Birgit Sonna
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Badende in München

`Drowned bathers`
Marianne Maasland

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Overtures am Wasser

Birgit Sonna (ENG)
Overtures on water / Overtures am Wasser, Munich DE, 2005

Life-stream of Wishes and Realms of Thought
Water as a Catalyser of neo-romantic Phenomena in Art

In 1816 a dramatic accident took place at sea that more or less anticipated the catastrophic scenario of the Titanic. The frigate Méduse, that had set out with a French fleet shipwrecked on the way to Senegal probably through the commander`s incompetence. Of the 149 passengers, just ten persons who were able to save themselves by means of an improvised raft survived after a twelve day odyssey on the high seas. Genuine tales of horror are supposed to have occurred during those twelve days in an extremely crowded, unstable Iife space in the midst of the ocean. Jean Louis Géricault`s subsequently famous painting, The Raft of the Medusa (1818 - 19), became a romantic icon - albeit a tragic one - of liberalism in the 19th century, as its allegorical imagery was directed not least against the monarchy that had been re-established by Napoleon. Géricault deliberately chose the moment in which the shipwrecked passengers finally glimpse the vessel that would rescue them. Thus this manned raft became a metaphor for survival in romantic painting. It symbolized - as did the general image of the small ship battling stormy waves at that time - the heroic determination with which human beings seek to meet all challenges on the part of the forces of nature or of a hostile society.
An ideal core image of freedom lies behind this `odyssey` through Europe by artists doubling as raft-men as well, when the improvised raft of the Finnish artists Teemu Takatalo and Tommi Taipate, guests of the Romantic Geographic Society (RCS), takes its course from the mouth of the Isar on down the Danube to Vienna and on to the Black Sea. The raft voyage, in which artists who are not part of the group but who were recruited for the project via the Internet, participate in the course of the journey, describes with marvellous poetry the - nonetheless - ironically envisioned departure to new and unknown shores, beyond all national boundaries. This group of Finnish artists has taken romantic art and philosophy as the basis for its researches/reflections on nature from the very beginning. Their raft reflects various types of historic adventure journeys that always aim at ultimately bringing about a better, and ideally, completely autonomous Iife. Their so-called Junk Boat was improvised with random objects, just as the Raft of the Medusa had been. While the body of the ship is built of Isar driftwood, it conceals a huge collection of those very plastic bottles, discarded containers of mineral water or other beverages, that Iitter nature almost everywhere in the world today. It is no coincidence that the RGS refers to the mineral water producer evian with its own invented label, naive - read backwards. This cheeky salvo is intended to point out the absurdity of shipping plastic bottles with drinking water though the entire European continent, even as far as Finland, in spite of the fact that excellent spring water is available there. It is precisely with the waste products of our civilization that the RGS creates a quasi - interdisciplinary counter-model for the individual`s re-experiencing the beauty of nature. In this way they pointedly express the social criticism of a newly formulated romanticism - not with the intention of dropping out à la Robinson into an enclave existence apart from contemporary events, but rather to make dear the social-utopian demands implicit in their artistic, process oriented activity. Fiction and real intervention in the societal mechanisms are more or less equally represented in the work of RCS; in both cases their romantic irony provides the respective distance. Parallel to the Junk Boat created for Overtures on Water, their notes for water samples taken during trips through Finland`s natural wilderness, made according to a completely anachronistic listing method, are being exhibited in the Alpine Museum. Like a scientist of the 19th century, Jussi Kivi of the RCS has documented his water consumption on faded paper with old-fashioned omamentation on its corners for fourteen years, complete with location and his subjective commentaries on quality In these works alone it is clear that the RCS is ultimately recontextualizing water, among the realities of contemporary life, as an immanent and essential aspect of romantic landscape and landscape painting on many different levels.
Water had a rich, but relatively fixed iconographic tradition throughout the centuries in the fine arts of the western hemisphere. It is only in modern times that its connotations have gained in transparency, that its horizon of meanings has opened up both to conditions of every day Iife as on the material level, is above all a formidable simile for conceptualists focusing on nature; cycles, time periods, ecological and economic contexts can be optimally visualized with this liquid resource, as Claudia Schmacke`s installation, Big Board, in Gasteig`s underground garage also demonstrates. A closed circulation takes place in pulsing, transparent tubes; gurgling, filled with air bubbles, sometimes slow, sometimes fast. This water system, shining in neon-green, has an aura of artificial magic about it. In contrast, Vadim Fishkin`s computer-controlled Kaplegraf relies on the artificial intelligence of water; thus, the water contained in four canisters on the ceiling is able to solve the arithmetic problems put to it by a loudspeaker with enumerative precision. In answer to the question, `what is 2 + 2?,` the Kaplegraf responds with four drops, correctly released. There can hardly be a more sarcastic artistic comment on our increasingly technocratic faith in the natural sciences than with this functional, but utterly absurd sound system.
In contemporary art, the formerly highly symbolically concentrated significance of water is distinctly shifting towards the investigation of structural processes; that which this elixir of life can existentially comprise within the structure of the cosmos as a whole, or in the more limited context of a community When the Chinese artist Song Dong attempts to stop the never ending trickling away of time at least for a few moments with four digit numbers written with water on asphalt during a performance, this reminds one of On Kawara`s conceptual datapictures, except that here nothing will remain of the digital time check, noted down with a thick ink brush, after evaporation is complete. And finally this ritualised act of calling a necessarily ephemeral condition is also present in Song Dong`s installation in the St. Lukas Kirche, Write a Message for Heaven, mediating as it does between eastern and western philosophy: The visitor, sitting in a meditative posture, may write his or her private wishes with water on one of the twelve stones placed in the altar area. The visible reminder is effaced when the texts written in water have dried, but each individual wish enters fictively into the great ocean of thoughts Iike a single drop of water, and perhaps in the end goes to heaven, too. On the other hand, the Dutch artist Wapke Feenstra has chosen a complementary approach: In her work, Bathers, the water serves to make pictorial motifs visible that she has painted on thick concrete tiles, copied from paintings in Munich museums. While the dry tiles reveal relatively inconspicuous patterns, one can scarcely believe one`s eyes when the 14 stones, set along the Isar in the grass, are made wet:
The unpainted areas become dark, revealing such attractive nudes as Arnold Böcklin`s Wave Riders or Otto Müller`s Bathing Girls. Wapke Feenstra frees these art historical figures at play in the waters from their antiquated museum context with a certain smugness, relocating them in the real green surroundings of their - until now - merely pictorial bathing idyll.
That water is one of the earth`s resources that absolutely must be protected due to the threats of scarcity and pollution has become a commonplace. In spite of this, consciousness concerning water consumption has hardly changed, at least in western European society: Every day, through toilet use alone, 30 litres of water per household go to pot, as it were. Meschac Gaba of Benin, where bottled mineral water is a luxury item, expresses his reverence for the preciousness of water metaphorically, with a single gesture. He completely covered a fountain at the Genoveva Schauer Platz with gold leaf and his small wooden huts placed at the Gasteig have a representative function, standing for the social function of collecting water in the village context of his African homeland. Under every roof stands a dispenser with cooled water that invites visitors to make use of it, but also demands that they reflect on Africa`s dangerously polluted or scarce water resources. The traditional act of collecting water in general appears to have been rediscovered through the art exhibited in Overtures. The Norwegian artist Kurt Johannessen collected water in pails from the Isar to the St. Lukas Kirche, separated from the river by only one street, to fill countless drinking glasses placed on the church floor in a continually repeated ceremony throughout the entire night. And when he took plastic ducks floating in two pails for a ride to the lake a couple of days before at the Federal Garden Festival (BUGA 05), a horde of children followed him, as if the Pied Piper of Hamelin were among us. A latent spirit of romanticism is dreaming in Johannessen, too; he immerses himself deeply in our ultimately completely denaturalised relationship to our water resources and thereby begins a communication with his public - albeit a soundless one. All those who have attended his water performances will surely regard their bubble baths in the tub at home with very different eyes in the future.