in Features | 12 JUN 05
Featured in
Issue 92

Marcus Schinwald

Complicity and conflict explored via films, performances, paintings, installations and billboards

in Features | 12 JUN 05

‘Note to self: confess’. This line, scribbled on squared note paper in the first leaves of Markus Schinwald’s comprehensive Frankfurter Kunstverein catalogue/artist’s book, is a clue to the overlapping intricacies and hidden secrets of Schinwald’s multifarious work. Having been involved in theatre, fashion and theory before eventually settling on the visual arts, he has never quite escaped the influences of these other disciplines, and their various conventions continue to infiltrate his work. Through slickly produced 35mm films or live performances (both of which feature actors or dancers as their protagonists), manipulated 19th-century engravings or oil paintings, psychologically loaded installations and advertising billboards he explores the complicity or conflict between a body and its surroundings; the individual and the external object.
Schinwald’s work is steeped in the atmosphere of the city of its production: Vienna, with its dark, musty interiors and faded grandeur. The last vestiges of the empire, laced with the shadows of psychoanalysis, are palpably present. 1st Part Conditional (2004), a three-minute film, is weighted down by Vienna’s Habsburg and Freudian pasts. An androgynous woman dressed in a grey suit is seated in a grand 19th-century apartment, sparsely furnished with heavy wooden furniture. She begins to move; her body convulses, turns and drops. As if in the grip of an uncontrollable seizure, her movements seem caused either by an intense inner struggle or a malevolent external force. In a shadowy corner of the apartment a bearded man in an armchair watches, straight-faced: he may be the cause of the woman’s convulsions, perhaps, or merely their witness. Meanwhile, in acts of sympathetic self-destruction, the heavy furniture falls apart and crashes to the ground. Although Schinwald leaves much unsaid, the role of the body or the inanimate object in the physical manifestation of psychological conflict is clear: the repressed returns to rupture the surface and cause all the havoc of a physical malfunction or unruly poltergeist.
Schinwald uses the body as a site more often than not in combination with clothing, which may not only conceal but also represent or even control the body’s functions. In a recent interview he described how the history of clothing is split into the ‘robe’ or the ‘scaffolding’: ‘The robe mainly has a covering function, and scaffolding an architectonic one [...] I have always focused on the latter – the architecture in clothes.’1 Subverting this architectonic function, Schinwald has removed the heels from a pair of high-heeled shoes, laced the arms of a jacket together and invented an elaborate metal contraption that rests on the neck and supports the index finger in a frozen gesture of attention. The body, restrained or off-balance, is no longer free to determine its movement. He is similarly involved in the body’s internal scaffolding, the skeleton, and how it can be made to act against its intended function, as in the liquid collapse of the woman in 1st Part Conditional, like a puppet whose strings are suddenly cut, or the series of photographs ‘Contortionists’ (2003), in which a woman looks out of a window or lounges casually on a bed, her limbs all the while arranged in the most inconceivable ways. Here the skeleton’s structural function has been handed over to an irresponsible substitute: the psyche.
Not only the body and clothing but also architecture and furniture assume a psychological dimension. Walls are usually shrouded with curtains – ‘In architecture, I am interested in exactly the opposite, i.e., elements that have no tectonic function (curtains as liquid walls)’2 – and a huge wardrobe positioned in a room may open onto other hidden rooms behind (Portal, 2003). Even language, another crucial thread in Schinwald’s work, is elliptical, mysterious, its meaning obscure or fragmented, sputtered out by a disjointed consciousness. The soundtrack to Diarios (to you) (2003) features two voices that relate only obliquely to one another. A woman’s voice reads out truncated stage directions (‘Interrupting. a meaningful pause. Then with pregnancy’), and a man recites a love poem whose words are clotted and unrecognizable beneath his thick East European accent and deep baritone. The words may be spoken but are not meant to be understood. The film, composed of a sequence of still black and white images that fade into one another, requires the same searching for narrative cohesion on a visual as on an acoustic level. It is seductive and engrossing, a meditation on loss and nostalgia built from loaded, generic imagery: a lonesome cowboy, the sunlight glinting behind a strange Modernist building, horses grazing, a woman’s sun-drenched face. It is at once familiar and strange, intimate and abstract. Like a private diary made public, whose words and pictures may constitute a confession but whose meaning remains concealed.