Stephanie Keitz Visual Artist
ARCHITECTURES OF ABSENCE
Joy Kristin Kalu
SPACE IS A DOUBT
“I would like there to exist places that are stable, unmoving, intangible, untouched and almost untouchable, unchanging, deeprooted; places that might be points of reference, of departure, of origin [...] Such places don´t exist, and it´s because they don´t exist that spaces becomes a question, ceases to be self-evident, ceases to be incorporated, ceases to be appropriated. Space is a doubt: I have constantly to mark it, to designate it. It´s never mine, never given to me, I have to conquer it. My spaces are fragile: time is going to wear them away, to destroy them. Nothing will any longer resemble what was, my memories will betray me, oblivion will infiltrate my memory, I shall look at a few yellowing photographs with broken edges without recognizing them. [...] Space melts like sand running through one´s fingers. Time bears it away and leaves me only shapeless shreds.”
Georges Perec, Träume von Räumen1
Stephanie Keitz’s work is rooted in her fascination with spaces and their memory. Her material is latex – flexible, fragile, touch-inducing, and hard-wearing, like human skin. Her negative casts of spaces deal with veiling, decay, and isolation; with collapse, instability, absence, and loss; with dwelling, boundary, wall, and skin.
Like human bodies, spaces bear memory within them. A key concept for Keitz is that of a room as a second skin that surrounds us. Like a piece of clothing, a room protects us from outside influences, creating a refuge and a boundary. Every human activity leaves traces on the room’s surfaces, turning it into memory. According to Gaston Bachelard, however, the reverse is also true, as the room inscribes itself into us: domestic spaces give events, emotions and dreams an inner place. In this way, the room becomes an imaginary imprint in our memory.2
In her working process, Keitz sets her initial sketches aside and follows her own body knowledge. She also partially delegates authorship to the material: in a kind of écriture automatique, the structures of the space’s surfaces inscribe themselves into the liquid latex. It is poured or sprayed on and then, once dry, peeled off. It translates the fabric of a space into the fabric of the latex skin. And these skins age just like the spaces they represent; they are both material and ephemeral. In these casts, every element is accorded the same importance, democratically depicting the structures, contradictions, and errors of a space and revealing what was buried or hidden. This renders visible elements that are rarely noticed: cracks, scratches, outlets, traces of nails and old drill holes, openings for wires and pipes. The surfaces of the space, its injuries and peculiarities, are conserved and remade at the same time.
Keitz is interested in striated space. In their exploration of our spatial reality, Deleuze and Guattari make a distinction between smooth and striated spaces. Smooth space is that of nomads, open and wide, whereas the life of sedentary people leaves behind striated space. Striated spaces are sheltered by walls, they are metric, limited, and territorialized.3 They often leave behind walls with pronounced traces to which the artist is particularly drawn.
BABETTE (2018) documents a body, a space, a time – a document that bears not only the imprint of the floor tiles of “Bar Babette” but also the traces of Keitz’s own hands. In East Germany, “Kosmetiksalon Babette” was part of a modern architectural ensemble built between 1959 and 1965 on what was then Stalin Allee in Berlin: a glass pavilion for the beautification of women by order of the state. It served as a beauty salon for workers and officials until 1989. Over a decade later, in 2003, it became “Bar Babette”, an iconic project space where, until 2018, over 250 exhibitions were organized with over 1000 international artists, making the space a witness to and integral part of fifteen years of lived art. In 2018, in spite of numerous protests, the space was forced to close by the advance of gentrification. The walls and the floor bear traces in endless layers; traces of people, their movements in time and space, of works and exhibitions. All of this is present in the translucent skin onto which Keitz freely and intuitively placed her own handprints: pitch black pigment on pale pink and shades of amber. In this way, BABETTE bears witness to its time, both bearing within itself and outliving the process of disappearance in Berlin.
Keitz has a special interest in floors: like no other surface, they store the knowledge of rooms and of the bodies that use them. In spite of this, they are given little attention. Her first cast of a floor was made at Villa Schöningen in Potsdam, a residence on the border between Berlin and Potsdam, between East and West. In the early twentieth century, the villa, built in 1843 by Ludwig Persius in the Italian style, was home to the family of Hermann Wallich, a cofounder of Deutsche Bank, whose son Paul committed suicide after the pogrom of November 1938 in order to protect his family. In East Germany it was used as a children’s home. For the artist, the history of the building was present above all in the tiled floors. With the tactile appeal of its pale pink, diaphanous skin, FLOOR (VS) (2015) thus subtly bears within itself the stratified vicissitudes of German history, a history marked by many reversals.
For the large-format latex skins made in Los Angeles under the title TENDER MOTHER (2018), the artist departed from the wall, the support, and the concept of the cast. She freely works the material, which appears smooth, taut and opaque – and which nonetheless, depending on how it is hung, lets light through. The absence of striations and structures allow the artist’s intuitively positioned handprints to speak for themselves. In this pure and abstract form, the material and the artist’s pigment traces develop a strong charisma and behave like fine, draped fabric: tender, fragile, but also monumental, without ever creating distance.
In terms of energy, EXHAUSTED ROOM (2015), a cast taken from a shower cubicle in Los Angeles using black-dyed latex, forms a counterpart to TENDER MOTHER. Like the space itself, the closed cast is large enough to accommodate precisely one person, generating a sense of claustrophobia that is transformed by removing the air into a huge exhaustion: an empty, tired envelope, with neither core, nor volume, nor energy. The EXHAUSTED ROOM is an extension of ourselves which, like us, can also collapse. A picture of our current society of fatigue that touches the viewer to the core.
What part is played by the contingency of the body (touching a surface, leaving a trace) in the emergence of consciousness? And how does our identity (and that of a space) take shape? In Paleolithic caves, the imprint of one’s own hand was already to be understood as an autonomous artwork, the constitution of one’s own identity.
For Georges Didi-Huberman, the gesture of the imprint is always an encounter between coincidence and technology. The resulting form can never be predicted, is always uncertain and open. The scope for this uncertainty is everywhere: in the support, in the gesture, in the size and direction of the force applied. The paradox lies in the meeting of a touch and an absence. This quality of the cast as the touching of an absence explains the lasting power of its relation with time, which corresponds to the effect of “ghosts”.4 These peculiarities of the cast run through the whole of Keitz’s artistic practice.
With regard to the development of consciousness, Didier Anzieu’s remarks on the “skin ego” are also pertinent to the artist’s practice. He views the brain and the skin as surfaces: the inner surface, the cortex, is related to the outside world via the mediation of an outer surface, the skin. If this model is transferred to our capacity for thought, then it too develops out of interlocking surfaces – out of folds. Sensations from the skin stimulate the systems of perception and consciousness, forming a background for our all-encompassing but temporary sense of existence and facilitating the creation of a first mental space. In this way, the skin-ego lays the foundations for thought.5
Keitz’s works are constantly changing. There is no final, fixed form, no solution, just an ongoing process of becoming. The skins are flexible in themselves; every hanging takes the specific context into consideration and creates new, distinctive spaces. Tension is generated in particular by the removal of the casts from the context in which they originated, creating new meanings. The fragile, unstable hanging never reconstructs the space from which the cast was taken, instead evoking its collapse, its decay. This is at odds with attempts to use casts to preserve or secure something, to safeguard evidence. Such constant attempts to get close to things and the constant failure of these attempts form the core of Keitz’s art, creating a tension between holding on and letting go that releases large amounts of energy. Like human skin, her skins become permeable membranes that breathe, live, and undergo changes via aging.
One particular event in the artist’s biography is present as background noise in her work: the collapse of the political system of the East German state in which she grew up. The breaks and erasures that accompanied this event, and which are still ongoing, shape her view of the world and its qualities. The experience of standing on steady or unsteady ground divides people into two fundamentally different dispositions.
Keitz’s works not only testify to the spaces on which they draw, but also reassure her of their existence, and by extension of her own. When the past is radically erased, one’s own existence in that same past is thrown into doubt. The cast marks both this act of reassurance and the instability of one’s own consciousness and memory.
Spaces find Stephanie Keitz, but they never belong to her. Her works are movements of searching. Like Georges Perec, she is driven by a great longing for eternal, unchanging spaces – a longing she knows cannot be fulfilled. She depicts the visceral life of spaces, archiving and reactivating them, but in spite of this, in her work space always remains a doubt.
1 Perec, Georges (1994): Träume von Räumen, Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuchverlag, p. 114-115
2 Bachelard, Gaston (2001): Poetik des Raumes, Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuchverlag, p. 34
3 Deleuze, Gilles/ Guattari, Félix (1980): 1440 – Das Glatte und das Gekerbte, in: Dünne, Jörg/Günzel, Stephan (Hrsg.); Raumtheorie. Grundlagentexte aus Philosophie und Kulturwissenschaften, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Taschenbuch Verlag, 2006; p. 434
4 Didi-Huberman, Georges (1999): Ähnlichkeit und Berührung. Archäologie, Anachronismus und Modernität des Abdrucks, Köln: Dumont, p. 18
5 Anzieu, Didier (1991): Das Haut-Ich, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, p. 21.
translated from the German by Nicholas Grindell