Alice Creischer. An Eye-popping Engagement with the Long-standing Biopolitics of Sleeping

The Exhibition ‘Sleeping with a Vengeance, Dreaming of a Life’ (19.10.2019-12.01.2020) opened October 19, 2019 at the Württembergischer Kunstverein in Stuttgart offers visitors a panoramic view of works related with the biopolitics of sleeping. The exhibition is organized by one of the oldest and authoritative German artists associations, the Württembergischer Kunstverein, and curated by Ruth Noack. The exhibit puts forty-nine works on display, featuring diverse forms and materials such as collages, moving image, sound installations as well as sketch-based conceptual pieces created by a group of forty artists and two artists’ collectives – the Chinese Zweng Mahler and the Austrian Gangart. They constitute a heterogeneous group of twenty-five female artists, fifteen male artists, and two groups, who bridge several generations and twenty-two countries. The youngest artist is Ulufer Çelik (born in 1992), while the oldest artist is Gülsün Karamustafa (born in 1946), both of them coming from Turkey. 

Noack negotiates sleeping as a form of protest against the late capitalist scenario, where mass media and the rhetoric of technological progress constantly advances and increasingly negate the biological rhythms of the human being. By recurring to the diverse types of (instant) communication tools, the individual deprives herself/himself of physical health and the chance to dream. Despite the fact that the Württembergischer Kunstverein pretends to be accessible to a larger audience, it remains highly cryptic in terms of meaning and message imparted by this show. The exhibition leaflet supplied by the WKV provides only little information about both artists and artworks. However, our exhibition guide Anna Romanenko, a well-informed artist herself, explained that the artworks on display started from sketches and many of them are “work-in-progress,” therefore subject to potential change.

The Artwork “Der Hut spricht, der Rechen spricht, es flüstert die Sense zum Ohr im Gras” [1]

Presenting an unparalleled synthesis of the Impressionist Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) and the social struggles, the collage titled ‘Der Hut spricht, der Rechen spricht, es flüstert die Sense zum Ohr im Gras’ (2019, listed as artwork no. 18 in the leaflet) by Alice Creischer (born in 1960) embodies the revolutionary spirit of the whole exhibition (Fig. 1). According to Romanenko, the lyrical collage on paper is pivotal to decipher the exhibition. 

Creischer, a German contemporary artist-cum-critic (born in Gerolstein in 1960) is primarily known for a critical mixed media approach focusing on controversial issues of capitalism, its conditions and effects of globalisation, such as financial speculation and social alienation. Wittily morphing visual, material and textual layers in her artworks, the artist strongly criticizes and intervenes into the socio-economic capitalist fabric that surrounds people in everyday life. [2]

The artist’s collage immediately draw’s the viewer’s attention given that it cleverly plays with a canonical work by Pissarro, a collage aesthetic reminiscent of surrealist or Dadaist practices, with a strong poetical appeal in that the composition synthesizes paper and a poem of eight stanzas. In addition, the language layer is enriched by alternating German and English phrases. ‘Der Hut spricht, der Rechen spricht, es flüstert die Sense zum Ohr im Gras’ is the first stanza of the poem stemming from the book ‘Die Job Revolution’ (2003) by the German entrepreneur Peter Hartz (born in 1941). He expresses a sense of the individual’s alienation in capitalism through the exact calculation of hours dedicated to work:
“8760 Stunden hat das Jahr. / 1200 Stunden verbraucht ein Arbeitsplatz. / 40 Jahre arbeiten / bei 80 Jahren Lebenserwartung / sind 48.000 Stunden.” [3] (Hartz 2003) 

The decisive role of the curator and the framing power of the institution become apparent when one looks at how the work was displayed in the Württembergischer Kunstverein in Stuttgart. In contrast with how Noack has illustrated it in the exhibition leaflet – hanging on a white wall – , the collage is surprisingly presented on a high pink painted support (Fig. 2), accompanied by a poem printed on white paper contained in a pink V- shape storage support placed just next to the collage. To fully understand the collage, the viewer is invited to recur to the complementary poetical text. 

The artist created her work based on what looks like a homemade printout (30 x 40 cm) of a famous Impressionist painting of a sleeping country girl. She emphasizes the feminine subject’s skirt by sticking a glittering dark brown synthetic textile on it. Its kitschy effect rivals with the equally and literally eye-popping sticker of a toy eye that she added to the printed paper stripes out of the agricultural instrument. 

The educated viewer recognizes the bucolic landscape and one of the numerous peasants portrayed by the Impressionist artist Camille Pissarro: the woman stretching on the ground is the ‘Rest. Peasant Woman Lying in the Grass. Pontoise’ (1882). Today, the charming painting is preserved in the Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany. What even educated viewers seldom know is how much the cruel realities of the industrial globalization of the time already mattered to painters such as Pissarro. Actually, the popular purely aesthetic reading of his depictions of country life misreads Pissarro very much. While he did spent years in West Dutch Indies of St. Thomas – where he was born – and France, he was very much informed and concerned about other areas of the world, too. Furthermore, he travelled not only to and within France, but also outside of Europe as far as South America, Venezuela. 

Yet, the woman, whose eyes seem semi-closed depending on the physical distance with which the viewer scrutinizes the details of the collage, actually, points to the physical exhaustion caused by the hard farming work. The viewer perceives the ambivalent position and meaning of the eyes – falling asleep, waking up, unable to sleep because of the fatigue caused by the manual work or maybe the painter’s scrutinizing gaze – which resonate with critical passages of the poem that Creischer has cut-out and re-arranged on top of Pissarro’s painting: 
“Zum Lid zischt die Sense, / pass auf, du, / denk bloß nicht, du / dass du das verstecken kannst / unterm Deckel aus Haut / den Traum im Schlaf” [4] (Hartz 2003)

The resulting literally “running” lines that criss-cross the picture plain are thus inevitably read as direct responses to particular parts of the underlying depiction. A telling example is the line “pass auf, du” (i.e. “you, pay attention”), which runs near the rake painted by Pissarro next to the striking figure in the grass. These printed lines – a recurring element in Creischer’s mixed media installations – do not only cross the picture plain, but ultimately exceed it, ending up dangling from the plinth, decorated with the mentioned eye-wobbly glittering craft stickers. These artificial eyes seem to metonymically represent the workers involved into the mass-production and consume of capitalism, which deprive people of sleeping – just as the poem’s narrative points out. On the one hand, the artist aims to raise awareness for the biopolitics of sleep, on the other hand the eyes of the feminine subject of Pissarro assume a different meaning beyond the bucolic context.

It is the background of the collage that further points to the complex – and often violent – political and cultural machinations of our daily social life. In contrast with the bright colours used for the woman lying on the grass, this second part depicts a murky building on fire. Similarly to Pissarro’s subject, also here the expert viewer can recognize the mass of wounded people (three men and one woman) lying on the ground outside the edifice: the victims of the French Commune fights in ‘A street in Paris in May 1871 (1903-1905)’ by Maximilien Luce (1858-1941). The building in flames is a news illustration that refers the viewer to yet another event, however one much closer to today: the London riots of 2011. While these parts of the collage are both rather easy to decode, the circular object on the upper left of the composition remains problematic and difficult to interpret: could it depict a bomb? These two contrasting parts of the collage question sleeping as vacatio animae wherein the mind is liberated from social constraints. 

To sum up, by bringing together on the same paper three different historical episodes, Creischer pointedly relates and poetically negotiates not only the class-consciousness (Maximilien Luce), the working conditions and effects of an earlier industrialization phase (Camille Pissarro), but also the current conflicts caused by high rates of unemployment and rampant economic inequalities in post-industrialized late capitalist societies (London Riots). 

Finally, coming back to the pivotal position of the collage within the exhibition’s space, the viewer becomes aware of repetitive elements on the left side of the room. Indeed, the motif of the woman reclining on the floor re-occurs in two additional works on display in Stuttgart, both created by the Austrian artist Anna Dacqué: ‘hosting works that belong in this exhibition…Camille Pissarro’s Le repos, paysanne couchée dans l’herbe (1882)’ (2019, listed as artwork no. 8 in the leaflet, repro-print 48 x 59 cm) and hosting works that belong in this exhibition… Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s Sultana’s Dream (1905) / Gülsün Karamustafa’s Prison Painting 6 (1972) from the series Prison Paintings (1972–1978) (2019, listed as artwork no. 30 in the leaflet, audio and repro print, 56 x 52,5 cm). Although Dacqué’s artworks evoke so pointedly the question of sleeping as a form of protest, their importance within the exhibition remains rather obscure and dependent on the presence of a well-informed exhibition guide. 

While the first artefact is composed by a printed postcard of Pissarro’s woman lying on the grass and it is framed between two glasses enclosed by a white frame, the second artwork (a sound installation) is a direct reference to the feminist’s utopia in literature known as the Sultana’s Dream (1904). Although choosing a pink coloured plinth for Creischer’s work might be a random choice – pink is the stereotypical girlish colour – the viewers start wondering about the feminist or further gender-related questions that seem to provide another undercurrent of the curatorial narrative weaving together even more than these three works presented in ‘Sleeping with a Vengeance, Dreaming of a Life’. Although we were able to grasp relations between these artworks thanks to Romanenko pointing out the sketch-based conceptualization, which stood at the beginning of the coming-into-being of this exhibition, their meaning ultimately remains cryptic and incomprehensible when it comes to Pissarro’s motif in relation to the biopolitics of sleeping. 

Final Remarks: Can the Act of Sleeping and Dreaming be a Form of Protest in the Daily Life of the Production and Consumer Society?

In ‘Sleeping with a Vengeance, Dreaming of a Life’ the visitor is directly awashed and engulfed in a world of dissimilar artefacts that remain more cryptic than intended by the artists and the curator. Because of their diversity and strong conceptual connotations, the exhibition curated by Ruth Noack results in being hardly accessible to the viewer. Previous research on the artists and artefacts is needed before entering the exhibition. The information given in the exhibition leaflet remains strenuously presented and rather limited in scope. Alongside the other highlights of the exhibition, the poetical work up ‘Der Hut spricht, der Rechen sprichte, es flüstert die Sense zum Ohr im Gras’ by Alice Creischer is one of the clearest and easiest to grasp, thanks to the brief data provided on the back of the poem. However, elements such as the circular brownish form remain difficult to fathom and therefore a clearer explanation by the artist or her publications are necessary so that visitors can grasp its meaning and pivotal position in relation to the overall curatorial mission and the exhibition theme. Otherwise, a work that evokes so pointedly the question of sleeping as a form of protest remains rather obscured and depended on the presence of a well-informed exhibition guide. 

Notes:
[1] On the official exhibition leaflet the title of the collage is written both in German and English: ‘Der Hut spricht, der Rechen spricht, es flüstert die Sense zum Ohr im Gras’ (The Hat Speaks, the Rake Speaks, the Scythe Whispers to the Ear in the Grass). Given spatial concerns, I will only use the German title in what follows.
[2] “In the Stomach of the Predators. Mixed Media Installation,” kow gallery, last access January 7, 2020, https://www.kow-berlin.com/artists/alice-creischer/in-the-stomach-of-the-predators-2012-2015.
[3] English translation by me: “A year has 8760 hours. / A workplace needs 1200 hours. / Working for 40 years / within 80 years of life expectation / are 48.000 hours.”
[4] English translation by me: “To the eyelid hisses the scythe, / you, pay attention, / just remember you, / that you can hide / under the lid of skin / the dream in sleep.”

Quoted Sources:
art-in.de. “Sleeping with a Vengeange, Dreaming of a Life,” blog, Accessed January 7, 2020. https://www.art-in.de/ausstellung.php?id=6756

kow. “In the Stomach of the Predators. Mixed Media Installation,”blog, Accessed January 7, 2020. https://www.kow-berlin.com/artists/alice-creischer/in-the-stomach-of-the-predators-2012-2015

Press Release. Württembergische Kunstverein Stuttgart. Accessed February 3, 2020. https://www.wkv-stuttgart.de/uploads/media/PRESS_EN_LONG.pdf

Württembergische Kunstverein Stuttgart. “Sleeping with a Vengeange, Dreaming of a Life. Exhibition Manual.” 2019. 

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