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Disturbing Images and Visual Interference

Beate Eickhoff

Maike Freess is an artist for whom art is not an end in itself, not a play of

forms or images. Instead she uses it to fundamentally question everything

that seems familiar and certain to us: she presents the insanity that is

held to be the logic of reality, the insecurities from which individual

consciousness is composed. Her subject matter, as she puts it, is “the

human being in her imperfect, limited and unstable nature, her relationship

to herself, her surroundings, to other people and society, the ambiguity of

the human psyche”.

Before Maike Freess began her studies at Burg Giebichenstein in Halle, she

had already found her medium, as a teenager, in the drawing; and it has

remained her most personal, authentic and at the same time unsettling

means of expression and portrayal until today. Impressed by the medieval

paintings of Hieronymus Bosch or Hans Memling’s “The Last Judgement”,

by Goya’s series “Los Caprichos” or the paintings of Caravaggio, her

beginnings, with respect to craftsmanship and the impact of the drawing

portrait, are entirely within the tradition of German draughtsmen such as

Grünewald, Dürer and Cranach. At the Academy of Visual Arts Leipzig it

was Werner Tübke or Arno Rink who represented this style. The reduction

and concentration that fascinated Freess in the German art of drawing

certainly corresponded to an urge to declare, to make a point, to be clear

and direct. But in order to address the existential questions a modern

artist like herself feels deeply, she has consistently not subjected herself

to any restrictions and makes use of all contemporary techniques. She has

developed sculpture, photography and video in interrelated phases and

continued to draw in parallel. What she has never done, though, is paint

on canvas.

Maike Freess’s central motif in all media is the human figure – with a

general concentration on the classical, anonymous head or full-figure

portrait. While the drawings – apart from her recent works – remain in the

undefined, unreal airiness offered by the black or white paper, Freess uses

photography in order to bring us as close as possible to the question in

hand, to create places that appear to be a piece of reality. We may be able

to recognise something familiar – a forest glade, a room, a bath – but the

places radiate an oppressive strangeness. They are too cool, too aesthetic,

too obviously arranged and artificial to suggest real situations from

everyday life. The play of light is unreal, as is the extreme sharpness of

the images. One, two or three people are in action in these specific places.

The picture margins make the respective location into a clearly defined

enclosed space in which the tension of the action is concentrated. The

protagonists have a sophisticated elegance but remain static. The viewer is

left in peace for the necessary contemplation. Composed in a few, usually

clear and attractive bright colours, the photographs seem as monumental

and calm as painting. Everything is staged so unambiguously that we

immediately understand that nothing is being narrated here; rather, the

photograph is an allegory, a dream image, a “psychological space”.

The protagonists’ clothing is not fashionable, perhaps more oldfashioned;

disconcertingly, it cannot be categorised, an indication that the

situations have been anonymised and removed from our present time.

The two photographic series “Should I Stay”? (2002) show the artist in

close proximity to two men, sitting on a bench or in a forest clearing, all

three with an extremely strong, very physical presence, all apparently

tormenting themselves with the title question. It is a situation that

everyone knows: we are set, existentially speaking “thrown”, into a reality

for which there are no rules or instructions. The viewer notices emotional

stirrings and nuances, and almost physically senses the disquieting

tension and explosively charged atmosphere. As attractive as the forest

scene is, the beauty is deceptive; the isolation of the individual figures,

and their illogical actions, is mysterious; a latent physical violence against

themselves or the others can be felt. The expressively staged gestures

appear to be unambiguous, but their aim remains hidden. There is no (re)

solution and no gratification. In series the individual situations become

a drama, without a beginning or end, ultimately leaving the question

“should I stay?” with the viewer.

In all the photographic works the artist herself is the main protagonist.

Almost life size, often alone and with minimal props (a chair, a table),

she stages herself in staged places. If other people appear, they remain

members of the cast, peripheral figures subordinated to her role. She

exercises a demonstrative and extreme self-examination, effectively as a

proxy for the viewer. For no one observes us as exactly as we do ourselves.

As with us, she is her own greatest mystery, her own clown. One hides

behind one’s appearance, and no self-projection can be traced back to a

true image. That the artist always appears as model certainly doesn’t only

have to do with the fact that she can implement her ideas most precisely

with herself as protagonist. The works stand in a long artistic tradition

of the critical self-portrait, from Otto Dix and Max Beckmann to Cindy

Sherman or Francesca Woodman.

Freess’s tendency to present herself in absurd situations borders on an

obsession. The photographic series “Die Strafe” [Punishment] (2004), which

shows her tarred and feathered, is one of her most extreme self-depictions.

In formal terms, and in the context of her work as a whole, the connections

of this impressive series to her drawings and sculptures are obvious. She

is alone, her body completely black and covered with white feathers. At

once punished and decorated, she sits opposite us in a steady and stately

pose like a queen; neither helpless nor suffering, she looks at us from the

depths. As a woman artist she is entitled to show female identity bound and

tormented in this way. And she even takes the self-reflection a step further.

With a wax cast of herself – captured in a photographic series from 1999 –

she creates her own double, a clone which she tries to bring to life through

quirky actions. The viewer is shocked by the knowing smile, no matter

what happens, of this figure without an identity or will of its own. The

monochrome whitish wax doll is the artist’s alter ego, her second self,

her own shadow, which she observes. But this wax sculpture is not only

used to picture the artist’s dialogue with herself; it is also found in some

of Freess’s installations.

Maike Freess doesn’t merely touch on the sensitive issues represented

by the human psyche; the extreme physicality encountered in her works

– that is, the other side of the human being – has the effect of a breach

of taboo. The back-and-forth of living and lifeless gets under the viewer’s

skin. Freess forms whole bodies in wax, but also individual body parts:

ears, nose, face. The velvet, skin-like surface or the artificial hair are

both artfully aesthetic and repellently unaesthetic, even gruesome. The

muteness of the reproductions is filled with sounds, undifferentiated

noises, an unidentifiable slurry of words. Seated wax figures with long

black hair, who – if not the likeness of the artist are at least similar to her

– again show the struggle with oneself. While in “It Turns My Head” (2001)

or “Caprice” (2002) they sit dumb and motionless, a small-format video

hidden at each one’s feet shows a person gesticulating wildly. In another

work, “Ich bin an einem Ort, an dem nichts geschieht” [I Am in a Place where

Nothing Happens] (2004) Freess combines the figure with an extensive,

spatial collage of highly cultivated drawings and discretely inserted small

videos to create a sexually loaded assemblage. The conjunction of such a

traditional genre as the drawing, in which Maike Freess has the virtuosity

of the old masters, with modern media is exceptional. In comparison with

the almost minimalist photographs, these sculptural installations and

‘combine drawings’ are a highly complex challenge to the sense of sight,

if not a deliberate overload.

Is the presentation light-hearted or despairing, ironic or deadly serious?

In two other works, which in formal aspects are actually singular in the

artist’s development, the doubt remains: in reference to the catchphrase

‘form follows function’, one could say that the subject matter requires the

artistic medium, and that this shows the intensity with which Maike Freess

takes up existential questions.

“Der archivierte Tod” [Archived Death] (2011) is a video in which a little

marionette plays the Grim Reaper, who liberates himself from an archive

box and hops along the pavement, falling all the time into puddles. Or –

again, the title is part of the work – the installation “Das Blaue vom Himmel”

[Pie in the Sky] (2011): a lifelike and life-sized blonde schoolgirl in a short

pleated skirt and proper socks revolves endlessly and helpless, like on a

musical box, and is very similar to the remote-controlled marionette Death

hanging on his strings. Here too harmlessness is mixed with absolute

existential peril, with total extinction. There is no escape. Shining out like

a beacon in this beautiful, innocuous, unexcited endlessness – once we

have identified the girl’s belt – is the realisation that it contains grenades.

According to Maike Freess, who created this poetic and topical installation

in the year of 9/11, the bomb stands for the ubiquitous danger of our time,

for the rupture of all values.

Maike Freess sees her photographic series of apparently unconnected

individual images held together only by a shared title – such as “Insomnia”

(2004) – and the images originating in an apparent sequence of action –

such as “Should I Stay” (2000) – as ‘film stills’ or ‘tableaux vivants’, even

though they have no cinematic basis. She suggests an order of events, but

this can’t be verified, because she doesn’t reveal what happens in the time

between the shots; that is, she deliberately leaves gaps that stimulate the

imagination of the viewer. In her films, by contrast, there is a spatial and

temporal continuum. But even this is misleading, as the actions are futile,

without a beginning or an end, an absurd theatre. What the protagonists

do is unspectacular, surreal, always the same. Literary associations arise

– to Beckett, for example, or to Kafka.

The videos are also about interaction and communication. Optically the

filmed sequences of “When It’s Most Beautiful” (1999) (a chess game

played in masks that ends in chaos) and “All Wishes Start from Here”

(2001) (a man and a woman at a table, unable to communicate) have much

in common with the photographic works. Here too people work away at

one another without finding a common ground. It’s about isolation and

powerlessness in a world without contact. As Maike Freess says, everyone

is “trapped inside herself in Beckett’s sense”. The comic and the tragic are

combined as much as the beautiful and the ugly, order and chaos, in this

absurd acting.

In other videos, such as “A Noise Hums in My Head” (2001), the artist

is again the main protagonist. In this work Maike Freess shows four

short sequences one after the other. Each one could be seen as a filmed

performance, with the difference that the settings are clearly defined,

configured and pictorially composed, as in the photographic works.

Freess purposefully shows us what we should see; every apparent

visual distraction leads back to the intended message. The minimal and

rudimentary actions repeat themselves endlessly: a woman stands at a

window, looking out; a woman dances alone in a room; a woman walks

haltingly up some stairs. In the fourth sequence we see two men in suits,

one of whom throws himself at the feet of the other. As simply as the

individual films are conceived, viewing them in sequence is complex, as

the way in which the four actions interrelate remains open. We intently

follow what happens, until perhaps we construct a relationship for

ourselves, inventing our own story.

Similarly to Marina Abramovic´ in her performance with the precise

and simple title “The Artist is Present”, Maike Freess demonstrates

psychological self-experimentation in the widest sense here. An awareness

of the dilemma of being caught in one’s own psychic structure is evoked,

although no real interaction occurs between film figure and viewer. The

latter can always retreat to her passive position as observer. But in the

video “Tanzen Sie?” [Do You Dance?] (1999), for example, Freess crosses

the threshold with a direct address. The action is extremely simple: music

sounds, and an attractive young woman in an evening dress invites us to

dance. There is no specific place characterised by narrative details here.

The invitation seems to come from nowhere. Projected onto a freestanding

transparent surface in the middle of the space, the film figure – as in other

videos – has the presence of a real person.

The isolation of the figure has much to do with the drawn portraits. A

study of Freess’s drawings alters the view of her drawings, and vice versa.

The exhibition at the Von der Heydt-Kunsthalle, which Maike Freess has

entitled “Of Blind Certainty”, brings both art forms into close – not only

spatial – context.

Maike Freess has never neglected her primary artistic medium, and seeing

her formally so contradictory work in context is one of the most fascinating

aspects of each of her exhibitions. She has never painted, because, as

she says, the hardness and recalcitrance of paper is important to her

and the suppleness of canvas uncongenial. She needs resistance. On the

other hand the freedom of surreal experimentation is at its greatest in the

drawings. Maike Freess draws without making preliminary studies. The

dynamic of the pencil strokes, the play of light and dark and the complexity

of the composition can be very different, depending on the group of works.

It could be asked what is the more impressive in her drawing, the power

of her imagination or the virtuosic hyperrealism. But ultimately every one

of her drawings is so powerful that aesthetic appreciation is secondary.

She has drawn a great many very different portraits. In “Humming Place”

(2010), for example, she created a private collection of anonymous faces

of dreaming, sleeping, musing figures, all of them lost in reverie, turned

away, wrapped up in themselves. They remain far away and unfathomable

in their own worlds, united by the sound that accompanies them, which can

be identified only as an unintelligible murmuring. In drawing, too, Maike

Freess has a poetic side and a critical, caricature-like one: an example of

the latter is “Die Auszeichnung” [The Accolade] (2010), which displays the

visages of modern society lined up and scorned, as in a Punch-and-Judy

show. Every one of those portrayed is disabled or blind in some way, but

self-assured nonetheless.

By contrast, the Parisian critic Philippe Dagen says of “Amok” (2012), one

of Freess’s largest and most important drawings: “Her biography says that

Maike Freess was born in Leipzig in 1965. One therefore has to believe in the

transmigration of souls, for she is engrossed in the artistic eye of someone

like Baldung Grien, or at least Grünewald or, closer to us, Bellmer. She

draws on white or black paper with the same sureness, and with the same

facility of touch creates the spatiality of the heads and bodies through

lines and points of light. But she is of today. You can see her disgruntled

or jaded female faces on the street. The military parades going on in the

background have been familiar to us since the 20th century. ‘Amok’, the

very large, dominating drawing, is one of the most impressive historical

allegories ever seen. And one of the most gruesome.”

The most recent drawings, on white or black paper, have large formats and

are precisely worked, a reason why they can compete in every way with

the media of film and photography. The portrait features are now more

individualised. What is new is the spatial concept, which puts the figures

on stage in a certain way. The clothing is – again, as in the photographic

works – realistic yet strange. Clad in shorts, a shirt or a suit with sock

liners, the figures stand in a dream world, not on the earth. Their gaze

remains within the pictorial space; each of them is hermetically sealed or

trapped in their own framework. The reduction to black and white with a

few accents of colour indicates that these are phantasms, hallucinations.

All kinds of absurd details can be discovered: the body that is alien to one,

or becoming so; estranged limbs or foreign organs that attach or plant

themselves; distorted faces; people with claws. Figures march along the

back of a boy; the belly of a woman opens, revealing all kinds of grossness.

Fantasy and truth are mixed. It isn’t really a surreal imagination that brings

out these images, more of an X-ray vision. In formal terms they are strictly

controlled; there is no endless further growth, no labyrinthine seething,

but structured sequence. Individual portraits are juxtaposed by bands of

marching figures – the anonymous collective breathing down the neck of

the subject.

It’s as if the surface images we normally see have had to be torn apart or

destroyed in order to break through to the real things; in order to get down

to the truth, or certainty. But what emerges is terrible, often enough, which

is why Maike Freess’s drawings sometimes almost breach the boundaries

of good taste. In the ones with a black background the atmosphere is

ominous. The motifs, coupled with old-masterly ability, make one think

of medieval images of hell, as if we were looking at our modern Day of

Judgement. The voyeurism causes us to linger – and then? In fact we

observe ourselves thinking; we even try to get on the track of our own logic.

But the point is probably not to interpret or explain our imagination, but

simply to experience. Freess’s drawing is certainly related to that of Alfred

Kubin, although with her work active composition is in the foreground,

rather than the passive suffering of dream images.

A striking means of composition is Freess’s invention of cut lines of

paper, called “cuts” or “paper cuts”, that she inserts into the drawings

as a way of disrupting the viewer’s gaze. They have the function of fault

lines, and prevent an all too realistic way of seeing things, an all to certain

interpretation. The term “cut” is naturally associated with film montage,

which separates or connects spaces and times. And here they do in fact

cause spatial facets, necessitating a successive perception of individual

pictorial fields and slowing down the act of seeing. “They stand for the

unexpected, the uncertain, the unknown, the unplanned, for the incalculable

and illogical events with which we are permanently confronted. These

intermediate spaces, black holes or gaps mark psychological space as

‘thought space’,” writes Maike Freess.

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