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Texts

Since We Must Fall

Selen Ansen
Not All That Falls Has Wings, Catalogue Arter Istanbul


The relationship we establish with the object of our gaze is a question that becomes all the more crucial in the presence of a disaster and its images. The issue is commonly formulated on an ethical level as the duty to position oneself between total indifference and morbid fascination, by avoiding both; in other words, as the necessity to strike the right balance between these two poles. The task is difficult, since established distinctions and ethical laws do not necessarily influence our feelings towards images. Feelings are always contrasting and change from one person to another. In addition, the flow of images tends to drive us towards one or the other extreme. Exhuming the traces of destruction to build its history, W.G. Sebald probes an eerie form of amnesia, a blindness that prevented the German nation from “seeing” the surrounding wreckage and devastation caused by the Allied bombings in the wake of the (Second World) war.30 Sebald reminds us how this denial of the destruction also prevented the production of images, literature, and narratives that could reflect the situation. This amnesia, which expressed itself as the inability to acknowledge both the process and the outcome of the downfall, caused the impossibility of bearing witness to reality.

It is of great importance for Anne Wenzel to find a balance between proximity and distance in her relationship to the images and symbols that fuel her art, in order to preserve a critical standpoint – to the point of significantly impacting her approach to sculpture. Inspired by the iconography of war and decline, images of conflicts, manmade catastrophes and natural disasters that are provided by art history or conveyed by the media, Wenzel achieves this critical distancing by way of a subtle balance between abstraction and figuration. Through the opposite of a traditional mimetic approach, this implies that the forms that the artist creates depart from their source(s) of inspiration without totally masking or obliterating them. The abstraction of the sculptures is expressed through their loyalty to the mass; however, as they progress towards formlessness, they never surrender to it. Thus, while some details of the work remain identifiable – in the sense that the sculpture can be viewed as “figurative” – the whole is more abstract and open to interpretation. The sculpture is relieved of the duty of representation and is given the freedom to subvert or betray its models.

The monumental florals from the “Attempted Decadence” (2014) series revive a well-known motif in art, particularly developed through the bouquets that are depicted in still-life paintings. They also bring to mind the wreaths used either for celebrations or commemorations that are a universal symbol of strength and glory. However, instead of being consistent with the domestic, bucolic, or heroic imagery that florals are habitually associated with, the sculptures embody a state of decay that suggests the demise of all the values they are charged with. As if about to yield to death but not yet completely done with life, the flowers in their vase look petrified. Arrested in their “natural” movement as they started decomposing and bending dangerously towards the floor, where everything eventually either ends or lands, they are freezing the passage of time so that we can see it all the better. The “Attempted Decadence” sculptures are often seen as contemporary vanitas, reinterpreting this category of works of art – particularly appreciated in Northern Europe during 16th and 17th centuries – that reminded forgetful mortals of the transience and therefore the futility of their earthly pleasures, the frailty of life, and the ineluctability of death. Wenzel’s florals, however, do not stand merely for what they are or for what they may “represent”. Offered to the gaze in their disturbingly alluring appearance and engaging physically with the viewer, they also stand for the conflicting emotions that their sight provokes: a mixture of desire and aversion, allure and repulsion that mirrors our endless appetite for the spectacle of decay.

With “Silent Landscape” (2006), darkness reigns supreme and pervades the space. The truncated tree silhouettes emerging from the murky bottomless water and those distinguishable on the painted walls present a new take on an apocalyptic scene, where ruins are the only thing standing upright: the aftermath of a disaster that took place somewhere yet to be named and for reasons unknown. This place that can barely be grasped with words seems to have formed a reality by way of fear: fears without a concrete object needed a place to dwell and a reason to be. Wenzel’s immersive installation provides a stage where the union of beauty and violence can be manifested, and she creates a context to reflect the cycle of destruction and construction that governs the course of History. The tension at stake operates on many levels; it also connects with the act of creation, with the making and display of a sculpture. Working with a material she was not taught has allowed the artist to challenge the limits of the clay, so as to expand its possibilities and develop an unorthodox technique which breaks away from the conventions of ceramic sculpture by letting chance play a role in the final result. Wenzel’s way of giving shape involves destructive gestures – an offense that ranges from removing parts, subtracting matter, undoing what has been done or digging holes in the flesh of her work.

Through the theme of landscape, the installation revisits a subject of representation that became a genre of its own in the 17th century – landscape painting – by departing from archetypes and canons. Far from the depiction of an idealised nature in the manner of a lost paradise, the somber environment created by Wenzel dialogues with the long genealogy of tormented landscapes and mindscapes. The misty forests depicted by the Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich (1774–1840), which convey a sense of emptiness and tragedy, are certainly not the only reference we could think of. “Silent Landscape” also bears the hallmarks of the sceneries and forests familiar to the artist, preserving a significant level of abstraction so as to remain open to appropriation. Through the sculpture’s physicality, Wenzel emancipates the experience of the landscape, which stems from a construction of space, from the grids that break up the frame and by dispersing the points of view. The question of sight and that of our distance from what we are looking at become all the more crucial since, here, we are made part of what we don’t really see or can’t really name clearly. While the artist breaks pictorial conventions by rendering the distance of contemplation impossible, she also removes the comforts of a “safe” distance from which the viewer of a painting is used to seeing it: from outside the world depicted in the frame. The work achieves a form of total environment that addresses not only sight, but all of the other senses as well, so that viewers may experience this common ground as a wanderer, by tracing their way off the beaten track.

Filled with silence and obscurity, “Silent Landscape” is a “quiet place” devoid of traces of humanity, which owes its silence to the muteness of ruins. It is a no-where at the intersection of all places, devoid of ordinary activity yet still not completely empty. For a long time “quiet places” were to be found only in remote locations, far from the world’s turmoil and the hubbub of civilisation. Back then, nature was the best provider for the quietude of quiet places. Then, quiet places where people could take shelter became more accessible as the existing ones reduced in number; now, you can even make your own quiet place in a corner.

This is a quiet place from which to listen to the world’s disquietude, whose silence becomes denser as it echoes the racket and uproar of the outside world – the world where this room stands and that belongs to it.