‘A Game of Deception between Real Space and Image Space’
Katharina Gaenssler in an Interview with Christin Müller
At the invitation of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, the Munich-based artist Katharina Gaenssler developed an intervention that accompanied the exhibition ’The Sistine Madonna - Raphael’s Cult Image Turns 500', shown from May 26 to August 26, 2012 at the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister. On the first floor of the Semper building, standing in the octagon between the Italian and the Dutch enfilades, most of the visitors were probably surprised when they looked in the direction of the world-famous painting by Raphael. The Italian wing appeared to be twice as deep as usual: instead of the three consecutive exhibition halls found in the floor plan, six could be seen. As a result of hanging a large Gobelin tapestry, woven to show Gaenssler’s image, a montage of thousands of digital photographs, to the facing wall of the end of the last room, Raphael's Sistine Madonna seemed to retreat to an almost unattainable distance. Christin Müller, fellow in the Museum Curators for Photography program of the Alfried Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach Foundation, spoke with the artist about intention and working principle of her art.
Christin Müller: At the centre of your work ‘Sixtina 2012’ is Raphael’s Sistine Madonna. Initially you planned to concentrate on the painting itself. Why did you decide to incorporate the enfilade of the Gallery’s Italian wing?
Katharina Gaenssler: My first reaction – which was unplanned but obvious – was to look at the painting itself, especially since the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden commissioned me to create a ‘substitute’ for the period when the Sistine Madonna would be gone: a form between fake and reconstruction, construction sign and veiling, because the frame and the base of the Sistine Madonna had to remain for conservational reasons. It is a powerful, staggering moment, when, from a distance, walking down the stairs, you see the arched outlines of the Madonna, ingrained in your pictorial memory, for the first time in the original, at the end of the significant enfilade of the picture gallery. Observing the stream of pilgrims, the crowds of people, who flock here from everywhere to view the painting, you inevitably wonder what these people experience, feel, and think when they catch sight of the Madonna. This extraordinary situation and the unique constellation of this question were the ultimate reasons why I decided to address the absence, the unattainability, and the loss of the Madonna.
CM: By doubling the enfilade in your installation, you draw attention to the exhibition architecture. Unlike in earlier projects, you do not photograph the empty exhibition rooms and project them onto themselves. In Dresden, you photograph the rooms with the paintings instead, and in your installation you shrink what the enfilade is leading to: the Sistine Madonna. This gives rise to a shift in perspective, whereby the distance of the visitor to Raphael’s painting is multiplied. What was your intention?
KG: Actually, there were installations for which I ‘transported’ exhibition rooms and their exhibits. For example, for an exhibition in the private, salon-like 18m-Galerie in Berlin, I photographed a room containing socialist realist paintings from the National Gallery in Tirana. In this project, I was not primarily concerned with the exhibition architecture, but with viewing habits and perception, with projection and perspective. The ‘shift in perspective’ intensifies the pull, which, as Michael Hering (curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Kupferstich-Kabinett) writes in the anniversary exhibition catalogue, results “from the enfilade, or suite of rooms, which enhances the ‘great physical presence’ [...] of the Madonna even more [...] the idea of an unbridgeable distance, between the worlds, inherent in the painting [itself]”. But I wasn’t interested in showing a state that doesn’t exist, for example taking down the painting in the gallery, staging a situation. The trigger is the excessive demand of what surrounds me. My method is something like a weapon, a system for processing the flood of images streaming toward us … reality is already more than enough for me!
CM: What links the rooms that you photograph?
KG: The rooms are always connected to the ‘institution of art’: museum and exhibition rooms, studios and archives. They are places of collecting, preserving, and mediating.
CM: Can you describe your artistic method? You work almost cartographically, probing the spaces using a grid system – and you show this, too. To what extent do you steer the breaks and disruptions between the individual images, which are produced through different perspectives, focuses, and exposure times?
KG: I always proceed systematically. From different standpoints, I ‘scan’ the rooms for an imaginary grid, from left to right, from top to bottom, sometimes dividing up the space into thousands of single images. Subsequently, the images are assembled back into a whole again. While shooting, I set the camera to automatic exposure, and it reacts to the light conditions, which change from image to image, with each detail. Coupled with a manually set focus – that is, changing levels of focus between the single images that are going to be set next to each other – there are strong breaks and differences in the coloring and tonal value of the photos. As a total picture, a mosaic-like, kaleidoscopic image of the room emerges. Natural perception, as well as accustomed photographic representation with its unity of place and time, is thus set against something different, obvious, and visibly constructed. Due to the large number of single images and their nuances, the eye of the viewer is forced to move, to jump from image to image. The curvature of the ceiling frieze in the Gobelin, for example, is a purely optical distortion. As a further disruption, it ensures that the viewer can compare the image space with the real space, questions the medium, the visual fidelity. At least that was my intention.
CM: How do you decide on the positions you photograph from?
KG: My positions arise from certain rules, in each case with an eye to the cubature, proportions, and content of a room and the format of the exhibition surfaces. While I otherwise intertwine a number of perspectives to develop a room, here I generally use only one central perspective of three standpoints on a central axis. I do so in each of the three rooms of the enfilade at the same place, which is specified for me by the architecture. In its total montage, the format of the single images gets smaller from doorframe to doorframe. In the end, the Madonna is only a quarter the size of the original.
CM: To exaggerate a bit, one could view such a measurement of rooms as meticulous documentation. How much subjective perception is involved in the installations?
KG: Perhaps we need to draw a distinction between the shooting phase and the assembled, installed picture. Because for me this method of measuring a room photographically is actually a system of analysis and archiving, an attempt to proceed in a manner that is as neutral as possible, value free, almost archaeological. Still, to develop such a system it is of course necessary to make decisions, establish rules. The synthesis, the assembled total picture with all its puzzles, is subjective by necessity in its environment.
CM: Where do you place your work in the spectrum between installation and photography?
KG: I don’t have an education in photography and I don’t call myself a photographer. As a trained silversmith, I see my work more as a sculptural act. Material, texture, and craft techniques are my main concern. At the same time, I cannot deny that I do make use of the medium of photography, and it was only digital photography that enabled me to develop my method. In reception today, the montage, manipulation, and processing of the pictorial material are automatically registered. My method says a lot about the technique of photography and its means of production as prerequisites for our view of the world. During a work process, images run through different media (camera, computer, printer, etc.), whose settings I consciously do not change. Conversely, that means I leave the coloring and tonal value of each photo, from the taking of the photo to the output of the image, to a sum of devices.
CM: Why did you decide to have a Gobelin tapestry woven for the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden instead of executing the montage on the wall yourself, as you had done previously?
KG: For both external and content-related reasons. It was clear to me from the very outset that I couldn’t glue color laser prints directly onto the walls of the exhibition space as I had done previously. Because of course moisture and paste are no go’s in the Gallery for conservational reasons. Also, we had only a maximum of one day for the setup. For the concrete solution, the intention to meet the Madonna’s and the premises’ dignity with a material appropriate played a very important role. For the solution, it helped that I knew the Raphael Gobelin tapestries in Munich. I particularly remember the ‘School of Athens’, because it also creates a spatial alignment with multiple viewpoints. Incidentally, the rooms themselves are a series of four chambers lying flush behind one another. The Academy of Fine Arts in Munich possesses ten of Raphael’s Gobelin tapestries from the fourth edition, executed from 1730 to 1737. During my studies, they were reinstalled in the auditorium of the Academy and have been on permanent display there ever since. The Gobelin for Dresden is also a dignified form with a direct link to Raphael. And it is not just a tapestry, wall covering, or wall decoration, but also cladding for the base and frame of the Sistine Madonna. In addition, it is an iconographic allusion to the curtain in the painting, as Claudia Schnitzer (Chief Conservator for German Art of the 15th to 18th and 20th-21st centuries in the Kupferstich-Kabinett) writes in the exhibition catalogue: “The motif of the curtain thus refers to the cast-aside curtain in Raphael’s painting itself, which opens a view to the epiphany. He denotes the transition, the interface between the real world of the viewer and the celestial sphere, out of which Mary with the child seems to step.”
At the lower edge of the Gobelin tapestry, the woven floor meets the wooden one and picks up on its structure, so you almost think you can walk into the tapestry. This illusion is destroyed by the corded pedestals. A bottom gusset of the Gobelin tapestry shortens the pictorial space, and so the pedestals there, absolved of their function, take on a life of their own. But the oval bench in the middle of the Sistine room – in the right place on the Gobelin tapestry – is missing in the exhibition room. It was removed to afford a clear view of the Gobelin, and to leave room for the book object, which, as in all of Katharina Gaenssler’s projects, is part of the work, on a Semper table. All that remains is an area rubbed off by visitor’s feet, which forms an aureole. This play with doubling, covering, and hiding recalls the conflict between reality and fiction in ‘Alice in Wonderland’. Like Alice, you suddenly find yourself in another world that seems to be the same one yet is subject to different rules and thus calls both worlds into question. In addition, there is a correspondence within the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister: Raphael’s Sistine Madonna was moved temporarily to the ground floor for the anniversary exhibition, where it is hanging in the so-called Gobelin Room, in which so far five of Raphael’s Gobelins have been on view. They show scenes from the lives of the two Apostles Peter and Paul based on cartoons that Pope Julius II commissioned Raphael to make and that belonged to the collection of August the Strong starting in 1728.
CM: How did your method change due to the new material?
KG: It was a big experiment, a daring blind flight, to be quite honest. The foreign material was a challenge and the close collaboration with another person and the necessary trust in that person’s deeds and decisions was a new experience for me. Still, I of course also planned this work in simulations and based on a model. With this method, the overall impression and spatial effect can be appraised well. While there were consultations, test material, and corrections, I hadn’t had any experience with textiles up to that point. For example, during production we decided to change a thread – a reddish yarn was replaced by one with a brownish-orange hue. It was difficult for me to assess the effect such a decision would have on the total surface of the Gobelin tapestry of almost 65 square meters. Not only this question required that I trust and rely on the experiences of Marcos Ludueña-Segre (from Flanders Tapestries in Belgium). Incidentally, the relationship between the time-consuming mounting of the photo installations consisting of thousands of single sheets and their destruction later is similar to the cost-intensive manufacture of a Gobelin tapestry for a purpose of relatively short duration. In a certain sense, both are pleasurable and luxurious ways of dealing with time and money.
CM: How is the actual space inscribed in your works, and, conversely, what effect does the Gobelin have on the exhibition space?
KG: The dimensions and proportions of a room always have a direct influence on the works. The changing light conditions during the shoot – 5,750 photographs were taken for the Gobelin tapestry in three days and three nights – cause colour differences in the single images. It is only such disruptions that create a game of confusion and deception between real and image space. This trompe l’oeil arises particularly in the area in which the tapestry extends into the room, in other words, lies flat on the floor or connects the corded pedestals with their originals in the room.
CM: In your books accompanying the installations, you normally collect all of the photographs taken for the respective work. What is the relationship between the installation at the location and the books that accompany it?
KG: In this special case, I compiled different pictorial material for the book than for the Gobelin tapestry. Normally, though, I put the single images in chronological order, without sorting them, usually in multi-volume book objects. Only a part of this set is used for the mounting on the exhibition wall, is temporarily on view in the exhibition space, spread out openly on the wall, fanned out. After that, the laser prints are torn from the wall and the resulting décollages are archived. The books are something like my memory – an archive of what I saw and felt. Storage for information and its permanent availability, they are the possibility of continual access to the material and its pictorial content in a figurative sense. So the books are what remain to me of a project. And what is most important about it to me. I see the installations, however, as a temporary excerpt from the set, as a unique performance of the respective ‘score’. In the best case, it functions like music: it is there for a brief moment and then only exists in memory.
CM: For your photographs in the artist’s book you came so close to the Sistine Madonna with your camera that she almost dissolves on the book’s pages. When you approach the Gobelin, this picture also disintegrates into individual threads. Where does the material become independent?
KG: The idea was to represent the Madonna, but not to show her; to deprive visitors of the entire information, to throw them back to collective and their own memory, to the ‘images between the images’. I’m interested in the break between the overall impression and banal detail, the interface between surface and space, the transition from material to photograph, the moment at which the image dissolves for the viewer, or, conversely, appears real, the question of how knowledge and experience complement seeing. It is an attempt to fathom the borders of photography. Bernhard Maaz (director of the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister and the Kupferstich-Kabinett) sums it up in a gallery discussion on the artist book ‘Sixtina MMXII’: “Approaches in both guises, as a microcosm in the detail image and as a macrocosm in the spatial image.” Dissolution into single images has always been an essential part of my photographic work. Maybe this is a rudiment, or better, an accomplishment from my time as a silversmith: viewing the detail in the whole, the individual in the whole.
The thread continues in the woven textile, literally multiplies what I already did when I was taking the photos by dissecting the space. By dissolving the digital template into around 50 warp threads and 130 weft threads per centimeter, the image becomes extremely precise compared to historical Gobelin tapestries. The viewer only recognizes the material and its fine pattern when he or she is very close to it, similar to the grain of an analog photograph or the pixels of a digital image. It would be nice if the visitor could touch the Gobelin in the gallery and also view it from the back, because the negative of the front appears there! Which is of course impossible at the museum.
CM: With ‘Sixtina 2012’, a complete installation of yours was preserved for the first time and could be shown again at a different place and time. Can you imagine that?
KG: No. And I know that contradicts the omnipresence of the starting material, the photographs, to a certain extent. The content for an installation is developed in connection with an exhibition, always for a special exhibition venue and time frame. For this reason, it is generally not presented somewhere else. The Gobelin tapestry, too, was conceived for this place and this length of time. The real space plays an essential role, is part of the total picture. Unlike with my temporary installations with laser prints, the Gobelin tapestry will be preserved beyond the exhibition time frame, but will not be meaningful outside of the place it was planned for. It only belongs here! But I should add that it does not go without saying that an intervention of contemporary art is conceivable at all in this scale and scope in rooms that are usually reserved for the ‘Old Masters’, and that this work could surely not have been realized without the generous and untiring support of Bernhard Maaz, Michael Hering, Andreas Henning, and many other people at the museum.
CM: To what extent can the Sistine Madonna be seen in a new light due to your work?
KG: If you mean ‘seen anew’ in a literal sense, then that applies most to the book. In the book, you can see Raphael’s characteristic style, his preliminary drawings, the vertical seams of the three sheets of canvas, the corrections and restorations, the history of the painting, which normally remain concealed from the visitor for the simple reason that there is a minimum viewing distance at museums. You seem to see and feel the speed at which it was painted and how swiftly decisions of impressive certainty and enormous consequence were made. The distant effect of the Madonna speaks against ‘seeing it anew’. As a secular iconic picture, it retains its recognition value even in a reproduction, regardless of the format or style. But whether someone will see Raphael’s Madonna differently due to my work, can experience it differently, remains to be seen. However, what Michael Hering calls “creating photographic distance” is to my mind a method of questioning our own modes of behaviour and habits of perception.