‘Let’s say it’s beautiful …’ ‘Isn’t it playful?’ ‘It’s amazing!’ Such remarks can be overheard at any exhibition. And often one catches oneself using them. They are not so much an evaluation of the work as a spontaneous attempt to fill the void of the white cube which leaves many with an unpleasant feeling of emptiness.
Such whispered comments become the raw material for Sara Masüger’s Musée National Marc Chagall 8 octobre 2011 (2011). The title suggests a site-specific work made for the Chagall museum in Nice, but the large-scale wall installation actually appeared in a group show in the same city at La Station. Masüger spent an hour eavesdropping among the visitors at the Musée National and jotted down their scraps of conversation in the languages she understands: German, English and French. The results were edited together in one text which can be read in the tradition of automatic writing. Each time the artist installs the piece she repeats this process, starting at a popular museum in the city where she is exhibiting the piece (since 2004, it has been shown three times). For the Nice installation, the manuscript begins as follows: La fille. Sept minutes. Voir sept minutes. Seulement français. They come to the desert. Sie haben länger. It comes down from the sky. Dann haben sie aber noch Durst. La fille. Six ans. Qui? In einer Reihe. La deuxième est le paradis. It should be starting now. There are a lot of works!
But that’s not the end of Masüger’s process. She recreates the text in damp clay, shaping the letters one by one and sticking them to the wall of the exhibition space. It’s a time-consuming process that contrasts with the preceding phase of tightly scheduled eavesdropping. Gradually a uniform mural relief emerges on the wall. The simplicity of this repetitive mechanical task recalls the painstaking exercises used in grade school to learn how to write – a skill that is later taken for granted. As Masüger slowly forms the letters – it takes her about a week to install each version of the work – the very fabric of the text starts to break down. Here and there, the clay letters dry and fall off the wall, leaving their outlines behind. The overall text remains legible but looks like a fresh ruin. The work symbolizes a clash of temporalities and values: loose talk versus the physical effort of fixing it on the wall. Words shed letters like dead leaves; the original syntax breaks down while a new one takes shape; dirt piles up on the floor. What remains is an injured (text) body.
In this piece, Masüger points to the instability and fragility of bodies – a theme that exemplifies her work as a whole. The artist expresses physical vulnerability whether she uses an abstract formal vocabulary or a figurative one. In the series Inside Out (2009), bronze blocks are left open on one side to reveal dripstone-like structures which recall spinal columns laid bare. Other sculptures borrow motifs from the human body, especially its extremities, only to deform and to disintegrate them.
For her 2011 solo show at Guerilla Galerie in St. Gallen, Masüger showed Hands (2011): a large number of hands cast in plaster and strewn across the floor. All of them had a fracture in precisely the same place: on the ring finger. In medical parlance, such a break is known as a ‘displaced fracture’ because it occurs at a position not under stress (in contrast to the thumb or the forefinger). In relation to Masüger’s work, ‘displacement’ can also be read in the psychological sense of a Freudian ‘shift’. While linking the work to a discourse on the body about trauma and abjection, the artist refers to questions of space in the tradition of the uncanny. When she adds walls made of her chosen materials or seals up the windows in a space, the familiar becomes strange. Masüger’s work occupies a place within a lineage that includes Eva Hesse (material experiments and the processual), Louise Bourgeois (psychoanalytical work), Heidi Bucher (studies of spaces and their cathartic capacity) or even Alina Szapocznikow (a post-Surrealist idiom addressing the body trauma of the 20th century). What begins impulsively in the studio takes on its full material form only in the architectural space of the exhibition. Masüger uses not only ephemeral materials (wax, plaster, polystyrene foam) but also more solid ones (bronze, epoxy resin). This combination of hard and soft materials – along with the artist’s gestural approach to processing them – lends her work a disconcerting but seductive haptic quality. Let’s say it’s beautiful …
Translated by Nicholas Grindell
First published in Issue 6