“Art is the conscience of mankind.”
Friedrich Hebbel (1813 – 1863)
In focus: About the bees and the birds and Element 119 DE
By Dr. Diana Lenz-Weber, Art historian
Translation: Benjamin Schilling
The eyes are invited to go for a stroll and conquer the depth. Katharina Meister’s multifaceted drawings and installations leave plenty of room for discovery, association and interpretation. However, in spite of being aesthetically appealing from an artistic point of view, her works rather refer to the downsides of reality.
The works to be examined more closely here, About the bees and the birds and Element 119 De, were both, among others, produced in 2016 at the Otmar Alt Foundation in Hamm-Norddinker. There, in the isolation of the countryside, the then-awardee was capable of steadying her artistic style and handwriting with great determination.
Katharina Meister, who graduated from the Staatliche Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Karlsruhe, has great interest in political and social topics. Lately, she mainly confronts herself with climate change and its consequences for the environment as well as for animals and humans. In her works, all of that can not be perceived at first sight but only reveals itself during in-depth contemplation, exactly the way that changes in nature are usually not recognized immediately.
The artist’s favourite medium is paper: it is an active material that can move and by this means come alive. Paper can be deformed and – if not pinned to a background surface as it is common practice – cast shadows depending on the lighting conditions. Particularly for the paper cuttings – interpretable as a subtle reference to the cultural history of the cut-out-technique – the cutter knife must be handled with utmost precision to allow for the desired display of light and shadow to take effect. All it takes is one single failed cut to destroy an entire piece of work. Katharina Meister’s paper art presents us with the versatility of this material, in the form of delicate drawings, sophisticated paper cuttings as well as voluminous sculptures. Frequently, the artist combines paper elements with wood, a sound combination since paper is made from wood.
Peep boxes are one category of artwork that Katharina Meister focusses on. Discarded glass cabinets or cases from natural history collections, formerly used to store plants or dead insects, are turned into frames for her artistic arrangements. Time has left its marks on the old cases that represent life, death and everything that remains. Nevertheless, their form and depth open up a very own image space for the artist’s multi-layer and often surreal-looking sceneries. Set behind the glass, they seem somehow other-worldly.
In the peep box About the bees and the birds, the largely shadowed scenery is reminiscent of a melancholic dreamscape. All things are oblique, inclined, losing ground, such as the trees and the house caught in a thicket. Nothing thrives or blossoms in the barren ground. Three honeycomb-shaped structures hover above one of the meagre trees while the lowest one disappears behind it. Behind the other tree, a butterfly – half hidden, translucent, flat, stiff and immobile, caught by a spinosely contoured white rectangle. From further behind, another rectangle pushes forward, a glimpse of light, this time, however, of pigeon blue colour. Far more striking than this grey blue are the yellow sections of this depiction in which white, grey and black prevail. The yellow colour appears as a vivid marker on the honeycomb shapes, whereas the honeycomb structure swallowed by the falling tree is surrounded by another, somewhat aromatic yellow like a gloriole. In yet another tree, a male figure squats, armoured with a handicrafted tool for flower pollination. Blossoms swirl around this figure and slowly fall to ground.
Despite its allegedly gay title, this work refers to the destruction of the flux of things in general as well as to one of the big mass campaigns initiated under Mao Zedong. The former Chinese head-of-state was convinced that, if only enough people worked together, man could defeat nature. In 1958, he declared war on nature and ordered his 600 billion subjects to kill the sparrows who were feeding off the harvest. An uncontrollable plague of insects ensued. The beneficial bees, too, pollinators of many useful plants, proliferated without their natural predators. Therefore, pesticides were sprayed onto the fields in order to confront this evil of nature, causing a complete crop loss and leading to one of the greatest famines in the history of mankind. Nowadays, in those regions of China where bees have been extinct, humans pollinate the plants – and far less effectively so than the bees themselves. Sparrows were reintroduced from Russia to control the number of insects though up until today the sparrow in China has not completely recovered yet. Every single part of the well-balanced artistic composition contributes to visualising a self-contained world to the full extent.
Katharina Meister’s art works are based on precise preliminary studies. She searches the media and documents her findings in sketch-books in order to build concrete knowledge of her subjets. She draws drafts, frequently on parchment, then chooses the material she wants to form and arrange: paper, cardboard, natural materials and finds, occasionally painted in only a few colours. “The answer appears in the process”, says the artist, who lets herself be driven by intuition and attentiveness. Therefore, the calm and meticulous way in which Meister polishes her forms bestow upon her work a certain naturalness. With a finely tuned artistic sense, she allows for her work to grow.
Artists are capable of thinking outside the box. It is this quality alone which qualifies them as such. Their purpose is to picture something someone else will start to think about, and that exactly is also Katharina Meister’s intention. But although the titles of her art works point into a certain direction, they do not clarify things straight away but rather arouse curiosity.
Element 119 De is the title of the enormously drastic paper installation presented in the following. Even after a short glance, this monumental and projecting work states clearly that the world is completely out of balance. This three-layer wall unit owes its effect not only to its elongated, oval shape, but also to the fact that its three layers shrink ever more towards the viewer: a “Meister”piece made from black paper cuttings. All layers share the same circular centre, a linchpin so to speak, from which not only scraps of paper fly like sparks – unleashing. The delicately carved trees, too, threaten to crack, and the cubes with neither top nor bottom, symbolizing houses, are being catapulted through the scenery and blasted aside, just as if they were caught in a cosmic vortex. The impression of turning and swirling is enhanced by the crooked hanging of the oval wall installation. Three extremely bulgy, oval paper sculptures hover in front of the paper cutting, however, the lightness inherent to them can not be perceived. Through openings one can look inside the sculptures: in the first two of them the viewer again encounters nature and technology respectively, while in the third one they are supposed to “awaken and locate themselves.”
The work’s title is a reference to the periodic table, which at present, however, ends with element 118 Uuo (Ununoctium). It’s the favourite chart of chemists and comprises all natural and artificial elements by assigning each an atomic number and formula symbol. Following its manifestation in her art, Katharina Meister proposes to amend element 119 De, the abbreviation De referring to the German word for humility, “Demut”. “Since our world is threatening to burst due to climate change, refugee flows or the decomposition of the EU, to name but a few, I wonder which is the missing element. It’s the one that we may not have discovered yet or that we may need to rediscover. The element that may help us realize that our world is the foundation stone of our own life, that it is a place we all have to share and that we should handle it sustainably. Humility is not to be confused with submissiveness, it rather needs to be interpreted as the understanding that the self is only part of the whole and can only exist within this whole. In this era of new technologies and social media self-display and self-presentation seem to have become compulsive, the self is becoming more important all the time. Against this backdrop, people lose sight of the importance of considering themselves as part of a whole …, but also as a part of nature and the world!” Both the words and the works of the artist, who possesses well-founded scientific knowledge, reflect her own modesty and humility in the face of nature. These qualities are found even in the minor works of creation and in everything man-made. Katharina Meister’s entire oeuvre thus far is not only capable of encouraging people to lead an earnest discussion about man’s relation to nature: it wants to do so.
Published in catalogue Katharina Meister, ISBN 978-3-86206-622-3