The black and white portrait of a woman with thread-like tears running down her cheeks is what captivated me when Alexandra Baumgartner’s exhibition catalogue fell into my lap two years ago. Not knowing that I would meet Alexandra on a totally different occasion again, I took the book home with me, adding it to the “young artists” section in my shelf. Little did I know that I would encounter the black-teared lady again on a totally different account, as I happened to be at Alexandra’s studio at das weisse haus in Vienna due to her engagement with SALOON Wien.
Needless to say, it was an easy decision to write about this studio visit – how could I ignore this coincidence?! All I believe in is serendipity after all. So what initially caught my attention in Alexandra’s works can superficially be described as dealing with the dark, mystical, occult, supernatural; with nature; one might even add influences by Freud and/or Duchamp. By digging deeper, though, one will encounter states of emotions that reveal themselves layer by layer: Sheer fear; fear of distance, of relationships, of entanglement; the pain of being ephemeral, forgotten, misunderstood; anxiety about the future; angst.
The topic of the human and the psyche has always interested me and I incorporate it in many of my works. In “Entreakt”, for instance, I deal with hysteria, which is often associated with women acting crazy and used against us as a female stereotype. “Don’t be so hysteric” is what a woman might hear when she’s not acting accordingly. As a woman I can totally relate and that’s why I felt inclined to work on that issue. I went to a Parisian library to research the neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot and the photographer Albert Londe, who explored hysteria in women. I was able to go through the original documents and photographs of the female patients, which was horrible but I also felt empathy for the women. Hysteria is a made up illness, I mean, think about how many of us would be locked up just because we felt “too” emotional?
So, fear is a theme, which has influenced my art ever since I’ve started working. There are triggers that can unleash this fear. When I find a certain kind of photograph, for instance, I try to elaborate the emotions embedded in that picture and bring it to the surface. What is presented in the end is not only the person’s fear and my personal reaction but represents a more universal emotional state that everyone can relate to.
Entreakt is an installation consisting of a triptych and a number of chairs meticulously arranged in the center. The photograph shows a hysteria patient and is enlarged to a size that empowers her to discard her role as the victim. The chairs represent the visitors, who Charcot invited, like intellectuals, politicians, and artists, in order to demonstrate the hysterical behavior in women live1. This power over women sickened me and made me turn the power relations upside down. The woman’s posture reveals that she pulls the strings, the chairs are freely balanced, there is nothing holding them together so they are always prone to collapse. I liked to produce this fragile moment where anytime everything could just break down. Behind the historical remark and the outrage we can thus also experience a state of uncertainty, the challenge of failure, which mirrors the artist’s own state of insecurity. We wish for safety in our lives but there is none.
Paradoxically, holding an occupation that guarantees no stability, no success, no support system, and will probably always entail some kind of uncertainty and existential crisis, demands a lot of courage, passion, and idealism. These character traits are what I always find compelling in artists – not despite but because of their fears they make art. I probably couldn’t survive in any other occupation than the creative one. It wasn’t a conscious decision but predestined, I guess. I was quite secluded as a child, more inside my room to myself than playing outside with others. I was very sensitive and I assume this is how I ended up in the artistic field.
This sensibility enables Alexandra to expose what lays dormant deep inside us – the uncanny, the fear of the unfamiliar, dark thoughts, forbidden dreams, childhood memories – things that people prefer to keep buried. Psychoanalysis and the inscrutability of the psyche have always interested me. I like to see behind the masks of people, their real personalities, the animalistic. I want people in my works to loose their faces, to drop off what they have to represent in society, like the “good girl” image, for instance. Hence, Alexandra makes the façade of a portrait crumble in order to expose what lies behind it or lets the human psyche and the animal instincts coalesce. What comes out is the amalgamation of the rational and the supernatural. I want to expose the loss of control that people like to hide, their beast, the instinct – this tension between nature and psyche.
Alexandra usually collects her material on flea markets and highlights the traces that are left behind on their surfaces with lines, circles, or triangles. The story of the withered material becomes as important as what the images tell. I love making something afresh but I don’t need to produce something totally different from the original. I add elements in order to bring it to life anew. The same way I go about my paintings. I take the image of the photographs and transform them on canvas because sometimes making a collage is not enough. I abstract the colors and leave out some parts so it is stripped down to the essential elements of the image – the emotion. Colors have too much information and the essence lies in what is left over.
Relationships, symbiosis, and proximity between objects are further topics in Alexandra’s oeuvre. Like “The Process of Displacement” where a chair leans against the wall without fixation and the portrait of a woman lies on the floor. The intervals, vacuums, distances play an important part. The viewer has to fill what I take out with their own imagination so their openness and acceptance makes the work complete. The visitor has to find the right distance in order not to manipulate the work. I like their insecurity and forced awareness.
In “2 Harps” and “Symbiosis” the inevitability of entanglement in relationships becomes more intense. The intertwining of the strings is a metaphor for the struggle of being with someone and the inability to be without the same person. The intertwining of two bodies, of two souls who are ensnared forever actually makes them dysfunctional, so the distance is all they’ve got left.
What I like to read out of these works is the criticality of co-dependency between two entities. In my mind, a balance between need and freedom has to be found in every relationship and what these works represent is an already unbalanced one. Their involvement with each other cannot be separated anymore – two became one. What thus happens is that the harp cannot be played anymore and the piano feet lye paralyzed. I know my interpretation sounds quite cynical and I don’t want to compare it to all of our human relationships but I guess most of us have experienced this process of entanglement up to the point where one can’t recall anymore whether it is our own symphony or our own path or somebody else’s. I’m interested in showing a symbiosis between two entities. Of course, it’s an unhealthy relationship, yes, but also the unity is what makes the works, and relationships respectively, unique.