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Anne Wenzel - Her Dark Material

Richard Leydier
Artpress, Nr.354, march 2009

Based since 1992 in the Netherlands, German-born Anne Wenzel diverts the tradition of ceramics into remarkable sculptures and installations. Natural disasters, terrorist attacks and apocalyptic obsessions inspire these dark works that are perfect metaphors of our dark time. On show this year at Galerie Akinci (Amsterdam, Feb 14-may 25) and the Stedelijk museum Schiedam (May 25-August 23).

It is difficult to count with any precision the protagonists of the infernal fight that is Hellhounds (2007), the big sculpture in black ceramic by Anne Wenzel that comprises an incredible tangle of dogs, a pack entwined like a nest of vipers. Chops drown back, the beasts are devouring each other with their razor-sharp teeth, degenerating into a heaving mass of bloody flesh. One thinks of Dante an the Cerberus of the Underworld. Hellhounds combines several iconographic sources. First, there is the influence of the English painter Sir Edwin Landseer (1802-1873), who was famed for his hunting scenes. To that we must add photographs of hunting with hounds, but also the artist's daily observation from her studio window of the two pit bulls in the neighbours' garden that spend their day fighting. That is how the artist managed to so precisely capture in her clay the twisting movement of the skinny hounds and the way their bones stick out under their coat, and especially the way their ribs protrude at moments of stress. Untitled (Stag) [2004-2005] was also inspired by Landseer's paintings and various photographic sources. The animal is captured at the moment of the pack's final attack when, already vanquished, it rears up in a desperate burst of energy.
Wenzel's sculptures transform images in order to isolate both their beauty an their dark, deathly dimension. This makes hunting the perfect subject. But she is even more drawn to a very particular kind of image: images of disasters. In 2003, she created the figure of a little girl with strange black forms all over her that seemed to be placidly devouring her body. After the terrible tsunami that ravaged the coasts of Southeast Asia on December 26, 2004, Wenzel was stunned when, reading the newspaper, she saw a photograph of a young girl covered with mud, looking almost exactly like the figure she had modelled a year earlier. This was the true beginning of her interest in disasters, in those events that go beyond "ordinary tragedy" an take on a planetary dimension. Wenzel began collecting images of such events, and notably of Hurricane Katrina, which flooded New Orleans on August 29, 2005. The visual material she gathered then inspired a series of landscapes, under the general title Silent Landscape. In 2006 she made an installation at the Buro Leeuwarden consisting of forty-four emaciated tree trunks, like the vestiges of a forest devastated by a storm, a flood or a fire. These "skeletons" of trees were set out on a big black table covered with a fine film of water, an oily mirror extending and reversing the desolate scene in which all human life seemed to have been annihilated. The walls around it were painted in ink, figuring the dense and impassable thicket of a ghost forest, intensifying our feeling of being imprisoned in the artist's nightmare vision. But Wenzel's disasters are not always natural, and sometimes she feels compelled to witness then at first hand. That is why, when travelling in Madrid, she made a point of going to the sites of the terrorist attacks that traumatised the city on March 11, 2004. "I went there with the question if you really feel the drama of the catastrophe if you just look at the place. Or if you need the background information to understand. Normally we see the catastrophe in the newspaper at home or on television. I wanted to go to the place in Madrid because I wanted to discover how much the image that we get out of the media is created." (1) Her photographs of Madrid, combined with her extensive documentation on other terrorist attacks, went into Heaven (2007), a big black table supporting the ceramic hulks of blown-up vehicles used for car bomb attacks. The toy-like quality projected by their small scale only adds to the sensation of horror: one thinks of children who might have been killed in the explosions, or of an almost childlike naivety with which those who perpetrated them believed in a vengeful god.


"The thing that interest me about disasters is how we deal with them as people, the fact that it is more than a spectacular image." (2) From Jericho to Katrina, from the biblical flood to the tsunami of 2004, disasters momentarily turn our thoughts to ideas of divine intervention because they seem to be part of an ineluctable chain of events, and they do so in spite of the power of our atheist and Cartesian heritage. The reflex is hard to shake. One could almost say that this response to disasters is hard-wired, because our hunger for explanations of what we perceive as an injustice is paradoxically satisfied by the irrational. For it is much more reassuring to believe disasters obey a certain logic, even that of a supernatural, demonic force which, behind the ecological and political analyses, whose absurdity we also feel, commands the elements to run wild and men to act as human bombs. In this way, disasters reunites the human community in the face of forces beyond its control. Wenzel's works play on this collective response to disaster. They cultivate the psychological dimension of images in a manner that we might describe as Jungian: "For me, the disaster is a metaphor for the fears that we all have." These age-old fears were reawakened with a vengeance by 9/11: "Until that moment, we were able to lead a carefree life. That is over now, an aspect has been added: the permanent threat that disaster can strike even when you lead a carefree life."
The artist subtly translate these fears into material that, by the skilful play of contrasts, is tense and restless. The first contrast, of course, is between the gentleness of ceramic, a material usually chosen to make the kind of pleasant images typified by the blue faience of Delft, and the violence of her subject. Here, it is vital to achieve the proper balance of tensions, to keep the sculpture from becoming kitsch by excess of violence or sweetness. In addition, Wenzel cultivates the counterpoint between the general "abstraction" of the sculptural from - the "non-finito" appearance, bestowing ambiguity on the initial motifs - and the rendering of the details, which need to be developed up to a specific point in order to avoid the trap of the anecdotal. Yes, the artist reads and collects documentation, but only as much as is necessary for her intuitively grasp the "essence" of an event. "Too much knowledge and too many facts distract from this." In short, the aim is never to lose the sense of from, while leaving this open and sufficiently "recognizable": "The abstraction of the actual image of the disaster introduces tranquillity. Because I leave the piece open, by not working everything out in minute detail, this gives the observer the chance to fill it personally."

Wall of entropy

Another set of tensions is between the considerable intrinsic weight of clay, and the artist's use of modeling and the colour from oxides and firing to lead the mind away from sensations of heaviness. Wenzel's sculptures in fact seem extraordinarily light in relation to their volume; their weight seems to be cancelled by the baroque flutter of the figures. Not that these are in any sense free of a mysterious power of attraction that is more than simple gravity. Untitled (Chandelier)[2007] is big black chandelier placed on the floor, titled slightly, as if it had just been unhooked from the ceiling. One of the images that inspired this work is that of the chandelier in the great ballroom on the Titanic. The closer it is to the floor, the more deformed the pendants seem, as if subjected to intense pressure, possibly from the ocean depths, or the prodigious forces that ripple through the earth's crust, causing earthquakes and tsunamis. In invalid Icon (2007), the figures on the disturbing pagan altar drip endlessly, like those miraculous statues that suddenly start bleeding. Or perhaps they are melding inexorable in a purifying flame. This power of attraction seems chthonian - these works are made of clay that is exposed to fire, remember - while the metal highlights due to the transformation of the oxides in the kiln evoke memories of lead. Anne Wenzel's universe is deeply saturnine. Melancholy. Hers is a world ruled by entropy. And this deliquescent, decomposing world is, right now, our world.

Translation, C. Penwarden

(1) From an email to the author, January 2009.
(2) This and the following quotations are taken from an interview with Bar Rutten in Anne Wenzel, Sweet Life, Rotterdam: Veenman Publishers, 2008.