SAC @ Malmaison, Bucharest
Strada General H. M. Berthelot 5
artists & participants
L’année dernière à Malmaison
21.05.2022 - 24.07.2022
You can check out any time you like
But you can never leave
The title of the exhibition, L’Année dernière à Malmaison, references a film by Alain Resnais, which carries almost the same title, the only difference being that the location in Resnais' case is Marienbad. While Resnais alludes to the famous Czech spa where Goethe wrote his Marienbader Elegie and Richard Wagner began work on Lohengrin and Meistersinger, Malmaison actually refers to a building in Bucharest. Originally built as a cavalry barracks in 1844, it was aptly known as Riders Barracks. When Napoleon III. later sent troops to train the Romanian army, it was renamed in gratitude. Malmaison is the name of the castle, which Josephine, the wife of Napoleon I., had bought as a love nest for the two of them. Napoleon wrote her countless love letters to that address. In one of them, he addresses her as "Mio dolce amor".
Thomas Zitzwitz has taken up this phrase to be the title of an artwork that welcomes visitors at the entrance of the show with a fragrance that is in the air (Mio dolce amor, 2022, situation with scent). The fragrance is precisely the eau de cologne Napoleon used and which had been brought to him from Cologne – the home of the painter Zitzwitz – to wherever he happened to be in the world.
This complex web of references sheds a light on one of the grand themes of the exhibition, which the two curators of the show, Alex Radu and Thomas Zitzwitz, describe as the capacity of art to unfold a narrative in dialogue with the viewer, a dialogue in which past, present and future, psychological, inner life and physical, external world, dream and reality overlay each other to such an extent that they become indistinguishable like the paths in a maze. The other central theme of the exhibition is the myth of Orpheus.
The curators find a case in point of art's labyrinthian structure of reference in the films of the Nouvelle vague and the texts of the Nouveau roman, such as those of Alain Resnais and Alain Robbe-Grillet, who, together, made the 1961 movie L’Année dernière à Marienbad. In that film a man (M) and his wife (A) reside in a luxury hotel at Marienbad where A encounters another man (X). The latter claims to have met A in Marienbad before and agreed to meet again within a year in order to elope together. A can recall neither X nor the agreement, but X insists, producing one piece of evidence after another for his version of the story. Is she in error? Or is he lying? Is it possible that he simply confuses her with another woman? M (her husband) and X play for her. In the end, she departs with X.
In the film, it remains completely unclear what is true or false, what is dream or reality. Not even Resnais, the director, and Robbe-Grillet, who wrote the script, could agree. While the former thinks A and X had indeed met before in Marienbad, and A only repressed the memory and X is acting like a therapist in helping her unearth what she has repressed, the latter supposes that X merely tries to persuade her that these events were real in order to seduce her. Perhaps, one critic ventured at the time, it is all a dream inside the woman's head, her psyche arranging the elements into con-figurations and hence into a narrative: the woman as the Ego; the husband as the Superego and her lover as the It.
However, perhaps this interpretation springs from a self-regarding, patriarchal fantasy convinced that the Ego of a woman stretches between the forces that are her husband and her lover and that both qualify as the representatives of the basic psychological forces of law and impulse – particularly as the film, in its formal design, eludes disambiguation because it keeps the plot through endless loops of tracking shots, changes of light and repetitions in a hypnotic state of abeyance, which traps the audience like a maze. The second, untitled piece (2022) by Thomas Zitzwitz in the show taps into this aesthetics. The painting shows a deeply interwoven tangle of grey surface and spaces, seemingly unfolding as well as folding into each other and drawing attention into a labyrinth of shadings and shapes, into which we can immerse ourselves and from which we can emerge, but from which there is no escape because the one permanently develops into the other and reverts into it. An endless story, fuelled by the lure of the images and the desire of the viewer to let oneself sink into the tangle of shades and forms.
The principle of folding is a recurring theme in the works of Adelina Ivan. In Deconstructed Square (2018), the artist has sliced and reassembled a square into new foldings repeatedly. Her movements follow the same sequence every time, realising a principle that is important to Zitzwitz, too, namely the principle of difference and repetition on which the fold as a (metaphysical) principle of order, or rather disorder, is founded, as Leibniz and Deleuze showed. The second, untitled work follows a similar, if less geometrical principle of folding and appears to be overlaid as though over a body. However, the space underneath the cloth is empty. The cloth is made of a memory-textile, which retains the form given to it and so only suggests a body where there is in fact none. I will revisit this point.
Gregor Hildebrandt's piece Letztes Jahr in Marienbad (2022) has also been painted specifically for this exhibition and refers in a similarly complex structure to the film by Resnais, just as the situation with scent by Zitzwitz is referring to Malmaison. It is one of two paintings Hildebrandt has produced and which draw their inspiration mainly from the movie posters to the film. One of these posters also features the turquoise hue found in the painting. What is peculiar in Hildebrandt's way of painting is that he works with two canvases which he paints with glue. On top of the glue, he paints with a fixative. The templates inspire his painterly gesture. As the fixative is colourless, Hildebrandt does not see clearly what he paints. The size of brush and the brushwork provide only rough guides. Where he applies the fixative the masking tape loses its adhesive power. In the next step of the process, he unwinds the videotape from the cassette and glues it to the canvas. Later, it is removed again. In the process, it splits. The video tape has two sides, on one is the black magnetic tape, on the other a transparent carrier film. The black side sticks, the transparent one peels away. There is one exception: where he has applied fixative with his painterly gesture, the black side of the tape also peels away, since there is no glue to keep it in place. The tape removed in this way is transferred to the second canvas. This transfer image is on display in the exhibition.
So, various layers are overlapping in this work. The film is not only present insofar as it inspires the brushwork, but it is actually present in a material sense and the material carries the artistic gesture, which, in turn, reacts to it or translates it into an image. In this, the gesture does not just respond to the movie, but to other sources of interpretation, namely the posters, as well. The object, its interpretation by others and their interpretation by the artist overlay each other in precisely the same way as the various media, in which they take place: film, poster and painting. Like in a palimpsest one shows through the other. Something like a spirit has been inscribed into the work through its material and its genesis. Moreover, it appears to the viewer to be almost a living being, that is, oneiric and unreal.
The palimpsest-like character links Hildebrandt's work with the picture P.O.V. (2020) by Henning Strassburger. At first glance abstract, the grey painting was created when Strassburger ran out of paints during the first lockdown and had to mix the dregs. The remnants of painting yielded the grey of the picture. Fundamentally, however, the painting is not an abstract image, but an image assembled from a multitude of figurative details that have fallen out of proportion, say, from a target or a corporate logo. Strassburger has drawn these details in ink and projected them onto the canvas many times enlarged. Therefore, the abstract image is actually a construed space. That space opens itself to the point of view of the viewer, a phenomenon we know from computer games or movies designed as if we were the avatar in the game or the protagonist of the film. The acronym of the technical term for this – P.O.V. – is also the title of the work. In doing so, Strassburger translates the experience, especially prevalent in lockdown, that reality was only accessible through images which, moreover, were filtered through our biases and our bubble – our point of view – and which provided us with a completely distorted image of the world. To that extent, our view of the world resembled an image space construed for us, from overlapping, bizarrely distorted shreds of images without cohesion or order. Nevertheless, to us, that image space remains impenetrable. It is, as if we were in a maze full of wrong tracks, from which we cannot escape. Strassburger compares the impenetrability of that image space to a wall covered in countless layers of wallpaper. Each attempt to tear off the wallpaper in order to reach the wall brings to light only new wallpaper overlapping at the torn edges.
Strassburger considers this to be an affinity to the architectural models by Philip Topolovac. They, too, bear witness to the simultaneity of the nonsimultaneous. The models are copies of the German high-rise bunkers from the Second World War. Their architects seem to have concocted an arbitrary blend of historical styles into an individual best-of compilation of architectural history. The experience of time, which they let the users enjoy, is that of a static now. Their function of sheltering the people of "an empire of a thousand years" in a total war lends a fatalistic note to the static now as well as an archaic dimension: it is the absolute presence of a total war with the simultaneous anticipation of the force of a far-off, but inevitable downfall. The pathos of this abeyance, however, is broken by the size and profanity of the buildings. The fact that Topolovac presents them to us in the form of miniature models underscores the point. If the actual architects built a Valhalla in the scale of an apartment block, he shows us the world spirit in H0 scale. Aside from the bunker models Topolovac has contributed a second group of works, the aggregates, a combination of sculpture and infernal machine. An example of how the works selected by Radu and Zitzwitz, overlay dream and reality, psyche and physis in a labyrinthian reference-structure, is the piece The Beast by Dumitru Gorzo. For a number of years now Gorzo has conducted a studio-project called The Continuous Studio, which people can visit and talk to him, work with him and where he translates, in the sense of a Peinture automatique, the conversations, moods and emotions into images that bring to the canvas what Freud called the unconscious with as little censorship and control as possible. The Beast was created shortly after the invasion of the Russian army into Ukraine, an event that made everyone at the studio crazy because this brutal war of aggression and obliteration contradicted the idea of the Red army as a liberating force, which they had been taught at Romanian schools and which they had – against their better judgement – never quite unlearned. Thus, the grotesque faces mirror the fear and terror of war. At the same time, they banish these emotions because they show the terrible as something that frightens in the first instance, but appears ridiculous at second glance since it shows us an aspect that is both grotesque and fantastic. Gorzo's beast is an impossible monster, a two-headed ogre without beginning or end, which chases away the horror by transfiguring it artistically.
In doing so, Gorzo's work combines the Surrealist art of Écriture or the aforementioned Peinture automatique with the mediaeval bestiary and the demons we know from the decorations of churches. These things possess magical abilities because they are things that also have meaning. They belong to the same intermediate realm as the language of the unconscious, the images and metaphors. It is, moreover, the language of myth. The famous scholar of antiquity Georg Friedrich Creuzer writes in his Symbolik und Mythologie der alten Völker: "Myth grows wild. Nature, however, does not divide and distinguish how concept and reflection separate and differentiate. It works and shapes in fluent transitions. Therefore, mythological elements infuse each other, both on the large and small scale. The branches and twigs branch out and bifurcate; the whole stands before us as one big tree, grown from one root, but spread to all parts in countless leaves, blossoms and fruits." The language of myth resembles the language of the unconscious. Both do not order or distinguish, like logos does, but they form "fluent transitions", one unfolds from the other, like the folds in Zitzwitz' paintings. These languages generate a labyrinth of branches like the films and texts of Resnais and Robbe-Grillet. They work like a hinge between dream and reality, between psyche and physis, between image and language. What that means can be observed in Alicja Kwade's piece Ein Monat (Februar 2020) (2021). Kwade has captured the hours of the months of February by recording the positions of the hands on a clock. To this end, she has glued small hands used for making pocket watches to a piece of paper. In her representation, however, the regularity of the passage of time on the watch is interrupted by her own experience of time affecting the representation. Some hours seem stretched out; others condensed. Thus, a contradiction between the passage and the measurement of time is rendered visible. For we can only experience time through change. Yet our experiences are highly subjective and contain our perspective. The watch abstracts from that fact by placing the passage of time under the command of a clockwork, subjecting the incessant flow of the smallest and most branched out changes to a logical order – as though the tree of which Creuzer speaks was cut or shredded into regular pieces before going on to reassemble the chippings. The relation of experienced time and measured time is akin to that of a blossoming tree and a chipboard.
By translating the regulated passage of time back into an image of her individual experience of time, Kwade cancels the separation and re-establishes the link of time to the lifeworld. The language her work speaks in doing so is the language of the image. It is the language of the unconscious insofar as it exists in that interlayer, which unfolds between the things and the logos, because, as the philosopher Hans Blumenberg writes, it is here that things have meaning, yet this meaning is not yet transferred into, or abstracted to, the concept. Kwade achieves this imagery by translating the logical designation of time back into images of experiencing it.
It is precisely that language, in which the works of the show tell their stories, as Radu and Zitzwitz say. The story Kwade is telling is a story of liberation. By re-establishing the link between the temporal experience and her lifeworld, Kwade breaks the absolutism of reality, which we all know, if we have rushed from one appointment to the next or missed a train. She opens up a small space, a breathing room, in which it is not the dictat of the clock, but the individual sensation and experience that determine the passage of time. And because she finds a common language with the viewer, in which she can tell the viewer of it, she opens up the possibility to break free from the absolutism of reality and re-access the lifeworld by once more becoming aware of one's own experience of time. The result is truly liberating: tracking and comprehending the position of Kwade's hands, we pace through our own little island of a time that does not determine us, but a time we determine ourselves.
Olivia Berckemeyer's works speak the same language. They tell different stories, however. Berliner Fenster (2018) is the image of a desire without the prospect of being fulfilled. The piece refers to a peculiarity of Berlin apartments: for a long time, the main living room was one that had only a small window overlooking the courtyard. After visiting the labour leader Wilhelm Liebknecht in his apartment on Kantstrasse in 1893, Friedrich Engels noted in a letter: "Here in Berlin, they have invented the 'Berlin room' with hardly a trace of a window. And that is where Berliners spend most of their time. The dining room (the parlour, only used on special occasions) and the salon (statelier, and used even more rarely), while the bedrooms look towards the yard."
Engels disliked the Berlin room very much. He described it further as "this stifling harbour of murkiness, which would be impossible anywhere else in the world, where the Berlin Philistine feels at ease". Berckemeyer isolates the Berlin window from its historic and social location and turns it into a fossil of transtemporal and existential significance. She achieves this by dripping wax onto her model of the window and casting it into aluminium. The dripping wax connects the window to dripping candlesticks in Gothic cathedrals as well as the "sentimentality of dripping candles in the smoke-filled bars of the 1970s" or dripstone shapes to marvel at in caves that can be millions of years old. Therefore, several temporal layers overlap in the Berliner Fenster. The aluminium cast lends permanence to this transtemporal artefact. As a durable and transtemporal fossil it also casts off its class-specific sense, metamorphosing into the existential image of a desire without the prospect of being fulfilled, a desire that manifests differently at different times, yet in essence remains unchanged. This links the Berliner Fenster to the myth. It is a mythological fossil, one that speaks to the "eternal recurrence" (Nietzsche) or the "timeless, ever-present" (Thomas Mann) of unhappiness.
Being a mythological fossil also applies to the second work Berckemeyer has in the show, Frozen Blue Ship (2019). Berckemeyer is referring to the Endurance, the ship in which Ernest Shackleton attempted to cross Antarctica in 1914. The vessel was trapped in pack ice. The crew was marooned, fighting for survival for nearly a year. The crew was able to free itself; the ship sank. Berckemeyer's model of the ship turns this story of individual failure and pending doom into an existential narrative. The Frozen Blue Ship plays the role of what Blumenberg calls a guiding fossil: it is a sedimented artefact of our culture drawing our curiosity to a specific knowledge. That knowledge is not of a theoretical nature, rather, it is of the archaic or mythological kind. It concerns, as Thomas Mann wrote of myth and psyche: "the timeless schema, the divine formula, into which life enters by reproducing its features from the unconscious". That schema is the downfall, the failure of every ambition and the insight that we have to count ourselves fortunate, if we escape with our lives. An archaic language of the unconscious is also spoken by the works of Mircea Suciu, The fish, that cannot cheat (2021) and Still life with Caterpillar (2022). Suciu states that he attempts to translate his anxiety disorder into images, which both articulate and treat it. Thus, for him, the fish is not only a symbol of fear, in which one can drown like in deep waters, but a symbol of liberation because he can swim (in the fear). Suciu's images are designed like mood boards: the white dividing lines quote the split screen of the 1960s cinema he admires. His painting style often aligns with the Old Masters. For instance, the lower part of Still life with Caterpillar cites a still life by Pieter Gerritsz van Roestraeten, while the fish is painted in the manner of Soutine or Courbet. Suciu considers this a refinement or an overcoming. The model for the fish came from an advertising photograph. By transposing this model onto the canvas in the style of the Old Masters, he upgrades it, ennobling it into art. The ennobling of that which the fish stands for, the fear for example, is to some extent a triumph over that fear, since the symbol is transported to a higher sphere. Tackling the Old Masters leads to this triumph in a way that lends it structure and support. Therapeutic painting. At the same time, it generates the simultaneity of the nonsimultaneous and a palimpsest-like overlay of times, styles and media characteristic of this exhibition.
Louisa Clement has three works in the show. The photographs dt1 and dt2 (2021, 2022) gaze deeply into the underworld of Soltau, more precisely the bottom of Dethlinger Teich where tons of weapons and explosives were disposed of at the end of World War II, first by the Germans, later by the Allies. After the end of the war the pond was simply filled. The weaponry rotted away, releasing its poisons into the groundwater. At some stage, that could no longer be ignored and the suppressed heritage of the war had to be raised. Clement accompanied the recovery with her camera, bearing artistic witness to the process of coming to terms with the past. This links her work with Resnais' interpretation of his film: he saw the conversations between A and X as a therapeutic attempt at unearthing what had been repressed. Communication is also the subject of Clement's third piece. The VR work Aporias (2019) features three characters. They are chatbots. Yet they do not, as is the norm for such things, talk to humans, but rather talk amongst themselves. One of the is a standard chatbot. Another one talks like a person. The third one lies. Hence, communication ends up in an endless loop of conversation where statements are repeated and shifted without ever achieving an aim.
Aimless repetition and variation in communication is also the subject of a work by Ambra Viviani, who exhibits a series of photographs that reads like an image chat. Things repeating and corresponding creates the impression of the images responding to one another. On closer inspection, however, we recognize that this is not true. What appears to be the same at first glance is different, after all. What seems to repeat, is something else. There is no dialogue, only monologues directed against each other, which keep leading the participants deeper into a labyrinth of messages from which they cannot escape. How then is an exit from the media-mediated labyrinth of our communication possible? Viviani's second work, a hand suspended from the ceiling, provides an answer to this question. The piece recalls the right-hand rule that enables an exit from simpler mazes – maintaining contact to the wall with one hand at all times. In this way, you reach either the exit or return to the starting point, where you can try another path. By using the hand, we change the medium and the access to the world from eye to hand, from the sense of vision to that of touch. This shift occupies Viviani in many of her works. It is connected to the question of whether we could navigate the world a lot better, if we relied less on vision and more on our other senses. The work on display here, deals with the sense of touch. The hand Viviani suspends from the ceiling references the sense of touch as a truer sense perceiving the world – something Sensualists have been claiming for a long time. Moreover, the span, which the sculpture adapts, refers to anthropic units of measurement. The criticism of a world alienated by the media, unintelligible in their ambiguous signs and less and less manageable, links her work to the painting P.O.V. by Strassburger. The individual positions within the exhibition weave a labyrinth, in which past, present and future, psychological interior and physical exterior, dream and reality overlap in a way that they become indistinguishable. They tell stories in the language of things with meaning, the language of the image, of myth, of the unconscious. They are connected by two kinds of order, the order of their hanging and the order of the myth.
The order of the hanging juxtaposes more abstract positions on one wall and more concrete positions on the other. Both are held together by the installation by Haleh Redjaian, which spins thin threads from the walls to the ground, generating the impression of a connection, of something that is held together. She succeeds in doing this because even the most abstract installation has a psychological effect on its viewers. As Wassily Kandinsky writes in his book Concerning the Spiritual in Art: "Here the individual is placed not outside the artwork or in front of it but inside the artwork, and totally immersed in it. Such an artificial environment can create a powerful subconscious effect on the spectator, who becomes a visitor to, if not a prisoner of, the artwork." How great this effect can be, we do not just know from museum visits, but also from the prison cells, which Alphonse Laurencic built during the Spanish Civil War – for he based the design of the cells on the works of Kandinsky, Dali and Bauhaus. The recent history of the exhibition space as a prison of the Securitate would have provided occasion to make this connection. However, Redjaian's eschews this and instead conveys a completely different effect through its balanced composition and the threads, namely an effect of calm and the unification of what seeks to diverges. The work is a garden at the centre of the maze.
However, the composition does not exhaust itself the stabilizing, mediating function, but in communication with the building (particularly the staircases) creates a staging area of transition. It provokes us to go out through one of the doors and – since the next room is empty – return through the other door and once more walk through the exhibition. We see it for the second time, but differently. Thus, the installation stages basic elements of the loop and the repetition as the movement of the viewers through the space. Yet what do we see, if we repeatedly walk through the exhibition whose particular positions speak to us in the language of the myth and the unconscious? Is there a myth that links them all? I believe that this is indeed the case and that this myth is that of Orpheus, specifically the part where Orpheus descends into the underworld to lead his wife Eurydice back to the land of the living. Several authors have pointed to this connection regarding the film because it is immediately suggested in the opening monologue. When X enters the hotel, he talks as if he, like Orpheus, descended into the underworld: "Once again - I walk on, once again, down these corridors, through these halls. these galleries. in this structure - of another century, this enormous, luxurious, baroque, lugubrious hotel - where corridors succeed endless corridors - silent deserted corridors overloaded with a dim, cold ornamentation of woodwork, stucco, mouldings, marble, black mirrors ... "
The hotel then takes on the appearance of hell or Hades, A becomes Eurydice, who is to be led by him back up from the underworld. This corresponds to Resnais' own reading, according to which X talks to A like a psychologist, who brings back to light what has been repressed. Hell, on this reading, is the unconscious. Both can be found in the exhibition. Many positions show us the psyche as an abyss, which they want to spur into talking. By gathering these abysses, the exhibition space resembles the underworld. In this light, the black cloth in Adelina Ivan's second, untitled work resembles a shroud and we can now recognize why it is important that the space underneath the shroud is empty: Ivan has kept it free for us. It is our deathbed that hangs on the wall.
Unlike in the myth, however, we do not descend into Hades in Malmaison, but we ascend to it – as if we were to leave it like Orpheus and Eurydice. This marks a shift in this particular iteration of the myth. The great enigma of the myth of Orpheus is the question why he turns to look when he walks in front of Eurydice to ascend from the underworld. After all, that was precisely what Hades and Persephone explicitly forbade him to do. Eurydice, they said, could only leave the underworld, if he kept walking ahead of her, never turning back. Yet turns and looks back and Eurydice vanishes.
In myth, there is no second chance. Orpheus cannot go back and try again. That is different in L’Année dernière à Malmaison. We ascend like Orpheus and Eurydice, yet we do not emerge into daylight, but down to the underworld. Like Resnais with the Marienbad Hotel, Radu and Zitzwitz have elevated hell to Earth. Yet unlike A in the film, we cannot escape it. There is no lover, who would lead us from hell, there are merely different variations of the underground. And the doors, which promise a way out, lead us back in. It is like the Hotel California, the great Katabasis of The Eagles: "You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave."
Hades is always and everywhere. For it is not a physical place as it appears in the myth, but a foreign country deep inside ourselves. Our heart of darkness. Sometimes beauty shines even there, and beauty is a promise of happiness.
(translation: Volker Ellerbeck)