Heaven is Mindset
18 Nov, 2017 - 17 Dec, 2017Us, the Humans. Us, the Aliens.i
Speculations on the recent artwork of Franziska Fennert
By Susanne Altmann
Even if conducted digitally between two remote continents, the intimacy of a studio conversation presents a wealth of insights for both the artist and the expert that are engaged in it. It feels like jointly conjuring up a fourth dimension of the art works and the artistic practice under scrutiny. While communicating across the geographical and cultural division between Franziska Fennert’s Indonesian and the author's German base camp, the two of us were rewarded with numerous visual, historical and anthropological references that made us entirely forget the said distance. For example, when we were discussing Franziska Fennert's hitherto un-exhibited works such as Heaven is Mindset, As below so above, Uncovered Camouflage or Übergangszeit and its multiplying of figures, I had to think of the classical western playing cards with its male and female characters (by the way, a largely underrated example of applied arts). Ever since the card game migrated, interestingly, from East and South Asia into Europe as far back as in the 14th century, it has developed an aesthetic life of its own. One popular card design, consisting of a head and an upper body only, yet vertically mirrored, conveys the impression of two persons melting into one another. Metaphorically, these miniature images convey the impression of two otherwise invisible facets of one single person. The same phenomenon applies to Franziska Fennert's anthropomorphic figures, which despite closely hovering above their stone platforms, never touch the ground. The piece As below so above consists even of four different personae by means of reverse side display. It seems as if a playing card had eventually come to spatial life. This image alludes to yet another occidental meme from literature, namely the famously bizarre croquet game at the court of the „Queen of Hearts“ in Lewis Carroll's „Alice's Adventures in Wonderland“ (1898). There; an entire population of animated playing cards acts at the mercy of a mean-spirited she-monarch.ii
This is not to claim that the two- or four-faced beings of Franziska Fennert were directly triggered by the literary precedent, but rather to demonstrate the multitude of cultural cross references contained within these sculptures. Existing archetypes from pre-digital times come to our mind – enlivened somehow. On the other hand, Franziska Fennert's works give the impression of witnessing the materialization of stories that are still untold. In either case, her narratives are not as lightweight and playful as they may seem at the first glance – as Lewis Carroll's poetic accounts were dark interpretations of human sociability either and therefore highly educative. Franziska Fennert aims to alert to our global interdependencies, to the humane and destructive habits often incorporated in one very same person. Her works even manage to point out conflicting interests and contradictions between outward behavior and inner feelings. This all-too human condition is relevant to virtually all inhabitants of our planet. Speaking of planets, another piece of literature or even philosophy opens in front of my mind’s eye and requires for yet another digression: In 1957, more than a decade before humankind landed on the moon, the Polish sci-fi writer Stanislaw Lem published his Star Diaries. Entertaining, poignant and uncanny at the same time, this collection of short stories anticipates the turmoil of the digital age and the cybernetic future. The hero of the book, space traveler Ijon Tichy is as naïve and curious as Carroll's Alice. He leads the reader on to journeys through a Universe that is crowded with ethical and astrophysical challenges. Notably he meets higher life-forms that make our earthly hustle and bustle look like the activities of a stupid, underdeveloped race obsessed with unnecessary bloodshed. Often published without illustrations, Lem is forcing us to translate iii the detailed verbal descriptions of our extraterrestrial companions into our own images. As seen with the classic E.T.-“archetype”, such interpretations circle around phenomena that we already know, then adapting it into a digestible, yet familiar deviation. Looking at „humanoids“ like Kumbang membawa Zeitgeist, I don’t believe in your Scapegoats or Stoned Consciousness we observe the artistic desire either to familiarize the alien or to alienate the familiar. Why is that?
In my opinion, Franziska's strategy resembles that of Lem. Because by shifting the scenes from reality into a fantastic parallel world, she acts like a true artist and liberates her critical and serious messages about the condition and the potential of humankind from the gravity of earthly didactics. Lem, who lived during the Cold War between communism and imperialism, doubtlessly was not interested in addressing some distant future. Rather he expressed his fears over the state of present affairs by installing a metaphorical parallel world. For example, in chapter eight of Ijon Tichy's trips, the astronaut participates in an interstellar congress. There the planet earth may or may not be admitted to join the esteemed assembly of United Planets. Tichy represents the ultimate O t h e r at this gathering. Unsurprisingly, he is being mocked at by most of the attendants for his apparently inappropriate physical features. Later some experts are evaluating earth according to their cosmic standards. They conclude that humanity does not deserve to be a member of the Union. It is not entirely funny to read their verdict, neither back in 1957 nor today:
The Thubanian created a picture of monsters wallowing in a sea of blood, and he did this without haste, methodically opening still other learned books, records, annals, chronicles, all placed in preparation on his desk, and took to hurling the materials to the floor when he was done with them, as if in a sudden fit of disgust, as if the very pages that described us had become caked with the victims’ blood. Then he turned to our recorded history; he told of the massacres, pogroms, wars, crusades, genocides, and using slides and full-scale charts showed the technologies of crime, instruments of torture, ancient and medieval.iv
Quickly we come to understand that this interplanetary trial serves as an artistic instrument for critical investigation. It comes in the disguise of a paradoxical, even humorous setting where the other is the regular and the regular is being taught to feel marginalized. Bertolt Brecht, who died a year before the “Star Diaries” were published, might have considered this artistic technique as “defamiliarizing effect”.
Encountering Franziska Fennert's colorful, multi-faced cephalopods now, we feel similarly translocated. We are attracted by a variety of unusual shapes and forms with hints to reality. Lured into closer observation, as with Stoned Consciousness, we learn to read the details: one of the four heads is blind, but apparently hears quite well. Another seems to wear a fencing mask as if in a perpetual state of defense. So, too, one is rather crude, the next one more delicately rendered. They exist as a collective of individuals, unaware of one another and their team spirit yet forced together by some inexplicable bond. „These figures are not capable to make use of their unity“ explains Franziska Fennert and furthermore wonders: „How is it possible to be socially so backwards, despite living in a technologically advanced era?“ By articulating such “truisms” (in the sense of Jenny Holzer), she subscribes to the critical responsibility of contemporary art to engage and not shy away from simple truth. And of course the hanging “mummies” or rather cocoons are fun to look at, but in the end they symbolize the dire reality: „ I wanted to illustrate our existential dependence, be it on an economic or interpersonal level. By looking into a mirror instead in a face, we realize our own complicity in various systems.“v
Recently, the globally learned art audience has been confronted with innumerable artistic offensives which criticize capitalism and neo-liberalism up to a certain degree of
oversaturation – not least because many of such works are highly encrypted and/or comment on critical theory. Ever since living in Indonesia, Franziska Fennert has abandoned some unspoken conventions of discoursive belonging. Working at the – well, alleged – periphery of curatorial attention and that of commercial success, she has come to shed such restrictions to the advantage of a greater artistic freedom. Do her means of expression profit from the best of all worlds then? Franziska Fennert’s works, too, are codified responses to the very same underlying geopolitical tensions. The difference is that she employs a poetic toolbox that defies analytical rationalism. Without being irrational, this is to say. Is there anything like a spiritual critique of capitalism? If not, the term would have to be invented. Franziska Fennert plays with a blend of exoticist stereotypes, of eastern tribal folklore and western Freudian conclusions, with surrealist collisions and the iconography of cheap everyday magic. Her inventiveness ignores all limitations, except for one: the human figure as an inexhaustible anthropological resource for narration and recognition value. At this point, it is worth to mention the work of Nick Cave: visual artist, dancer and costume designer. Cave’s elaborate whole-body masks simultaneously derive from tribal rituals and unleashed fashion events as well as from theatrical staging. Yet how hysterically exaggerated these costumes may ever be, they always remain firmly linked to human scale and proportion. In comparison to Franziska Fennert’s sculptures, those of Nick Cave are not only wearable and determined to be further animated by movements, but they are also meant to produce sounds. His wild assembly of seven such sound suits, richly embroidered with mother of pearl buttons, titled Speak Louder (2011), even emphasizes that acoustic message with giant tuba-shaped heads. Whereas there the transfigured pate seems to emit an important information, comparable forms in Franziska Fennert’s work such as in I don’t believe in your scapegoats appear to be receptacles for different assignments of guilt. Both sculptural objects, though, reflect upon society, on opinion making and intertwined individuals. Cave’s serious mission behind the playful scenes is rooted in his desire to emancipate and reassess colonial and ethnological stereotypes of shamanism and ritualistic processes without being accusatory. Franziska Fennert can build up on seminal strategies like his and does so by offering the multiple faces of her figures (and corpuses) as screens for our own projections and reflections.
With their stitched and embroidered details, her objects celebrate the potential of needlework and the use of fabric. Even if their content is often ambiguous, they are sharing the haptic surface of the many different textures they were sculpted with. One particular surprising revelation about Franziska Fennert's „raw material“ consists of her reusing garment on sale in so-called “Pujha” fashion stores. There you get imported second-hand pieces that most probably were cheaply produced somewhere between South and South East Asia to be distributed throughout global West, worn there for a season and then disposed of by ways of charity donations. A sad, yet telling paradox, literally mountains of such textiles make their way back to the regions of their origin so that locals can buy them for little money. The concept of recycling boasts of a largely positive reputation as an idea to protect the environment from (previous) human exploitation. Very likely, the members of Stanislaw Lem’s united planets’ assembly might add this phenomenon to their list of strangely self destructive habits of the earthlings. In the meantime, Franziska Fennert’s artistic decommodification hopefully fills some of our mental and moral blanks. Similarly important is her decision to employ the looks, not only of masks, but that of dolls and puppets for her soft sculptures. Due to cultural imprinting, our willingness to open up for their (eventually not so pleasant) quintessence increases. Dolls serve for kids’ toys and trigger related feelings. But at the same time they are used as substitutes for precisely channeling interpersonal desires and conflicts. Often they are charged with spiritual expectations to change the course of reality. Even if used for mere children’s play, dolls are far from being innocent. Role-playing, the re-staging of a family and then that of society leads to appropriating of every single aspect of life. Hence a setting as provided by Franziska Fennert’s anthropoid sculptures very well invites for playful interaction or identification first. Yet it takes only a short while until the viewer will be reminded of their more serious, actually hostile capacities: voodoo and worry dolls, scare crows, tin soldiers or demon masks including Rangda.
There is of course an obvious contradiction between such violent evocations and the meticulous, humble craft of stitching and embroidering. Franziska Fennert even aggravates such discrepancies by using extra soft fabric, extra “girlish” colors and flashy embellishments for her visual attacks. The boldness of her works makes us think of that of Louise Bourgeois. One of the most successful women artists’ of the late 20th century, she freed fabric and sewing from their purely feminine and “peaceful” connotation towards a truly unsettling, painful, belligerent and yes: feminist iconography. This capacity of needlework as a fully-fledged artistic medium has been discussed by American writer Siri Hustvedt in her essay “My Louise Bourgeois”. Her remarks about the amazing immediacy and power of that technique bear an almost universal significance:
Aggression is especially a horror for girls. Not just in the olden days of L.B.’s childhood, but now. Girls are still meant to be nicer and better behaved than boys, to hide their hate and aggression…But the grown-up Louise used her fear and her rage to articulate a ferocious dialectic of biting and kissing, of slapping and caressing, of murder and resurrection. There are needles in the bed. There are cuts, wounds, and mutilations in the figures and the objects. There are fabrics stitched together, written upon, repaired. The work is the site of a struggle I feel as a viewer, a visceral experience of the artist’s war with and love for the materials themselves.vi
i This headline relates to the German art periodical Texte zur Kunst, issue 105 of March 2017 titled „Wir sind
ihr / They are us“: “With Issue #105, TZK considers the nationalist, conservative, and racist ideologies that have
recently become more visible across Europe and the US, giving particular focus to questions of border politics
and migration - of humans, of data, of patrimony, of signs.”, https://www.textezurkunst.de/105/, last accessed
by the author in October 2017
ii See: Lewis Carroll, Alice’s ii Adventures in Wonderland, London 1922, pp. 79
iii The writer himself made a number of drawing of some of his figures as presented here: http://english.lem.pl/
gallery/mroz-drawings/category/41-star-diaries-1961-iskry, last accessed by the author in October, 2017.
iv Stanislaw Lem, The Star Diaries, New York 1976/1985, Kindle edition, Pos. 566
v In conversation with the author, September 2017
vi Siri Hustvedt, My Louise Bourgeois, http://lithub.com/my-louise-bourgeois/ 2016,