Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Katharina Fritsch: A Sense of the Uncanny

Katharina Fritsch is a contemporary German artist famous for her large-scale polyester sculptures. At first glance, her subject matter seems eclectic— even random— but a closer look at Fritsch's artistic process and conceptual ideas reveals that her work is actually highly focused. For one thing, the idea of clichéd and popular imagery seems to underly all of her pieces. In several of her early works, she depicts a human skull as it is typically represented in anatomical studies, halloween decorations and punk regalia. As you can see below, Fritsch experimented with presenting the same basic skull form from slightly different angles, or with different accents (like the hat). The repetition of the skull in all three works begins to speak about the overuse or commercialization of specific imagery in modern society. Fritsch's addition of absurd touches like the hat or color pink seem intended to get viewers thinking about how symbols lose their meaning the more they are appropriated.


In Fritsch's recent work, the skull symbol continues to appear, but alongside other popular icons, like angels, snakes and the Virgin Mary. The image below (left) is a photograph of Fritsch's installation in the courtyard at MOMA. The right is a photo from an outdoor terrace at the Art Institute of Chicago.
When I look at these assemblages, I immediately try to place the icons in some historic or cultural context. Are they references to Christian iconography? Classical mythology? The trouble is, Fritsch's sculptures are hard to place, precisely because they are so familiar. I feel as if I have seen them all before, but not at this scale, and certainly not in shades of blue, yellow and green. Again, even though Fritsch's choice of color might seem arbitrary, the tones she's decided on are actually very specific. Every color is artificial, and completely covers the sculptures in an even, unnaturally opaque tone. The combination of slick surface, artificial color, and familiar imagery makes me think of kitsch and tourist paraphernalia. 


The scale of the works above is either jarring or humorous, depending on your perspective. Some critics have discussed Fritsch's work in relation to the idea of the "uncanny"— a phrase used to describe anything that is uncomfortably familiar, like a bad omen from a dream. I saw the piece at MOMA over the summer, and my initial impression was confusion, then wonder, then amusement. Together, these large colored figurines felt odd next to one another, as if they had materialized from a fourth dimension or mirage.

I thought it was fitting to include an image of Fritsch's 1993 piece, "Rat King," which gained her international fame at the 1999 Venice Bienale. The piece is part amusing, part nightmarish, and all because of the artist's conscious use of repetition and scale. I can guess how the sculpture might overwhelm the average gallery viewer: can you imagine entering a room full of life-size rats? They are all joined at the tail, a reference to the strange mutation that occurs when a horde of rats are born attached by their tails. This phenomenon— called a "rat king"— has long been a source of superstition in Germany, and it is likely Fritsch chose the subject matter because it already a basis in national folklore.

One more piece to consider: "Company at Table," 1988 (below). The extreme angle of this photograph  highlights the uncanniness of this sculpture, which again evokes a nightmare or visual representation of irrational fears. Anyone could relate to the horror of this piece: it literally depicts a cloning and loss of identity. I think this installation is one of Fritsch's most successful works because it is spare in color, save the vibrant tablecloth. The repetition of the emotionless, robotic human figure gives the piece depth and makes it eerily fascinating. 

One thing I forgot to address early on in this entry: Fritsch gained fame as an artist after her debut show, "From Here On," which opened in Dusseldorf in 1984. She has since exhibited in prestigious museums all over the world, including the Tate Modern, SFMOMA, MOMA, and Stuttgart. She studied art history in Germany and now works at the Arts Academy in Dusseldorf.  

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