wine and hot water, exhibition at gabriele senn gallery
Waves, Abyss, The Sanctimonious, Home, Overture, Ash, Sun, Set, Rise, Acid, TV, and A Place I & II are the titles of the thirteen photographs Stephanie Stern is showing in her first solo exhibition at Senn Gallery. Just as the title Wine and Hot Water! suggests a staged but also unusual combination, the photographs depict cinematographic scenes that seem to serve as both amplifiers and dampeners for the selected and depicted protagonists. In the combination of titles and images, viewers are directed to other places or states: Emergence and Dissolution, Life and Non-Life, Past and Present, Morality and Ethics, Common Places and Abysses, and the Ambivalence of Staging and Deception.
The peculiar, emptied, sparsely illuminated scenarios, show placed objects on stone slabs - which prevent any further local reference. There is an atmosphere of seclusion, reminiscent of a laboratory situation, a chamber play or a huis clos - a closed or secret society. To be part of a secret society means to be assigned a fixed place and to take on a role. Such a place draws its power from its complete contrast and absolute opacity to public life. Whether these staged objects are part of a festival or ceremony or part of an individual cultural work is left to interpretation. In contrast to these gloomy but also partly humorous scenes, there is a photograph showing a place in the outside world where the viewers are also assigned a fixed place and role and thus become part of a staging to which one can only passively surrender.
This setting, as well as a certain emptiness that dominates the images, continues in the exhibition space like an echo. By using one and the same format for the works and making them no larger than an average screen, a composition is created that exhibits a formal rigor. The images, with their grotesque, mythical or childlike motifs, refer to alien worlds and realities and seem like a contrast to them. In their presentation (lamination behind glass, mounted on wood), the photographs seem like iconic panel paintings/memory boards. They are highly absorbent (non-reflective) and therefore have no interaction with the space or the viewer, which reinforces their seclusion. Only a few works are mounted behind a reflective surface, which acts like an outburst or promise of interaction.
The images and titles, as well as the images relation to each other, bring associations that recall a text by Walter Benjamin, where he reflected on the mimetic capabilities of mankind. According to Benjamin, 'non-sensuous similarity' is something almost completely lost to us, but of enormous importance to the history, and the future, of humankind's mimetic faculties. '[N]on-sensuous similarity […] establishes the ties between the spoken and the signified but also between the written and the signified, and equally between the spoken and the written.' Non-sensuous similarity in image terms would be chains of association which link images but do not comprise objective semblance. This would include elements of linguistic and other cultural association, puns, properties, formal correspondences and associations. These are, as Benjamin suggests, provocations to our mimetic capabilities, they stir associations and resonances, even false ones.
To “read what was never written”, then, is a skill we employ when confronted with the works in the exhibition. These photographs do not provide symbols, but elements processed through rather opaque operations of (often digital) abstraction. These elements look like they could be symbols, but they most certainly are not. Our senses work on the patterns of association between things beyond resemblance.
Things depicted can form a system of their own, their relationship to one another can follow rules similar to those of a language. As in the night, the sparse lighting swallows and obscures the background. The scenes become frames or architectures in which something we cannot quite understand takes place. The background is a place that the objects obscure, whose status and location remains hidden. What is going on behind the scene is the unimaginable. The pictures manifest belief and allure in the setting, yet to unveil or depict it fully would only introduce doubt.
Mimicry and the Translation of Forms:
Text by Anthony Iles
Stone rested on wood. Imitation? stone resting on wood. Placing is anticipation. Why is the absence of fixtures suggestive of the religious? As elsewhere in Stern's work, things are surfaced. Forms are translated, elements, or rather dimensions of them, are effaced. Whilst we could understand this as a flattening or a reduction to surface, this is not quite right, and I use surfaced to suggest both effacement and suppression, but this is not only a reduction, the result has form, just not the same one begun with. '[O]bjects lose their identity and only fragments of their properties remain. They become part of an abstract structure where new properties develop.’ There are the details which are functional to the plot and the details whose lack of discernible function is what makes them authentications of the real. What if the slowly ruined, the worn-away-over-time was ready made and therefore our anticipation and reverence similarly prêt-à-porter turned out ready for an instant indulgent appreciation or nod quickly and walk away? Part-ruin is a state which opens a face for us to fill with that which is otherwise absent from general social life. We have to ask ourselves precisely how that which is unavailable normally has been generated here? What is the content of what is absent here? What does it cohere in? What am I filling it with? Does what is doing the filling emanate from sculpture, or from me, or from something socially constructed not contained in the room, but somehow conjured into presence by it? What is the spiritually material? What are the steps of its syntheses? In material? In us as material? Are we looking then at scene rather than sculpture? If this is sculpture, then most of its construction is out of sight and we are standing within this sculpture, looking at its centre, or one of its many sub-centres. Are we part of the scene, or is it for us? These are details of the scene, they do not quite advance the plot, but their significance cannot be dismissed. Too slight to comprise symbolism in themselves, they call us to the anticipation of the symbolic. The dry and pocked surface of the cast upheld arms resist facticity, that is: our attention cannot settle on the form that surface encapsulates but we are drawn into the fissures and the arm's shallow transluscency. Both opening to and deflective of sensorial engagement, the plaster only mimics stone, with little of its depth. Plaster insists on imitation, yet replete with blemishes it is less true than a true cast or a perfected freehand imitation in stone. It is also additionally false, potentially simply the same arm cast twice, flipped and reversed once. A copy with its own particularity. Is it the false symmetry of the flipped, or the false symmetry of the real symmetry which is not precise symmetry, but homogenous difference? The rock and wood suggest first geological then world history, but each are of the order of pre-human, Meanwhile homo faber has ceased to remake the world and begun instead to remake himself from the inside out... yet the outcome is offered too, with rock, with wood, on wood, on rock before the picture plane. We are looking for an icon, a central image with which to bring this scene into focus. Behind the makeshift altar assembled through the placing of upright arms, stone plate and roughly chopped wood is hung a screen seemingly covered with hieroglyphs. What at first appears to be a screen or textile is in fact a photographic print, the glyphs are close in resemblance but not a single one is identical. These glyphs are the residue of wooden bed slats that have been randomly arranged on the ground and rephotographed until they look like bones, arranged as a set to look like a script or an entire scroll of an undecipherable script. These descriptions make what appears sound exotic or imitative, but the process is not one driven by finding resemblances, rather resemblances are what finds the material.
Stern's series, and particularly this photographic print, part of a longer series and process which recedes behind the finished work, can be thought in terms of a post-digital study of 'non-sensuous similarity', Walter Benjamin's evocative phrase, first formulated his short text, 'On the Mimetic Faculty' , in 1933. According to Benjamin, 'non-sensuous similarity' is something almost completely lost to us, but of enormous importance to the history, and the future, for humankind's mimetic faculties. '[N]on-sensuous similarity […] establishes the ties between the written and the signified but also between the written and the signified, and equally between the spoken and the written.' Non-sensuous similarity in image terms would be chains of association which link images but do not comprise objective semblance. This would include elements of linguistic and other cultural association, puns, properties, formal correspondences and associations. These are, as Benjamin suggests, provocations to our mimetic capabilities they stir associations and resonances, even false ones. 'To read what was never written' then, is, I suggest, a capacity we engage in confronted by Stern's works. Because Stern does not deliver symbols, but rather elements processed through rather obscure operations of (often digital) abstraction which deliver things which look as if they might be symbols, but are resolutely not. Our senses labour in the patterns of association between things beyond resemblance.
Colour appears in Stern's photographic work as a physical yet also medial element. By showing how form can be enhanced or undermined by colour, through the combination of imaging techniques usually applied in separate disciplines, for example in museum display, scientific imaging, commercial photography and retouching we arrive at an image which is sculptural in composition and poses an affront to our powers of mimesis. That is, it frustrates our efforts to find appropriate resemblances, suggesting a new mode of reading images which is yet to be available to us. Bread has a religious significance, but not butter. Elsewhere in the work we arrive at the museum of bread, the museum of ephemeral gourmet butter curls! How they glisten! Butter has defined commercial form as an image. Butter is posed perfectly for the shoot. Butter is curling in on itself, perfectly grooved, displaying an underside and an outside twisted into an ourobros. Butter is vitality. Bread is history, storage, dust. Butter and bread, social hieroglyphs but also practical items. Rather, instead of the standard circuit: first practical and everyday items, bread is formed as a social hieroglyph in advance, it is made to fit its symbolism rather than the other way around. Bread now looks like designed bread. This licenses then for Stern, an introduction of forming, translating form, intensifying form, entangling it in the technics of image-making seemingly at any point in the process, what we see is the arrest of this process. It is not exactly about process but what is arrived at, but that is also a station in the process. In another work, the intensity of the colour print and its enclosed controlled tableau is then subordinated to unexpectedly open frame of reference when presented in a viewing space where its primary colour has leaked onto the wall. It appears then unenclosed. The environment is one in which the furniture showroom meets the waiting room, meets the white cube half-way, proposing the concentration expected in a church or completely white gallery space whilst also the environment itself becoming a thing of contemplation. Should we be looking at the picture, the background or the space itself. What exactly is on display and what is not? This is an environment which is entangled in procedures, not of the construction of spatiality, but the construction of an image. Each level of image requires our focus, therefore we cannot see and compose an image inside another image, rather each surface needs to be approached alone.
These are, I would like to suggest, objects adequate to a post-truth world – a world of relative and competing claims – which do not affirm the shallowness of its constitution, nor revel in inauthenticity, but rather calls our powers of perception and apperception to attentive enquiry and discernment. In the face of so many needy objects, which call and lure us, trap and release data about and around us, we are instead not presented with readymade authenticity or beauty which might compensate for the dizzying effects of a crumbling world or promise a better one in its stead. Rather, our attention is knitted into the working out and unravelling of the potential for the derivation of the truth of our shared condition, its past and future, amidst its retinue of signifying materials and sedimented history of forms.
Anthony Iles, July 2020