Crust against crust: Fair Game by Alexandra Bircken and Was heißt Untergrund? by Tatjana Doll at KINDL

Does the possibility of the landscape’s extension being matched by a body’s extension in relation to it mean fluidity or domination? Is the horizon a boundary of the gaze or a topographic point? Is touch a form of resistance or stimulus? Does it originate inside or outside? These questions are not new. Nor do the answers seem difficult. Obviously, the body is at the centre.

But delimiting it is not simple. Especially in a period when not only the image and its relationship with the body – which sees it, almost constantly touching it – is intense, but where physical delimitation is challenged by the digital realm and by the haptic limits that blend with larger worlds like that of augmented reality. What are the limits of the gaze? And what is skin? How flexible are these ideas and what allows them to have flexibility?

In many ways, and even if they do not readily assume themselves as participants in these discussions, Alexandra Bircken and Tatjana Doll outline possible answers in two exhibitions at the KINDL Zentrum, Berlin. The former, in a detailed large-scale installation, simulates and underlines precisely this delimitation; the latter outlines its annulment, or at least the attempt to do so.

There are few moments where this delimitation of the body is possible. Most of the time, the body, the centre, relates discreetly to the surroundings. Some situations manage to restrict the body to its own limits or, in other words, to cut off what surrounds it. Fear is one of them. In a moment of threat, of exposure to danger, the body begins to close in on its boundaries, identifies what is outside, what may hurt it for being different.

Bircken starts there. In Fair Game, fear is introduced as a trace, presenting itself as a kind of negative of a threatening situation. The space, a huge old warehouse, is full of inert bodies, arranged up to the ceiling as if they had been abandoned. In each one – scattered or hanging jumpsuits, hangers, unfinished ladders made from bones, rails, ostrich eggs, wigs – there is an obvious boundary: the delimiting sagging tissues. If there was wind, they would move. The sound, Ultraschall, a work by Thomas Brinkmann, fulfils this role.

Sometimes glass, and sometimes clothing, the concern with the skin as a receptor, as a double boundary, of opening and closing, is obvious. Each emptied figure is presented as having been abandoned, filled by deforming absence. In that gleam of volume and boundary the preceding presence exists. At the bottom, like a shell, there is a skin left behind. Underlying each of them is a sense of escape, of evasion. Something underlined by The Tourist, the only solid sculpture with volume. Its arm is a weapon. It stands upright. And, of course, it is also underlined by the bodies of the visitors. These, as they slowly enter, slowly camouflage themselves in stark contrast to the landscape. In that very place, they stand for what elsewhere is shown as absent.

Was heißt Untergrund? by Tatjana Doll has an opposite strategy – and even intention. Unlike Bircken’s installation, Doll’s work does not want to emphasise any escape. For instance, the space seems at first glance to have no narrative element. It is a single room with floating, white walls, sometimes a labyrinth, where screens are arranged. But the place is similar. There is also an itinerary defined by traces. Here the familiar elements can also be seen as a shell.

Unlike Bircken, where it is necessary to be in the space to perceive the evasion, Was heißt Untergrund? has a simple and contrasting proposal: on the one hand there is a painting with figurative elements, where common references, such as airplanes or traffic signs, appear in planes of depthless colour; on the other, there are series of abstract sequences, where sometimes there are remains of recognisable figures. The same output, hence. The same principle: the vanishing is recognisable given the remnants of the fading.

It must be said that the contrast between the two moments in Doll’s work is not a simple mechanism of counterbalance or alternation. On the contrary, they are two essential moments of the path that Doll wants to establish. In a first moment, the more figurative canvases ensure the isolation of references, such as danger signs or means of transport, by placing them outside their habitat and throwing them into colour. This isolation is then explored to the brink of exhaustion, as if the reference had always been autonomous, diluting it in the colours that were previously only a stage.

The ultra-figurative on an edge, the cartoonish, the crude, the almost meme is quickly blurred by another surface with abstract sequences. The familiar is emptied in this movement, rendering the symbols and their immediate world reduced to figuration. They are put on a plane where they are useless and to which they belong only as a figure.

The choice of sign language is not groundless either. It even has a crucial function. For example, in presenting the threat, the danger as an element. The symbol particularly sums up a general instruction: to keep away, to contain, to protect oneself. Without this familiarity – of danger and warning – disappearing would be unnoticeable.

Then there is the fact that signalling, the language made up of common, practical symbols, embraces the possibility of dividing its meaning in the relationship that each one has with it. As if it were a map, its territory simultaneously corresponds to the sterile space of cartography and to every centimetre it depicts. In other words, it is at once profoundly anonymous and radically popular.

Despite the distance, the work of both artists ends up at this crossroads, the body, from which it is impossible to escape. Familiarity is always the starting point: in Bircken, the traces show the presence of a body in a previous moment, while in Doll the rehearsal of its dilution on a reference-free plane always heralds an escape.

The question is simple: is it possible to make the eye emerge in colour, in space, to reduce the figure to a neutral, anonymous, fringe symbol? To attempt and to desire this corresponds to what ambition? Back to the beginning: does the possibility of the landscape’s extension being matched by a body’s extension in relation to it mean fluidity or domination?

Fair Game by Alexandra Bircken will be at KINDL – Zentrum für zeitgenössische Kunst, in Berlin, until February 15, 2022. Was heißt Untergrund? by Tatjana Doll until February 27, 2022. Both are curated by Kathrin Becker.

Guilherme Vilhena Martins (Lisbon, 1996; lives in Berlin) is a writer and curator. He holds a degree in Philosophy from Lisbon Nova University and is currently finishing an MA in the same field at Freie Universität Berlin. His literary work consists of two books - 'Háptica' (douda correria, 2020), 'Voz/ Estudo de Som' (author's edition, 2022) - and texts, chronicles and reviews written for different magazines in Portuguese and English, among which Umbigo and Frieze. He has managed and edited 'Alcazar', an interdisciplinary literary project that brought together writers and visual artists around the idea of collective transdisciplinary writing. Besides, he has curated several exhibitions in Portugal and Germany and is one of the co-founders of EGEU, a project space established in 2019 in Lisbon. Vilhena Martins is interested in artistic practice as a critical tool and a form of discussion. His work revolves around the notions of waste, fulfilment and desire, as well as their different instantiations. Lately, he’s been focusing on the phenomenon of tourism.

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