The Metamorphosis of Being

 

The theme that runs through the works of Cornelia Rößler has to do with the transfiguration, transmutation or rather the metamorphosis of people and rooms.  Her art lies not in visualising these „changes“ as direct processes to be followed and understood, but in placing them on a symbolic plane. Working from a biological and material foundation prevailing within our socially conditioned station – namely man and room – Rößler transforms this foundation into figurative works of art that culminate into the question of life itself. In her oeuvres, she encircles individual destinies, such as the ageing of people or the changes in rooms caused by people, but also changes in a socio-political context, to then translate them into symbolic images on collective issues: questions about our approach to elderly people, our approach to our own bodies or the spaces in which we live. The frictional suspense of her work evolves from the transferability of the individual into the general collective.

The skin, as organic threshold between organism and environment is central to Rößler’s work and becomes a powerful metaphor in a dynamic understanding of the idea of identity. In this context, rooms can be seen as sheath-like, rather like clothing, as „the skin of people”.  For rooms are actually part of their residents, without merging or equating with them. Consequently Rößler’s works relating to the rooms in which they are presented feature an articulate, never arbitrary rapport. Her installations are not only true symbiotically to the rooms in which these are presented, but are often derived from the rooms themselves as they prevailed. The room defines the work just as the work determines the room.

For this rapport, abundant in friction as it is and continuously in the course of change, time plays a key part. The works themselves demonstrate conditions that evolve from the volatility of our being. They are pictures of an existence that is continually in motion. In formal terms, the artist applies a combination of motive and static images. She is thus sure of lending rhythm to this flow of existence at various levels, sustaining it in continual movement. In falling asleep, Rößler combines oversized black/white photographs of naked people, their faces hidden behind a honeycomb-like fabric, with a projection of two oversized elevator doors that continuously open and close. The opening elevator doors not only seem to extend an invitation to the photographed persons, but also to the viewer. Dynamics are thus produced that contrast with the very statically depicted persons and which the viewer is unable to elude.
 
Rößler uses forms of modern image language – photographs, film, items and installations – and with the questions she poses is firmly positioned in a long tradition mirrored in the history of art.  For centuries, artists have addressed the difficulty of presenting the incarnate, that specific nuance of colour of human skin that is so difficult to grasp. Yet this had nothing to do with modes of depiction that were as true to life as possible, but entailed a deeper realm, that of the rapport between surface and substance and hence between the innermost and the outermost.

However, Rößler reaches out far beyond this tradition embedded in the history of art and allows the skin itself to become a canvas, a vehicle of signs and symbols. The skin not only takes on the form of an image by way of tattooing or body painting, but also attributes the traces etched into it to experience with the surrounding world and inner states of mind. As surface of the body, the skin has an affinity to the surface of the picture(1). In making the very skin the image depicted, Rößler points out these parallels and at the same time reduces to absurdity the aspiration towards as natural a reflection of reality as possible. Particularly her photographic works demonstrate a profound investigation of the skin as vehicle of symbols. The almost microscopic close-up of the organic material synchronises image and body surface.

The nine-part series Identity from 2006 illustrates this aspect by presenting the skin as an active, most vital organ(2). The photographs are huge enlargements of sections of the skin of different members of a family, all hanging at eye level next to each other. It is the artist’s family. The skin can be interpreted as a sheath, a mask, but also as a vehicle of signs and symbols; in a figurative sense it is a „synonym for the ego“(3). This „ego“ now ranks alongside members of a family of the same genetic origin. What does one’s own identity actually comprise? Does this identity only take shape in the context of relationships with other family members? The sections of skin would seem to take the place of the identifying portrait. If one concentrates on the fragments of skin, a spiel of allocation suddenly kicks in. What skin stands for which person? Since the viewer, however, has no information to answer this question and does not know who these people are anyway, he places the phenomenon at a general level. The sections of skin become ciphers for different stages of life and states of being.
Edmund Husserl and Emmanuel Lèvinas have convincingly shown that the identity of the individual only evolves from contact with another, with a second person(4). In gazing at this other person, one also looks at oneself; the ego and the you depend on one another.   
Rößler’s work questions the polarity between the outermost and the innermost, without annihilating it. The encounter with skin reflects the interactions between the individual and his innermost thoughts, needs, passions and dreams and the ostensibly clear delineation to the outer world proffered by his skin. The clarity of the frontier between the innermost and the outer appearance is robbed of its certainty as a result of the extreme close-up visualisation of the skin. In its materiality, the skin has a life of its own in which both inner and outer influences are traced. The skin becomes a memory, every change remains visible and the traces etched onto it can be read and interpreted. In the photographs, modellings - to apply the term used by psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, processes of inscription into the matrix of our organism - are players in the rapport between the psychosocial organism and an aesthetic message.  By lining up her „own skin“ alongside her own family group, Rößler succeeds in dissolving the delineating function of the skin, something that could also be sensed as isolation, in favour of unfolding social and communicative components.

The integrity of the skin is threatened, both by the externals of nature as well as by potential violence from other people. As interactive organ it reacts to the inner world and to the outer world. The skin is the first and the last of man’s „possessions”. This „possession” is constantly endangered. The oeuvre Nichtsdestotrotz, created in 2008 by Cornelia Rößler for the Wettig forge in Nieder-Olm, also tells a tale of such jeopardy. Parts of the local heritage centre stem from the 17th century and for hundreds of years were used as a forge. Inside, a few of the original brick walls are still standing. During the Second World War, the building was temporarily used to house prisoners of war. In 1943 a Polish prisoner left his own traces behind by scratching his name on one of the bricks. With approximately 200 photographs laid on Aludibond in the exact format of each of the bricks, Rößler has built an exact imitation of part of the brick wall. This wall, comprising different sections of skin, is set against and beside the white wall, rather like a second skin. The delineation naturally provided by the skin is mirrored in the enforced artificial limitation suffered by the Polish prisoner as he immortalised himself in scribbling on the brick. From the perspective of the prisoner, the discrepancy between natural and artificial limitation volatilises.
 
The skin lies between us and the world, and in its materiality and as vehicle of symbols articulates in this sense our detachment from the natural and social surroundings. The skin as frontier surface is both a medium of touch and of segregation. The transformation of the bricks into human particles of skin can also be interpreted as a social interface, where on the one hand, communication and interaction in our highly defined limitation come into their own, yet on the other hand, in border cases – such as with the prison wall – can also mean social isolation. Unlike the work of Jenny Holzer(5), it is the skin itself with Rößler that is the vehicle of symbols and of signs.   

Rößler allows the skin metaphorically to tell its story of life in all its facets. As if in an archived store of skin, a wide range of skin textures are displayed in the photographs. The close-ups of the skin in various ages and at different places tell the story of the ordeals of our „sheath”, such as it is, maltreated or well cared for a life long. The skin is hence not a projection surface for beauty ideals nor is focus on its decay. This wall of people rather shows that in their individuality, they are all mutually dependent and in this interplay they are able to reach out beyond their natural state of limitation.
   
The focus of the room installation entitled Vor allem darfst Du nicht ängstlich sein from the year 2009 is not on the ageing of man but on society’s approach to the elderly. The central theme is not metamorphosis of the body but of the dwelling place. Particularly for elderly people, their own home is of identifying significance. By placing the housing of elderly people centre stage, the full-scale drama of relocating to a residential care home, for the most part involuntary, is revealed. Robbed of his protective sheath, man is shown in his utter vulnerability. The greater the length of time involved in the symbiosis of man with his housing, all the more violent does this supposedly kind and beneficial act of relocation seem to be.

In order to better understand the situation of elderly people, the artist spent some time living in a residential care home for the elderly. During this period she was allowed to take part in the daily life of the residents. She sang and played games with them and conversed with them. She was not allowed to film her interviews. Rößler was only permitted to take photographs during communal activities and in the neutral corridors. This encounter, as intensive as it was empathic, enabled her to build up a relationship with the residents of the home. The results of these studies were part of her room installation.  

In the artist’s mode of approach, so typical for her, she strives for a common factor between content and form, so that for this particular work an old vacated room, or to be exact the old, abandoned and non-renovated Villa Max 28 was to be occupied anew. Rößler revitalises the vacated room with the residents from the home for the elderly, who have also abandoned their homes in much the same way as the former residents of Villa Max. Taking an immaterial approach, she now lets the new residents move into the villa, tarnished as it is in its abandonment. As with a snail shell, originally at one with its resident, the neglected snail shell is sometimes taken over by other animals and is thus transformed in function. In a similar manner Rößler’s installation takes over the abandoned room, the sheath of the former residents, and now intangibly lets the elderly residents move in.

Standing in the entrance area of the villa, one is initially confronted by a long corridor against the back wall of which the projection FreiZeit can be seen. The camera travels somewhat unsteadily along the corridor of the residential home and the viewer feels that he too is slipping into the perspective of the elderly people. This feeling is reinforced by the perspective distortion of the projection on the corridor walls, for the projection is larger in spread than the wall at the end of the corridor. As a result perception is restricted and distorted, such as is often the case with advanced age, not least due to increasing isolation and loneliness. The somewhat choppy journey of the camera travelling along the corridor is structured through the alternating static images of the elderly people and causes one to stop short and appraise individuality.

The fleetingness of life seeks fixation in image and sound. In order to preserve memories, as much as possible has to be communicated so that it can be passed on. A transfer of reminiscence takes place; one’s own memories are transferred into the memories of others. This transfer can be understood as the foundation for all relationships between people and is of enormous specific significance for the relationship between the generations(6). Alongside the clearly most obvious reference to transience, lifecycle, biography etc. is the opportunity of exchange. The elderly people are here with all their experience and their abundance of knowledge. So that this work is something of an overture, an invitation to partake of this stock. The fleetingness of the moment that gains in urgency given the advanced age of the persons shown and is visualised in the flow of emerging and disappearing images is not treated as if  it were problematic; in fact emphasis is placed on the chance of gain and benefit in interpersonal relationships. Even the absurdity, symbolised by the wearing of a party hat, is put into perspective through the encounter with the aged residents. The oeuvre strikes back at the gradual disappearance of the old people by letting them re-emerge unexpectedly in the villa premises.

Whereas Rößler makes the viewer aware of the presence of the elderly people in the villa corridor, she embellishes the theme in the darkened Room 2, where the object Hautnah is on display. This bed has been in the posession of the artist’s family for generations. Taut over the mattress is a photograph of the skin illuminated by a light box that beams out from inside the bed frame. The progression of the generations is nowhere more clearly identifiable than in the family. The ageing of the parents forestalls our own ageing. As children, we are faced by the conflict between the wish for personal definition and a yearning for a oneness that crosses all generations. The fact that we are far removed from this today is illustrated by the artist by her positioning of the elderly people, no longer as members of a single family, but rather as a component of a residential care home for senior citizens. Nevertheless, or perhaps for this very reason, the „bed of oneness” radiates out and aloft into the future not unlike a voice from the past, enchanted and under a spell. A longing for an integration of the living environments or indeed a talk with oneself about one’s own destiny.
 
The thought of a cross-generation oneness is also expressed in the installation Vor allem darfst du nicht ängstlich sein. The installation features an old kitchen table, the top of which is a photograph of aged skin, illuminated by a lamp, suspended low. The drawer of the table is opened and an ultrasonic image of an embryo is seen. The „new” tabletop recalls the age of the table, whereas the opened drawer tells of birth and a new beginning. In this case, the artist is firmly caught in the tradition of portraiture at various ages of life, specifically the tradition of the German Renaissance, although she positions this at a higher metaphorical level using her own iconography and the artistic media of the modern times. The table, the place where stories are written down, is relieved of its function thanks to the projection on the wall opposite. This wall projects a rhythmic change of more images of skin sections, each of them featuring the essence of the „messages of life“ of the respective wearers of the skin. These brief messages – words of wisdom of the aged – are the answers to the questions put by the artist and voiced to her as advice for her own future on the grounds of the elderly people’s life experience. Contrary to the social trend, Rößler seeks to rearticulate the sagacity of the elderly people and reintegrate them into society. The people themselves, however, are not to be seen. The fragments of their skin stand for their identity. By inscribing the responses of the elderly people onto their skin, Rößler ensures they become part of their respective identity, reflecting the transience of all that has been said in the volatility of our material existence.

Age becomes the mirror of life. For that reason, it is only logical that the adjacent Room 3 houses the video projection Man muss das Leben eben nehmen, wie das Leben eben ist. This 23-minute film features four people who live in sheltered accommodation and narrate from their lives. Whereas some particularly lonely and frail elderly people break down in tears and are unable to give any response, others are astounding in their mental presence. In an abundance of facets, the film presents Rößler’s theme, man in the course of his own changing biography. Whereas the words of wisdom previously seemed to be isolated in the room as they are projected onto the wall, they now become individualised and personal; they are brought to life again.
 
Investigating the issue of ageing through the channel of art is also of significant interest since Rößler clearly demonstrates how people play their part in the social network of their day and how they have lived. Rößler’s works are driven by her genuine interest in people; yet she avoids any idealisation. The outcome is varied: it is possible to age in beauty and dignity, but bitterness and privation also play their parts.
Each story has a oneness of its own and triggers reflection on the conditions in which elderly people live. Common factors are derived from the perspective of ageing. The viewer himself is physically confronted with the theme in the rooms of the old villa around him. The artist has selected an unusual environment for the viewer and constructed a close connection between room and theme, so that the impact of the installation is reinforced and embellished at an additional significative plane.   
 
The oeuvre Lebenszeit from 2010 and on view at the old hunting lodge in Wermsdorf is yet another example of the interlink of content and room in Rößler’s work. Instead of deciding in favour of representative rooms in the lodge, Rößler preferred to occupy the attic of the hunting lodge that was built in 1609 by Christian II, Elector of Saxony. During the course of time, the building was used for a multitude of purposes and in the German Democratic Republic served as public housing. This situation altered after the reunification of Germany. Despite renovation, the lodge still has a few abandoned apartments. It is now these abandoned rooms that provided the location for both theme and presentation of Rößler’s works.

After climbing up to the attic, the visitor is welcomed by a rusty steel door on which a video projection shows a man who is rushing down a staircase, time and time again. Rößler’s video, striking for its rhythm and dynamics, focuses yet again on an important theme of her work; the continually abandoned rooms. If one leaves a house, one will never enter it again the same as one once was. The act of abandoning a house alters a person’s own biography and the abandoned rooms are left behind. Likewise the abandoned rooms alter and, to a certain extent, cease to exist.

With her photography, Rößler has placed on record the state of the rooms, prior to change, and in selecting the form of the light box has set them centre stage. For the lighting frames she chose a material that is not only subject to the process of change itself, but one that already shows traces of use. Heavy and inflexible, covered in scratches and notches, six steel light boxes stand on the floor and illuminate rooms that have been abandoned by those who used to occupy them and have left their traces behind. People who took the stairs to leave their old home forever. The gaze turns to doors and windows. Openings that connect, both inside and out.
 
This abandonment also involved the use of suitcases. It is where the individual becomes visible in tune with his perpetuating lifecycle of becoming and elapsing. Inside three differently sized cases are photographs of sections of skin from various stages of life. The suitcase symbolises the absence of any fixed location, yet given the number of suitcases, is also emblematic for the family. In its entirety the installation is again a modern rendering of vanitas: everything is vain, everything is short-lived. At the same time the history of the German Democratic Republic is also mirrored in the installation. The metamorphosis of existence does not halt before nation states. Everything is in the process of change, nothing lasts forever.  

For the installation Durch die Luft springen from the year 2005, the main part is played by the location, the room that is specifically visible in political and social terms. In the office of members of parliament at the Landtag in Mainz, the artist shows five black-and-white photographs of people who are in some way or another connected to the house of parliament. They are jumping with such force that it seems their heads push through the ceiling. Headless, they float in the corridors of the house of parliament, whereas well-known faces from the entertainment world appear on television just as they are about to speak; yet they never reach that point. Rößler freezes moments, locks in the state of motion, halts the process of change; the metamorphosis of existence has been completed. As employee at the Landtag, it would seem that one’s own political and social integration into society has been completed. The MPs are of the opinion they have made it. But nothing lasts forever.
 
Rößler’s rapport with space, the room as a social and historically shaped chamber, is coupled with time, function, structure and architecture. Her works reflect states of being, discloses them, without becoming political or polemic. Art is shown to be an elementary part of society. In this respect Rößler draws on Joseph Beuys’ term of „social plastic”. According to Beuys, art should not be restricted to merely material artefacts, but should incorporate social consequences by way of actions that trigger reflection(7).  Rößler’s response to the prevailing situation, to the numerous layers of differing information saved in the respective room, embodies an installation especially for this room. The social context surrounding this room, together with all its human precipitates and current usage is questioned and visualised in artistic form. With this, Rößler manages to express a complex determination of human identity, both in materiality and in its social conditionality. And yet this identity remains lost, withdrawn from any clear definition; it is only visible in traces, the presence of which continuously points to the absence of he who has left those traces.


1     

See Daniela Bohde, Mechthild Fend (Editor) Weder Haut noch Fleisch. Das Inkarnat in der Kunstgeschichte. Neue Frankfurter Forschungen zur Kunst, Berlin 2007.

2     

With a surface area of 1.5 – 2 sq.m. and weighing up to 10 kg, the skin is the largest organ of the human body.

3     

cf. Beate Ermacora, Doppelte Haut, in: Exhibition catalogue Doppelte Haut, Kunsthalle Kiel 1996, p. 7 ff.
4     

cf. on Husserl: Rudolf Bernet, Edmund Husserl. Darstellung seines Denkens, Hamburg 1989. On Levinas: Emmanuel Lèvinas, Die Spur des Anderen. Untersuchungen zur Phänomenologie und Sozialphilosophie, München 1992. See also: Von einem Rätsel wachgehalten. Zur Philosophie von Emmanuel Lèvinas, in: Ingeborg Breuer (Editor) Welten im Kopf: Profile der Gegenwartsphilosophie Vol. 2 France/Italy. Bonn 1996, p. 173-193.

5     

On the occasion of the war in Bosnia, Jenny Holzer shows photographs of skin in the Süddeutsche Zeitung magazine of 19.11.1993 on which felt pens make written reference to rape.    

6     

See: Die Macht des Alters, Strategien der Meisterschaft. Editor Bazon Brock, Cologne 1998.

7     

cf. Barbara Lange, Soziale Plastik, in: DuMonts Begriffslexikon zur zeitgenössischen Kunst. Editor Hubertus Butin, Cologne 2002, p. 276-279.