View of “Kristine Kemp,” 2012. From left: Dreaming of a Nap in the Afternoon, 1996/2012; [re-in-kar-nayt], 2012.

View of “Kristine Kemp,” 2012. From left: Dreaming of a Nap in the Afternoon, 1996/2012; [re-in-kar-nayt], 2012.

Kristine Kemp


View of “Kristine Kemp,” 2012. From left: Dreaming of a Nap in the Afternoon, 1996/2012; [re-in-kar-nayt], 2012.

In his 1968 essay “Surrealism as a World of Signs,” Roger Caillois denounced “vacant metaphor” in the work of the most prominent Surrealists. Listing a repertoire of all-too-expected references, such as Yves Tanguy’s “giant amoebas,” de Chirico’s “dressmaker’s dummies,” and Dalí’s assorted obsessional motifs, he took Surrealism to task for its poetic looseness and indulgence in personal simulacra. Lord only knows what Caillois would have thought of the Young British Artists’ facile samplings of the movement in the 1990s, or of the portrayal in Documenta 13 of Dalí as a political painter and proponent of exchange between art and science.

The Surrealist aesthetic was revisited yet again, more productively, in Kristine Kemp’s solo show “[re-in-kar-nayt].”Curated by David Hilmer Rex, the exhibition consisted of five works installed in a delicate conceptual balance—two black-and-white photos, two graphic works, and red, woven cloth. While Surrealism is hardly the sole relevant reference (the press release quotes appropriation-art matriarch Sturtevant, for instance), Kemp’s deconstruction of organic morphologies and her indebtedness to psychoanalysis made it an important historical backdrop for the exhibition. To this she added a Lacanian attention to the linguistic, visual, and temporal constitution of subjectivity, which prevailed in her play with forms and appearances. The beholder was urged to shift between different modes of reading and perception, as the pieces in the show dodged identification and reappeared in different experiential realms. 100% Bomuld (100% Cotton), 2012, an appropriated woven cloth made in Syria in the mid-twentieth century, was like a materialized metaphor of the way that Kemp interweaves and reinvests aesthetic dogma and symbolic law. The cloth lay folded on the floor, its uneven pattern—a result of the Islamic ban on images—facing up and alluding to cultural otherness as well as to the relativity between Kemp’s post-Surrealist, post-Conceptual methodologies and the geometrical abstraction of the weaver’s craftsmanship. In Kemp there is no solid ground, no sovereign domain whichever way you turn. In an untitled photo from 1995, hierarchies of perception are debunked. The artist, blindfolded with a scarf, palpates some abject, unidentifiable organic material (in fact, guts from a pig): This blind investigation is carried out with a corrupted or encumbered sensorial apparatus, so that tactility displaces visibility.

The intimate size of the exhibition belied its grand temporal span. The show’s title was borrowed from a work, an enlarged childhood photo of the artist, which shows her playing with an Alsatian shepherd. Both girl and dog look straight into the camera as if into the future, yet the work’s title suggests a psychic economy in which the child paradoxically reincarnates the adult in a reverse time line. Similarly, Dreaming of a Nap in the Afternoon is a sketch originally from 1996 that was remade by the artist in 2012 for this show. An abstract graph, drawn with ink on paper, fitted onto an oblong support, and roughly leaned against the wall at approximately the height of a person, the work documents brain activity during a sleep sequence of eight hours that has been condensed to the graphic representation of no more than thirty minutes: not images from a dream, that is, but the physical fact of sleep that has been compressed and intensified. Here, the psychoanalytic notion of psychic depth is played out on the surface of a scientific document.

“In classic paintings,” Freud once told Dalí, “I look for the subconscious; in surrealist paintings, for the conscious.” But one isn’t tempted to follow, with Freud, the Surrealist dialectic of reason in Kemp’s work. Instead, her art insists—through displacements, crazes, and inconsistencies—that the grammars of language and reason are challenged by the syntax of experience.

Lars Bang Larsen