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Space as Boundary

Structures and motifs in the work of Maike Freess

Thomas Hirsch

Although the drawings that Maike Freess has created over a period of a

decade are all very different, what they have in common, aside from their

assuredness within the medium, is the subject matter: the portrayal of the

human being, as woman, man, child in expressive intensity, in spaces in

which nothing is certain. Many of the figures in her most recent drawings

seem to be caught in dream situations between waking and sleeping. The

retarding interplay of their limbs seems to be controlled by higher powers.

External space is made present through the use of paper cut-outs, which

Maike Freess has used since 2010: she places individual, mainly angular,

tapering strips of paper in black or – less frequently – white onto the surface

to create gaps, breaks and emphases within the depictive continuity.

The protagonists of these drawings make reluctant contact with their surroundings.

Maike Freess operates with the synchronism of convergence

and disconnection vis-à-vis the viewer by altering the perspective within

the visual construct. In “Task” (2014) a boy in shorts stands bolt upright

on a chair. His eyes are closed; he holds his hands slightly away from him,

fingers splayed; the concentration embraces his entire body. While the

chair topples, the boy seems to defy gravity.1 The background flickers up,

and a piece of cloth falls across the back of the chair. Gradually a rapport

can be made out in the immediate surroundings between figuration and

body parts which recalls visions of the Last Judgement from old Dutch

paintings to the dolls of Hans Bellmer and on to H. R. Giger. This perhaps

brings Plato’s cave to mind, as Friedrich Dürrenmatt describes in his expressionist

short story “The City” (1947): “In the confusion of forms I was

barely able to distinguish my hand, which seemed to me an unreal entity

as I caught sight of it, so much had my consciousness of it belonging to

me disappeared, and it was as if I had lost all power over it.”2 Dürrenmatt

is concerned with the question of identity, whether he is a guard or a prisoner

and the role he perceives in the spatial construct. In “Task” this merging

with the surroundings occurs in the shadow cutting into the left arm.

The paper cut-outs are both fact and suggestion. They describe turbulences,

and in their defined form in the indefinite spatial construct they evoke

the precariousness and instability of a world in which there is more than

one reality. It is as if the entire cosmos has been set in motion around the

boy. The morphing porousness of the background naturally reminds one

of settings from the cinema, as in “The Devil’s Advocate” (1997, dir. Taylor

Hackfort), for example. They share the presence of the metaphysical as the

projection of imaginable metaphors. Another self emerges here.

The chair – like a pedestal – is the measure of the boy’s physical extension.

A similar thing can be seen in “Coma” (2014). Here a woman is enfolded in

a cabin. The crown of her head minimally overtops it, and her feet extend

below a slightly tilted transparent pane. The woman seems absent, as if

outside herself. Her hands are raised stiffly, her fingers becoming nervous

extensions, their tips touching the edges of the pane. A kind of veil with

reflecting zones hangs down in front of her. Focused by a black paper-cut,

we see the extremely fine reflection of her right hand further back. The

offset recapitulation of the fingers turns out to be an element that Maike

Freess repeatedly uses. Hands anyway play an important role in her work:

as acting or emotional activa, to balance the body, to feel one’s way carefully

and to sound out one’s own boundaries, thus for self-assurance.

This is the case in the sculpture “Das Blaue vom Himmel” [Pie in the Sky]

(2011), the life-sized woman with a belt of explosives who takes up the

rotation of her disk-shaped platform with outstretched arms, making occasional

contact with the outside world, which she is probably going to

blow up at any moment. Hands and fingers are the instruments of the man

gesticulating like a missionary in the drawing “Salt and Pepper” (2013). He

has something of the demagogue about him, with his upraised head and

pursed lips; his fingers merge with toads. And in “Puls schweigt” [Still

Pulse] (2014/15) a boy makes an appearance like a puppeteer, with a complicated

interlocking of the fingers of both hands and a prayerfully lowered

gaze. “Reanimation” (2014), on the other hand, stages a sequence of

hand and finger positions. It always appears to be the same woman. There

is a pictorial density of various physical states between lying down, crouching

and kneeling, alternating with doubling up, stretching and shifting

the weight from forward to back. The images are distributed according to

the duplication of the central figure’s (additionally overlong) arms, whose

gestures indicate concentration and absorption. The narrative dimension

provides the framework for a simultaneity of here and there, realism and

surrealism, depiction and interpretation. Maike Freess achieves this brilliantly.

In her elucidations of psychological states by means of physical constitution,

Maike Freess has particular recourse to sequences of movement as a

space–time continuum, to instability in a confined volume of space, to the

alternation of light and dark and to surreal impressions. But she had already

made use of these characteristics of the late drawings, in which people

are thrown back on themselves, in her early sculptural works. “Haus”

(1994), as a plywood shaft, is what the title augurs. Its slanting roof, tapering

width and access over a step impose a certain behaviour on the

visitor. Orientation is provided by observation slits. If these are opposite

one another, the sunlight from outside can be seen as an angular form.

But the visitor to “Haus” has to accomplish a successive change in body

posture from one extreme to the other, which involves an interconnection

of growing inner awareness and the outside world. Perhaps we should

look at Maike Freess’s oeuvre again from here, almost at the start of her

artistic practice: how it questions social conventions using the different

senses, always penetrating further into the unconscious. For this purpose

Maike Freess concisely visualises Gaston Bachelard’s (metaphorical) diffe-

rentiation of the house as a vertical being (with its various floors) and as

a concentrated being.3 Fundamental to her is the concept of the passage,

which in “Haus” is physically traversed.4

Maike Freess has also developed sculptural ensembles in the sequential

repetition of non-representational constructions. They separate the spatial

volume as linearly curving, sometimes angular arrangements, making it

almost palpable. But they also – as Francis Parent has observed – cut directly

into the space.5 In “Die Armee” [The Army] (1991) the rectangular

elements taper into points, their dark surfaces symbolising menace. At the

same time the ‘army’ is immensely psychically charged, with spikes extended

as if in self-protection. There are hints of the machine-like soulless

robot in the rigid again-and-again of its twenty-five individual elements.

Other sculptures then further concretise the idea of the human being. This

applies for example to “Bien rangé” [Tidy] (1992) and “Kleiner Protest”

[Small Protest] (1994), which come across as a commentary on the ‘army’.

In “Die gefangenen Witwen” [The Captive Widows] (1995) the limbs –

which can be associated with spiders – suggest postures in between stretching

and crouching,6 yet they are caught up – as the title can be interpreted

– in mourning and loss. How does this affect one’s dreams? A decade

and a half later Maike Freess returns to this topos. Her two-part drawing

“Die Witwen” [The Widows] (2011) always seems to show the same woman.

As in “Das Blaue vom Himmel” she wears an belt of explosives with

a detonator, and there are spikes that almost reach the eyes, which with

all the women are blind or empty – the loss (permanent or temporary) of

the sense of sight is another of Freess’s recurring motifs. One figure wears

a mask that looks like Mickey Mouse.7 Maike Freess explores each suicide

bomber’s state of mind, which translates their fate into collective suffering.

These scenes of hyperactive hands express grave agitation.

In the sculpture “Sprich jetzt!” [Speak Now!] (1994) the atmospheric charge

only becomes clear gradually. Two rows of identical constructions appear

to observe one another face to face. Far-reaching emphasis goes hand in

hand with extreme self-control. The imperative of the title underlines the

element of dialogue among equals. At the latest with this sculpture, the

nuances of communication or its disturbance become an integral part of

Maike Freess’s repertoire. The ‘opposites’ can sit side by side, as in the

photographic series “Should I Stay? 6–11” (2000) – Pernille Grane rightly

refers here to scenes from Beckett8 – or fulfil the social conventions while

contradicting one another at a laid table, as in “Le Dîner” (2004). Maike

Freess primarily visualises interpersonal emotionality in the new media,

in her photographs and films, in which she gradually exposes feelings,

emphasises an ‘other’ side and through this the deviation from social expectations.

The covers of catalogues “Led by Pleasure – Multiply Drama” (Ivrysur-

Seine 2001) and “Das Blaue vom Himmel” (Berlin 2011) both show

a fashionably dressed, self-possessed woman in makeup looking at the

viewer.9 The one is the woman from “Das Blaue vom Himmel”, the other

comes from the video in the installation “Led by Pleasure – Multiply Dra-

ma” (2001). Here the viewer experiences from inside, so to speak, how the

woman with waving blonde hair attempts to look through a pane of glass.

Within this sequence the framing edge of the pane appears as a vertical,

once on the left, once on the right. The pane, which we don’t see but can

imagine, functions like a burning glass of countenance. While the woman

feels herself to be unobserved, we feel ourselves to be indiscreet observers

and watched at the same. And there is also a knocking, which becomes

a reassurance of reality, with the hand and through listening. This

combination is also a feature of the two-part wall piece “Du und ich” [You

and I] (1998), with wax casts of hands – one is held in front of the mouth,

another extends the forefinger – in connection with language coming out

of loudspeakers behind them. Language becomes visible the gesture audible.

Shifts and unmaskings are a part of this conversation; Maike Freess

questions attitudes and looks behind the facade.

She deepens the questions about identity and multiple identity (as an exchange

of roles, for example in a new set of clothes or a switch in behaviour)

in the self-staging of her photographic series and videos – but it isn’t

so important that this is Maike Freess, rather that the same woman can

be seen. The theme is often the monotony of convention, the ritualised

contact between people and the maintenance of appearance in regard to

social conventions – ultimately the debunking of this deceptiveness. In

the video installation “Wenn es am schönsten ist” [When It’s the Most

Enjoyable] (1999) a couple play chess, the man in a white shirt, the woman

in a bright red blouse. Theatrically moving the pieces, both wear naturalistic

masks. In an increasingly fast tempo they alternately throw the pieces

around, causing them to fall to the floor, before setting up the game again.

This sequence is projected onto the wall, in front of it the chairs and table,

on which lie the chess game and the masks which have made it possible

to break the rules and save face.

Following her early sculptures, which have a finely nerved, tactile paper

surface that suggests bronze, and which she describes as “skins”,10 Maike

Freess went on to examine the phenomenon of the hull in wax impressions

taken from her own body. The photographic work “Selbstbeherrschung”

[Self-control] (1998) demonstrates the substantive dimension of

such an act. The dark wax, lying somewhat above the light skin, seems to

be another self of the person, who is literally wedged in here and extends

the surface of the chair. And in “70 Tage” [70 Days] (1998) casts of the lower

half of the face, in varying nuances of colour and form, lie on seventy

horizontal mirrors.11 The viewer can see the casts from below: they prove

to be masks, thus equivalent to the hull.12 But they differ from death masks

in leaving out the eyes. The process of taking an impression involves the

tactile experience of the fingertips in the meticulousness of the epidermal

ridges. The individuality of the person taking the cast enters into a dialogue

with the individuality of the model, separated in turn by the mask

as veil13 – in the work of Maike Freess we often come up against an invisible

boundary between here and there, illusion and reality, perceiving and

being perceived, language and silence.Elsewhere, however, she forgoes the mask

entirely: when she is concerned with the portrait as the undisguised expression of uniqueness,

with showing its quintessence in exhaustion, the dream, extreme situations

or extractive focus. This is the case in her series “Humming Place” (2011).

Often sketch-like, in between drawing and painting, the images exhibit a

wealth of graphic possibility and references to art history that is eminently

contemporary in its terse intensity. Here, without activity of any kind, Maike

Freess taps into a background noise of various emotional and mental

states. Ignoring trends and fashions in her old-masterly technique, she

celebrates the distinguishing mark of the human being. As a whole and

in its train of thought, “Humming Place” is about the human being as the

tragicomedy of a regulated, self-adjusting society.

Throughout her work, however, Maike Freess shows people who break

with conventions through being absent, grotesque, libidinous, gruesome,

loud or still. She studies the small, private, actually hidden gestures that

reveal true sensitivity as identity. She demonstrates what keeps the world

together at its core.

(1) Such effects are of course used as a

stylistic device in the cinema, e.g. The Fury

(1977/78), dir. Brian De Palma.

(2) Translated from Friedrich Dürrenmatt,

Werkausgabe in dreißig Bänden, vol. 18,

Zurich: Diogenes, 1980, p. 144.

(3) Gaston Bachelard, “La poétique de

l‘espace, 1957, I.V and I.VI.

(4) Maike Freess stands here in the same

tradition as Bruce Nauman and Richard

Serra. Gregor Schneider will later work with

the corridor/passage – from which doors

open onto the apparently quotidian. See

also Freess’s installation Couloir [Corridor]


(5) Exhib. cat. Grassimuseum Leipzig 1995,

p. 14.

(6) The sequence of elements can accordingly

be placed on the floor and pushed


(7) The British sculptor Michael Sandle

similarly used a Mickey Mouse head as an

expression of protest: as a metaphor for

the stupidity of the population in relation to

the war-making government. Sandle, born

in 1936, refers concretely to the Vietnam

War, but also to dumbing down through the

media. See also his sculpture A Twentieth

Century Memorial, 1976–78, Tate London.

(8) Exhib. cat. Ivry-sur-Seine 2001, p. 61.

(9) By contrast the catalogue Immersed in

Your Rosy Dawn (Marne-le-Vallée 1999) superimposes

the eyes on the front cover. Only

on the back can it be seen that the head has

been tipped to the horizontal and roughly

pixelated. The exclusiveness of the eyes also

underlines their relevance, even at this early

stage, to the visual language of Maike Freess.

(10) Quoted from Francis Parent, see note

5, p. 15.

(11) Jean Mairet has described the aesthetic

ambivalence of the realism of the

skin and the subtleties of facial expression,

exhib. cat. Marne-la-Vallée 1999, s.p.

(12) Among the artists important to her,

Maike Freess numbers Cindy Sherman,

with her masquerades, disguises and

stagings; conversation in the studio, Berlin,

21 March 2015.

(13) For the simultaneity of matrix and

process while taking an impression see

Georges Didi-Huberman, Ähnlichkeit und

Berührung, Cologne: DuMont, 1999, 30ff

and 97ff; but also Doubting Thomas, who

placed his finger in Christ’s wound. A

boundary that comes about through an

impression is of course the Turin Shroud.

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