Space as Boundary
Structures and motifs in the work of Maike Freess
Although the drawings that Maike Freess has created over a period of a
decade are all very different, what they have in common, aside from their
assuredness within the medium, is the subject matter: the portrayal of the
human being, as woman, man, child in expressive intensity, in spaces in
which nothing is certain. Many of the figures in her most recent drawings
seem to be caught in dream situations between waking and sleeping. The
retarding interplay of their limbs seems to be controlled by higher powers.
External space is made present through the use of paper cut-outs, which
Maike Freess has used since 2010: she places individual, mainly angular,
tapering strips of paper in black or – less frequently – white onto the surface
to create gaps, breaks and emphases within the depictive continuity.
The protagonists of these drawings make reluctant contact with their surroundings.
Maike Freess operates with the synchronism of convergence
and disconnection vis-à-vis the viewer by altering the perspective within
the visual construct. In “Task” (2014) a boy in shorts stands bolt upright
on a chair. His eyes are closed; he holds his hands slightly away from him,
fingers splayed; the concentration embraces his entire body. While the
chair topples, the boy seems to defy gravity.1 The background flickers up,
and a piece of cloth falls across the back of the chair. Gradually a rapport
can be made out in the immediate surroundings between figuration and
body parts which recalls visions of the Last Judgement from old Dutch
paintings to the dolls of Hans Bellmer and on to H. R. Giger. This perhaps
brings Plato’s cave to mind, as Friedrich Dürrenmatt describes in his expressionist
short story “The City” (1947): “In the confusion of forms I was
barely able to distinguish my hand, which seemed to me an unreal entity
as I caught sight of it, so much had my consciousness of it belonging to
me disappeared, and it was as if I had lost all power over it.”2 Dürrenmatt
is concerned with the question of identity, whether he is a guard or a prisoner
and the role he perceives in the spatial construct. In “Task” this merging
with the surroundings occurs in the shadow cutting into the left arm.
The paper cut-outs are both fact and suggestion. They describe turbulences,
and in their defined form in the indefinite spatial construct they evoke
the precariousness and instability of a world in which there is more than
one reality. It is as if the entire cosmos has been set in motion around the
boy. The morphing porousness of the background naturally reminds one
of settings from the cinema, as in “The Devil’s Advocate” (1997, dir. Taylor
Hackfort), for example. They share the presence of the metaphysical as the
projection of imaginable metaphors. Another self emerges here.
The chair – like a pedestal – is the measure of the boy’s physical extension.
A similar thing can be seen in “Coma” (2014). Here a woman is enfolded in
a cabin. The crown of her head minimally overtops it, and her feet extend
below a slightly tilted transparent pane. The woman seems absent, as if
outside herself. Her hands are raised stiffly, her fingers becoming nervous
extensions, their tips touching the edges of the pane. A kind of veil with
reflecting zones hangs down in front of her. Focused by a black paper-cut,
we see the extremely fine reflection of her right hand further back. The
offset recapitulation of the fingers turns out to be an element that Maike
Freess repeatedly uses. Hands anyway play an important role in her work:
as acting or emotional activa, to balance the body, to feel one’s way carefully
and to sound out one’s own boundaries, thus for self-assurance.
This is the case in the sculpture “Das Blaue vom Himmel” [Pie in the Sky]
(2011), the life-sized woman with a belt of explosives who takes up the
rotation of her disk-shaped platform with outstretched arms, making occasional
contact with the outside world, which she is probably going to
blow up at any moment. Hands and fingers are the instruments of the man
gesticulating like a missionary in the drawing “Salt and Pepper” (2013). He
has something of the demagogue about him, with his upraised head and
pursed lips; his fingers merge with toads. And in “Puls schweigt” [Still
Pulse] (2014/15) a boy makes an appearance like a puppeteer, with a complicated
interlocking of the fingers of both hands and a prayerfully lowered
gaze. “Reanimation” (2014), on the other hand, stages a sequence of
hand and finger positions. It always appears to be the same woman. There
is a pictorial density of various physical states between lying down, crouching
and kneeling, alternating with doubling up, stretching and shifting
the weight from forward to back. The images are distributed according to
the duplication of the central figure’s (additionally overlong) arms, whose
gestures indicate concentration and absorption. The narrative dimension
provides the framework for a simultaneity of here and there, realism and
surrealism, depiction and interpretation. Maike Freess achieves this brilliantly.
In her elucidations of psychological states by means of physical constitution,
Maike Freess has particular recourse to sequences of movement as a
space–time continuum, to instability in a confined volume of space, to the
alternation of light and dark and to surreal impressions. But she had already
made use of these characteristics of the late drawings, in which people
are thrown back on themselves, in her early sculptural works. “Haus”
(1994), as a plywood shaft, is what the title augurs. Its slanting roof, tapering
width and access over a step impose a certain behaviour on the
visitor. Orientation is provided by observation slits. If these are opposite
one another, the sunlight from outside can be seen as an angular form.
But the visitor to “Haus” has to accomplish a successive change in body
posture from one extreme to the other, which involves an interconnection
of growing inner awareness and the outside world. Perhaps we should
look at Maike Freess’s oeuvre again from here, almost at the start of her
artistic practice: how it questions social conventions using the different
senses, always penetrating further into the unconscious. For this purpose
Maike Freess concisely visualises Gaston Bachelard’s (metaphorical) diffe-
rentiation of the house as a vertical being (with its various floors) and as
a concentrated being.3 Fundamental to her is the concept of the passage,
which in “Haus” is physically traversed.4
Maike Freess has also developed sculptural ensembles in the sequential
repetition of non-representational constructions. They separate the spatial
volume as linearly curving, sometimes angular arrangements, making it
almost palpable. But they also – as Francis Parent has observed – cut directly
into the space.5 In “Die Armee” [The Army] (1991) the rectangular
elements taper into points, their dark surfaces symbolising menace. At the
same time the ‘army’ is immensely psychically charged, with spikes extended
as if in self-protection. There are hints of the machine-like soulless
robot in the rigid again-and-again of its twenty-five individual elements.
Other sculptures then further concretise the idea of the human being. This
applies for example to “Bien rangé” [Tidy] (1992) and “Kleiner Protest”
[Small Protest] (1994), which come across as a commentary on the ‘army’.
In “Die gefangenen Witwen” [The Captive Widows] (1995) the limbs –
which can be associated with spiders – suggest postures in between stretching
and crouching,6 yet they are caught up – as the title can be interpreted
– in mourning and loss. How does this affect one’s dreams? A decade
and a half later Maike Freess returns to this topos. Her two-part drawing
“Die Witwen” [The Widows] (2011) always seems to show the same woman.
As in “Das Blaue vom Himmel” she wears an belt of explosives with
a detonator, and there are spikes that almost reach the eyes, which with
all the women are blind or empty – the loss (permanent or temporary) of
the sense of sight is another of Freess’s recurring motifs. One figure wears
a mask that looks like Mickey Mouse.7 Maike Freess explores each suicide
bomber’s state of mind, which translates their fate into collective suffering.
These scenes of hyperactive hands express grave agitation.
In the sculpture “Sprich jetzt!” [Speak Now!] (1994) the atmospheric charge
only becomes clear gradually. Two rows of identical constructions appear
to observe one another face to face. Far-reaching emphasis goes hand in
hand with extreme self-control. The imperative of the title underlines the
element of dialogue among equals. At the latest with this sculpture, the
nuances of communication or its disturbance become an integral part of
Maike Freess’s repertoire. The ‘opposites’ can sit side by side, as in the
photographic series “Should I Stay? 6–11” (2000) – Pernille Grane rightly
refers here to scenes from Beckett8 – or fulfil the social conventions while
contradicting one another at a laid table, as in “Le Dîner” (2004). Maike
Freess primarily visualises interpersonal emotionality in the new media,
in her photographs and films, in which she gradually exposes feelings,
emphasises an ‘other’ side and through this the deviation from social expectations.
The covers of catalogues “Led by Pleasure – Multiply Drama” (Ivrysur-
Seine 2001) and “Das Blaue vom Himmel” (Berlin 2011) both show
a fashionably dressed, self-possessed woman in makeup looking at the
viewer.9 The one is the woman from “Das Blaue vom Himmel”, the other
comes from the video in the installation “Led by Pleasure – Multiply Dra-
ma” (2001). Here the viewer experiences from inside, so to speak, how the
woman with waving blonde hair attempts to look through a pane of glass.
Within this sequence the framing edge of the pane appears as a vertical,
once on the left, once on the right. The pane, which we don’t see but can
imagine, functions like a burning glass of countenance. While the woman
feels herself to be unobserved, we feel ourselves to be indiscreet observers
and watched at the same. And there is also a knocking, which becomes
a reassurance of reality, with the hand and through listening. This
combination is also a feature of the two-part wall piece “Du und ich” [You
and I] (1998), with wax casts of hands – one is held in front of the mouth,
another extends the forefinger – in connection with language coming out
of loudspeakers behind them. Language becomes visible the gesture audible.
Shifts and unmaskings are a part of this conversation; Maike Freess
questions attitudes and looks behind the facade.
She deepens the questions about identity and multiple identity (as an exchange
of roles, for example in a new set of clothes or a switch in behaviour)
in the self-staging of her photographic series and videos – but it isn’t
so important that this is Maike Freess, rather that the same woman can
be seen. The theme is often the monotony of convention, the ritualised
contact between people and the maintenance of appearance in regard to
social conventions – ultimately the debunking of this deceptiveness. In
the video installation “Wenn es am schönsten ist” [When It’s the Most
Enjoyable] (1999) a couple play chess, the man in a white shirt, the woman
in a bright red blouse. Theatrically moving the pieces, both wear naturalistic
masks. In an increasingly fast tempo they alternately throw the pieces
around, causing them to fall to the floor, before setting up the game again.
This sequence is projected onto the wall, in front of it the chairs and table,
on which lie the chess game and the masks which have made it possible
to break the rules and save face.
Following her early sculptures, which have a finely nerved, tactile paper
surface that suggests bronze, and which she describes as “skins”,10 Maike
Freess went on to examine the phenomenon of the hull in wax impressions
taken from her own body. The photographic work “Selbstbeherrschung”
[Self-control] (1998) demonstrates the substantive dimension of
such an act. The dark wax, lying somewhat above the light skin, seems to
be another self of the person, who is literally wedged in here and extends
the surface of the chair. And in “70 Tage” [70 Days] (1998) casts of the lower
half of the face, in varying nuances of colour and form, lie on seventy
horizontal mirrors.11 The viewer can see the casts from below: they prove
to be masks, thus equivalent to the hull.12 But they differ from death masks
in leaving out the eyes. The process of taking an impression involves the
tactile experience of the fingertips in the meticulousness of the epidermal
ridges. The individuality of the person taking the cast enters into a dialogue
with the individuality of the model, separated in turn by the mask
as veil13 – in the work of Maike Freess we often come up against an invisible
boundary between here and there, illusion and reality, perceiving and
being perceived, language and silence.Elsewhere, however, she forgoes the mask
entirely: when she is concerned with the portrait as the undisguised expression of uniqueness,
with showing its quintessence in exhaustion, the dream, extreme situations
or extractive focus. This is the case in her series “Humming Place” (2011).
Often sketch-like, in between drawing and painting, the images exhibit a
wealth of graphic possibility and references to art history that is eminently
contemporary in its terse intensity. Here, without activity of any kind, Maike
Freess taps into a background noise of various emotional and mental
states. Ignoring trends and fashions in her old-masterly technique, she
celebrates the distinguishing mark of the human being. As a whole and
in its train of thought, “Humming Place” is about the human being as the
tragicomedy of a regulated, self-adjusting society.
Throughout her work, however, Maike Freess shows people who break
with conventions through being absent, grotesque, libidinous, gruesome,
loud or still. She studies the small, private, actually hidden gestures that
reveal true sensitivity as identity. She demonstrates what keeps the world
together at its core.
(1) Such effects are of course used as a
stylistic device in the cinema, e.g. The Fury
(1977/78), dir. Brian De Palma.
(2) Translated from Friedrich Dürrenmatt,
Werkausgabe in dreißig Bänden, vol. 18,
Zurich: Diogenes, 1980, p. 144.
(3) Gaston Bachelard, “La poétique de
l‘espace, 1957, I.V and I.VI.
(4) Maike Freess stands here in the same
tradition as Bruce Nauman and Richard
Serra. Gregor Schneider will later work with
the corridor/passage – from which doors
open onto the apparently quotidian. See
also Freess’s installation Couloir [Corridor]
(5) Exhib. cat. Grassimuseum Leipzig 1995,
(6) The sequence of elements can accordingly
be placed on the floor and pushed
(7) The British sculptor Michael Sandle
similarly used a Mickey Mouse head as an
expression of protest: as a metaphor for
the stupidity of the population in relation to
the war-making government. Sandle, born
in 1936, refers concretely to the Vietnam
War, but also to dumbing down through the
media. See also his sculpture A Twentieth
Century Memorial, 1976–78, Tate London.
(8) Exhib. cat. Ivry-sur-Seine 2001, p. 61.
(9) By contrast the catalogue Immersed in
Your Rosy Dawn (Marne-le-Vallée 1999) superimposes
the eyes on the front cover. Only
on the back can it be seen that the head has
been tipped to the horizontal and roughly
pixelated. The exclusiveness of the eyes also
underlines their relevance, even at this early
stage, to the visual language of Maike Freess.
(10) Quoted from Francis Parent, see note
5, p. 15.
(11) Jean Mairet has described the aesthetic
ambivalence of the realism of the
skin and the subtleties of facial expression,
exhib. cat. Marne-la-Vallée 1999, s.p.
(12) Among the artists important to her,
Maike Freess numbers Cindy Sherman,
with her masquerades, disguises and
stagings; conversation in the studio, Berlin,
21 March 2015.
(13) For the simultaneity of matrix and
process while taking an impression see
Georges Didi-Huberman, Ähnlichkeit und
Berührung, Cologne: DuMont, 1999, 30ff
and 97ff; but also Doubting Thomas, who
placed his finger in Christ’s wound. A
boundary that comes about through an
impression is of course the Turin Shroud.