Form, Character, Identity

On the scenic ensemble of figures of Hildegard Skowasch

The most distinguishing trait running through the works of Hildegard Skowasch in the last twenty years has been her choice of materials: The artist does not shy away from using simple sculptural materials which do not belong to the traditional ones of the trade. For example, papier-mâché, colored clotheslines or artifical Easter grass. Her peculiar use of these materials make her objects easily identifiable and appear even family-related. In terms of content, however, there has been a shift from the amorphous abstract objects of the l990’s to the figurative forms more recently: a development which runs contrary to the main genealogy of modern art in the 20th century, although even here there have been examples showing the opposite (e.g. Kasimir Malevich’s or Philipp Guston’s turning away from the abstract to the figurative). Skowasch’s development in the last years definitely accords with her wish for a more lifelike expression in the dialogue between artist and artwork, as well as the desire to address the public more directly. A sculpture with extremities such as arms and legs, but above all a head with a face and eyes, communicates without doubt more immediately with the viewer than an abstract form.

In this context, there are a number of examples in the history of art and culture which can be cited. More recently the works of Eva Hesse, Niki de Saint Phalle’s Nanas, or Franz West’s various Passstücke, which bear a forced resemblance to human anatomy. Hildegard Skowasch does not necessarily assign faces to a specific body. Instead, she uses different masks which are put at the disposal of various, more or less surrealistically staged groups. This recalls different carnival traditions, as well as the Mexican festivities on the Dias de los Muertos, the Days of the Dead, which are celebrated from the lst to th 3rd of November. Especially noteworthy in this connection is that Mexico has a long and vital sculptural tradition in working with papier-mâché. This has not only produced a rich variety of masks but also skeleton tableaus which, in a final gesture, are painted in strong vibrant colors. In a poor country as Mexico, hardly anyone can always afford expensive materials such as marble or bronze, whereas Skowasch during her studies at the Kunstakademie Münster surely had access to all the traditional materials used in sculptural workshops/ateliers in the West. Yet she deliberately uses papier-mâché as a gesture of hand-made simplicity. Contrary to the artists of the Italian Arte Povera who were not seriously and lastingly interested in poor materials and Mario Merz’s glass igloos or Jannis Kounellis’ charcoal and jute sacks installations which quickly succumbed to an international white cube esthetic, Skowasch’s works remain easily accessible because of their everyday materials (which does not mean, however, that anyone can produce virtuosic works with papier-mâché just because it was used in kindergardens and school workshops). That may seem ‘uncool’ at times, but such objects are effective in bringing artist and public closer together. The traditional credo about handicraft, namely that an artist should possess skills which astonish his public, is thus directly undermined. The artistic language, its vocabulary, if you will, is the same for both artist and viewer. This makes papier-mâché one of the most democratic sculptural materials an artist can use. Everyday material is so liberated from its taboos. Such as in Rosemarie Trockel’s knitting pictures. Trockel cannot knit differently or better than the viewer of her pictures. But the picture shifts the discussion from how something is made to the what and why.

There are a number of objects by Hildegard Skowasch where one cannot help but recognize the face of the artist. This is especially true for the work Emerging Artist of 2008. Here, Skowasch appears as a kind of individualized Tellytubby*. The body is both archaic and ‘spacy’ and reduced to a green archetype. Only the face, eyes and red-painted lips, and the melancholy look attest individuality. Skowasch enters into a game of double, i.e. mirrored or modified identities, the way we know it from games with dolls and puppets. By their nature, puppets appear as substitutes resembling humans who combine different facets in their personalities. In their similarities to human beings they may appear as the reflection of their creators as well as the projection of their wishes. In their indifference to being alive or not alive, to being natural or artificial, they function as a model but also as a fetish. When girls play with dolls, they traditionally act out the model roles prescribed for them by society. However, a doll which is made by a man (or made-to-order by him), is an ideal and fetish, as in the classic Pygmalion myth. According to Jacques Lacan’s thesis in his essay Das Spiegelstadiuim als Bildner der Ichfunktion (1936/1949), a puppet fitted out with ideal characteristics – as in a mirror – conveys a picture of coherence, in which the interplay between recognition and non-recognition likewise promotes or restrains the subject’s processes of becoming.

In the art history of the 20th century there are at least two legendary appearances of puppets: Hans Bellmer’s La Poupee (beginning l933), a wooden jointed doll, made to his specifications (and eventually reduced to the lower halves of two diametrically-opposed bodies), which helped him in creating a photo series with sexual connotations. And Oscar Kokoschka, who in 1918, ordered a life-size model of his ex-lover, Alma Mahler. Kokoschka himself called this figure, made by Hermine Moos, a ‘doll fetish’. When it was finished and lay before him, he was both fascinated and repulsed by the result. On one hand the ‘Fetzenbündel’ failed to dispel his passion, but neither did it stop him from trying to reanimate it through his painting. In letters to his puppetmaker, he attached the greatest importance to how the surface of the puppet was to be designed. Not only should the doll’s appearance please his eye, but also his touch. And here we close the circle to the Emerging Artist, Hildegard Skowasch’s green Alter Ego. By not eliminating the surface traces left by the sculpturing process, but letting the crumpling of the glue-pasted paper, its tears and rough edges visible, Skowasch makes the tactile force of the hand-made her unique asset.

Moreover, if one takes the title of the sculpture Emerging Artist seriously, what we witness is a process of “incarnation”. The face, the individual expression (and with it presumably mind and emotion) of the artist’s Alter Ego has already materialized. But the body, with its green orbits, is still somehow in a neutron stage, is about to come into being. The way Skowasch’s creatures persistently remain in an intermediate stage of incarnation fulfills Sigmund Freund’s definition of the uncanny. As stiff and mechanical as these automated figures of the l9th century may appear to us, it is their voice or the way they look at you that animates them in an uncanny way. In E.T.A. Hoffmann’s tale of the same name of 18l6, it is the eyes which the sandman wants to steal from the child hero of the story. Not the degree of similarity to a human being causes the eeriness, but the fatal chance that the process could be reversed. This, coupled with the fragmentation, dismemberment and loss of identity, invokes a sense of the uncanny. According to Freud, the uncanny is not the strange but the familiar which unconsciously recalls the fragmentation and its corresponding fears of castration. The child playing with puppets wants his object to come alive, but is afraid to death when even a ray of light falsely suggests his incarnation. This is actually how all the figures of Hildegard Skowasch operate in this surreal twilight zone between familiarity and alienation. They cannot decide whether to become or to disappear.

Alexander Braun

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