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Issue 238

Margaret Raspé Transforms Herself into a Human-Machine

At the Badischer Kunstverein, the artist explores the transformative potential of seemingly unassuming actions

BY Ben Livne Weitzman in Exhibition Reviews | 09 AUG 23

Four kettles emit piercing whistles, releasing steam onto canvases leant against the walls and transforming water-soluble pigments into drops of red paint. Re-created for the opening of her solo show ‘Automatic’, Margaret Raspé’s 1984 performance and installation Kondensation (Condensation) envelops the gallery with an intense soundscape. Much like the delirium of modernity that engulfs Giuliana (Monica Vitti) in Michelangelo Antonioni’s film Red Desert (1964), there is no escaping the high-pitched noise that fills the Badischer Kunstverein, before materializing as red circular stains on the white canvas surfaces. Featuring film, sound and media installation, performance, poetry and painting, the exhibition, which debuted at Berlin’s Haus am Waldsee earlier this year, provides an insight into the profoundly sensorial and ritualistic practice of an artist who, for the past 60 years, has explored the transformative potential of seemingly unassuming actions.

Margaret Raspé, Alle Tage wieder – let them swing, 1974, film still. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Molitor, Berlin

Since the 1970s, Raspé’s oeuvre has critically reflected on the mechanization of human and non-human bodies. Finding herself a single mother consumed by household chores, the artist began looking for creative lines of flight. Indeed, the kitchen of her Berlin home became a magnet for artists and thinkers, especially those associated with avant-garde movements such as actionism and fluxus, which railed against sociopolitical norms and sought to bridge the gap between art and life.  For Raspé, who is now in her 90s, these thoughts transformed into a practice which favours immediacy and automatization to the sleekness of a preconceived object.

Margaret Raspé, ‘Automatic’, 2023, exhibition view. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Molitor, Berlin

In 1971, by ingeniously mounting her 8mm camera onto a helmet, Raspé found a way to wield her own gaze and transform into a human-machine. Films such as Oh Tod, wie nahrhaft bist du (Oh Death, How Nourishing You Are, 1972–73) – which documents the artist slaughtering a chicken for dinner, blood dripping from its neck onto a white cloth – offer no perspective beyond Raspé looking down at her own hands. The result produces a rather claustrophobic viewing experience – an effect heightened in the exhibition by the installation of the works side-by-side and projected onto wooden frames. Whether the artist is washing the dishes in Alle Tage wieder – let them swing (Every Day Again – Let Them Swing, 1974) or beating the cream till it hardens in Der Sadist schlägt das eindeutig Unschuldige (The Sadist Whips the Obviously Innocent, 1971), these films are striking for their violent, turbulent tactility. Donning the camera-helmet, Raspé’s seemingly mundane actions emphasize destruction as a precursor for creation, be it killing poultry for supper or covering a white canvas with automated brush strokes in Gelb, Rot und Blau entgegen (Against Yellow, Red and Blue, 1983).

Margaret Raspé, Wasser ist nicht mehr Wasser, 1990, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Molitor, Berlin

In 1990, wearing an oversized white t-shirt, Raspé entered the contaminated Bzura River in Poland. The evocative performance piece, titled Wasser ist nicht mehr Wasser (Water Isn’t Water Anymore), was documented in a series of photographs on display in the exhibition. Submerged up to her neck in the polluted river, the artist attempted to sing using an overtone vocal technique, whereby two or more distinct pitches are produced simultaneously, purportedly to healing effect. This testing of the body’s limits – whether through physicality, technology or mechanization – has long been at the core of Raspé’s artistic investigations. The objects transformed by her actions – a red-sprayed canvas, a blood-stained cloth, a blackened t-shirt – are but remnants of the spiritual and psychological transformations arising from Raspé’s processual practice, which is finally beginning to receive the recognition it deserves.

Margaret Raspé’s ‘Automatik’ is on view at Badischer Kunstverein until 17 September.

Main image: Margaret Raspé, Kondensation, 1984/2023, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Molitor, Berlin

Ben Livne Weitzman is a curator and writer based in Frankfurt am Main, Germany.