Untitled (absence)

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(O.T.) Christian Struck

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I have long been fascinated by the German idiom “man kann den Wald vor lauter Bäumen nicht sehen“, which literally translates as “one cannot see the forest for the trees“, but actually means “to overlook something that is quite obvious.“ What is quite obvious in this proverb is the insinuation of absence in a context of abundance / presence, i.e. although there are just too many trees present, the forest is still absent. Indeed, paradoxical as it may sound – but without reducing this to the popular lore of absence and presence being two sides of the same coin – the concepts of absence and presence are closer to each other than we may like to accept. For it is exactly in absence that presence (if not of other things around, but at least one’s own presence) can be felt. Philosophically and artistically, the concept of absence in its various forms has been widely researched and experimented upon, but to look beyond the bubble of fine arts within which we do find ourselves, I would like to give some examples within the field of music (i.e. absence = silence) to expatiate on where I am heading to. In Alphonse Allais’ 1897 Funeral March for the Obsequies of a Deaf Man, consisting of nine blank measures; in Erwin Schulhoff’s 1919 In futurum, a partiturconsisting of pauses; in Yves Klein’s 1949 Monotone-Silence Symphony a forty minute orchestral piece whose second and last movement is a twenty minute silence; and most especially John Cages’s 4’33” piece. These examples are epitomes of the idea that even in silence there is sound and thus music. In the case of Cage’s piece, the presumed silence/emptiness/absence is filled by other sounds and raises awareness of the sounds of the environment that the listeners hear while the piece is performed. Thus the so-called “four minutes thirtythree seconds of silence“ actually embodies the seemingly contradictory non-sound (silence) and sound, as well as absence and presence, thereby a contention for existence, space, time and imagination. In the exhibition Untitled (Absence), featuring the artists Lela Ahmadzai and Lars Bjerre and curated by Anna-Lena Werner at Savvy Contemporary, the concepts of absence and invisibility are explored from the visual perspective. 7

While the works of the artists at first view appear to deal with everything other than absence, emptiness and silence, as they are full of individuals, figures, objects and metaphors of the aforementioned, their works indeed do deal with the concealing of the habitual and the ordinary, they treat the masked, the veiled or enshrouded and above all they bring the dichotomies of absence and presence in their oeuvres. Thus in the exhibition Untitled (Absence) the visitors are not only called upon to be viewers but rather reviewers, who in their assessment shouldn’t overlook that which is actually quite obvious, i.e. the magnitude of presence in absence. Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung Art Director and Founder Savvy Contemporary


Lars Bjerre, Dreckspatz, 2011 oil on canvas, 22 x 22 cm




Usually, whenever we speak about absence, we speak about deficiency, inattentiveness, a lack or vanished existence. That is because absence always requires presence, as its temporal structure (if it even has one) is before or behind that, which is present. Absence, then, as that which is not present, represents itself as an unknown trace. Absence might become noticeable as a loss or a missed chance. It cannot be seen, but it can be felt. A banned space, an empty room, distant memories, a latent and fragmentary presence of humanity, character, identity. In visual arts the concept of absence has often led to the visualisation of incompletion - a partial or complete removal of the work of art, as for instance in Robert Gober’s dismembered leg-sculptures or Urs Fischer’s disappearing wax figures. Even further in minimal art, absence substitutes content and subject matter. But absence, too, has an emotional perspective that asks for an empathetic perception. In the works of American realist painter Edward Hopper, absence manifests itself as emptiness - be it an empty expression or an empty space. But emptiness does not necessarily equal nothingness, as Hopper once told the writer Brian O’Doherty: "I've always been intrigued by an empty room... When we were at school...[we] debated what a room looked like when there was nobody looking in even.” In Hopper’s painted rooms, absence suggests presence and Hopper’s protagonists’ presence, apathetically staring out of windows, often turning their back to the gaze of the viewer, suggests absence. It is this affective concept of absence that brings the art works of Lela Ahmadzai and Lars Bjerre together, entering into a visual dialogue between two young positions originating from two extremely different countries. Ahmadzai, an Afghan photographer, and Bjerre, a Danish painter, both follow absence’s trace with their own methodology, curiously searching for what is missing and patiently observing the human aura disappear and reappear. For her series Burka Meets (2008-2009) Ahmadzai photographically documented burka-wearing women in Kabul, Afghanistan. In these images the strikingly blue burka is always present, whether it is in the pictures’ compositional centre, dominating the townscape’s colours or reflected in the light-blue sky against the sandy foreground of Kabul’s countryside. 11

Lars Bjerre, Picnic, 2011, oil on canvas, 239 x 239 cm


Lela Ahmadzai, A baker in Kabul, 2011 print on forex, sizes variable


The artist highlights small details, such as a pair of high heels, ducked body postures or restraint gestures to reveal the absent character alluding to the women’s inconspicuous identities, their untitled-ness. Her portraits personate the protagonists as isolated, imprisoned under a silenced, anonymous cover, however surrounded by a lively and hectic atmosphere of chatter and street noise. They appear displaced, uninvolved, alien - as if time stood still under the blue fabric. Bjerre, too, portraits his fictional protagonists without revealing their facial identities - a thick layer of pink paint covers the face of a man wearing a suit, his body rests under a picnic-blanket; in other paintings his head is completely wiped-out. In Bjerre’s newest series he replaces the human being with empty, wooden architectures and abandoned conifer-forest landscapes. His mostly large-scale paintings play with an oscillation of human presence and absence – the corporeal human vanishes, but tense absence becomes visible in details: a tilted birdhouse and a pair of boots in a forest’s raised hide, wood that has been cut and stapled, an abandoned hut that offers a peek into its dark inside. Absence, in Ahmadzai’s portraits and Bjerre’s paintings, embraces a waiting position, because it presents itself as an ephemeral moment that could easily change into something else. In Ahmadzai’s photographs of burka-women, the waiting position emanates from the camera-lens. As Susan Sontag claims in her book Regarding the pain of Others, “to photograph is to frame, and to frame is to exclude” (London: Penguin Books, 2003), Ahmadzai’s camera keeps a hold of the scurrying, inconspicuous ones – friezes them, catches them when they are passing the observer. The hidden protagonists don’t have time to stand still, because once they slip under the blue uniform, they are following a set goal. Restlessness dominates their appearance – sometimes even resulting in out-of-focus-ness and blurry portraits. As if the photograph was a film-still, there seems to be a latent possibility of it suddenly resuming into play mode, framing the protagonist for one more splitsecond until she vanishes into one corner of the frame. 14

Bjerre’s wood installations and forest paintings, on the contrary, are dominated by a presumably everlasting stagnancy and silence. Even the birds, sometimes adorning and sometimes occupying of his works, seem to be hushed. This silence, however, is a silence of suspense similar to the unbearable soundless moments in Alfred Hitchcock’s movies. His paintings are beset with uncanniness - an uncomfortable apprehension that someone might return to the deserted scenery. As in a dreamscape, the solidness of heaven and earth crumbles: the sky seems unrealistically flat, the trees miss their leaves, the ground blurs into a non-defined space of thick brushstrokes. Absence, in Ahmadzai’s and Bjerre’s work, turns into a state of melancholia, even nostalgia. They both return to places from their childhood, but they enter this world with a different motivation - it is not a comfort zone anymore, but a critical confrontation with themselves in a vacuum of time. And it is first and foremost an investigation into the unknown, the incomprehensible. Therefore the exhibition, bringing their artworks together, could not be labelled. There is no title yet.



Lars Bjerre, The Fulfillment of its Implicit Promise, 2012 oil on canvas, 220 x 320 cm (Dyptich)


Lela Ahmadzai, Arid Region Outside Kabul , 2008 print on forex, 150cm x 225 cm


Lela Ahmadzai, Dirt Roads with Anonymous women, 2008 print on forex, 50 x 75 cm




Anna: Lars, what motivates you to put a covered person in the foreground of your paintings? Is it curiosity? Are you following a trace? Lars: I follow my own trace. I go back into my history and my memories. The painting The fulfillment of its implicit promise, for example, mirrors my grandmother’s dining room in a window that opens towards the forest. It is hard to see, but it is there. There is a man sitting in the left corner of the painting and he is covered by a blanket. And of course that is me under the blanket. It is somehow a self-portrait. Anna: Is it always you behind these men? Lars: I use myself as a model, but my protagonists could be everyone. That is one of the reasons, why I often choose to make them wear suits - it is a common dress-code. The suit is already a mask. Anna: Lela, do you work with a similar methodology? When you take portraits of the women in Afghanistan, do you sometimes feel like taking a photo of yourself? Lela: Yes definitely, because this is a part of myself. I was born and grew up in Afghanistan. My family and I arrived in Germany when I was 17. Even though I am happy that I got this chance, I also lost something - a part of my identity, of myself. I don’t fit in there, but I am not German either. Here people expect me to take responsibility and I am very happy for that. There, women don’t even get the chance to take a little decision on their own. They don’t even know which rights they’ve got. Maybe that is the reason why I continue returning to Afghanistan - to take photos, do interviews, talk to people and then ask myself where I belong. I wish to understand. 21

Lars Bjerre, Silent imaginary Conversation I, 2012 oil on canvas, 150 x 100 cm


Lars Bjerre, Silent imaginary Conversation II, 2012 oil on canvas, 150 x 100 cm


Anna: Lela, one of my favorite works of yours shows a woman passing by in profile, only displaying her body from the shoulders and down. The detail that made me memorize this work, is the women’s white high heels. It becomes the dominant part of the photograph’s composition, because it satisfies or calms the seeking for an identificatory feature. Isn’t it sometimes frustrating to look for such small details? Lela: Of course, I sometimes get really tired of taking pictures of these burka-women. I miss their faces. I don’t know whether they are angry, or whether they smile. The only reactions that I get are their body postures and the gestures they do with their hands - often a victory sign or a shy waving. Nothing more. Anna: Lars, you also hardly ever reveal the protagonists’ faces, but the men’s hands are often playing an important act. The Blob, for example, shows a man who sits in the forest, but he has his face covered by a thick layer of pink paint and he is holding fresh grass in his right hand. It seems that in both of your works it is the small features that dominate the composition - details characterizing the covered protagonist - maybe if you wouldn’t do that, the characters would be even more uncanny. Lars: Then maybe we shouldn’t do it. (laughs) It should be scary. Anna: The deserted sceneries in your paintings are indeed quite scary. In your recent paintings, such as The Lumberjack’s Hut you often increase the uncanniness by erasing human beings from the scene... Lars: ...yes and no. When there is no human being in the picture, there is still a human trace. For instance, the cut wood pieces, stapled nicely and tidy - those were obviously touched by human hands. There is always a human presence involved. Lela: But the information is of a different kind. Lars: Yes. I just want the narrative of the picture to be more open. Lela: With the burka it is the same, really. Lars: In some of your photographs one cannot even be sure if there is someone underneath, like a ghost. Anna: They seem so untouchable, sublime even. Like an ‘Übermensch’. Lela: Yes, or even more like an ‘Undermensch’. 24

Lela Ahmadzai, High Heels and Burka, 2008 print on forex, 50 x 75 cm


Anna: Lela, since 2003 you frequently return to Afghanistan, documenting the women, the street-life and the surroundings of Kabul. The blue burka, as most women wear it in the region of Kabul, has been the center of your work for a considerable amount of time. With a background like yours: why did you return to the image of the burka? Lela: Shortly after the international troops came to Afghanistan, the women needed a slow transition regarding their clothes - they couldn’t just discard the burka. I started taking photos of them, but I also felt like inspiring them. Consequently, I created a series of ten beautiful and less closed Haute Couture burkas with the original material. I used bright colors, such as red and yellow. Step by step, I opened the facial area, the neck and I incorporated arms, a waist and a flexible headpiece. I played with opportunities of turning the burka into a modern fashion item, still fitting into the Afghan society. Anna: You did the photographic series Burka Meets in 2008. It shows several touching and strong portraits of women wearing burkas, but also street impressions with an elaborate and convincing composition. What was your intention of this series? Lela: Basically, the idea was to create a documentation line about Afghanistan’s development. After 2009, my pictures show less and less burkas, because the situation changed - the women got more brave. Anna: The burka offers anonymity and it is supposed to suppress recognition. What fascinates you about taking pictures of women who are covered under burkas? Lela: I am not so much fascinated by the burka itself, as I am with the person underneath. Some of them are random women that I recognize on the street and others I know personally. I also interviewed them - listening to their stories for hours. 26

Lela Ahmadzai, Blue Ghosts shop in Kabul’s Streets, 2008 print on forex, 150 x 225 cm


Lela Ahmadzai, Heads Down, 2008 print on forex , 50 x 75 cm


Lela Ahmadzai, A Prostitute in Kabul, 2008 print on forex, 100 x 70 cm


Anna: The women seem restless - your photos literally force them to frieze for a moment. Lela: The women who wear burkas always have a purpose once they go outside. For this series I photographed a random woman who was sitting down on a stone bench for no obvious reason, which is extremely rare. She was wearing a golden dress under her dirty burka and sandals, hardly covering her feet. The fact that she was sitting down without a clear purpose, however, discloses that she is a prostitute waiting for a costumer. But this example also shows that the burka can be employed as an instrument - it can be welcome cover. Anna: I think a person covered under a burka, or as in one of Lars’ paintings under a blanket, is more striking than a completely naked person. Is that because they suggest a certain secrecy and mystery? Lela: ...I think you are right. Less is more...of course there is a secrecy involved - and a fascination about Afghanistan’s traditions. There has been way more focus on my photographs displaying burka-women, rather than the newer works, showing those women who emancipated themselves from the full body cover. Anna: Both of your art works seem to portray characters suffering from isolation. They often appear fragile and absent. Lars: It is a human need to be recognized. If you are hidden behind a mask, a material one or a psychological one, it is difficult to participate in any sort of communication. Not even with oneself. Anna: Don’t you think that it is complicated for the the viewer to empathize with an image, when there is no facial identity involved? Lars: The men in my paintings are struggling exactly with the fact that they feel unidentified, they seek to position themselves in society. Anna: By donning those masks onto the men, you intend to make the invisible struggle visible? Consequently, the mask you put on them is the closest you could come towards the truth. Lars: That is the thing, one pretends all the time. We are like chameleons, wearing invisible masks all the time. 30

Anna: So, you think that one cover just reveals the next one? Lars: There is always another one. Lela: We are conditioned by our families and our environment. Some reactions inside us stay the same - our eyes for instance. Lars: We still protect ourselves with invisible masks. We have the ability to even manipulate the reaction in our eyes. We are always playing an act, also unconsciously. Lela: That is true, we are arranging ourselves. Lars: Exactly. It is the same when people wear their working clothes: A suit and a tie can be masks as well. They make one turn into an anonymous person, mingling into the crowd. It is a uniform. Lela: So in a way, the women who wear those burkas loose the ability to wear different masks, protecting themselves. They are always imprisoned in the same neutral tent. Anna: Would you two then consider the concept of truth to have failed? Do you think that something like a true self even exists? Lela: A true self might be the sum of all the masks we constantly use. Personally, I would be much more relaxed, if I would know which one of them was my true self. But I am sure that one way to come close to this truth is meditation. Lars: I believe that this never-ending search the main struggle in life, but at the same time the struggle is what keeps life interesting. Anna: Lars, you were mentioning before that you are following your own trace in your paintings. As Lela keeps on returning to Kabul, photographing the streets, the desert or mountains, you seem to be drawn to northern conifer forests. Lars: Generally, the forest is a nostalgic space for me. I know those forests from my childhood. I loved them back then and I still do. Anna: The forests you are painting are extremely dark, the trees grow in such a density that they appear like a wall. Lars: I like the idea that a forest continues forever. I want to walk through it. But the main reason I want to go in there is to discover myself. 31

Lars Bjerre, The Lumberjack’s Hut, 2011 wood , pigment, nails


Lars Bjerre, The Lumberjack’s Hut, 2011 oil on canvas, 239 x 239 cm


Anna: Is this forest an uncanny place, or is it a comfortable hideaway? Lars: For me it is a hiding space, but it is not only comfortable, but also challenging and spooky. I hope that the viewer would feel like going into that forest, however knowing that something will happen in there. An encounter with oneself. There should be tension involved. In a couple of my recent paintings I worked with three spatial layers: cut wood followed by an empty and abstract space, ending in a dense and dark forest. Somehow I am mostly interested in the space, the spatial composition and the interaction between those layers. There has obviously been a human action involved - the cut wood was touched by a human being... Anna: ...like a destruction of natures’ purity? Lars: Exactly. The cut wood is the embodiment of destruction, but similarly it is beautiful and can be reused to construct - to create. A house for instance. Anna: You have been painting and constructing wooden architectures. But they appear closed, just as your forests do. You once built a wooden wall right behind a door. In front of that wall you stapled small pieces of cut wood. The viewers, however, couldn’t see what was behind the wall - they could just take a peek into the dark corners. Now you have been working with the image of raised hides... Lars: I sort of like claustrophobic spaces and I think this architecture is stunning - it is only built for the purpose of foresters and hunters being able to look out and observe. Those people sitting up there certainly have a lot of time to think. The space itself, the interior of this little raised hide, is very fascinating to me. I think I would like to sit there... Anna: You make wood reappear in very different forms - in trees, cut and stapled, floors, in architectures. Why is wood so important to you? Lars: Wood gives me a very comforting and warm feeling. I made a series where I painted a lot of cut wood, almost glorifying it, elevating it to be the protagonist of the painting. I think it is so beautiful - all those round small circles, tidily stapled. But it is even more interesting to consider how it might look on the other side, where it is often messy and everything but perfect. 34

Lars Bjerre, The Blob, 2011 oil on canvas, 150 x 170 cm




If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? The old philosophical dilemma, first posed by Bishop Berkeley in the 18th century, continues to resonate down the years. His dictum, that “to be is to be perceived” has taken on evolving nuances in a world where image is everything and in which questions of political agency are framed in the language of voice and visibility – who can be seen and who can be heard. Lela Ahmadzai and Lars Bjerre are both artists exploring the limits of perceptibility. Whilst they work with very different media and subject matter, both grapple with Berkley’s riddle, questioning the straightforward equation of visibility and presence and asking whether absence might not also have a visible form. Lars Bjerre’s large-scale canvases reverberate with the phantom echoes of a thousand falling trees. Yet the calculated regularity of their arrangement – row upon row of straight, narrow trunk, each carefully bisected, forming an impenetrable wall of regular circles in varying hues - speaks less of the sound of falling than of the action of cutting, the hands of man, the glint of the blade and the dull thud of axe against bark. If they can be said to speak at all. Because to experience these immersive paintings, to stand in front of them and have the rows of severed trunks stare back at you like so many blank, immovable faces is to be engulfed in a profound and disturbing silence. A silence that not only extends beyond the edges of the canvas, but back, deep into it. These paintings are not only vast, but they are deep. There is something slightly naïve in the clean, elegiac circularity of these felled trees, a tendency towards abstraction with its propensity to flatten, its dogged insistence on two-dimensionality. Yet these forms have weight, they have volume. Through a labour of accumulation and the use of dark backgrounds, Bjerre summons whole forests - great, uninhabited expanses, impenetrable and unexplored. The silence of these canvases is complete and unadulterated the cessation of all sound, of all action. The axe is stilled; the woodman absent. In an inversion of the terms of the Bishop’s famous question, the trees stand as the mute witnesses to his having been there at all, a passive, silent testimony to past human presence. The viewer stumbles upon, or rather stumbles into, these empty sets – the backdrop to a thousand childhood stories – in media res. 37

The fairytale is mid-flow; at any moment the woodcutter will return – an inescapable thought that marks the viewing experience with a diffuse but lingering anxiety. For the moment, though, there are only the birds. A recurring motif, they are our constant companion as we try to piece together the mystery of what is going on in the woods. But even they do not disrupt Bjerre’s perfect silence. These are not birds that flit and chirrup playfully amongst the branches. Rather, they mushroom with fleshy bulges in the bubblegum pink that a child uses to colour in skin; they are contorted; disembowelled; smeared across the canvases. It is as if, in a desperate attempt to escape from that deep darkness, that expanse of lonely silence, they had flown too close to the invisible wall that separates paintings from the rest of the world. Trapped against the canvas without seeming to belong to the narrative world it evokes, they become functions of surface, rather than of story. More than grotesque adjuncts to the uneasy mystery of Bjerre’s painted world, they evoke a certain voluptuousness of the paint or of the brushstroke, a painterly indulgence in the excesses of the medium. To look into these deep canvases is to experience the queasy vertigo of the uncanny, an irreconcilable sense of the simultaneously unknown and over-familiar.1 Bjerre’s woodscapes play cleverly on the ambivalent signification of the wood or forest in the collective conscience. This is perhaps a particularly Northern sensibility, given the prominent place that Norse myth and the folkloric traditions that spring from it within Scandinavia and amongst the Germanic peoples of Northern Europe (England included) occupy in this cultural imagination. One senses that for Bjerre, hailing from the city of Hans Christian Andersen and a Nordic culture steeped in elves and witches, folk of the forest, spirits of the trees, the silence of the forest resonates a little louder. 1 Freud’s description of the Uncanny – in German “das Unheimliche,” literally “the unhomely” develops from his analysis of an apparent etymological paradox in which the “Heimlich” or “homely” (belonging to the home; dear; familiar; intimate) can be used in certain contexts to express precisely its opposite, the eerie and unfamiliar. The experience of the uncanny results from a sense of something’s being simultaneously familiar and unknown, both the same and different (which is why the uncanny double comes to assume such an important place for Freud). (Freud “The Uncanny” (1919) in The Uncanny, London: Penguin, 2003, 121 – 168)


The wood functions as a kind of every-place. It is the dark, forbidding forest of the Hansel and Gretel of the brothers Grimm, transfigured and re-animated in countless Disney fairy tales; it is the Blair Witch Project; the abode of monsters, werewolves and the Big Bad Wolf. But it also a redemptive space and setting for quest, chivalry and adventure. As a liminal space, a border or hinterland, the wood can be a trial to be overcome but it can also offer defence and protection or, like the advancing undergrowth of Great Birnam that signals MacBeth’s demise, can close in, smothering its victims in its great, impenetrable darkness. In the Norse Edda the lands of the Gods are divided by the myrkviðr or mirkwood a non-specific, untamed border space, from whose first element ‘myrk’ (the Old Norse for dark) the modern English ‘murky’ is derived. Murky is a heavy word, weighted with a sense of foreboding, the eeriness of the unknown and the impenetrable. The woodcutter himself, the absence/presence around which Bjerre’s canvases uneasily coalesce, is also deeply ambivalent figure. It is true that he kills the wolf in a paradigmatic gesture of heroic masculinity, but he is also the powerless subject to his wife’s will who abandons his children to the perils of the forest on her orders, and elides easily into the mad axe murderer, the chilling thud of whose blade reverberates in the silence, scattering the birds, of so many horror films. We have been here before, but we can’t quite place ourselves. The paintings are unnerving because they play on a web of associations that are multiple and conflicting. They are murky. We are disorientated. They open a space that, at once foreign and familiar, is indeterminate and unresolved. Bjerre’s scenes are wide open, but they are emphatically not inviting. The vaguely hallucinatory effect of the trees’ repetition intensifies our creeping sense of dislocation. In the brooding absence of any human figure, it is as if we are trespassing. The pervasive motifs of death and disembowelment, chopping and hacking, make the woodcutter’s absence furtive, secretive. Witnesses to the scene of an unknown crime, there is an overwhelming sense of being somewhere that was meant to remain hidden, of seeing something that was not to be seen. 39


Lars Bjerre, The Hut, 2011, oil on canvas 151,5 x 243 cm (Diptych)


At one point in his famous essay, ‘A Brief History of Photography,’ Walter Benjamin, who is discussing the photographs of Eugene Atget, asks, “[i]sn’t every square inch of our cities a crime scene? Every passer-by a culprit? Isn’t the task of the photographer – descendant of the augurs and haruspices – to reveal guilt and to point out the guilty in his pictures?” (in Selected Writings 1931-1934, Cambridge, MA: 2005, 527) Invoking augurs and haruspices, ancient priests of divination and prophecy, and figures steeped in the mystery of ritual and of storytelling, he makes a case for the photograph as more than documentary evidence or casual witness. The photographer creates the city as a crime scene because, now able to access every nook and cranny, every doorway and back-alley, the city can no longer keep its secrets hidden. Heavy with echoes of Berkley, Benjamin’s remarks carry the suggestion that it is the work of bringing to light carried out by the photo-graph that constitutes the crime as such. The city and it’s (his)stories are made and un-made according to the revelations of the mechanical bowels of the camera. And it is not just cities that can be crime scenes. Like Benjamin, Bjerre takes-up Berkley’s notion that ‘to be is to be perceived’ and runs with it into the difficult contested ethical terrain that is it’s logical conclusion. The brooding silence of his canvases seems to beg the question: if you are alone in a forest and no one can see you, what are the consequences of your actions? Must a crime be witnessed in order to be a crime? What is going on in the woods, out of sight and out of earshot? What does it matter? Paintings such as The Lumberjack’s Hut (2011), where a cardboard box of prosthetic legs sits unnervingly in the foreground, their creamy pallor awkward against the infinite browns of the wood, could come with the caption, an adaption of Ridley Scott’s famous one, “in the woods, no-one can hear you scream.” There is a perverse game of hide and seek being played out here. In Fantasy Realised (2011) a suited figure clings to a tree trunk. As an attempt at concealment it is a poor one, a throwback to a time when covering eyes and pulling up the duvet was protection enough from the monsters of the night, an infantile belief that is explicitly evoked through the use of a large teddy-bear mask in The Hut (2011). But maybe there is more to it than that. 42

Lars Bjerre, Fantasy Reaslised, 2011 oil on canvas, 150 x 121 cm


The white knuckles that grip the tree-trunk in Fantasy Realised make no attempt to hide themselves. They are overt, exhibitionistic even, in their flash of improbably, inappropriately clean, white cuff against the murky, mottled bark. What is important is that the face is obscured: in Bjerre’s work the face is always obscured. Transmutating, multiplying, covered – the features are always indiscernible. His figures, even when they are present in the scene, are also partially absent. He refuses to paint identities, individuals. The black suit stands as the antithesis of the individual. Generic and infinitely repeatable, it symbolizes anonymity par excellence. And yet in these settings the everyman figure, a John Doe refusal of discrete and proper subjectivity, is curiously out of place. The suit, an object overburdened with semantic value, attempts silence but says too much. Its impeccable monochrome seems to have little to do with the mythical-fantastical world of the forest. Again, we are confronted with a jarring moment of recognition and misrecognition – the lurch of the uncanny. Lela Ahmadzai’s series Burka Meets represents an interaction with the uncanny - or ‘unhomely’ - of a very different kind. The artist, who was born in Kabul but emigrated to Germany aged seventeen, began to document the women of her home city in 2004. The photographs that she has taken there over the last 8 years show a world indelibly marked by more than a decade of NATO occupation. Burka Meets and the series My Kabul represent a literal home-coming, a return to heim, motherland, origins. But they also show a place so much changed as to be unrecognizable, lost to an overwhelming sense of foreignness and visible only fleetingly in the gestures of a market stall exchange, an old street sign, smoke rising over the unchanged mountains. It is not necessary to know Ahmadzai’s story to sense the casual intimacy of personal narrative and the wide-eyed captivation of the tourist in her photographs. The result is an aesthetic awkwardness – a slight poetic overinvestment of the dusty quotidian – that reveal a deep affection for and quasi-ethnographic interest in her subject matter. Unlike the dense emptiness of Bjerre’s paintings, Ahmadzai’s photographs teem with life. Her Kabul is a world saturated with light, sound and colour. 44

Lela Ahmadzai, Mumtaz Mahal Wedding Hall, 2008 print on forex, 50 x 70 cm


She is a capturer of details – a flash of white high heels beneath the peacock-blue hem of a burka; the Las Vegas rainbow brights of a wedding hall sign in the dust – and a hoarder of textures - wire fences and crumbling walls; the dull lustre of rows of bodiless burkas hung in a market stall and their close, silken heaviness. She creates an effect of sensuous proximity to her subject matter that prioritises a physical sense of space, specifically shared space, over the geo-political entity of place, diffusing, in the specific case of Kabul, the charge of a place that occupies an overly visible and overly determined (at least in so far as it remains practically inaudible) position, overlain in the collective Western visual conscious with the stock images of war. In other words, it is not necessary to know that these are photographs of Kabul to feel their impact. There is a certain sense of placelessness (the desert, after all, constitutes as much as of an everyplace/no-place as the forest, is as multiple and disorientating, as labyrinthine in its significance) that frees Ahmadzai from an almost inescapable demand to make a political statement. Her attention to detail is a liberating myopia, creating a space in which to express the ambivalent experience of day-to-day existence. Fittingly for a project that aims to show “the social…not only political”, Ahmadzai’s aesthetic investment in the gestures and spaces of daily life goes some way to revalorizing the human interactions necessarily overlooked by the Manichean rhetoric of war. Unlike Bjerre’s anxious forest-scapes, these photographs are not interrogative but descriptive. Ahmadzai’s camera does not appear to have the same intrusive power that Benjamin ascribes to Atget. Her scenes, unlike Atget’s and unlike Bjerre’s, do not evoke the same atmosphere of reclusive paranoia. Perhaps in the 80 image-soaked years since “A Short History of Photography” was written, the camera has become toothless, commonplace. In these photographs, it is overlooked, ignored, stared-through everywhere and by everyone, from the children and their donkeys to the grandmothers in the marketplace and the men who walk by, heads bowed and deep in conversation, through graffitied streets. Paradoxically, the apparent transparency or invisibility of the camera contributes to the photographs’ underlying awkwardness. From where are we watching these scenes? Are we inside or out? With or without? 46

On one hand the photographs ensnare us in the dense proximity of their texture and detail, but on the other, they pass over us. Like ghosts, we do not exist for them. The burka-clad figures that are the recurrent focus of Ahmadzai’s photographic gaze are emphatically not ghosts. For a garment designed to conceal, they are, at least to the Western eye (and also to those of the photographer, which is where the awkward return to the heim once again makes itself felt) perversely, almost recklessly visible. Against the muted sands of the desert, the burka’s lapis-lazuli intensity feels strangely exhibitionistic. Here, however, Ahmadzai’s eye for the sensuous and the material - the weight and texture of the fabric, the way it falls, clings, fans out or folds back – holds us back rather than drawing us in. An overemphasis on surfaces (it is in this sense that Ahmadzai’s photographs can be said to be superficial) creates a screen, a barrier which, like the peverse peacockry of the burka itself, overcompensates for another fundamental invisibility or silence. We see these women, these figures, but what can we see of them really? And would seeing more necessarily equate to knowing more? Might that not be to fall back on a dubious Cartesian privileging of the eye as the most cerebral of the senses? Like the dark suit that loitering in Bjerre’s forests, the burka divests individual identity even as it renders identifiable through metonymic association. Both offer a paradoxically conspicuous anonymity with a heavy semantic charge. In a very literal way, the burka delimits a terrain that is as contested as Afghanistan itself. On a symbolic level, it is loaded with multiple and conflicting associations and significations, the site of an ideological conflict that remains resolutely irresolvable. In acknowledgement of this multiplicity, Ahmandzai claims, in her artist’s statement about Burka Meets, that “[t]he audience at my exhibition should be able to feel not only the danger that the burka presents to its bearer, but also the protection that it offers”. This is, in fact, the key trick upon which the entire effect (and affect) of her project reposes. Her ability to make the burka appear in all its multifarious ambiguity is the ace up the sleeve that elevates these images beyond the banalities of the travelogue. There is something in the seductive, flagrant blue of the burka that jars, is jarring, even as it is entirely quotidian. 47

Lela Ahmadzai, Women begging in dirty burkas , 2008 print on forex, 50 x 70 cm


Lela Ahmadzai, Farckhunda Arso. Radio Host, (from the series Strangers at Home), 2011


It is both expected and unexpected, banal and captivating. To the uninitiated, the blue of the burka is so startling that the series could be of the same woman. Then slight differences of length, of shade, of decoration reveal that these are many burkas, many women. In one shot of a crowded square, the blue figure that dominates the foreground is doubled in the background. Single becomes double becomes multiple, identical and endlessly repeatable. We experience the uncanny resurgence of the overfamiliar in the unrecognizable. Through the subtleties of composition – attention to light, colour, detail; use of the stock/staple ‘daily life’ scenes of street and marketplace – the burka, the shimmering centrepiece, is made to reveal itself in its most quotidian aspect, such that it appears both entirely at home and curiously out of place (and the spirit of Atget can be said to live on). There is therefore a sense in which the burka figures haunt Ahmandzai’s images even as they occupy a tangible position within them. The uncanny, having so much to do with returns, with homecomings, has a dual temporality -the unexpected intrusion of the past upon the present. Or perhaps it is less a case of intrusion and more a sense of impinging upon since, as is the case with ghosts, whose return is simultaneously an apparition and a continuity, the uncanny return is strange precisely in so far as what has returned had never quite gone away. Because so much of the conflict that surrounds the burka is couched in the language of past and future, modernity and tradition, new and old orders, and because it has come to be so strongly affiliated in the Western collective conscience with a clearly defined period (that of Taliban rule), it appears now as an anachronism, a throwback to a time that we have been repeatedly told is over. It’s continued everyday familiarity is therefore something of a secret, best kept under wraps. In her more recent work, Ahmadzai has turned her camera upon women who have chosen to shun the burka in a gesture of breaking with the past and in the hope of an equal, liberated future. In these images these woman slip easily into the stock postures of portraiture. They are shot in close-up or medium close-up, gazing pensively at the camera, or caught mid-gesture, frequently in the workplace. These are photographs which, like the best classical portraits, aim to reveal something of their subjects. 50

Whilst this supposes an equation of ‘seeing’ and ‘knowing’ that is deeply problematic, within the context of Ahmadzai’s work such an investment in individual subjectivity provides a salient counterpoint to the anonymity, the superficiality, of the Burka meets images. With more than a nod to the burka’s uncanny duality, Ahmadzai has called the series Strangers at Home - an acknowledgement that literal visibility does not necessary equate to political visibility and that sometimes to be seen is to be entirely unrecognisable. Present but imperceptible, eternally returning to a scene from which it has always already departed – it is hard to know whether the ghost in the forest can hear the thud of falling trees. He reads as a kind of arch-metaphor for the co-extension of presence and absence that Western philosophy has come to understand as the self, or subject, a reminder that we never quite return to ourselves. As the experience of the uncanny demonstrates, subjectivity is bound up with questions of place. The Latin “subjectum” has the sense of that which is “subposed” or “that which lies beneath”. At bottom it speaks of the laying of foundations, or of roots, pegs set in the earth to ground the shaky edifices of our own selves. But then this might also bring us back to interment, to dead bodies, to what the French theorist Maurice Blanchot has called “the cadaverous resemblance” (“Two Versions of the Imaginary” in The Space of Literature, Lincoln NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1982, 172) – the heavy concrete presence of something very much absent - and to the final resting place as a no-place, a no-place in so far as no-body (or, rather, only body) occupies it. Blanchot does much to undermine Berkley’s emphasis on the perceptible by suggesting that it is only in death that we come to look like ourselves. Since we can only truly possess our own image when our ‘selves’ have absented, there is a fundamental noncorrespondence between what is, and what is perceived. Through their uncanny explorations of the geographies and geometries of place Bjerre and Ahmadzai both say something of the essential out of place-ness of the self, of our never being fully there, where we expect ourselves to be. Presence is experienced as an essential dislocation, filled with both melancholic longing for an impossible return and the endless capacity for moving on to new futures. 51



To cover something always means to hide it; doesn’t it? The cover of a book hides its pages, as well as gives them their structure, protection against aging, dust, water even, protection of this small world from some outer reality. Paper covers presents. A blanket covers your sleeping body to keep it from cooling. Our skin keeps out what shouldn’t be part of our inner circulation. Semi-permeable, it is transgressed by sweat, which also might cover it as a sign of enduring endeavour and as a means to cool down the body. Our skin, it has been said, is not our ‘outmost’, but our very ‘inmost’. Tattooed by the events, by traces of lived lives, scars even, it’s more of a map; wrinkles lead from the forehead to the eyes, the nose, from mouth to ears, tears get stuck and roll down only faster there, as if all previous smiling would suddenly have made them heavier. Skin lives and breathes and is the largest of our organs; yet it covers something. What is there, then, beyond, behind, under my hand touching, caressing your skin? The blood pouring out of a small cut makes some people faint, yet blood is what nourishes us inside, it’s the most ‘essential’ and necessary; is that odd at all? The veins, some invisibly small (also some sort of skin) contain and transport it not even a millimetre from where I kiss your hand, lips, thighs. Not even a millimetre separates pornography from horror movies; a thin sensitive surface. To hide something always means to conceal it; doesn’t it? In a Micky Mouse comic I read when I was a child, Minnie hides a wanted necklace just by wearing it, leaving Micky doubtful, anxious even, for he would have wanted to bury it deep in their luggage to keep it away from their followers. Wearing something as if it was yours, shows your way of handling it, not the rightfulness of your possession. This ‘as if’ turns successful thieves to owners; it also makes things appear as something, false spines as books, stolen goods as property, but also letters as words, words as sentences, it even seems as if this text were of some meaning. – The obvious isn’t the evident. Disclosure doesn’t always add something, does it? A present isn’t about the wrapping, but the suspense before and while opening often beats the pleasure over the given. Imagine the thrill of nudity when everybody’s naked everywhere. 53

Of course, clothes are different from the covering skin; only the undead walk with some cloth instead of skin; there’s no material that would replace this living, breathing structure. (Not yet, some might say.) But then again it’s all not that – stable. Who could tell about the hidden, the openly concealed, if not a witness? If we’re not bound by contracts, which we have not always been, truth is what people see, tell. The second we live with others, it’s the stories they tell that partially define us. In oral history, with bards singing about wars and legends, there was no way to prove something; the more beautiful the song, the more truthful its content. We might have referred to higher truths throughout history, but when it comes down to the mere situation, it’s not necessarily about what we are bound by. Truth was said to be the disclosed; that which is not hidden. Yet, if not hidden, by whom would it be given? What I show you gives you my story, my narration of my self; it might give you hints at attitudes, behaviour, mental states even, religion, or ‘social standard’; the visibility of me and what is mine (body, face, habits, belongings) underlies my decision, doesn’t it? What right do you have to tell me what to show and what to withhold or disguise? Then again – it is forbidden, here, to hide your face in demonstrations or government buildings; it’s forbidden to conceal what you are recognisable by. We recognise each other by our faces, at least we regard our outer appearance as signs to understand each other as someone; yet we are ‘identified’ by a set of cards, a fingerprint, genetic information; nothing visible to others, nothing traceable by our friends. The identified subject is not what we are interested in in people; the hidden code doesn’t make obsolete what I show you about me. There are things about me that I tell you unconsciously; I may uncover, reveal my lies by getting nervous, sweating or just admitting that I was untruthful, surrendering to the pressure of having lied; perhaps I’m used to lying and keep up what I want you to believe; and maybe that’s not even a lie. What I want you to believe is easily constructed, shown, kept up by presenting even only a few aspects. You might have told me the truth all along; the truth that you keep up for yourself; and I might trust and believe you; I should not doubt you; for who am I to talk about your truthfulness, being a witness of myself and my narration as well? 54

Who am I to cut your surface, to hurt this sensitive appearance that you surrender to me, who am I to doubt the undoubtable truthfulness of your words, in either telling what you think that might be proven by someone or in telling me what no person could ever testify? Who am I to destroy the integrity of your narration of yourself, to cut into the surface of your body, to forcibly transgress these veils that deliberately tell a lot more than the blood running from the cut? Or do you want me to penetrate and lift that light cloth, do you trust me, entrust your vulnerability to me? Do you give yourself away, hoping to be received, to be welcome to stay, to stay close enough to be embraced? But who am I to look at you in a subway train, on the street, where anonymity protects our moods, our autonomy? Who am I to raise my voice against you, stranger that I am, who happens to walk by? And yet again: How can I disregard, neglect you, how can I not look at you? How could I possibly justify myself for either? Everything that ‘is’ can be taken and regarded as ‘being’, as ‘a fact’; can be seen and testified; can be told and retold. Evidence makes you stumble, for who might know? Enclosed stories, completed versions should be doubted; they could have been filled up artificially to cover something untrue, something not known, not lived, something far from being a trustworthy testimony. Or something cruel, something that leaves you without understanding, something that inwardly makes you unable to cope with. Something could be hidden under that blanket, in that box, that building over there, or simply hidden by the smiling in your face. How can we possibly protect the face, seeing just with these eyes, smelling, breathing, inevitably, with this nose, tasting, nourishing ourselves, speaking, as it is, with this mouth, not to mention ears, the skin catching sun and rain and wind, some intense feeling of freedom, as well as exposure. To show skin, as: the face, means to be seen; to be found; to be recognised; to be yelled at; caressed; sunbathed; to be the most vulnerable; the most present. …Yet, what simply ‘is’, is always taken from the traces that are left in or by the absence of the obvious; is it not?



Lars Bjerre, Sparrows and Blobs, 2011 oil on paper, 24 x 32 cm

LARS BJERRE 1975 Born in Copenhagen, Denmark 1998-2002 BA in Pedagogic und Psychology, Copenhagen 2010-2011 MA in Fine Art, Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, London Lives and works in Berlin www.larsbjerre.com 56

Lela Ahmadzai, Burka Shop, 2008 print on forex, 50 x 75 cm

LELA AHMADZAI 1975 Born in Kabul, Afghanistan 1999-2004 BA in Design and Media, Fachhochschule f端r Design & Medien, Hannover 2008-2009 MA in Photography, Fachhochschule f端r Design & Medien, Hannover Lives and works in Berlin www.ahmadzai.eu 57

CONTRIBUTORS Dr. Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung (*1977, Cameroon) is an independent art curator and biotechnologist. He is the founder and art director of the art space SAVVY Contemporary Berlin, where he has directed and curated exhibits with more than 50 artists from 5 continents. He has worked as a curator, art director and adviser for international exhibition projects and has published more than 16 exhibition catalogues. He is also the initiator and editor-in-chief of the bilingual e-journal SAVVY|art.contemporary.african - savvy-journal. com. Anna-Lena Werner (*1985, Germany) graduated with an MA in Art History, Theatre- and Art Theory at Freie Universt채t Berlin and Chelsea College of Art and Design London. She is a freelance curator, writer and art critic and has published in magazines, such as Performance Research and Monopol-Magazin f체r Kunst und Leben. She regularly writes the art section for the blog iheartberlin.de and her own blog artfridge.de Amy Sherlock (*1987, England) graduated with an MA in Art Theory from Chelsea College in Art and Design London in 2011. She is a freelance writer based in London and has been published in arts publications including Frieze magazine and the peer-review journal Paragraph (forthcoming). She also contributes regularly to the London section of the Berlin-based arts blog artfridge.de. Christian Struck (*1983, Germany) studied philosophy, literary studies, psychology and law in Bonn, Paris and Berlin. He worked for the interdisciplinary DFG research project Kulturen des Performativen and has published an article on the logics of transgression, Die Profanierung des Realen, in an anthology on Metaphysics and Cruelty. He works as a freelance writer, translator, editor and knowledge manager. Struck is a member of the IiAphrR, an international, interdisciplinary research group on philosophical reflexion. 58


EXHIBITION CATALOGUE (First Edition, 200) Published in 2012 on the occasion of the exhibition Untitled (absence) 5-28 April 2012 at Savvy Contemporary, Berlin ARTISTS Lela Ahmadzai (AF) Lars Bjerre (DE) CURATOR / CONCEPT Anna-Lena Werner CONTRIBUTORS Anna-Lena Werner (DE), Amy Sherlock (GB), Christian Struck (DE), Dr. Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung (CAM) PUBLISHER & ART DIRECTOR Dr. Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung (Initiator SAVVY CONTEMPORARY) EDITING Dr. Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, Anna-Lena Werner GRAPHIC EDIT Anna-Lena Werner ACKNOWLEDGMENTS Amy Sherlock, Christian Struck, Claudia Lamas Cornejo, Johanna Ndikung, Michael Hauri, Christian Rinke-Lazo, Rodrigo Diaz Gutierrez, Gabriele und Klaus Werner, Cilgia Gadola, Raisa Krรถger, Jaime Schwarz, Johanna Ndikung, Ioana Montenescu, Mikoล aj Golubiewski, Ariane Rutz and Marcio Carvalho 59

© 2012 SAVVY CONTEMPORARY BERLIN © 2012 of texts: the authors © 2012 of reproduced images: the artists



SAVVY CONTEMPORARY, Richard Str. 43/44 12055 Berlin-Neukölln

www.savvy-contemporary.com Front and back cover: Lela Ahmadzai, Lars Bjerre, Michael Hauri