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Katharina Fritsch’s stylish, thirty year-long art practice was the focus of a large scale exhibition at Hamburg’s Deichtorhallen, produced in cooperation with the Kunsthaus Zurich. Born in Essen, Germany in 1956, Fritsch’s practice has clearly been well honed, occupying a difficult position between the mediums of photography and sculpture. She is perhaps best known for her sculptures Rat King (1993), Company at Table (1988) and Baby with Poodles (1995/96); works that utilise repetition and scale to overpower the viewer. These works, I think, are the weakest elements of her practice. Such iconic sculptures have been labelled by critics as transforming the everyday into dreamy or nightmarish scenarios. In this exhibition these works possessed a superfluous romanticism, reminiscent of the worst aspects of Rene Magritte. It was Fritsch’s idiosyncratic use of photographic imagery and her more recent photographic screen-prints that overshadowed her better known work. Although she could be viewed as one of the pioneers of digitally-manipulated formalist sculpture there are those such as Charles Ray, Xavier Veilhan and James Angus who do it much better.
Despite the many readings of her work in terms of its uncanny semiological play, Fritsch seems to be more concerned with the sense of power that permeates our interactions with public space. At the entrance to the exhibition stood an odd collection of sculptures that toyed with the concept of public monument. This idea was further explored in the centre of the exhibition in which appropriated photographic postcards of gardens were enlarged, silkscreened in combinations of pastel colours and installed on purpose-built gallery walls. The particular positioning of these works raised an awareness of how the viewer’s space was subtly restricted. Collectively they summoned up the public gardens of Paris which are notorious for the limitations imposed on their public. In contrast to the beer drinking and barbeque happenings found in Germany, French gardens make you feel as though the city council is watching your every move, something that Fritsch and the Deichtorhallen curators cleverly drew out of these otherwise inconspicuous prints.
In other two-dimensional works Fritsch utilised postcard photography more explicitly, embracing the kitschness that the genre is often associated with. Four enlarged and coloured screen-prints featured toned men with their dicks out, acting as both hetero and homo tourist advertisements for the island of Ibiza. Whilst these and other similarly kitschy appropriations did not have the same impact as her garden themed arrangement, they did force me to think about postcards in terms of public sculpture—something that I had never really thought about before.
In what was an unfortunately overcrowded exhibition, Fritsch’s combination of sculpture with photographic backdrops was a standout aspect. This is harder to achieve than it looks and I cannot think of any other artist who can combine sculpture and image as seamlessly. At the very back of the exhibition three relatively small sculptures on individual tables were positioned in front of gothic illustrations on the wall. On the tables sat a white skull with a top hat, an enlarged white brain and an orange octopus grasping a small 18th century scuba diver. Behind these sculptures were fairytale themed appropriations of a woman getting eaten by a crocodile, a woman sleeping next to a flying bat, a woman falling off a cliff, a scuba diver finding a woman sleeping underwater and a man feeding a snake to another snake. Whereas stand-alone sculptural works in the exhibition sometimes failed to generate that sublime and uncanny feeling Fritsch sometimes aims for, these works were abstract yet did not make you feel as though you were encountering an empty poetic experiment. The theme of female domination subtly unified the individual works, uniting sculpture and image without diminishing either the artist’s poetic or critical concerns.
Cook (2008) continued Fritsch’s exercise in Raumbilder (spatial images). This work consisted of a large black and white photograph of a Black Forest restaurant in front of which stood a life-size yellow sculpture of a chef with his hand outstretched and offering a plate of food. Again, less overtly surrealist than her other sculptures, this photographic installation addressed the real-world issue of public space, highlighting the shopfront or restaurant entrance as a thing of uncertainty and potential threat. There is something I find intimidating about the doorways to businesses; the public facade of a privately owned space that is desperate to get you inside. Via a combination of documentary photography and figurative sculpture Fritsch animated the basic tenets of storefront advertising, slightly abstracting the idea in order to see it more clearly.
What was reassuring about the Deichtorhallen retrospective was the fact that Fritsch’s recent work appears to be more interesting than her earlier work—a desirable position to be in for a senior artist. Over the last ten years she has lessened her emphasis on poetics in favour of promoting more tangible political concerns yet still with an idiosyncratic and experimental approach to her media—be they photography, sculpture, screen print or a combination of all three. If nothing else the exhibition demonstrated how Fritsch is forging a singular sensibility, imbuing her materials with a vibrancy of a much younger artist.