Katharina Fritsch:  Das Individuum und die kollektive Angst

Kunstforum 128, 1994






Katharina Fritsch:  Das Individuum und die kollektive Angst

Text Rolf Lauter in Kunstforum 128, 1994

Katharina Fritsch was born in 1956. She devoted an entire year of intensive preparations to creating her installation at the MMK entitled Tischgesellschaft (Table Companions, 1988). This large sculptural work is a total of 16 meters in length and consists of 32 figures sitting on gray wooden benches; they are positioned as two groups of 16 men sitting opposite each other at a long table. The table is covered with a white cotton cloth with a red pattern. All the figures have been molded absolutely identically in polyester using the same male model, then painted black and white. All their clothing is black and all incarnate elements, i.e., their faces and hands, are white. Tischgesellschaft takes up precisely where Fritsch left off in 1987 with her elephants – there, she had already addressed quite unequivocally the question as to the borders between the areas of ‘art’ and ‚life‘ or rather where such borders blur or the areas overlap. Moreover, she attempted to find a language of images for the perception of reality, thus reconstructing visible, tangible reality by creating structural equivalents in the form of objects or object installations.

Tischgesellschaft attests even more clearly to this key thrust of Katharina Fritsch’s work, for here she dares to reconstruct the reality of the present, by subtly embarking on a balancing act between the public and the private spheres, the fields of the subjective and the collective, or the specific and the universal. Absolutely identical in appearance, posture, gesture and mimicry, these 32 figures are serial beings and prototypes for an individual – yet not one of them differs in the slightest detail from any of the others. Here, the subjective melds with the collective, the individual is placed on the same level as the group. Because the white faces dispense with physiognomic detail of any sort, the sense of individuality we might otherwise experience when looking at one of the figures becomes completely elided. Something similar applies to the way the artist has identified the clothing using the color black. The totality dominates the individual parts, the specific disappears under the mask of uniformity. The standardizing effect of painting the figures black and white is repeated in the way the hands rest on the table, utterly lacking volition, just as all these men wear blank gazes on what should be their faces. The space between the figures is not filled with any kind of dialog-related tension. Instead, these figures are self-referential, puppet-like beings, subject to a self-imposed choreography. The work of art formulates an endless, unchanging cycle which repeats the same plot, the same appearance, the same thoughts and the same feelings over and over again – and refers only and exclusively to itself.

In Fritsch’s work, autobiographical elements are shot through with collective experience. Experiences of contemporary reality take shape. The tablecloth, which is based on a traditional pattern the artist saw on a serviette at a Swiss inn when she was a child, has become an empty aesthetic pattern superimposed on all else. The serial figure refers in equal measure to the collective / the masses, and to the individual as the constitutive element of the collective, here shown in an ideal projection as a figure that is identical to itself. Humankind, and items of everyday reality, usually marginally altered, are exposed as prototypes of a world that is defined by artificial feelings and stereotyped thoughts. This work, which reflects upon and paraphrases the present, is a highly credible sculptural equivalent to the visionary, future-oriented notions of authors such as Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, both of whom intended their respective works as a warning to mankind about what the future might bring. Additionally, the installation also articulates our collective fears about the future of research into genetic engineering such as cloning, a future on which we can currently at best speculate. The question that needs to be asked at this point: Is there an ethical consensus of opinion in our world regarding human respect for nature or a ’sensible‘ was for medicine to deal with the issues broached by genetic engineering and genetic modification?

The installation was designed to fit the room in which it is located and contains structural elements of the serial, the identical, and the repetitive. The result is an aesthetic version of perpetual motion, a cycle without beginning or end, similar to a geometric pattern that is identical to itself and can be extended ad infinitum. Katharina Fritsch’s work is a forceful metaphor for the realization that in today’s world thoughts and feelings are communicative elements to a lesser degree than every before; instead, they have instead become hermetic, self-referential elements of our lives and our society.

In Tischgesellschaft, the artist creates a simulacrum of reality similar to the interpretation of structuralist activity described very precisely in 1963 by Roland Barthes: „Here, creation or reflection is not an exact ‚fingerprint‘ of the world, but the actual production of a world that resembles the original world and yet does not wish to copy it, but to render it comprehensible.“ Katharina Fritsch sharpens our awareness of the present and the structures of reality. On the one hand, her work alludes to collective human reality by presenting us with products of nature, culture or civilization in a distinctly aesthetic situation. At the same time, these objects constitute their own independent reality by establishing a self-referential, self-contained structure which describes a world parallel to that everyday world we see all around us, one that simultaneously describes this visible world. Fritsch thus construes independent aesthetic realities that function as parts of our collective memory without losing their connection with the subjective world of personal experience.

Rolf Lauter