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Impossible Encounters

Jeanette Zwingenberger

Particularly in today’s age of the selfie, in which encountering others is no longer the issue, but rather the staging of a narcissistic self-image, Maike Freess’s portraits make us aware of the psychological spectrum of the human face. Her drawings bring its expressive possibilities to life with astonishing subtlety and sophistication, while at the same time bearing witness to the tragedy of confinement and impossible encounters that determines our current autistic world. Maike Frees draws mostly young people, on an apparently realistic level. In the close-up portrait “Coma” (2014) a girl stands upright, like a dreamer with closed eyes, her hands groping outward. She is hiding in a strange cabin, her body trapped behind a pane of glass. Only her outer limbs are unaffected by this rigidity. Is the physical person fusing with her mirror image here, or is it perhaps a struggle with the inner shadow? Maike Freess is not concerned with stories but with mental states. As an exact portraitist she is able to render a facial landscape with her pencil in a direct, almost anatomising way, and to bring about an intimacy with the figure that borders on the physical. The faces are often directed to the observer in a frontal view, but there is no encounter. Most of Freess’s subjects have their eyes closed, and even if they are open – as in the close-up “Stigma” (2014), in which the dark rings about the girl’s eyes become a mask – there is no eye contact. “I think about the blindness of the gaze and the deceptive effect of the outer appearance,” said Maike Freess in conversation. Her work oscillates between physical proximity and personal absence, symbolised by the remote gaze. Since 2002 Freess’s vocabulary has preferentially revolved around adolescents. She is interested in the intermediate states of childhood and the confrontation with adult reality. She grew up in Leipzig, studying there and in Halle. At the age of 24 she experienced the collapse of the socialist regime. In the early 1990s she received a travel scholarship and spent two years at the École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts in Paris, in Christian Boltanski’s multi-media

studio. She was strongly influenced by Boltanski’s sensitive and subtle way of dealing ethically with the Shoah from a personal point of view. Originally from Leipzig, she got to know the French way of life in Paris. This collision of realities sharpened her awareness of different political and social conditions. Her childhood was full of classical music, Bach and Haendel, and she sang in the Romanus Choir. In Paris, through dancing the tango, she developed a sense of concentration and rhythm that can also be found in her work: in the almost mathematical exactitude movements and absolute physical tension of her subjects.

These subjects experience disturbances, however. Their curious poses exemplify the difficult balance between different states – of self-repose or self-loss, flowing energy or rigidity, being out of control or beside oneself. Freess is interested in “singling out and analysing psychological spaces with all their ambiguities’, in uncovering the peculiar and odd in everyday

life, and the imperfections that depart from the norm or coded depictions”. The human being is pivotal – how we incarnate and encounter ourselves and others. In short, Freess’s portraits explore inner perception; they get under your skin. Her invented beings recall Kleist’s essay “On the Marionette Theatre”, in which he writes that the puppets complete absence of consciousness engenders a natural gracefulness. The strange attitudes of her figures betray inner, unconscious states. For Freess they are a metaphor for the way in which the strings of society manipulate us, throw us off course and turn us into marionettes. The motif of the pane of glass appears recurrently. In “Invidia” (2014) a girl sits on the floor with a pane of glass in her lap, while a hand seems to be within reach beneath it. The focus here is on the interrelationship of face and image, the living three-dimensionality of the body and the cold flatness of the glass, synonym for reflection. In this connection Georg Christoph Lichtenberg remarks: “For us the most entertaining surface on earth is the human face.”1 With Maike Freess, however, viewers come up against a frustrating pane of glass which makes them aware that we move in parallel worlds.


A boy wearing only underpants stands upright on a chair. His eyes are closed. There are walls around him that dissolve and unfold into individual segments reflecting strange shapes like an outside world mirroring his inner theatre. Maike Freess turns the imaginative world inside out. It becomes an extension of the person standing unreachable in the centre of the spectacle. The lines of force between inner and outer signify a “figuration of tension” of body and surroundings which Maike Freess understands as their extension. In contrast to the principle of focusing the deliberately framed composition of the photograph, Freess breaks up the visual axes of her drawings and operates with changes of perspective. She explodes the figure and its pictorial space through black, “empty” cracks, splinters, interstices and fault lines that fragment the visual narrative like a broken mirror. “They deny what they partly pretend to portray. They remain blotches, gaps or holes … or blind spots. They replace the intermediate spaces in our memory and psyche as a duplicate layer, which is permanently present inside us. It marks the spaces that we can’t name, perhaps can’t even know, which unexpectedly and uncontrollably influence our lives, and our misunderstanding or incomprehension cause uneasiness, but perhaps also move us to explore them.”2 Neo Rauch recurrently refers to the feeling of foreignness at home. But

here Freud’s psychological concept of the uncanny applies to the divisions within an individual. In today’s global age the danger comes from the environment and in getting lost in virtual worlds. Maike Freess’s disconnected worlds partake of the timelessness and placelessness that go along with disorientation. This brings surrealism to mind, but on a quite different level. In what way?


In 1924 André Breton declared in the first “Surrealist Manifesto”: “I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, if one may so speak.” The surrealist movement, which formed around 1920, oscillated between Eros and Thanatos. As a counter-image to the ideal physical cult of the National Socialists, Hans Bellmer created sexually charged works in which the genders coalesce into androgynous beings and erotic excess becomes a projection surface. In doing so he took up Sigmund Freud’s concept of the child’s polymorphic-perverse sense of the body: the libido brings about fetish-like physical zones, to which Freud ascribed both a phallic and a vaginal character. In the surreal worlds of Maike Freess the unconscious, paradox and dreamlike also play a decisive role, as in the motif of multiplying hands, which symbolises no longer having oneself in hand. The drawing “Puls schweigt” [Still Pulse] (2014/2015) recalls a pantomime game in which each part of the body represents a figure. In contrast to the collectively playful character

of the surrealists, this is an “introspective experience”. Remote from all social interaction, the boy is imprisoned by his hallucinations. Maike Freess’s work is distinguished on the one hand by its concentration on a single person, and on the other by eruptive scenarios that are often located in backgrounds, T-shirts or tattoos. The body is now the image

carrier of fantasy forms that take on a life of their own and make trouble. The woman in the drawing “Somnolence” (2013) resembles an inhabited physical dwelling from which heads and organs drop. This battlefield recalls the absurd world theatre and satirical grotesqueries of James Ensor. The inner world of feelings merges with the outer world of objects. Maike Freess likes to refer to the Leipzig carnival. “Somnolence” also stands in the tradition of the medieval Janus figure, whose front and back are alive

with snakes. Freess merges the physical consciousness of figure and background, the perception of condition and object, and the depiction of outer reality and inner imagination onto a single level, an allegory of the closed self-devouring circuit that characterises contemporary society.

1 Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, Sudelbücher,

p. 88

2 Maike Freess in conversation

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