THE RELATIVE IMPORTANCE OF FAIRLY IMPORTANT THINGSText: Thibaut de Ruyter
Anhaltischer Kunstverein Dessau, March 2018.
About ten years ago, I was visiting an art fair with a friend of mine, a gallerist from Paris. As we arrived at a booth where an artist I like exhibited, I pointed those artworks to her. Her answer was simple and sharp: “Yes, it’s nice, but she cannot draw hands.“ And she moved away within a few seconds. I was of course quite shocked and speechless. I always thought that we lived in the early 21st century, long after Marcel Duchamp and Kazimir Malevich, where techniques should not be a method for criticizing art. But I have to admit that the gallerist was right: we can not only use our intellect when we deal with art, we also need to be impressed by the technical aspect of the work while being touched by its content.
As I visited Xenia Fink’s studio in Berlin to discuss her works and her exhibition Die relative Wichtigkeit ziemlich wichtiger Dinge, I was intrigued by a small drawing. On an A4 format, the artist represented eight hands. Four on the top are almost the same while the four on the bottom strike more complex poses, where two hands merge but one is not drawn, leaving the white paper untouched. A handshake with a ghost in several variations: It could have been a page from a dictionary of sign language; a drawing exercise on difference and repetition; or a sketch, details or tests for a larger composition. But certainly, it was a perfect and precise drawing with complex intention behind it.
At a first glance, what one will notice of Xenia Fink’s drawings is the representation of women. They are protagonists (I chose here on purpose the word used for the main actor or actress on a theatre stage) of plays that seem dramatic with a slight erotic touch. One gets references to art history (anonymous portrait of Gabrielle d’Estrées and one of her sisters from Musée du Louvre) or in movies (Alfred Hitchcock’s women who often play roles that present them as half-victims and half criminals -- I can think of Marnie, 1964.) The hair-dos of Xenia Fink’s women could be the one of Tippi Hedren or Kim Novak while the intensive use of curtains in the drawings reminds us of Twin Peaks or horror movies where the killer hides behind them with a sharp knife in his hands.
The more I look at the drawings selected for the exhibition, the more they make me think about the golden age of Hollywood. Not only because of the hair-dos and objects Xenia Fink uses (a staircase, a door handle, a vintage television) but also because of the atmosphere they convey. It is as if each drawing contains a whole movie in itself, a summary of a complete script. There is something cinematographic in her drawings, not just in the use of cinematic languages and icons but something about the hors-champ, what happens but is not visible on the screen. That is also probably why she leaves parts of the drawing undone: if we recognize the shape of a leg, we see it by the drawn parts that surround it, not by the thing itself.
What do we do with our hands? We point, we touch, we caress, we work, we masturbate, we play cards, we cook and we type on the (virtual) keyboard of our smartphone. If I knew where the hand had been ten minutes before a person gave it to me for a handshake, I would probably never touch it. The eight hands from the Xenia Fink’s drawing I mentioned earlier have also something peculiar: the motif repeats itself, with very small variations in their positions. They seem to be drawings for cartoons, repeating and slightly shifting their positions to create an illusion of movement. But in many cultures, at a more metaphorical level, hands are also the link between us and the world (the first thing we do, even before starting a conversation, is to touch.) A link necessary to start a -- good or bad -- interaction without knowing where it will lead us.
The artist often includes words and sentences in her compositions. Like the text written on a ribbon that goes all around the blue wallpaper wrapping the Kunstverein space saying: “Characters doing things they shouldn’t, confounding the problems they create and still moving forward.“ This sentence, on the one hand, underlines the fact that we are here looking at characters, fictional figures that take part in a play and, on the other hand, the ribbon links and connects the different parts (or chapters) from an (untold) story. The texts Fink uses in her work makes us think of the feminist works of Jenny Holzer (Protect me from what I want) or even more, the association of text and images by Barbara Kruger. And, in one of Fink’s rare drawings that do not depict women, hands, curtains or sharp objects but some kind of television standing on a table like a small theatre one can read, on the screen, “It was as though every movie was about us.“
IT IS ALWAYS IMMEDIATE.Text: Konstanty Szydłowski, translation: Brian Poole
Morgen Contemporary, January 2015.
Xenia Fink translates ambivalent emotional states into pictures that may have many names, and yet cannot be named by any of them. Bodies, gestures, and objects appear on a white background where the lines and figures depicted are integrated into a story. The emptiness lends the sketched elements a particular common existence in the immeasurable space of memory and expectation. The white surfaces seem to act as invisible bounds between the various realities. The scenes depicted have no stage, and yet they reveal a drama. There are two levels of the self. First, as a person or as that person’s body; and second, as objects of desire or of implacable circumstances. In the shadows of longings, lusts, and fears, a dream poetics emerges. The images exercise the power of secrets that you can sense but not solve. The scenes have no materiality to them, but rather a virtuality resulting from the tension between desire and its object. Although the works exhibited here are not arranged in any hierarchy, nor subject to any particular order, they do relate to each other as counter-examples of staged intimacy. The people depicted are involved in a story from which we can see only a moment that reveals neither the story’s beginning nor what happens next. In that instant, something decisive is happening, but we can’t know what direction it’s going to take. The unease sets the image in motion; it also corresponds to the endangered sense of self. Culturally cliché-ridden gestures emerge as fragments of a lover’s discourse, and the suffering translates into the still image. Paradoxically, the use of text makes this even more explicit.
The iconic scenes are carefully structured in just a few lines. The line seems to erupt out of nowhere. The fragmentariness correlates with what’s left invisible, and thus two realities flow into one another. The lines allude to the bodies and the objects, leaving much to one’s imagination and showing only what is necessary. In its formal abstractness, the motif of the veil—whether in the form of a curtain or as hair—illustrates, apart from the semantic level, a playful predilection for underpinning the appearance of realism while also posing a question.
“It is always immediate”—which is both the exhibition title and an inscription in one of Xenia Fink’s drawings—signifies that something is suddenly there, something utterly unforeseen. In this sense, the works at this exhibition play upon those culturally coded intimate scenes that always appear unplanned. With each picture a mood immediately forces itself upon us, creating the impression that feelings are there, though they haven’t been developed gradually. It is a matter of an instant that can’t be held on to in real life. That only art can do; and that has become one of photography’s and film’s greatest strengths. It is what these pictures thrive upon.
TOO CLOSE TO HOMEText: Julika Nehb, translation: Brian Poole
Morgen Contemporary, January 2012.
Compared with painting, the medium of drawing harbours an intimacy that plays out on two distinct levels. Each line drawn on paper is evidence of the closeness of the artist’s hand to his work, testifying to the utmost immediacy between the creative mind and the material. Spontaneity, intimacy and a feeling of authenticity are characteristic of drawing. The awareness of these characteristics makes the spectator an insider, an ‘initiated’ participant in the putative mystery of the creative process. Georg Friedrich Hegel belonged to the devotees of this medium: “Hand drawings are of greatest interest; here you see the wonder of how the artist’s entire spirit has been transported into them by the skill of the hand.”1
What gives the drawing its form is the line—it depicts spaces, structures and materials. The ink drawings by Xenia Fink seduce the viewer with their clear technical execution and their perplexingly surreal dream-worlds, which are enriched with allusive written quotations. Reduction, omission and deconstruction are the essential formal features in these tender, concretely illustrative drawings from the series of works entitled Too Close to Home. Closeness that hurts.
Often you find in them a lone outside observer; often the figures face away from each other. Couples cast their gaze beyond each other, female figures hide their faces. Sometimes they’re asleep, or they’re lying dreamily in their beds. A lusty group of evening partiers is depicted with black bars covering their eyes, remaining incognito. The treatment of their themes remains fragmentary in the style of a postmodern narrative. They deal with family, childhood, love and loneliness, with interpersonal and erotic relationships, and with the identity of modern women.
Recurrent elements—particularly the nostalgically rendered interiors, the clothes fashionable in earlier periods, and a female ‘referential’ figure reappearing in most of the pictures—allow the observer to develop confidence and to establish common points of contact. And yet the deconstructed spatial situations—sometimes the figures have nothing but blank space surrounding them—impede one’s grasp of the image and one’s orientation. Communication seems to be rather laborious for most of the figures; they prefer to whisper furtively.
Three leitmotifs unite the series Too Close to Home.
For her series of works entitled L’Éducation Sentimentale from 2010, Xenia Fink framed the figures she drew in the tableaus she constructed. Classical historical dioramas, comparable to traditional puppet theatres, not only had a pedagogical function; they also served to express the desire for better social circumstances. In Too Close to Home the idea of the stage upon which the figures move appears increasingly abstract in the very openly structured space. “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” Within the context of contemporary media and social images in Xenia Fink’s works, Shakespeare’s aphorism for man’s predetermined fate becomes an analogy for our fragile attempts to organise interpersonal relationships and bourgeois lives: “On inherited emotional economics” is the title of one of her drawings. What roles do women play on this stage? They are children, young girls; they’re seductresses or seduced; they’re mothers, daughters, lovers and playfellows. Xenia Fink’s pictorial worlds manifest a female consciousness of our age. The figures writhe as if they were under a magnifying glass, and they simultaneously long for affection. The scenes illustrate the unfulfilled myths of popular culture that are inevitably thwarted by sober reality: “I refuse to spend one more day obsessing about you. I have laundry to do.”
Xenia Fink’s quotations are taken from the pictorial works of recent Western cultural history, from classical fairytales, from boudoir interiors of the belle époque, and from cinematographic images of various sources from Alfred Hitchcock to the American TV series Mad Men. She also composed some of the captions herself. In one scene, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland encounters the controversial French “drawer of girls” Balthus: three female figures are depicted lolling about among oversized toadstools or embracing a fawn. One scene is enough to encompass the loss of innocence and the sobering—yet empowering—experience of growing up: “I don’t feel anything but pain. It is a job; it is a game; it is what we do.” In a world of increasingly accelerated change, the quotations—thanks to their essential stability and completeness—assume the role of immutable points of orientation. The quotations and mottos in Xenia Fink’s drawings cannot be—and should not be—ascribed to their original context. The words open up large fields of association.
Time and Memory
In Too Close to Home, time seems to have been abolished. In addition to the spatial paradoxes, there are also temporal ones. In some of the scenes a slice of the present is seen taking place, the moment caught, for example, in a dialogue. Other scenes describe dreams and memories. They are constructions. “Memory is a selection of images. Some elusive, others printed indelibly on the brain. Each image is like a thread. Each thread woven together to make a tapestry of intricate texture; and the tapestry tells a story, and the story is our past.”2 But the appeal of the past is deceptive. The sense of life these figures have corresponds to the here and now.
The ink drawings from the series Too Close to Home convey the longing for safety and security, the longing for understanding, and the longing for being understood. And the need for a home. The ambivalence of closeness and distance in both form and content corresponds to the constant uncertainty of human existence. Don’t come too close to me. You’re too close to home.
1 Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Vorlesungen über Ästhetik, in: Sämtliche Werke, vol. 14 (Stuttgart, 1928), p. 62.
2 From the movie Eve’s Bayou, directed by Kasi Lemmons.