Political portraiture and sci-fi ciphers
Science fiction rarely deals with the future itself. Instead, the genre usually trades in encoded reflections of the present. In her paintings, Katrin Plavčak regularly draws from the sci-fi cipher of seemingly empty space and the fantasies projected onto it. Space travel and colonization are common points of focus on her canvases – hybrid technology, both human and extraterrestrial – while well-known figures from film, art, comics, the Internet and other media often serve as the paintings’ protagonists.
Legal Aliens (2010), for example, depicts a rendezvous among television’s most famous extraterrestrial, ALF, the Star Wars robot R2-D2, afrofuturist jazz musician Sun Ra (who appears with an alien face), Abdul Ahad Momand (the first Afghan cosmonaut in orbit), and a number of dinosaurs, fantasy creatures, and otherworldly beings. One of these extraterrestrials is wearing a Mexican sombrero, and the background of the image includes the container from Christoph Schlingensief’s project Ausländer raus! (Foreigners out!), which took place in Vienna in 2000. It’s not too much of a stretch to read the piece as grappling with immigration policies and social exclusion, and how we might move past these issues.
Plavčak consistently expands the space of her painting with installations that include sculptures, video, music and dance. In the installation Family Temple 1 (2010), for example, Legal Aliens was complemented by the video Family Temple One Versus the Female Architect: Orgon Rock (2010), in which a warped human figure struggles against a group of meteorites: ‘All space is our habitation, we are the critical mass’, sing the meteorites in high-pitched voices.
Whereas Legal Aliens harnesses the imagery of science fiction to address political topics, the group portrait Gelebte Demokratie (Lived Democracy, 2011) is rather more concrete. In the painting, Plavčak brings together a series of real scuffles that took place in various parliaments – a panorama of disorder right in the heart of democracy, where disputes are supposed to be settled with words. Or the artist turns to portraiture to depict individual figures from the political events of the day, like a string of recent whistleblowers, for example: there’s a faceless Julian Assange (Wikileaks, 2011), a deformed, cubist Bradley Manning (Whistleblower, Bradley Manning, 2013) and Edward Snowden with a shrunken head (Snowden, 2013). On top of the portraits, which are usually based on photographs, Plavčak often transposes abstract elements like grids, nets and other geometric forms. In a portrait of the imprisoned Chinese writer and civil rights activist Liu Xiaobo, for example, the grid represents prison bars (Liu Xiaobo 3rd Version, 2012). Current political events also assume a surreal form in Die Arabische Liga beobachtet die Lage in Syrien (The Arab League is observing the situation in Syria, 2012). In her pictorial surveys, Plavčak brings together events actually quite removed from one another and presents them concurrently on a single canvas. The space of painting in her work is a place of encounter between various events and people; sometimes they’re united by common concerns, sometimes simply by certain similarities.
For Plavčak, painting is above all an art historical topic. The artist – a member of the feminist group ff – advocates a histo-riography of art from a feminine perspective (especially in painting, where such a viewpoint is anything but a given) and seeks to direct attention toward the work of female artists, who’ve long failed to receive the recognition they deserve. One large format work by Plavčak (with an appropriately direct title), Painting History Revisited (2012), brings together a number of female painters (Rosa Bonheur, Angelika Kauffmann, and Lavinia Fontana, among others) in one group portrait.
In a catalogue text, Jutta Koether comments on Plavčak’s work: ‘it creates a space that looks at you and in which you should behave.’ Plavčak might often show a cartoonish and playful streak with the individual elements, people, and events that she includes in her work, but the concrete sociopolitical conditions of this space remain all too real.
Translated by Jesse Coburn
First published in Issue 12