A cupboard hangs on the wall. Taller than it is wide and made of walnut. The wood gives the cupboard a strange reddish warm glow. The double doors stand open, and two pieces of cloth have been stuffed inside, filling every centimeter. That the fabric has a color similar or at least corresponding to the little cupboard (one piece of fabric is somewhat darker than the other) is due to it having been dyed with walnut shells. Or so one learns from the description of the work, which Lena Inken Schaefer has accorded the long and wonderfully cryptic title While the walnut was spending time with men, the nut itself grew bigger while the shell got thinner (2014). Also in formal terms this box-like shelf recalls a walnut—hard shell, soft core, the division into two parts. The folds of the cloth also resemble the twisted forms of the nut on the inside. Literally nothing is concealed. Everything is visible on the surface. The little doors are wide open. This small cupboard was included in one of Schaefer’s exhibitions entitled Pyjama St. John (2014), which was presented at the Künstlerstätte Stuhr-Heiligenrode. In the exhibition are also other works that function according to the same principle. One is the work for which the exhibition is named, Pyjama St. John (2014). Like the fabric in the walnut cupboard, this short pyjama has been dyed with plants, specifically with St. John’s wort. St. John’s wort has a calming and anti-depressant effect, or at least this is a commonly held belief in the field of natural medicine. It is supposed to mitigate sleep disorders. So whole constellation functions according to a “displaced logic,” which conflates the piece of clothing with its dye and the wearer with the substance. Another example is a work entitled Gestauchter Sproß (Taschentücher) (Compacted Scion (Handkerchiefs), 2014). A pile of cloth handkerchiefs sits on a shelf; the fabric has been dyed with onion skins. The relationship is obvious—onions, crying, handkerchief. In addition, the little stack of folded handkerchiefs visually recalls the layers of an onion. The walnut cupboard also ultimately fits in with this logic, because, like onions and St. John’s wort, the walnut is purported to have healing properties. It is supposed to cure headaches—it looks like a brain, after all. All in all, the works in this series primarily produce meaning through a formal analogy—and then from this visible correspondence they infer a deep, fundamental correspondence intended to produce effect, a congruency. In this series Schaefer loosely draws on the doctrine of signatures, which is founded on apparent resemblances (primarily between plants and parts of the body). Today the doctrine of signatures is largely employed in natural medicine and homeopathy, but it stems from a much older system of knowledge, dating from the time before the Enlightenment. “Up to the end of the sixteenth century, resemblance played a constructive role in the knowledge of Western culture,” writes Michel Foucault in The Order of Things. Resemblance, Foucault continues “largely guided exegesis and the interpretations of texts; it was resemblance that organized the play of symbols, made possible knowledge of things visible and invisible, and controlled the art of representing them.“ At first glance, the works seem to provide an encounter with an artistic archaeology of lost (or at least marginalized) systems of knowledge production and organization—an investigation of a different, alternate approach to the world and its things, another possibility of ordering things and the words that signify them. At second glance, however, (if one looks not so much at the concrete links between certain things and words as at the abstract laws behind them) it is obvious that the work goes a crucial step further. To return again to Foucault: “There are no resemblances without signature. The world of similarity can only be a world of signs . . . . A knowledge of similitudes is founded upon the unearthing and decipherment of these signatures.” In addition, and this makes all the difference in this case: “The signature and what it denotes are of exactly the same nature; it is merely that they obey a different law of distribution; the pattern from which they are cut is the same.”
In other words, no thing (in the sense of a coordinate within our knowledge system) can exist without having a sign. In addition, this visible sign is itself a part of the world and belongs to the same order of things as the thing that it signifies. This runs counter to the rational regime of representation indebted to the ideas of the Enlightenment, which ultimately dictates an utter transparency of signs, and therefore this regime suggests, at least implicitly, that signs, as the purest of orders, are not part of the same world as the things that they signify. However, in the doctrine of signatures the signified and the signifiers are linked by a principle of similitude. The sign for similitude is, in keeping with a proper tautology, similitude itself. That the walnut looks like a brain is the ultimate proof of its efficacy.
This brings us to where the works of Lena Inken Schaefer repeatedly unfold their impact: tautology and the playful process whereby signs are extracted from and “reenter” a system. There is another series of works that makes use of a tautology in an extremely efficient manner through the use of stringent formal abstraction (without borrowing directly from a system of knowledge such as the doctrine of signatures), in which the artist employs ordinary museum display cases. For example, in Closed Systems (2011) she presented a standard display case used by Berlin museums. The case itself was empty except for one item, an iron crank lever used to open the case. The tool required to open and close the case is thus itself locked away; the tool necessary for the case to fulfill its actual purpose (of showing what it contains) is itself an object of display. A kind of Möbius strip constellation, in which inner and outer are inseparable and interchangeable. And a blockage in the system. Ultimately displayed is the situation of closure, the locking of the case—and the implication that it can never be opened again. A current group of vitrine-based works, for which Schaefer cut up a display case into little pieces, almost seems like a response to this finality. With an added degree of abstraction (the work veers just shy of being a collection of meaningless brass angles), the nested logic of Closed Systems is broken down into pieces, which are then arranged in a manner used to make a point. However, when the angles are assembled on a low pedestal in a fishbone pattern or placed to form a Labyrinth (2014), which is then also set behind glass in an intact vitrine, then the presenting medium coincides with the presented in a very different way, much like the fusion of the signifier and the signified in Pyjama St. John. A little bit different—operating through a shift in meaning more than by means of a tautology—are the works based on patterns taken from paper bills. Here too it is very clear how the artist repeatedly employs the mechanisms of opening and closing within a modularly conceived series of work, and how individual works relate to one another in counterpoint. In other words, how individual works alter the nature of the series to which they appear to belong. For the series 46 fragments from Belarusian 100 ruble bills, which was shown in 2011 at the 4D Project Space in Berlin, she took individual fragments of the pattern decorating the ruble bills of Belarus, radically enlarged and copied them, and hung them as a “pattern painting” on the walls. These patterns, introduced long ago for the specific reason of preventing forgery and making notes and individual denominations identifiable, are thus devalued (by being repurposed and turned into purely “decorative” patterns), only to then be invested with a different kind of value (through their transfer into the realm of art). In the process the (value producing) abstraction of money becomes a concrete pattern, which, in its decorative function, is nothing more than what it is: a pattern. A renewed (an now conceptual) value is introduced through the accompanying story of the pattern’s origin. The exhibition Stabsichelbogen (Bar crescent arc), presented at the Galerie Krome in Berlin in 2014, goes a step further. For the exhibition he artist not only copied patterns from a 50,000 Mark note dating from the era of hyperinflation in Germany in the early 1920s, but produced a collection of individual graphic components that served as almost endlessly combinable collection of forms. The patterns thus become a kind of alphabet, from which one can compile as many new graphical works as one pleases. For 50000 (2014) the extremely enlarged patterns ran through the gallery on a narrow, six-meter long table raised just above the floor; the smallest graphical elements were combined into a mobile in the video Stabsichelbogen (2014). The individual parts were literally animated to form a new, large whole. Ultimately Schaefer reflects on the principle of opening and closing also in terms of her own role as an artist, as exemplified by two works included in the exhibition at Künstlerstätte Stuhr-Heiligenrode mentioned above. One is a table with elaborate spindled legs entitled Holztisch (Selbstporträt) (Wooden Table (Self-Portrait), 2014). Only upon closer examination does one realize (and only them with the help of additional information in the accompanying text) that together the curves and indentations of table legs produce a profile of the artist’s face. She herself enters into the work as a portrait and supporting component, but at the same time she literally hides under the table. Also, a second work initially seems to take a strangely contrary tack, which ultimately follows the direction of the first. Next to a floor arrangement of petrified ferns, a simple, thin mattress lies on the floor. Like the other textile works in the exhibition, it too has been dyed, in this case by ferns. It is titled Back then, he grew as tall as the trees in whose shade he now resides (2014). According to ancient folklore, ferns can make one invisible, and so it follows that someone is actually lying here on the mattress, even if one does not see him or her. The artist’s place remains empty, but it is occupied. Ultimately Lena Inken Schaefer’s œuvre (including her role as an artist) reveals itself as a system that is part of what it organizes and what it thereby attempts to say. Although at one point, individual series seem to be linked together with an underlying theme, at that very moment individual elements become disjointed—just when everything was starting to look all too “similar.” The works present what they say; they communicate what they signify. And then they evade us once again. The principle of resemblance and of origin, of extraction and insertion is itself repeatedly violated, and priority is granted only to loose (that is, “potential”) links. Different levels glide over and into one another and are not clearly defined but are nevertheless somehow individually articulated. There are sporadic moments of concentration; collapsed meanings lead from one system into another; metaphors permit one to glide between different registers. The work draws its vitality from this precarious multi-tiered dynamic—from making things explicit only to then immediately allow them to become implicit, from showing and hiding, from a joining that goes hand in hand with disjoining. From a form of closure that always leads to another point of departure.
Translation: Laura Schleussner