Aktuelle Ausstellung
Vergangene Ausstellungen / Archiv
Artist in Residence

Oktober, November 23

Text | engl. | Abbildungen

Polish artists Alicja Karska and Aleksandra Went explore questions of memory and mechanisms of cultural remembrance in their photographs, videos, and objects. In their exhibition Displaced, Karska and Went—who have worked together since 2002 and were guests at AIR – Artist-in-Residence Niederösterreich in spring 2017 and 2022—focus on objects whose time has seemingly come to an end. They draw attention to what has been overlooked and abandoned, to things on the verge of being forgotten and mnemically erased.

The evocative power of the gaze, the influence of the viewer’s imagination, as well as subtle shifts in meaning through context breaks and temporal dislocations form Karska and Went‘s central semiotic instruments. They are not only interested in the question of whether and how an object or artifact is remembered and thus remains archivally “relevant,” but also focus specifically on the omissions, ambiguities, and invisible areas of memory and archives. The viewer is called upon to read and decode what is shown, but also to enter into an active, empathetic relationship with what is seen. By subjecting the objects to a re-activating reading, Karska and Went establish a connection between past and present in such a way that the accustomed dispositif of time is called into question.

In the photo series Asteroid, Radiant, Diatret, Rotor, Sahara… (2020), the artists confront the viewer with a sea of colorful glass shards, in actuality the remnants of the former Zombkowitz (Ząbkowice) glass factory in Dombrowa (Dąbrowa Górnicza) in southern Poland, which closed in the late 1970s. A closer look reveals, among other things, fragments of glass objects by Polish designers Eryka Trzewik-Drost and Jan Drost that were once manufactured in this factory. The damaged, discarded, or never-finished display objects that have dotted the grounds of the site for decades seemingly oscillate between potential exhibition value and pure material value in this archival non-place. Their damaged state not only lends them a certain patina, making them (sorrowful) attestations of the passage of time, the appearance of the broken glass suggests a possibly intentional, even violent moment of erasure, of mnemic effacement.

What is discarded, undeserving of being collected, and culturally dysfunctional, indirectly exposes the selection mechanisms of remembering and archiving. The archive is not just a neutral collection and arrangement of inherently meaningful objects. The mechanisms of determining what is considered interesting and thus deserving of being collected and in what capacity are neither reliable nor in any way “fair.” By foregrounding the temporal dimension of the works, Karska and Went draw attention to the mutability of their meaning and their cultural value over time, but in return also point to the—renewed—possibility of semiotization and how meaning is ascribed through observation in the present moment.

In contrast to the pictorial works of Karska and Went, which address questions of representation, its mechanisms and hierarchies, the textile work Study reveals a process-based and material-specific dimension that has become increasingly important to the artists in recent years. If a fabric or textile is considered special, it is repaired if damaged by means of darning, i.e. by manually adding to the fabric. The repaired area is usually visible from close up, but it prevents the fabric from unraveling further. In their ongoing work Study, however, Karska and Went do not really use the technique of darning as an act of preservation or restoration. While it might seem at first as if they are repairing a hole in damaged cotton fabric, this type of “weaving” is quickly conferred an autonomous status. The artists continually add new holes to the material so that these can be quickly mended, turning the act of repairing into a projective, form-giving process.

Repairing assumes its own physical form. A kind of proliferating growth emanates from the initial damaged area, spreading outward in all directions. The patches, which exhibit subtle variances in thread thickness, weaving direction and color nuances, condense into a landscape-like textile sculpture in pastel white tones. The fabric actually in need of repair vanishes entirely; it is gradually covered by patches and transformed into an all-over-like heterogeneous network of textile details.

The intervening fabric patches not only give the textile object a quasi-organic, vibrant appearance, but the embroidery structure, read as process art, also forms a kind of temporal signature as a reflection of the time and ultimately the part of their lives the artist spent in creating the work. Seen in this light, Study functions less as a mere object than as a medium of temporalization and thus becomes a kind of abstract-textile archive of duration and time per se. The aspect of repairing—a kind of preserving, hindsight-directed undertaking—becomes a projective, seemingly autopoietic future-oriented approach.

While most of the artists’ earlier works seemingly have a preserving, almost restorative aspect, the expansive installation in the main gallery space initially points in the opposite direction. In Rysunki (Drawings) from 2022/23, Karska and Went present a constellation of twenty-nine, square-shaped old mirrors that they collected and compiled over many months. Given their age, the mirrors not only show signs of deterioration, but by manually removing all of their remaining silver coating, it seems as if the artists have finally “blinded” and destroyed them. While the coating on some mirrors comes off by itself, the physical effort required on others is significant. The manner of scratching—Rysunki also means drawing in English—is based on physical as well subjective factors. According to the “handwriting” of the respective artist, the act of scraping and scratching gives each mirror a highly individual character. In some mirrors the scraping resembles a gentle texture, whereas in others it seems to reflect an act of overwriting or a hurried, deliberate erasure. The scratch marks, often deeply inscribed in the reflective layer, take on—depending on rhythm, direction, and intensity—an almost expressive dimension that at times has a gestural and obsessive quality.

The actual intention of scraping is in fact metaphorical, if not metaphysical: it is about erasing the respective “memory” of the mirror. In Rysunki, Karska and Went understand the mirror not as a merely functional, visual medium, e.g. for self-reflection and self-control, but as a mnemic medium, as a memory dispositif. What has the mirror not seen, what events could it recount or bear witness to? In this almost animistic understanding, the mirror is able to absorb the past as an observer that transcends time, as if what was “observed” was indexically inscribed and stored in the silver layer.

By scraping off this very palimpsest of time, the artists appear to be ostensibly erasing the memory of the mirror. The fleeting nature of past events is thus juxtaposed with an element of mnemic dematerialization. However, the artists are neither concerned with deconstruction nor with melancholy over the ambiguities of lasting memories. If viewing the act of scratching, of drawing, more from the perspective of production aesthetics, from the viewpoint of artistic activity, it becomes apparent that the artists are working from the inside or backside of the mirror. They adopt, quasi emphatically, the viewing position of each individual mirror; they are looking into and onto the world, as the mirror did, so to speak. At the same time, by transmitting and anticipating the viewer’s gaze, they open up a view for a new, current way of seeing the world. With regard to reception aesthetics, viewers are also placed in the particular mirror’s respective position. They are ultimately presented with twenty-nine views, each with a different perspective and, moreover, of a different time. In their interplay, the mirrors not only condense into a “seeing machine” that opens and breaks up the space more visually, they also form a temporal dispositif that opens up the space mnemically and polychronically, with a view of a wide variety of time periods.

Each mirror proves to be a complex, small-scale dispositif in and of itself. Depending on the style of scratching, reflective sections, and color, the viewer is presented with an independent scenario within the image that also incorporates the exhibition space. The individual mirrors per se have four different layers, which determine the pictorial presence and the reflective occurrences: viewed from the inside out, the viewer first encounters the protective coating (orange, brown), which is often not entirely scraped away, then the silver layer underneath, then once again the layer of glass that reflects in a slightly different way, and finally to the translucent white wall. Some mirror objects appear silvery bright, others copper-colored, others translucent. With certain objects, however, the “drawing” occurrences and thus the affective content come to the fore.

The uniqueness of the pictorial appearance and “performance” of each individual mirror allows the viewer to get in very close, also due to the often-small size, so that walking through the mirror installation leads to a very intimate scenario that underscores and intensifies an important relational moment of perception for Karska and Went, the entering into a relationship with the respective imagined spaces of memory. The mirror installation can be experienced as a time-sensitive dispositif directed towards the subject and the personal, one that is only superficially concerned with what’s damaged and dysfunctional.

Created in the meta-pictorial interplay of the mirrors is a polychronic place of commonality that not only attends to the past, with superimpositions of stored memories, but one that is also able—as a kind of anticipatory “time machine”—to direct and project the gaze emphatically and relationally into the future. Karska and Went’s mirror dispositif thus creates a kind of temporal reflection and transcendence that allows for a more supratemporal form of observation and thinking in terms of forward-oriented remembering.

The gaps, discontinuities, and subtly placed mnemic interruptions in the works of Karska and Went are neither a one-dimensional critique of existing mechanisms of remembrance, nor are they concerned with the mere learnedness of looking at the past; rather, they create a space of possibility for semiotic and mnemic transformation. The artists seek a thoroughly personal, emphatic form of transformation, which, albeit invariably grounded in the present moment of perception, is capable of anticipating the future and thus potentially also influencing it. In their works, Karska and Went create a mnemic space of possibility in which the reciprocity between past and present is not only made legible, but where an approach, a vision of the future, and, ultimately, a utopian element is always carefully considered.


Text: David Komary
Translation: Erik Smith