Architectures of Absence
Joy Kristin Kalu (translated from the German by Nicholas Grindell)
Stephanie Keitz’s works speak of absence. Her fragile sculptures and works on paper document attempts at capturing, as well as the futility of such attempts. Her techniques could all be said to involve preserving evidence. She conserves memories that remain hidden from the viewer. She tracks down the past, creating scenarios that have never existed, but that appear strangely familiar. We cannot read the clues, but we are intuitively struck by the weight that results from their melancholic compression.
Keitz works with textiles that were once close to people: items of clothing, blankets and bedsheets become materials for her sculptures and both subject and medium in her prints. For her sculptures (Untitled, since 2011) she takes wax casts of human forms and then presents them shrouded in fabrics. The works are never completely finished, remaining vulnerable, like the materials out of which they are made. They can be placed in new settings or groupings, and they can be veiled in different ways. The artist works exclusively with used, sometimes found textiles that already bear stories within them. They have touched bodies, given warmth, protected people and served as places of refuge. In this way, the sculptures testify to absence on several levels: they shroud the frozen outlines of an absent body with materials that have in turn been robbed of their bodies. At the same time, the works affirm the past presences, and their references to moments of loss fill the gaps with intensity.
Keitz’s series Lost in L.A. (2013) and Shirt (2014) are also based on imprints and also use textiles. In this case, however, the textiles are present only in the form of traces. Each of the large-format ink prints on paper features the mark left by a piece of clothing whose specific qualities can be recreated in the viewer’s imagination. They were made by pressing or throwing the ink-soaked garment directly onto the paper. Here, the act of conserving is also an act of extinction: the items of clothing attest to their past at the same time as bringing it to a close. In the act of printing, their movements and traces are both made present and deleted. Brought to a standstill, their history of enveloping ends and they become memory in the print.
Keitz’s new sculptures (Black Pile I & II, 2014; Black Mass, 2014; Amnesia, 2015) are related to another series based on gestures of conserving (Capsules, since 2011). Here, materials that formerly performed an enveloping function (as well as everyday items) are compressed and covered with wax, reversing their status by turning them into cores. Whereas in the Kapseln, Keitz conserved one specific everyday material, binding it with thread and enclosing it in wax, the new works are collections: masses of textiles are merged, their colours and materialities converging in a process of assimilation. The individual fabrics are barely distinguishable, seeming to run into one another, partly vanishing into an invisible inner space. They cannot be identified. Their materialities and histories, often spanning several decades, become less and less accessible. We are confronted with a layering of time levels and a compression of memories whose heaviness seems to result from their refusal of narrative. The anonymity of these formerly personal materials comes to the fore and this reference to perishability marks the borders of the private. At the same time, however, new objects are created whose corporeality results from their assimilation of memories and which speak of these memories, however abstractly.
For her latest work Exhausted Room, (2015) Keitz took a cast from a shower cubicle in a bathroom in Los Angeles, giving its immaterial interior a tactile form. In the casting process, she covered the walls, floor and ceiling with a layer of latex that bonded with their surfaces like a skin. The resulting negative of the interior was created by an act of force that seemed to remove minute traces of the room’s history together with this skin. At first glance, the resulting exhausted object resembles its solid frame of reference, but when touched it reveals a yielding softness. A similar reversal provides the point of departure for (Floor (VS), 2015). Here, she took a cast from the tiled floor of a room at Villa Schöningen in Potsdam, a former children’s home, presenting the result as a flowing texture. Exhibited as a wall hanging in the room where it was made, the transparent skin inverts the architecture by duplicating the floor and putting it on show, complete with tell-tale signs of usage.
In all of her works, Keitz marks lack, disappearance and gaps, creating architectures of absence by reversing inside and outside. Clothes, usually dwellings for bodies, that carry memories within them like buildings, are transformed into negative architectures: what once enveloped is now interiorized as a core and conserved along with its history. By contrast, defined spaces are clothed in a skin in order, in a second step, to find parallels and vessels for their unmarked interstices, thus gaining access to the temporariness and fragility of architecture. Keitz’s gestures of conserving are both gentle and unsparing. She encloses carefully – her coverings are fragile – but the enclosure has a violent quality to it: the price of presentation is deformation. Keitz’s works both refuse extinction and foster it. Ultimately, it is the gesture of conserving that marks the end of the personal and consigns what was present to the past.