Galerie Anita Beckers, Frankfurt, Germany
‘Words are more a part of us than our nerves. We only know our brains by hearsay’, wrote Paul Valery. Bea Emsbach’s graphic work could be seen as a protest against Valery’s remark. She has been working on a series of red ink drawings called ‘Beutezüge im Bodensatz der Wissenschaften’ (Raids in the Sediments of Science) since 1995. Human figures, heads, busts and sometimes vague approximations of faces are repeatedly isolated on the page. Many are rendered as outlines, surfaces are uniform, people look generic and are often sexless. What links the work is a feeling of proliferation and metamorphosis.
A larger than life drawing of a head and shoulders is incomplete above the eyebrows; tubes come out of both nostrils and branch out to produce a thicket, ending in bubble-shaped protuberances. The tube is a recurring motif: figures are wrapped in them, deformed or joined together by them. All of these bodies are undergoing a process of change, as though they have no definite, final form, but are part of an organ whose growth and shape they have no influence over. Their faces are absolutely expressionless, as if unaware that twigs are growing out of their ears and a tangle of tubes is protruding from their nostrils. The tubes could also be seen as entrails forcing their way outwards: nerves, veins, intestines that look like roots or feelers sucking nourishment from the air, enabling contact with the person’s surroundings and other people.
Distortions of the human body are not shown as a wound, but as something that the artist takes for granted. The organic exuberances are not a nightmare, nor are they symbols of subconscious energies. By rendering everything in red, the colour of blood, Emsbach conflates the human figure into a single entity. The expressionless quality of the bodies and faces in relation to their own metamorphosis indicates a complete lack of interest in any kind of explanation. No one here seems to need words to become certain of his or her own condition - an idea formulated somewhat cloudily in the title of the exhibition, ‘Zeichen und Wunder’ (Signs and Wonders).
The problem of language is explored in Emsbach’s sculpture Er ists (It Is He) (1999). The words from Eduard Mörike’s poem of the same name (an ode to spring written in 1829) are shaped in latex on a board attached to the wall. What remains of Mörike’s rhymed seasonal idyll is nothing but a little heap of unprepossessing material. Latex is also used in the series called ‘Organe-Membranen’ (Organs-Membranes) (1998), the elasticity of the rubber echoing the mutability of the forms in the drawings.
Emsbach’s examination of external form also is elaborated in Reliquie, (Reliquary, 1998) for which she stuck beech leaves on to rubber gloves, and in Microkosmonautenhelm, (Microcosmonaut’s Helmet, 1998), where she planted them in a rubber bathing cap. Leaves are, of course, subject to change, but also have a quality which suggests a protective covering, which is articulated in the work Rühr mich nicht an (Don’t touch me, 1999): little children’s jackets covered in Beech leaves, which were suspended around the space on coat-hangers.
Emsbach’s installation in a separate room in the gallery felt like a memorial. The Infantin (Infanta, 1999) - rompers and a baby’s cap covered with leaves - lay on a wooden table with a chequered tablecloth. Two rubber gloves, also covered with leaves, hung from a simple clothes hook on the wall. The empty wrap on the table, into which a small child could fit, along with similar empty wraps on the wall into which adult hands could fit, created an oppressive atmosphere of violence, abuse and murder. The work implied a social discourse in which aesthetic quality was submerged into effect to a questionable extent. Ems-bach’s drawings, on the other hand, eluded definition.
Translated by Michael Robinson