Kathrin Sonntag: Mirror and Stage
September 2010

Kathrin Sonntag, Tabula Rasa, 2010, installation view at Galerie Kamm

Kathrin Sonntag: Mirror and Stage Essay PDF Download 

Mirror and Stage 

The mis-en-scene of Berlin-based artist Kathrin Sonntag’s Super-8 film Tango(2006) is emblematic of her approach to image, gesture, and an estrangement of the everyday that exists throughout her work in film, photography, and installation. Slowed to approximately half-speed, the anticipation of a final still-life composition or dramatic entrance builds as a domestic setting is enacted: made up of a single black-and-white shot, a small kitchen table is set by a protagonist that remains largely out-of-frame beyond the extended arms that place a checkered tablecloth followed by a plate with cutlery, a glass filled with water and a sugar-bowl. Playfully evocative, the atmosphere of a set-up or trick is elided and joined with a sentiment of familiarity as the partially visible figure ultimately proceeds to tug twice before a final flip of the wrist succeeds in removing the tablecloth and leaving the place setting intact. Illustrating the simple charm and nostalgia of an old magic trick, the partial view of the body and the deliberate pacing of a moment recalled or rehearsed betray a rupture within the scenario. As the film loops and the gesture is repeated, the emphasis is placed upon repetition and framing rather than novelty or surprise. The setting occurs expressly to be undermined. The anticipated image arrives only to be quickly undone.

Evincing a stagecraft reminiscent of Gerhard Richter’s 9 “Objekte” (1969) – a series of black-and white photo-offset lithographs depicting wooden geometric objects and frames in unlikely configurations against domestic backgrounds – Sonntag proposes a similar uncanny realism that deprives everyday, readily identifiable objects and forms their customary function and signification, becoming instead mimetic players of enigmatic contortion and illusion. In Richter’s case, photographs he had taken were retouched to create an impossible joinery of geometric forms that contradict the expectation of Euclidean proportion whereby the visible parts of a form reliably indicate the invisible or hidden parts. Sonntag, for her part, uses stools, tripods, shelves, tables, and mirrors to refract, fragment, and disorient views onto extraordinary arrangements of the quotidian. Just as what appears to sit on top or in front of the picture plane in Richter’s series is at odds with what recedes into illusionistic space – resulting in images that appear to undo the laws of semblance and coherence proper to three-dimensional existence – the prop-like objects in Sonntag’s photographs likewise invert the presumed indexical reading of photography, proposing instead an alternative set of formal principles to be puzzled out.

In Wood Mirror (2010), for example, a small oval mirror is pictured on a shelf adjacent to a wooden wall panel. Photographed at such an angle that it appears to face the observer (and camera), the mirror fails to return the expected image, reflecting instead the grain of the nearby panel’s surface. In short, things are not what they appear to be in Sonntag’s deadpan humor, as objects repeatedly picture seemingly errant visions. In flic-flac #3(2009) the rectangular base of a bench is turned on its end and positioned so all but one of the metal legs of the structure appear as shadows on the wall behind, revealing depth and objecthood solely in its projected shadow. Similarly, flic-flac #1 (2009) inverts the image of a dairy creamer via its upside-down reflection onto a silver tray at the center of the composition; propped above and outside of the frame, the object’s place in the upright order of things is replaced by a topsy-turvy world of partial views, reversals, and unexpected likenesses. The resulting condition of imitation, inversion, and doubling in Sonntag’s work demonstrates the possibility that our daily perception is always ready to be untethered and split into contradictory, associative signification. By working largely in diptychs, triptychs, or 35mm slide series, Sonntag’s logic of the image is clearly one of version and variation as her highly constructed images cluster into groupings for comparison, recalling not only Richter’s series but also the photographic series of Peter Fischli and David Weiss. The regular use of slide projections in her installations takes the anticipation, pleasure, and built-in anxiety of the slide carousel and makes repetition central to Sonntag’s work. The low whir of the device creates an immediately sculptural presence, while the click and rotation promises a next image and return. Destabilizing not only the depicted objects but also the stasis of photography, Sonntag employs the loop-effect of the slide projector to continually re-inscribe her ongoing interest in rupturing perception and representation. The unease that results in Sonntag’s work claims a space of separation and reiteration that invokes nothing so much as Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory of the “mirror stage”. As Lacan clarifies in his seminar on “The ego in Freud’s theory and in the technique of psychoanalysis”: “What did I try to get across with the mirror stage? That whatever in man is loosened up, fragmented, anarchic, establishes its relation to his perceptions on a plane with a completely original tension... Now, he only perceives the unity of this specific image from the outside, and in an anticipated manner. Because of this double relation which he has with himself, all the objects of his world are always structured around the wandering shadow of his own ego... The object is never for him definitively the final object, except in exceptional experiences. But it thus appears in the guise of an object from which man is irremediably separated...”

A doubling relation unfolds everywhere in Sonntag’s work. In An/Aus (2009), for example, a photographic diptych appears to show the glowing orb of a bedside lamp simply turned “on” and “off ” in imitation of its title. Drawn into the expectation of illustrative representation, however, the angles of the two images reveal themselves to be slightly at odds upon closer inspection and the light of the “on” position appears to be manipulated and artificial. The image of the bedside – our place of respite and oneiric flight – is askew and unsettled in Sonntag’s version of a double take. A related diptych, L (2008), features two piezo prints – one of a bureau and the other of a castle rising above a copse of trees. Shot in black and white, the turret of the castle tower finds its likeness in the L-shaped color image of the bureau. While the antique piece of furniture is photographed inside with daylight streaming into an empty room, the castle is shot from an angle where the upper reaches of its form most recall a flipped version of the bureau. Taking on what Lacan terms an “egomorphic” rather than “anthropomorphic” reading, the bureau – belonging as it did to the artist’s grandfather – finds its shadow double in the destination viewed from afar. The implication of a journey interrupted by detours and associative departures arises most clearly, however, in Sonntag’s installation strategies.

As with her recent 2009 exhibition at GAK (Gesellschaft für Aktuelle Kunst) in Bremen, Superkalifragilistigexpialigetik, there is often a simple expository conceit that unfolds through visual puns and narrative loose ends. Having gathered advertisements and illustrations from vintage American lifestyle and popular science magazines that promise revolutionary “Household Inventions” and “New Mechanical Devices” as an archival framework for the exhibition, Sonntag removed the household gadgets referred to while keeping the trappings of technical ingenuity and the heraldry of a new line of goods. In place of the supposedly revolutionary object or device is the empty framework itself, repeated in the exhibition space as a series of brightly colored lines, squares and rectangles painted onto the walls and ceilings or propped up into standing frames that prompt the viewer to approach the work from specific vantage points. The trail of frames reveals a series of mimetic stand-ins as a string of multi-colored pennants trailed behind a tiered shelf of Modernist design, imitating the furniture’s color-scheme, intimating once again that likeness is a chain of association not easily halted once initiated. The slips and shifts of language that exist within onomatopoeic English and German phrases like PING PONG and ZICK ZACK or the literal performance of such words as U-TURN and T-BONE STEAK were posted in white on black printouts throughout the installation as the utopian advance of what was once the promise of new technology is overturned for an engagement with the nonsensical and a playful embrace of the tautological. Rather than stepping inside a model and advocating for an idealized future – a central tenet of Modernist architecture, design, and political ideology – Sonntag evacuates the rhetoric of innovation, progress, and commodity fetishism and replaces it with a self-styled methodology of repetition and variation upon the already used, soon-to-be-outdated, and domestic absurd. The slide series “V-Mann mit X-Beinen im D-Zug” at the center of the display positioned the artist’s studio as a place of refracted views, witty commentary, and sleight-of-hand reference upon the desire for a representative model, including the exhibition space itself. The word “TUT,” for example, appears posted on the wall of a domestic interior with a mirror directly below it. Propped against a shelving unit (the same one that appears totem-like in the exhibition space) is a second mirror surface that reflects the “TUT” in reverse, doubling the singular utterance into the admonishing phrase “TUT TUT,” meaning as it does a mild rebuke or reproof. Playing off the empty framing, Sonntag’s studio set-ups replace the Modernist desire and craving for new models with nonsense, anachronism, and failed or impoverished imitation.

Futur Intérieur, a 2010 installation at the Kunstraum Walcheturm Zürich, further underscores Sonntag’s guise-like staging of objects that remain ultimately removed. As the winner of a prize from the Dr. George und Josi Guggenheim Foundation, Sonntag’s exhibition delved into the late couple’s collection of more than 150 works of pre- and post-war Modernism to create a palimpsest-like response to the funding source for the award. Auctioned off following their death to benefit the foundation, the couple’s collection was documented in a 2005 Christie’s catalog that served as a point of departure for Annex (2010), a slide projection at the heart of the installation. Comprised of 81 studio views, the slides picture reproductions of works from the catalog alongside ephemeral continuations of formal motifs played out by Sonntag. Through the manipulation of such simple materials as patterned paper, envelopes, string, sugar cubes and other studio remnants, the collection and its artworks are re-animated as a trove of guises and possible associations not beholden to the original. An image of Roy Lichtenstein’s Study for the Great Pyramid, 1969, for instance, appears next to a folded envelope and cut-outs of black and yellow paper that extend the receding impression of the graphic off the page; likewise, a tangle of chords trails across an image of a Joan Miró painting in imitation of the canvas’s bold black lines, or the rough eyes of a Picasso drawing are echoed in faces taken from magazines also in the collection. By allowing the incidental to lead the way, Sonntag turns photography’s recording of the loss and dispersion of once-definitive objects and references into an oscillation of similitude that can be constantly reinvented, revised, and redeemed.

                                                                                      --Fionn Meade

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