PRINT April 2018


Karin Sander, Drawing No. 458, 1998, human hair, paper, 11 × 8 1/2". From the 970-part suite Haarzeichnungen (Hair Drawings), 1998.

ENVELOPES, FLYERS, invoices, Post-Its, magazines: Visitors to German artist Karin Sander’s 2011 installation Kernbohrungen (Core Drillings) at the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein found nothing to look at except paper detritus scattered haphazardly across the floor. Those patient enough to linger, however, might have witnessed an occasional document falling through the air; glancing upward, these viewers could clearly see where the clutter was coming from: five holes in the ceiling, each about a foot in diameter. Sander connected the exhibition space with the administrative offices situated directly above by piercing the floor next to employees’ desks, in the spots where the wastebaskets normally stood. The institution’s staff created this constantly growing temporary sculpture. All that Sander had done was prepare the physical conditions for the slipping of debris from one context to another.

Karin Sander, Kartoffel (Potato), 2012, fresh potato, stainless-steel nail, dimensions variable. From the series “Kitchen Pieces,” 2012.

Sander does not invent; she engages with what is already there. Interacting with specific sites, histories, and social configurations, she derives her work directly from reality, which she torques with minimal interventions of great precision and clarity. Her early projects, in particular, convey morphological and even structural affinities with 1970s indexical strategies. For 3 Räume (3 Rooms), 1996, Sander made graphite rubbings of the walls, ceilings, doors, windows, and floors of a trio of exhibition spaces in Vienna’s Galerie nächst St. Stephan, registering the surface textures down to the last nail hole, bump, and crack. In Rauhfaser Royal, 1992/1996, she excised a piece of the titular material from a wall of Kunstmuseum St. Gallen, Switzerland; pasted it onto the glass of a rimless clip frame; and installed it in the very spot from which it had just been removed.

Karin Sander, Reeve 1:5, 2012, 3-D color scan of a living person, polychrome 3-D printing, plaster, color pigment ink, 10 5/8 × 2 1/2 × 2 1/2".

These projects respectively recall two key works that Rosalind E. Krauss discusses in her foundational two-part 1977 essay “Notes on the Index”: Michelle Stuart’s East/West Wall Memory Relocated, 1976, for which Stuart made rubbings of large sections of a corridor at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in New York, and Lucio Pozzi’s P.S.1 Paint, 1976, which consisted of panels that were painted in the same colors as the sections of wall over which they were installed. Krauss highlights how these artists attempt to bring life into art, noting a “quasi-tautological relationship between signifier and signified,” in which the colors and arrangement of Pozzi’s panels “are occasioned by a situation in the world which they merely register.” Per Krauss, the artists—with however sophisticated and personal a language—generate circumstances that leave virtually no room for human agency or transformation. Instead, the “building itself . . . is taken to be a message which can be presented but not coded.” It is through this uncoded, indexical relationship to reality—Stuart’s and Pozzi’s works are meaningless outside the physical context in and from which they were made––and the resultant avoidance of composition, Krauss implies, that these projects reject modernist notions of aesthetic autonomy and authorial control.

Sander does not invent; she derives her work directly from reality, which she torques with minimal interventions of great precision.

But such a challenge to modernist epistemes is of little concern for Sander. To underscore her tautological procedure at P.S.1, Stuart displayed her rubbings opposite the walls from which she took them, while Sander bound her rubbings (on hundreds of sheets of A4 paper) into three books, one for each room, and neatly arranged the volumes on a pasting table. The books varied in size in accordance with the square footage of each space, and in that sense “merely registered” the respective situations of their making. But by enabling visitors to flip through the pages and study patterns and abstract images that hold aesthetic appeal regardless of whether one is aware of their origin, Sander transformed the rubbings into autonomous objects—essentially reversing Stuart’s procedure. Sander’s transformation of wallpaper into image in Rauhfaser Royal similarly defies any simple parallel with Pozzi’s work. Whereas Pozzi’s panels are tautological because they duplicate, or substitute for, the surfaces they cover, Sander removed and framed a piece of wallpaper only to hang it exactly at the spot from which she took it. Rather than an indexical transfer of the wallpaper and hence its double, Rauhfaser Royal is the actual thing, not the matrix or imprint in some kind of relational system. It is an object that stands for itself as an image and work of art. Unlike the indexical practices of the ’70s analyzed by Krauss, Sander brings not only art into life but also life into art, imparting renewed urgency to the complex imbrication of art and the real.

Karin Sander, Kopfsalat (Lettuce), 2012, fresh lettuce, stainless-steel nail, dimensions variable. From the series “Kitchen Pieces,” 2012.

From the beginning, Sander has acknowledged the extent to which the mechanisms of the market already mediate between art and life. She does this by simply foregrounding the status of the frame itself, or the picture itself, as a commodity form. This tactic was already front and center in her 1994 installation Wand in Stücken (Wall in Pieces) at the Staatliche Kunsthalle Baden-Baden in Germany. Taking a photograph of the gallery’s painted wood-chip wallpaper, duplicating the image with offset printing, and displaying it within 1,177 clip frames in a dense salon-style hanging, the artist used the whole range of the twenty-seven available formats of her chosen rimless supports. Small gaps between prints offered glimpses of the surface beneath, distinguishing the real wall from the one depicted in the framed photographs, which, furthermore, cast shadows that accentuated their three-dimensional objecthood. Optically, the distinction between positive and negative space, between the prints and the gaps between them, was surprisingly unstable. Visitors could purchase the numbered and signed frames with the prints and take them home. With time, the installation thus slowly disintegrated; its title, Wall in Pieces, emphasizes this atomization, this dispersal into the circuits of the market. Unlike Rauhfaser Royal, which turns an actual piece of wallpaper into an image, here the image is a photographic representation, which does not relate indexically to the specific wall segment on which it hangs, since Sander uses the same photograph in all the frames. The pictures thus do not constitute the wall or its double but, again, something more complex and contradictory: representations that literally obscure that to which they refer. Ironically, then, it is only once all the images have been sold and the process of commodification is complete that the view of the wall is free again—only then can it return to being itself, no longer in pieces.

Lucio Pozzi, P.S.1 Paint, 1976, acrylic on wood panel. Installation view, P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, New York.

For Stoffraum Art Basel (Canvas Room Art Basel), 1996, Sander cut 464 sections of various dimensions from the fabric wall coverings then used in the “Statements” sectionat Art Basel; placed them in clip frames, each of which she hung on one of the walls of Galerie nächst St. Stephan’s booth exactly on top of the section from which she removed the covering; and offered the individual images for sale.Here, commodification goes hand in hand with the conversion of the wall from passive support to active object and image in its own right. To become art is to become a product. Of course, Sander is activating not only the wall but also viewers and collectors by making them participants in the work’s production. Through buying and removing the frames, they are responsible for the continuously changing gestalt of the installation. Their activity is paradoxical, however, because to sustain the installation they have to diminish it, and ultimately dissolve it entirely. Purchasers of the frames leave an increasing number of negative spaces on the naked wall. What sets this unraveling of the mechanisms of the art market apart is the tension at its core. Collectors are left with a framed image, but it’s also a fragment, a shard, a part of a ruin, and a reminder that the work of art as such—the installation—was transformed, actually destroyed, by the same commodifying impulse that brought it into being.

From the beginning, Sander has acknowledged the extent to which the mechanisms of the market already mediate between art and life.

Sander conceives such dialectical scenarios but happily cedes control over their unfolding. She assumes the role of artist as impresario, whose work consists in setting up situations that facilitate the creation of art. In art school in Stuttgart in the 1980s, Sander was already working reflexively within—but also against the grain of—art history and its obsession with authorship. She developed a procedure that recalled the treatment of marble by Renaissance sculptors: painstakingly sanding and polishing a rectangular area of white wall to the point where the paint appears shiny and translucent. Like the artists of centuries past who aimed to animate dead stone with reflected light, Sander, by removing a thin layer of pigment, seemed to offer a view beneath the skin into the inner life of the architecture. Wall Piece and Wall Panel, 1988, emphasized this effect by juxtaposing the polished area with a white panel of the same dimensions, as if it were the removed lid or top layer. But the polished patches resulting from these mini-excavations offered no insights; instead, they mirrored their surroundings, simultaneously activating the wall and its immediate environment by turning both into images—misty, fleeting, mutable, changing with the shifting light and the movements of the people in the room.

View of Karin Sander’s Kernbohrungen (Core Drillings), 2011, wastepaper from five offices, five holes in the floor of the offices/ceiling of the exhibition space; holes each 11 3/4 × 11 3/4". Installation views, Neuer Berliner Kunstverein, Berlin. Photo: Stefan Alber.

Issues of chance and noncomposition are constitutive of Sander’s play of shifting signifiers, which constantly challenges the status of the work of art. But if in 1988 the arena of chance was confined to the picture itself, as it were—the polished surfaces on which shadows played—two years later the more radically aleatory and reflexive strategies of Sander’s mature practice had begun to take shape. In 1990 Sander commenced her ongoing series “Gebrauchsbilder”(Patina Paintings), for which primed canvases of standard sizes and formats are installed as a curator or collector wishes. The titles of the series’ individual works name the location where each was installed, and the time period each work spent at the named location is recorded on its removal. So: The title of Gebrauchsbild 19, Schweinehütte Maxi (Patina Painting 19, Pig Hut Maxi), 2002, documents the work’s fate of being completely torn apart after only two days in its stable home in Stuttgart, while Gebrauchsbild 26, Ein Jahr im Schlafzimmer (Patina Painting 26, One Year in the Bedroom), 2002–2003, lasted awhile in a residence in Mainz, Germany, and still looks as pristine as ever. The actual images are chance residues on the neutral canvases, which serve to register traces of specific times, places, and actions. For instance, two canvases hung in kitchens may differ vastly according to the amount of time each spent in the room, their specific locations, and, of course, the personality and habits of the people doing the cooking. The title of the series emphasizes the agency of the curators and collectors: The German term Gebrauch means “use,” positing Sander’s “use-pictures” as figurations of their own handling. The “Gebrauchsbilder” are therefore portraits not only of their owners but also of ownership and use as such. Sander accordingly insists that the original purchasers’ signatures accompany hers on the certificate that comes with the work.

Karin Sander, Wandstück 180 x 540 (Wall Piece 180 x 540), 2014, polished wall paint. Installation view, Musée d’Art Moderne Grand-Duc Jean, Luxembourg. Photo: Studio
Karin Sander.

While owners maintain at least a measure of control in the “Gebrauchsbilder,” chance alone is the driving force of Sander’s mailed paintings. In this body of work, begun in 2004, Sander sends an unprotected white canvas by regular mail to its exhibiting institution and asks that institution to apply the same means of transportation when moving the work to a new location (be it another exhibition venue, gallery storage, or a collector’s home) and then to add these destinations to the work’s caption. The primed standard-format surfaces thus register the traces of these travels; in addition to the dirt and damaged edges left behind by handling, they usually display technical materials such as address labels, postage, customs forms, etc. The journeys instigate an accumulative image of themselves on the mailed paintings, each of which looks different. And each state is always only a momentary impression, because further trips will lead to more marks and new images as the open-ended process continues. Neither Sander nor the works’ receivers have any control over how and by whom the canvases are treated, nor what they will look like after their next excursion. While the marks result from multiple, often anonymous and unknown sources and are there for various reasons and purposes, they have in common a lack of aesthetic motivation. Nobody who made them had any creative intentions. Yet the paintings thus produced are far from neutral or mute. Rudimentary, unmediated, the smudges and stickers and miscellaneous marks all contain information—about the handlers, shipping companies, and customs systems, and about the collectors and institutions interested in exhibiting and possessing these itinerant canvases.

Karin Sander, Gebrauchsbild 19, Schweinehütte Maxi (Patina Painting 19, Pig Hut Maxi), 2002, stretched canvas, white universal primer, 11 3/4 × 9 1/2". Created in Stuttgart, Germany, January 19–21, 2002. From the series “Gebrauchsbilder” (Patina Paintings), 1990–.

Sander’s strategies are often indexical, then, but not to squeeze the art out of art or to get rid of the work by converting it into life. Her work is never tautological; the artist has granted agency and image-generating prerogative to users, objects, and life. Relying as it does on broad-based participation, Sander’s oeuvre is social in the truest sense of the word. Her works are always self-portraits—they’re just not of the artist herself. Rather, it is other people—and things, and situations—who inscribe themselves on her works. In Haarzeichnungen (Hair Drawings), 1998, she plucked about a thousand strands of hair from some eighty individuals and dropped each strand onto a sheet of paper. Every hair is different, and each yields its own configuration—each “draws” itself, and functions as the mark of its donor. So yes, these are portraits—but they are not likenesses. Rather, each work is like a relic, a trace that stands for the entire person. But unlike relics, in which labels identify the person embodied in the fragment, Sander keeps her Haarzeichnungen anonymous, and thus curtails the implication that the truth of a person is created by unmediated presence. Haarzeichnungen addresses the crux and central problem of portraiture—how to render, but not essentialize, subjectivity—by short-circuiting the simplistic conflation of referent and representation; no such conflation is possible, because the referent, or subject, remains unknown.

Karin Sander, Untitled, 1993, wood-chip wallpaper from Art Cologne, clip frame, 19 3/4 × 15 3/4".

In her full-length portrait sculptures, which she started in 1997, the same challenge is navigated via technology. Sander scans people with a 3-D body scanner, which a 3-D printer then translates into horizontally layered acrylic sculptures. This mechanical process recalls the making of plaster casts such as death masks, which, like relics, were historically a way to preserve a true likeness and eternalize the presence of a deceased person. Sander encourages her subjects—by choosing their own clothing, pose, and expression—to take control of the image, for which Sander and her technological apparatus function as mere medium. But the suggestions of authenticity and autonomy are undermined by Sander’s decision to produce the figures in a scale of 1:10 or 1:5, among others, and by the limitations of the device itself, which slightly blurs the colors and re-creates the body in slices that lead to uneven contours. The resulting disruption of the otherwise powerful effect of realism highlights the sculptures’ status as made works: not relics, not casts, not instantiations of presence.

Karin Sander, Mailed Painting 43, Bonn—Berlin—Gmunden—Berlin—S-Chanf—St. Gallen—Berlin—London—Berlin—Bielefeld, 2007, stretched canvas in standard size, white universal primer, 31 1/2 × 39 3/8".

In “Kitchen Pieces,” 2012, the autopoietic undercurrent of Sander’s images finds its expression in decay. For these works, she simply nails fresh fruit and vegetables to the wall; they change color and shrink over time, turning into curiously distorted and barely recognizable objects. The food eventually loses its nutritional value and becomes sculpture, precisely because no one has interfered with or consumed it. This rite of passage is effected solely by the interaction between the specific constitution of the natural product (will organic salad produce different configurations?) and the climate conditions in the room. The self-display of “Kitchen Pieces,” then, is even more authentic and active than that of the hair in Haarzeichnungen and the individuals in the body-scan sculptures. While the latter are prone to self-fashioning (always informed by social conventions and thus never authentic), the former is an isolated fragment frozen in time. The “Kitchen Pieces,” instead, engender their own continuous, (largely) autonomous process of transformation, in which different facets of their being are revealed until they finally decompose. By shedding their practical purpose as consumables and becoming aesthetic objects, the fruit and vegetables actively alter their identity while nevertheless maintaining their ontological constitution. In decay, they sublimate their status, yet remain the same.

Karin Sander, Stoffraum Art Basel (Canvas Room Art Basel), 1996, fabric covering of art-fair walls, 434 (of the original 464) clip frames in ten standard formats, each signed and numbered. Installation view, Karin Sander’s studio, Berlin, 2017. Photo: Andrea Rossetti.

Herein, then, lies the dialectic of Sander’s project: to turn art into life, only to transform both in the course of returning life again into art. In “Real Fictions: Alternatives to Alternative Facts,” published in these pages in April 2017, Hal Foster observes a tendency in recent art to employ great artifice to “make the real real again, which is to say, effective again, felt again, as such.” To illustrate how these artists activate the real in response to the assault on fact and facticity, Foster cites a seemingly confounding statement by the actor Stephen Dillane, whoin Tacita Dean’s film Event for a Stage, 2015, asserts: “Art is what makes life more interesting than art.” Sander’s fictions similarly activate the real—not in a tautological maneuver to align art and life, but rather to sensitize us to the aesthetic possibilities inherent in the experience of the everyday. She makes us apprehend the way reality is constructed by fiction and the way that objects are constructed by representations, and vice versa. Sander has quietly been exploring and expanding that potential for decades, and her real fictions have never been more necessary.

Based in New York and Berlin, Benjamin Paul is a critic and an associate professor of Renaissance art history at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.

Karin Sander, Wand in Stücken (Wall in Pieces), 1994, 1,177 clip frames in twenty-seven standard formats, offset prints, each signed and numbered. Installation view, Staatliche Kunsthalle Baden-Baden, Germany. Photo: Martin Lauffer.

Karin Sander, Stoffraum Art Basel (Canvas Room Art Basel), 1996, fabric covering of art-fair walls, 434 (of the original 464) clip frames in ten standard formats, each signed and numbered, overall, 9' 11“ × 20' 1” × 18' 4". Photo: Andrea Rossetti.

View of Karin Sander’s studio, Berlin, 2015. Works from 2005 to 2015. Left: Mailed paintings. Right: Works from the series “Gebrauchsbilder” (Patina Paintings), 1990–. Photo: Andrea Rossetti.

Karin Sander, Mailed Painting 115, Bonn—Berlin—Medellín—Siegen—Berlin, Madrid, München—Köln—Wien—München, 2010, stretched canvas in standard size, white universal primer, 63 × 63".

View of Karin Sander’s Kernbohrungen (Core Drillings), 2011, wastepaper from five offices, five holes in the floor of the offices/ceiling of the exhibition space; holes each 11 3/4 × 11 3/4". Installation views, Neuer Berliner Kunstverein, Berlin. Photo: Jens Ziehe.