BY Dominic Eichler in Features | 04 APR 03
Featured in
Issue 74

Something Old, Something New

Katja Strunz

BY Dominic Eichler in Features | 04 APR 03

The works in Katja Strunz' sparse constellations often appear to have been spared an uncertain fate or narrowly escaped a traumatic event, and found safehaven in a gallery. While they have a marked retro flair and draw on Modernist sculptural and graphic traditions - without resorting to irony, parody or revisionist zeal - their existence isn't an untroubled one. Signs of fatigue, ageing or wear-and-tear testify to this. Her abstraction seems tainted by a Romantic, Gothic sensibility that proposes the expression of world-weariness as one viable response to the state of things.

A number of Strunz' works on paper involve subtle reworkings of forlorn black-and-white found images. In o.T. (Untitled, 1998) she blacked out the shape of a racing yacht, turning it into a jagged abstract weight suspended in a watery twilight. It looks like a crepuscular phantom, a floating monolith that has lost its bearings, permanently adrift. The mood recalls Arnold Böcklin's painting the Isle of the Dead (1880-6), which depicts a funeral barge on its way to a rocky cypress-dotted citadel.

Much of Strunz' work has this kind of dark, brooding intensity. Her favoured materials, which include found timber, scrap metal, acid-yellowed pages and landscape photographs culled from books, are not so much recycled as resuscitated. Whatever new form she gives them, they still hint at a previous state. Capturing and reflecting on this resonance is one of the main characteristics of her work: the employment of objects that have been affected by the passage of time and her fascination with derelict places convey the impression of a haunting, inescapable past. For one body of work she explored an abandoned swimming pool in an East Berlin park, gathering artefacts and photographic evidence like a freelance archaeologist. In the empty pool's graffiti-decorated, rubbish-strewn basin she came across the rickety metal stairs for Brunnen (Fountain, 2000). Water trickles down the sculpture's rusty steps into a shallow trough, only to be pumped back up again; it is a fountain in which jolly spurting has been replaced by an endless descent, a constant wearing-down. She also took an arresting photograph of the same steps in their original location, which she cut out and placed in a zigzag-shaped frame, o.T. (2000). Other works in this vein include a series of photographs of a greenhouse in Sintra, Portugal (Summer Habitation, 2001), that depict piles of smashed panes.

Sharp edges reoccur elsewhere in Strunz' works, perhaps most strikingly in her angular wall sculptures. A prism-like sculpture by Robert Smithson made of steel and Perspex, Untitled (1964?5), served as the inspiration for the first of these. According to Strunz, her early versions of o.T. (1997), all made of dented tarnished metal, are like 'the Smithson with its eyes poked out'. More recent wall sculptures constructed from painted or stained timber or steel are all variations on three forms: aggressive dislocated corners, warped pyramids and concertinaed planes. Part of what makes them intriguing is the peculiar mix of possible sources that they bring into play: hung on a white wall, they can be interpreted as cuts, crustaceans and three-dimensional shadows respectively. They could be samples from any number of other modern abstract sculptures, modules from some Art Deco or futuristic façade or even waylaid pieces from the Batcave.

As Strunz' works are nearly always untitled, they remain mute on the question of exact origins. When they do have a title, it tends to be obscure rather than explanatory, such as This Beech (2000), as if more informative titles might disturb their delicate balance. Relief (2002), composed of a collection of these forms and a metal hoop, looks like raining debris held in suspension. Here and elsewhere in Strunz' compositions, geometry and palette have strong echoes of early 20th-century Russian abstraction, in particular El Lissitzky's Suprematist Prounen (projekty utverzhdeniya novogo) (Projects for the Affirmation of the New, 1919-21). But while Lissitzky was concerned with creating a better world and proposing models for an anti-gravity architecture in Suprematism's theoretically infinite space, Strunz' work has a sense of weight and containment. Her sculptures are like pieces gathered up after things didn't quite turn out as they might have.

However, given the free flow of associations that her works encourage, it is just as easy to compare Strunz' dark, pointed constructions to architectural drawings from the other side of the ideological planet. In the 1920s Manhattan architect Hugh Ferriss was generating ominous charcoal drawings that explored the creative potential of skyscrapers within the maximum dimensions allowable by the city's building regulations, and which he eventually published in his book The Metropolis of Tomorrow (1929). In Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan (1978) Rem Koolhaas mused that Ferriss' most important contribution to the city was 'the creation of an illuminated night inside a cosmic container, the murky Ferrissian Void: a pitch black architectural womb that gives birth to consecutive stages of skyscraper [that] absorbs multiple impregnation by any number of alien and foreign influences'. Strunz' remixes of elements from Modernism's past reflect a similarly alluring, if knowingly corrupt, method. Her abstraction isn't autonomous or absolute; rather, it carries with it the knowledge of its own inherent contradictions and irreconcilable differences.

Strunz' constellations express this well. She often forces her elegant wall sculptures to communicate across the room with junk assemblages, twisted scrap metal forms or austere enigmatic works on paper. In this sense her grouping of works always embodies a discord or rupture. Some of her more delicate metal assemblages have the glint of gold or precious material but are fake in the way that Coco Chanel's imitation jewellery was fake - a sophisticated renegotiation of image and value. Two such works are fitted with disco-ball motors - o.T. (2002), a hypnotic clock-face without hands or numbers, and o.T. (2001), a trashy mobile that turns as if it were blown by a gentle breeze.

Other works, such as a group of metal sculptures made from buckled steel ribbons of re-inforced concrete, are far more brutal. Sonata (2000), for example, composed of structural elements drawn out like roots from the building whose stability they once secured, might have been plucked from a cataclysm. In a gallery these works look like broken drawings or very disturbed three-dimensional versions of Brice Marden's contemplative doodles. Strunz' reliance on material qualities is always offset by the fact that progress towards decay and deterioration is inevitable.

Her paper works often provide the last words. A recent example, o.T. (2002), declares: 'Today is not yesterday'. But the arrangement, black type set like concrete poetry on horizontal and vertical axes of words, also allows the reverse reading: 'Yesterday is not today'. In Strunz' work the two statements are locked in a never-ending embrace.

Dominic Eichler is a Berlin-based writer, former contributing editor of frieze and now co-director of Silberkuppe, Berlin.