Parallel figures

Art projects in an open-air urban environment are, unlike in the special atmosphere in the Kunsthalle, able to subvert perceptive conventions. Such artistic interventions always bring about interruptions in the homogenized setting of the urban daily routine. Besides initial irritation they are able to critically reflect life contexts or encourage communicative processes. What is captivating in Maria Hahnenkamp’s posters seems to be the at first sight enigmatic phenomenon that image and text meet in them without an immediately decipherable common bond. The intangible, even inexplicable messages passersby are first confronted with contradict the usual principle of linearity of such messages. There seems to be no sender and therefore also no intended receiver as in traditional communication models. Although seemingly easy to grasp, the sentences and questions are radically different from the signs or short messages typical of “language in urban spaces” or advertising messages formulated with a clear sales objective. What is more, the language on Maria Hahnenkamp’s posters tends to be hermetic. The texts appear to be almost cryptic, one has the impression that one is watching someone speak. Nevertheless, they convey very concrete questions and requests, while subtly thwarting the promising language of product advertisement.

Not everybody will ever find out that the texts are quotations from Samuel Beckett’s brilliantly short drama “Endgame”. In it the Irish poet as in all his literary works consistently stages existential threat and uncanny voids of human nature. Crippled, infantile, like faceless human ruins – that is how the characters, marked by latent despair, come across. The plot of this drama depicting stagnant regression is frozen in oscillating immobility. Sometimes this extreme stage setting seems to topple over into a parody of human shortcomings. Through its reduction, Beckett’s language hovers in an undecided position. So simple that sometimes the bounds of banality seem to be reached, the dialogues of his characters appear like excerpts from a stream of language without beginning or end. In the visual system of coordinates, Hahnenkamp’s work may appear to be as encoded as Beckett’s stage language. In her artistic work she deals with concentration and with the culmination of information units. Image and text nevertheless remain juxtaposed. No common bond is created. Such a bond would be artificial, contrived, inappropriate. One could use the term “distant congruence”. Maybe even speak of “parallel figures” that go their way separately. Tension is created between remarkable contradictions and dialectic constellations which appear as themes in her work.

She makes the intimate public. She translates the physical into the abstract and – decisive for her work: she takes on the subject of liberation in a feminist sense when she deals with standardization of the feminine. A self-made dress with floral embroidery based on a 19th century ornament pattern applied by the artist herself creates the dynamic backdrop. In a way similar to the writing, the white of the ornamental pattern sharply contrasts with the red of the cloth. The clearly visible pleating and particularly the visual axis onto the body are the result of an intricate set-up. The fashion model – or rather role model – was turned about on its own axis on a glass plate while it was photographed. Translated into the form of a poster, it touches upon and nevertheless at the same time also denies that visual form of expression which is permanently multiplied in the language of advertising as a symptom of the public gender classifications. It is only a reminder of the continuous public sexualisation of the female body.

On the way towards abstraction, through the play with fragmentation by means of photographic detail, visual language becomes an analytic tool questioning the representation of femininity. In the same way as Hahnenkamp uses historical sign systems such as ornamentation in order to unfold a complex system of references to constructions of femininity, social disciplining of woman and gender-specific classifications, she repeatedly builds bridges to the present in order to slow down the specific constantly floating visual morphemes related to the body and analyse them separately. An important method is “distancing”. Her stage settings, starting from historical references – the painstaking process of embroidering, the work with a model and the subsequent processing of the images – could be understood as a radical form of a greatly decelerated critical analysis of the cultural images of women. Always in connection to the question of who has the power to define these images.

Roland Schöny

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