BY Christy Lange in Features | 24 MAY 12
Featured in
Issue 5

The Fold in the Room

Alexandra Leykauf turns photographs inside-out to explore their illusionistic properties

BY Christy Lange in Features | 24 MAY 12

Lustheim, 2009, photocopy on wood

Looking at images of Alexandra Leykauf’s installations in the pages of this magazine might not do her work justice, but it is a fitting medium. When she was a student, the artist began photographing images in books that had been printed across double pages ‘and so inevitably were disrupted, disjointed.’ As she put in an interview in her 2010 publication Chateau de Bagatelle, ‘The join disrupts the image and shows the surface of the reproduction as a surface.’ Leykauf still departs from that point of illusionistic flattening that occurs when a three-dimensional object is photographed. But she also unfolds that process again – often literally, into the three-dimensional space of the gallery, the plinth, sculpture, film projection or stage.

Viewing Leykauf’s works, or hearing them explained, involves a process of losing and then finding one’s orientation. Even the subtly inverted title of her current show at Sassa Trülzsch in Berlin, Heart of Chambers, makes you pause when you read it. The phrase causes your mind to turn it over in your head: if she doesn’t, in fact, mean the ‘chambers of the heart’, where could the heart of chambers lie? The word ‘chambers’ suggests she’s more interested in spaces than surfaces: Does she hope to get deeper inside the interiors she photographs and fabricates? Will our eyes always only skate across the flat surface of photographs, or can they penetrate their depths – even if their depth is just an illusion?

Heart of Chambers, installation view, 2012

In making her work, Leykauf sticks to purposefully, almost stubbornly analogue techniques. Her process usually begins with simple materials such as cut-out shapes, cardboard boxes, small paper dioramas, Platonic solids, folded paper, or collages made with found photographs and scissors. The objects and images she favours are almost always black and white, and usually involve fractured geometric planes folded or layered to create architectural space or the illusion of it, in vague or explicit reference to the early-20th-century Constructivist or Bauhaus experiments. But the series of equally analogue processes she subjects her modest photocollages or sculptures to are so complex they can rarely be described in one sentence. The process behind a work like the dual slide projection Circles (2012), for example, involves so many shifts, twists and flips from negative to positive and back again, that it would take too many words to explain here. Nevertheless, the final product, as is often the case, is unexpectedly subtle: a small white circle of projected light that grows imperceptibly larger with each shuffle of the projectors. It’s either deceptively simple or deceptively complex. Though Leykauf could doubtless achieve a more spectacular or polished result using digital effects, she chooses to rely on basic materials and optical techniques that have been utilized in theatre, early photography and pre-cinematic experiments.

And so it comes as no surprise that theatre is one of her enduring motifs. Our encounters with artifice are crucial to her work. Though her works often derive from and arrive as minimalist objects, they are also pieces of stagecraft, which present an artifice or illusion that disassembles as we approach them. That disassembly does not occur due to any failure on the artist’s part, but because this is exactly the kind of unfolding illusion she wants to unveil, then heighten, then erase again, as she does in the central installation in Heart of Chambers, Spanische Wand (Partition Wall, 2012). The work began in her studio with a cardboard box whose proportions were to scale with the proportions of the gallery itself. She split the box down the middle and opened it, like one might an orange or a hunk of cheese, and photographed its two halves. She then enlarged the black and white image and mounted it on a folded, accordion-like wooden screen that stands in the middle of the gallery. The abject nature of the ‘original’ object – the cardboard box – is relevant: for all its disposability, it becomes, here, monumental and permanent, almost unreasonably so. Yet the architectural element – the ‘Wand’ itself – seems to be a flimsy, provisional construction, a prop temporarily erected in the service of a theatrical illusion, only to be torn down, recycled and used again.

Palast der Arbeit, 2009, Collage

And like a theatre set, the illusion the work is meant to conjure moves in and out of focus as you move around it. Seen from outside through the window of the gallery, Spanische Wand resembles most closely what you see in the photograph: a giant cardboard box. When you enter the gallery and are able to move around it, when you are forced to squeeze past it to enter the remaining gallery space, the artifice of the optical illusion becomes more and more apparent. The wooden structure reveals its true plywood nature, even as the wood, ironically, in being creased and folded, takes on the characteristics of paper. Leykauf complicates the supposedly simple act of looking at a single photograph on the wall in front of us by literally enlarging and expanding the photograph into a sculptural, even theatrical scenario, in which the ‘backstage’ could be a metaphor for what the photograph can’t show.

If Leykauf is interested in conflating the space of theatre with the exhibition space, it is by conjuring the ‘off’ spaces of the theatre. She doesn’t usher us into the seat assigned to produce maximum illusion but rather gives us glimpses from the wings, where the well-lit edge of the wooden backdrop intersects with the blackness backstage. Or she gives us a view from high up in the balcony or down in the orchestra pit, as she does in her ongoing series of papier-mâché reliefs, which are built based on found images of old theatres or cinemas, photographed from extreme angles.

In her installation for the group exhibition Rehabilitation at WIELS in Brussels, (Untitled, 2010), she constructed a large plywood wall to obscure a passageway between two rooms of the museum. You approached the work from behind the wooden wall, emerging in front of it like an actor stepping from behind the scenes onto the lit stage. On the other side of the wall, you are confronted with a life-sized black and white image of the same space, which Leykauf photographed during the previous exhibition when the work installed there was Félix González-Torres’s gold beaded curtains Untitled (Golden) (1995). As we face this representation of a curtain, the illusion thickens, and the simulacral layers compound. As Leykauf describes it, ‘One sees a document of the previous exhibition while also being part of the current one.’

In yet another layer, the ‘back’ of the set was employed as a projection screen for her film Falten (Folds, 2009). This simple stop-motion animation records, in successive still photographs, the unfolding of a folded paper object, the kind children use to play a fortune telling game. With each successive frame, another fold is unfolded, until the three-dimensional object becomes, again, a flat piece of paper. Yet that piece of paper is also a photograph of the folded paper object with which we started. And then the loop begins again. The object becomes a photograph, which becomes an object again. But in fact it is neither object, nor photograph, but a representation of both.

Goldener Vorhang mit Spot, 2008, colour photograph

If you think of Falten, or any of Leykauf’s sculptural, architectural or filmic works, primarily in terms of photography, they begin to remind you of the illusionistic magic behind the photographic exposure itself, which is

also its very failure: A photograph doesn’t show us the object it pretends to have on its surface. Leykauf – in attempting to show us what we can’t see – makes us aware of the representational nature of what we do see: this photographed box is not an object; this photographed curtain, not a stage; this theatre, not a space. In Leykauf’s words, ‘[W]hat remains then when the representation – that is to say a depiction of something attached to a medium – suddenly falls away?’ In rendering her objects as photographs, and then those photographs as sculptures, she reminds you of the shortcomings of each medium, not of the seamless transition between them. It’s not unlike watching a theatrical production in which the attempts to render the play real – the exaggerated stage make-up, elaborate props and backdrop – often jolt you back into the artifice of the play itself. The fourth wall appears and disappears and reappears again. In Heart of Chambers, you are aware that a photograph does not constitute a chamber; nor does it have a heart that you can get at.

Christy Lange is programme director of Tactical Tech and a contributing editor of frieze. She lives in Berlin, Germany.