By Cornelia Wichtendahl, Art historian
Translation: Lucinda Rennison
“...real places, effective places, places drawn into the establishment of society itself, and which are kinds of counter-locations, kinds of utopias effectively realized in which the real locations, all other real locations inside the culture are at the time represented, contested and inverted, kinds of places that are outside of all places, in spite of the fact that they are however effectively localizable.”
Black as shadows, the outlines of trees stand out against a light background. They appear bare as in winter, having lost all their foliage. We assume this is a romantic landscape evolving before the viewer’s eye, drawing her in. It is a large-format, paper cut-out silhouette in front of a painted horizon, as well as a framed drawing hanging in the centre of the landscape. And it is this drawing that hints towards an interpretation not betrayed by the cut-out alone: a gas mask and a dead tree indicate that this is not a romantic, winter landscape. The trees have perished, dried up or charred, the ground is merely sandy desert or mud, and above it all towers a whitish sky. Two circular forms can be made out in the sky. One might refer to the sun, but the other traces the motion of a falling, dead or dying tree.
The cut-out “...and it’s raining” consists of several sheets of paper, and so vertical lines frame and divide the picture area, creating the impression of a window’s divisions. This is supported by a light-coloured area that borders the cut-out at the top, like a lintel. It raises the questions: What is the viewer’s relation to the image, and where is he or she located? Is he in a room looking out at a landscape that is dead? Is the framed drawing a further indication of this? But where exactly is it? And how is life possible in such surroundings?
Katharina Meister's works irritate and disturb us, they trigger questions and are difficult to categorize. Time and place remain undefined and consequently one of the themes. This is why she calls this cycle of works “Heterotopias” after Michel Foucault. “The heterotopia is capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible.” 2 And it “begins to function at full capacity when men arrive at a sort of absolute break with their traditional time.”3 And so, for example, time can be stored in them through preservation of the past, like in museums.
Katharina Meister assembles her installations in old glass display cases or boxes thrown out by natural history collections, cases in which dead insects were once kept. The boxes display obvious traces of time. If we consider their former usage; it underlines the impression of transience. They stand for life and death and what remains of them. It was their task to preserve the past, in other words, in Foucault’s sense, to store time. At the same time, the shape of the display case, its depth, facilitates a picture space of its own. New spaces develop, “real spaces” as Foucault calls them, becoming a theme and, although apparently incongruous, being brought together. Paper cut-outs, drawings and sculptural elements, often found objects – some of them old and already rather weathered – are grouped in the picture space. We can find references to the past, the present and the future, and to interior and exterior space, but their interrelations are not immediately clear: they call for intense debate and investigation.
The paper cut-out of the installation “...and it’s raining” re-appears in the work “Hung High“. Here, however, the format is considerably smaller. Several picture levels are stacked behind each other in an old display case; two paper cut-outs and several sculptural elements create different, loosely defined pictorial spaces. The trees of our already familiar silhouette stand out against a greenish background. Here, however, there still seems to be some life. Behind the plants of the silhouette at the front, several figures carved in wood appear on a slight incline at the bottom left of the picture space. There are also traces of human activity such as a fence and black rubber bands reminiscent of electricity cables, and balloon-shaped houses are visible, set in the dried-up branches. Only the gloom of the cut-outs, the irritating colouring of the sky, and perhaps the bare branches lead us to suppose that something is amiss here; these people’s homes are not in the trees for no reason.
Katharina Meister combines different media in her works: besides various sculptural elements made from wood, metal or paper, she gives a central place to drawings and in particular to paper cut-outs. The paper cut-out develops expression from the contours, the outline and the surface areas, dynamised by the contrast between light and dark. The reduction to one colour, the abandonment of perspective, abbreviations and overlaps lead to a highly clarified artistic language. In addition, it liberates the plastic qualities of the line, incorporating the space as well, allowing shadows to be cast. Katharina Meister works in silhouette-cut, the outline cut-out method that was very popular and widespread in Europe from the 18th century to the end of the Biedermeier era and the development of photography in the mid 19th century. Plants, animals, landscapes, romantic genre scenes and portraits were realised in cut paper by artists incl. Philipp Otto Runge (1777 – 1810) and Adolph von Menzel (1815-1905).
The silhouettes of trees and plants cut out of black paper occupy a key position in Katharina Meister’s work, and yet her works are not romantic landscape images. Katharina Meister is concerned with humanity’s overall dealings with nature and the possible consequences of climate change caused by man: floods and devastation, fires, catastrophes, polluted lakes or soil. She investigates the question of conceivable future forms of life. All this is not visible at first glance but revealed upon closer examination, just as the changes in nature are often not perceived immediately.
And so the work “Folding Plan“, for example, also considers a possible way of life after a catastrophe. It shows various forms of architecture in stripped branches and at the same time provides a construction or folding plan for them. Nature has disappeared almost completely from the image; besides the branches, only some remains of dried-up grass and moss can be found at the picture’s bottom edge. And as if to explain what has happened here, a drawing shows a landscape sinking into polluted water.
The counterpart to this, mounted in a similar box, is the work “Withdrawal of Land“. The picture space of this work is also stacked. In front of a landscape that cannot be defined clearly, it seems that a poster wall is standing. On this, different grey-brown shading delineates the continents. But these do not match exactly the continents with which we are familiar, they differ slightly: in some places land appears to have been added, in others the sea seems to have worn some away. The world map is partially covered by three bare, black trees. These are paper cut-outs hung up on a wire. In front of them, at the bottom edge of the picture, there are a number of boats thrown wildly upside down and into confusion, reminiscent of coastline images after storms or tidal waves. In this work, but also in others like “Polder“ and “Turf“, Katharina Meister examines the struggle for land that takes place between man and nature, a struggle whereby there is still no certainty who will emerge victorious.
The wild force of nature and man’s planning efforts: two elements in constant competition with each other, things that do not seem to belong together. But Katharina Meister connects them in the series “Landscape Rooms“. In display cases, she combines drawings with paper cut-outs as well as various sculptural paper objects and found components. She shows interiors designed by man, to which apparently alien components from landscapes have been added. Patterned wallpapers on the walls suggest habitable rooms, but a tree grows in a kind of bird cage, or an opened drawer emerges from within a bush, trees and bushes appear in corridors or the openings into other rooms. Here the space, the room, man’s living area is also the living area of the landscape. Inside and outside are intertwined,they cannot be clearly defined anymore, and so different (living) areas that seem incompatible develop in a single location.
Landscape, defined as a geographical area differentiated from others due to their contrasting features – man presses it into predefined borders, into his own living space. Or does landscape, nature, reconquer the space occupied by man? Katharina Meister uses the image of landscape as symbolic of a coherent system, of freedom and wild growth, the cycle of nature. In opposition to this, comprising architectural elements, the interior stands for power and functional orientation, for man’s intervention into existing systems but also for his capacity to think and process things, to improve living conditions. And it is this very discrepancy, this inner conflict that Katharina Meister chooses as the theme of her works.
1 Michel Foucault: Andere Räume, in Barck, Karlheinz et al. (eds.), Aisthesis. Wahrnehmung heute oder Perspektiven einer anderen Ästhetik, Leipzig 1992, p. 39
2 Michel Foucault: Andere Räume, in Barck, Karlheinz et al. (eds.), Aisthesis. Wahrnehmung heute oder Perspektiven einer anderen Ästhetik, Leipzig 1992, p. 42
3 Foucault, p.43
Puplished in the catalogue: Katharina Meister ...und es regnet, 2013