, which is also reflected in different dialects and technical language. Both had to confront the question of how much of heimat they had left behind with their childhoods.
Does the return to the province guarantee rediscovery? Or can a place you enter for the first time already have insinuated itself into dreams, and manifest itself in a feeling of familiarity and arrival? On 28 April 2014, Elisabeth Wedenig wrote: “After a state of waking sleep, I actually found on arrival a place here that I seem to know from a dream. – A mistake in the butterfly’s flight?” In her paintings, the Carinthian painter uses double entendres and ambiguity and moves between moods and descriptions of reality. In the series “I Am Waiting behind the Lake” (2014–2015) she hints at figures, birds, mountains, and allows them to melt into hazy colour at the next moment. She crosses the objective concrete with the disintegrated intangible while reflecting on the possibilities of painting. Gaps, metamorphoses, overlaps mark the figures as artefacts, as naturalist fictions, in spite of their realism. Long observation of the motif and condensation of the subject do not create an overpowering plane but uncover individual layers. The longer she looks at something, the artist explains, the more she becomes aware of structures. All seven paintings of the series are formally interconnected. Lines connect individual compositions, motifs are divided, the titles may be read as poetic manifestations by Christine Lavant.
“Patterns” (2014) is a series of four drawings by Elisabeth Wedenig on patterned sheets. She had found the image supports from the title, so they are directly from the workshop of a seamstress and thus represent the province on several levels. On the one hand, the patterns primarily refer to manual skill, and their forms imply traditional female dress. Again and again, the artist recorded on her postcards the parameters of life in the provinces. Her statement that the gender of province (as a word) was female may be interpreted as a metaphor for the striking separation of the spheres of life. Women are responsible for the flowers decorating the houses (otherwise there would be talk); men are allowed to go to the village pub, which is decorated with a Playboy calendar. Once you have cultivated this code of behaviour, rehearsed over generations, can you simply leave it freely like a bird? Or will you always be a “country kid”?
The romance of a mountain chalet and traditional dress, oxen and ibex as accessories, emotionally lived religion and ancient rites cannot simply be exposed as Austrian myths – they are real and mediated at the same time. Can heimat still be felt in such symbols? Neither Wedenig nor Saupper are prone to simplistic illusion. The gaps in Wedenig’s paintings bear witness to this; they even expand in the series “Procession Images” (2014–2015). The unprimed canvas as well as the traditional fabrics crudely emerge and disrupt the illusion of the image in a rather obtrusive way. Drawings share the same level with painted areas. Two works – “Rural Fertility/the Path to the Hare” and “Rural Fertility/the Path to the Cock” (both 2014) – playfully explore the way in which reproduction as a production process has shaped the landscape and its geographical notation.
But Judith Saupper also employs this device: “Dressing in Heimat like a Robe (or The Blind Spots of the Province)” (2014) uses “holes” in the whole in order to highlight the unresolved problems in or with heimat. The opposite of holding on is shown in the six-part series of collaged drawings and prints, titled “(De)Construction of Memory 1–6” (2014). To give memory a new look, Saupper quotes cuts from “Dressing in Heimat like a Robe (or The Blind Spots of the Province)” and places them in a new environment. Starting from this first work, she recombines details, reassembles them and permanently changes the complete picture. The artist compares this procedure to the function of remembering, which is a continued rereading of past events. From each perspective, events in the past may not only appear to be changed, but were actively reshaped in the process of thinking.
One of the surprises in Judith Saupper’s current works, in my opinion, is the installation “Origin” (2015). The object, assembled from five pieces of dead wood, owes its formal solution to a well-known work by the Belgian artist Berlinde De Bruyckere (* 1964), which was first exhibited at the 55th Biennale of Venice in 2013, and which is currently on show at the Kunsthaus Bregenz: “Cripplewood” actually means undergrowth, but it is better understood as “crippled wood”, as this is closer to the artwork’s statement. De Bruyckere refers to pain, suffering, life and death in a general and timeless way. Judith Saupper interpreted the lifeless pieces of wood as a symbol of emptiness, of helplessness. On 31 March 2015, she wrote: “Loss of memory/loss of time (written upside down).” The object is complemented by a series of collaged drawings, “After Cripplewood Provincial Movement #1–20” (2015), which allows us to summarise the artist’s procedure as a clash of ordering structures and overrunning motifs. While the patterns stand for regularity, clarity, equality, the chosen subjects seem to refuse simply to fit into them; they keep disrupting the rigid system.
In Judith Saupper’s “Professions of Faith” (2015), the gaps are filled with drops of blood, while destroyed houses, strangely spaceless windows with blood, are added, all this backed by a framework of lines invoking contour lines. Responding to the terror attack on Charlie Hebdo on 7 January this year, Judith Saupper formulated a drawing that professes the knowledge that such attacks may happen anywhere at any time. Against this background, her ironic heimat capacity formula is revealed as a deceptive attempt at finding firm ground between longing and a lack of illusions.
Holding on and Departing
“It doesn’t exist, therefore I make it!” Judith Saupper quotes Susan Sontag in a postcard dated 11 November 2015. The “It” is heimat/home, which implies a longing for a feeling of safety. Whether her bell jars store truth, a remembered truthfulness, a subjective impression or just a lie is not relevant. The main thing is it is good moments! This self-made ersatz world illustrates the urge to keep nothing but good memories, to push anything bad under the carpet. By placing her real or fictional memories under glass, by keeping them, presenting them, lovingly dusting them once again or leaving them to gather dust, Judith Saupper states: “Linger awhile …” (2015). The title is a Faust quotation: “When to the moment I shall say, ‘Linger awhile so fair thou art!’ Then mayst thou fetter me straightway, Then to the abyss will I depart!” – a wager with a tragic outcome. Rewriting memory, Saupper knows, is no longer possible; an ersatz world – as in the hanging “Folding Poems/Folding Stories” (2015) – can easily be generated, but may be very hard to change. Only the dragon-like “The Inbetween, or Flying Foxes as Air Poets” (2015) hovers above all. It is a symbol for the moment preceding understanding, the moment of rising tension, when realisation seems to be within reach while everything still remains open.
As a flying animal, it is in perfect company in the exhibition, as animals are important motifs in Elisabeth Wedenig’s paintings. In particular birds are carriers of meaning. She admires many of their facets: their beauty, their lightness, their poetry. Their ability to fly generates the symbolism of freedom and turns them into bearers of messages. In the series “Birds and Stones for Christine” (2015), Wedenig combines drawings and paintings with text fragments from Christine Lavant’s poems: “Only Birds Are Able to Walk across Light Sleep Such as This” or “Early in the Morning I Invent You as a Cabin” are but two examples of eleven works in which the intense linguistic images of the Carinthian poet are used as a source of inspiration and as a moment of reflection. The fate of the writing miner’s daughter from the Lavant valley preoccupies both artists – to them, she is imprisoned in the province in three ways: “A remote voice in a regional and socio-economic sense, the voice of a woman, a voice of an individual vulnerable to physical and psychological borderline experiences.” Her acceptance of fate is something they refuse to accept. The birds weighed down with slates are an apt metaphor. As a source of friction with the concept of heimat, as a proof of great literature from the province, however, Lavant is a perfect choice.
Which brings us back to the postcards the artists have been sending to each other for years. On them, they communicate with each other, using words as well as pictorial codes. The motif and the choice of stamp can be as important as the message. As images, they open a “window to the world” – though sent from one province to the other. As mail-art, they convey an artistic image of the world, which is created using found words, quotations, metaphors and ideas, dreams and thoughts, experiences and plans. Are there contradictions between the artists? A stable balance between proximity and distance needs to be achieved – in friendship as in dealing with heimat and province. Built on memory and coupled with an amplified image of the future, everything still depends on the here and now, on gut feeling, on the tension between letting go and distancing, whether the issue is questions of hinterland or human relations!