Esther Teichmann, Arius, 2017
Esther Teichmann, Mythologies, 2015
Before and after storms clouds are painted turquoise, Prussian blue, ferrous purple. Pointing in the direction of straggling wetland forest, a skeletal wooden boat holds a sail of clouds.
This water-bound Arius, the title of a work in canvas, ink, acrylic, wood and sponge, is also the namesake of a bearded, robed presbyter from the 4th century AD. In a gallery setting Arius is at once ersatz boat, photograph and religious persona. Arius, a Christian man of Berber origin, rejected the idea that Jesus was consubstantial with God, considering him merely of this world. And so, a relationship is drawn between the heavens and the earth in Arius the work, asking its viewer to consider what this boat is, where it might be sailing to and for what purpose. Is this shell of a hull even capable of floating down the Rhine as it flows into Rappenwört adjacent to Karlsruhe? – where the artist was born, soon after began river-boating with her family through slow forests, years later returning to make work in the area.
Esther Teichmann’s working method might be understood as what the artist and writer John Danvers calls ‘divergent’ art practice; a form of research in which making is receptive to experimentation, unfamiliar territory and new ideas. Rather than working in concise series, Teichmann re-invents meanings and relationships between old and new images as she undertakes projects, be they exhibitions, films or books. In a recent interview, Teichmann says of her images that they “all merge into each other … the works are not entirely distinct projects”. The artist’s myriad reference points are meandrous yet substantial; watery and bodily; vividly coloured in. Fulmine, In Search of Lightning or Mythologies are works which depict the relationship between bodies of flesh and bodies of water. These works are images, visual essays, fictionalisations of a life, documents of wetlands, clouds or flesh with blue cyanotype veins. These things build a world part-rooted in Teichmann’s life, in history as a form of myth-making, and in a series of associated autofictions in which one fractured narrative feeds into another.
The photograph in Arius – which is both an image and a taut, triangular sail – depicts clouds overpainted. In her 1979 essay on Alfred Stieglitz’s Equivalents – a photographic study of clouds made between 1923 and 1931 – Rosalind Krauss situates one of the origins of modernist photography in a triangular relationship between the ‘the cut’, ‘the symbol’ and ‘the fraudulent image’. The cut sees the image forced out of its relationship with truth. The symbol finds the image groundless, both in terms of its depiction of the sky and of its departure from reality into a world of representations. The fraudulent image takes a risk, which is to secare – to depart or to venture out in images and in words. To bind these shapely connotations further, in the longest example of his extant writing Arius describes wisdom as ‘Truth, Image, and Word,’ which we might read as another meaningful triangulation present in Teichmann’s Arius and other works. The sail, the clouds – this irregular triangle – diverges from the pictorial space of the photograph and finds a relation to something eternal. A reference to sky, or water, is never far away in Teichmann’s work, neither is her deft handling of the various complex relationships between literal and figurative elements: water and air; image and metaphor; photography and literature.
Cyanotypes are watery. This blue and purple chemistry is used by Teichmann to print traces of the locations featured in her work – for example those photographs derived from sea plant-life that form the project Heavy the Sea. In a large three by four metre wall-based collage a type of layering takes place that obscures individual elements and asks instead to be viewed as a complex of aquatic algae in thalassic shades of blue and white. In several of Teichman’s works her sitters are naked surrounded by water – the water of the Amazon in Travelling Backwards and Towards (the initials inked into his arms were also hers) and the water of the Rhine in Untitled, Mythologies. Preceding the invention of the photograph by nearly four decades, at a time when the liquid chemicals necessary to solidify photographic images were yet to be mixed, the German poet Friedrich Hölderlin wrote of the Rhine:
But where is there anyone
Who may remain free
Lifelong and fulfil solely the heart’s wish,
In heights that will favour him, like the Rhine,
So born, out of holy womb,
Fortunate as this river?
Rivers wash the ruined carcasses of boats downstream and are at the same time moving channels that suggest a certain freedom, or the hope that one might find it. In her study of Martin Heidegger’s work on Hölderlin’s poetry, the Hungarian philosopher Véronique Fóti notes ‘freedom, which Hölderlin assimilated to the boundless; […] at the same time, is the symbol of free poetic commemoration that lies in ruins.’ In its relationship to bodily subjectivities, Teichmann’s work might be seen to ask the questions, who gets to remain free? and on what shore or riverbank lies – as towering forest, ruinous boat, dilapidated grotto – the life or death of the body, personal and familial history, or indeed the meaning of the photographic image itself as a type of watery representation?
In part I want to read Teichmann’s work as a questioning of Hölderlin’s ‘he’ – the freedom afforded to the masculine expression of a new holy birth (Arius’ earthbound Jesus) – so that we might situate Teichmann’s images of watery bodies in relation to the figure of the mother. The maternal body is another imagistic metaphor that does meaningful work in Teichmann’s practice: a cavity that contains and envelops; a space that births new life and thus new representations (visual and corporeal); a place that holds secrets, mysteries, stories to be read and to be transformed by. Of the work Untitled from the series Stillend Gespiegelt, the writer Carol Mavor notes: ‘The bathtub is a fitting place for “mother”: for, it is the womb of the house.’
Boat, bathtub, cave, forest, under sea, under river. The secret places evoked in these images come loaded with religious or literary symbolism yet are offered lightly as visual descriptions with open-ended meanings – personal and philosophical. Precise relationships between things are enciphered by the artworks so that we might wade in, de-coding them as we pass. A meandering walk in a forest, or a series of slow yet intrepid paddling movements down river.
This essay was published in the 10th anniversary edition of 1000 Words. Available here.
Arius’ “Thalia,” line 25, quoted in Athanasius’ “De Synodis,” in Christopher Stead, “The Thalia of Arius and the Testimony of Athanasius,” Journal of Theological Studies 29, no. 1 (April 1978): 48-50.
John Danvers, “Towards a Radical Pedagogy,” The International Journal of Art and Design Education 22, no. 1 (February 2003).
Véronique Fóti, Heidegger and the Poets (New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1992).
Friedrich Hölderlin, "The Rhine" (1801-2), cited in Martin Heidegger, Hölderlin’s Hymns, trans. William McNeill and Julia Ireland (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014).
Rosalind Krauss, “Stieglitz/Equivalents,” October 11 (Winter 1979): 129-140.
Carol Mavor, Black and Blue: The Brusing Passion of Camera Lucida, La Jetée, Sans soleil, and Hiroshima mon amour (Durham: Duke Univeristy Press, 2012).
Esther Teichmann, Heavy the Sea, 2017