German artist Kerstin Kartscher’s exhibition in Hamburg did not depict war, nor was it directly critical of government-sanctioned killing sprees. Yet her materials and imagery resonate with the terrors of warfare and post-World War II sentiment without explicitly referencing them, insinuating a past that is often – strangely – more present in the public mind than current affairs.
Kartscher invokes the past through outmoded materials that suggest the immediate postwar era, as well as a figurative drawing style that seems to hark back to the early 20th century. The Corruption of the Rewards (2006), the central work in her exhibition entitled ‘Save Yourself’, is a makeshift shelter with a curved windshield made from the weathered awning of a beach hut or garden chair. Its partial fabric roof is adorned with rusty barbed wire, while a small tiled patio sits on the ground next to it. Kartscher decorated the interior with a drawing of a red brick wall and, beyond it, shapes that suggested an industrial urban landscape; pale shelter indeed. The only thing that looked new was a set of plastic measuring spoons. The shelter might have been an urban play hut built by children. Too small for adults, the comfort it might provide is minimal.
The exhibition also contained another untitled, uncomfortable structure: a squat bench with legs borrowed from an old coffee table and interwoven strips of stretcher fabric providing a basic seating area. Beside it, an hour-glass had run out of sand. Kartscher had roughly hammered soft upholstery onto the wall behind it, the long nails hewn flat. Three framed drawings hung behind the bench, each referring back to the theme of protection: in Shelter II (2006) a summery fabric roof sits on a supporting wall made from the word ‘Shelter’, while the word ‘Refuge’ swirls amid dynamically curved lines. Another drawing, Seeds Beaten in to the Earth (2006), suggests a landscape with a hollow-eyed woman in a casual 1920s’ dress, while Some Form of Mental Hygiene (2006) depicts a holiday scenario, with pool, parasols and a mountainous backdrop – a barbed-wire line runs faintly to the left. The images provide a spatial context that Corruption and the untitled object cannot give; they hint at the war-torn landscape from which these structures might have come.
Another drawing, Save Yourself (2005), made on a canvas with decorative brass bangles hanging from each top corner, continued the holiday motif with a scene of palm fronds and reeds overhanging waves lapping at a shore. Thick black barbed wire divides the beach from the water – although a woman in a bathing costume fitting her swimming cap seems oblivious to it. Dwarfed by the barbed wire, she could have been copied from a lifestyle magazine and transported into this aggressive environment. Here there is no refuge from the brutality of the scene, apart from the cheap adornments that accompany the drawing, which seem like attempts to beautify the damaged landscape. Kartscher’s drawing style contrasts with the rough-hewn qualities of the found materials in her assemblages. Elements are drawn without clearly defined outlines; black filling lines and stark red or blue emphasize the hardness of the images. In these new works she allows more faint and empty areas, adding a sense of softness and fragility, which recall the overarching theme of protection. The materials used – the fabrics, the tiles, the bric-à-brac – appear familiar or even domestic, creating a tension between the exhibition components and the underlying suggestion of violence or destruction.
Imagination will never be able to upstage the experience of war and aggression, but it may create an awareness of their horrors and of the sense of exposure they produce. Shelter will be needed not only by refugees but also by those who end up homeless in times of peace. In Kartscher’s work there ultimately is no shelter. There are only fragile structures that offer protection from some of the lesser dangers – sunshine, rain or wind. But life is harsh company – more so in some quarters than in others, where art has little impact.