Between Imagination and Reality

Systems of Co-ordinates and Orientation Problems: Spatial and Temporal Structures in the Work of Katrin Ströbel

The way our pictorial universe is shaped by the co-ordinates of space and time has been quite frequently studied. The changes in these co-ordinates, their aesthetic torsion, indicate changes in perception, changes in the ‘perspective’ we have on them. In the early 20th century especially, many artists were preoccupied with the new theories on time and space, among them Marcel Duchamp, who, inter alia, delved into those advanced by the mathematician Jules Henri Poincaré on the relativity of space. Artistic examinations of both co-ordinates are varied and more relevant than ever. Katrin Ströbel’s work represents an artistic contribution which analyzes these co-ordinates as real, as social, and also as imaginary structure and translates them into aesthetic terms.

The basis for these works is often a particular place: ranging from a city as a macrocosm to a group of sculptures as the microcosm of a spatial structure. The analysis and artistic processing of the structures also leads to structures marked on the wall, to structural configurations as slide projections or photo installations.

Her works repudiate the unequivocally pictorial space of linear perspective – in the drawings as well as the installations or videos. Formally they oscillate between the two dimensional and the three dimensional, between legible and undecodable signs. The investigation of perspective and spatial perception takes place through various different methods: when she hangs individual drawings end to end and lines continue on beyond the limits of the paper while others break off abruptly, when reticulated structures drawn on or projected on to a wall cross the corners of a room to assume a suggestion of three dimensionality, when, in videos, acoustic space joins the temporal aspect of the moving picture.

Katrin Ströbel transforms real, given structures into new aesthetic structural configurations. They oscillate between vegetal forms, typographically distorted fragments of text and architectural ground-plans and topographical layouts. We are also confronted with different linguistic planes, which are manifest as legible combinations of letters, as signs that can be deciphered or also as visual codes that resist decoding, as in the ornamental structures of ‘flying carpets’.

Apart from formal spatial and structural analysis, the flying carpet also recalls overcoming time and space, which in fairy tales from the Orient transports us in split seconds from one country to the other. In Ströbel’s aesthetic signature, however, the flying carpet also turns out in peculiar distortions to be a self-countervailing metaphor for the dream worlds and realities of migrating peoples, a given in the present we live in.

Flight in which one leaves gravity behind has not yet, for all the technological advances that have been made, been dreamed to the end. What Nietzsche imagined is still valid: ‘– thus, however, speaks avian wisdom: “see, there is no top, no bottom! Toss yourself about, out, back, you lightweight! Sing! Speak no more!”’ Man can only be elevated to a bird after a metamorphosis and at the expense of having to renounce speech (as a cultural marker of the human being).

‘If I were a little bird …’ – thus begins a melancholy German folksong that speaks of the desire and at the same time the impossibility of one’s transforming oneself into a bird. It is also the title of one of Katrin Ströbel’s video works. The impossible dream of flying in the form of air-filled balloons gets caught, as it were, in the tree branches of reality structures.
Tellers of fairy tales and stories, poets and songwriters, speak and sing of overcoming time and space. And so this artist is not content with the picture alone in many of her videos. The German folksong is sung by a man’s voice (it is phonologically clear that this is a person who knows no German). Here it becomes evident that what is at stake is not just overcoming topographical spaces and discussing factual spatial structures but blurring the boundaries between the social and the cultural spatial structures as well.

The poetic shift from the limitations of space on earth to the ‘infinity’ of airspace corresponds to the strangely abstract pictures of people and their attempts at crossing the sea in another video. The soundtrack with Arab songs underscores the ambivalence between yearnings for the Orient and the reality of migration. Here once again the artist has revealed her interest in social realities as well as foreign cultures, which she clothes in poetic images of non-orientation.
Twentieth-century art introduced spoken language into the visual arts and, among the avant-gardes of the early years of the century, the search was at first for the pre-logical state and its linguistic mode. Dadaists and groups of Russian poets found it in the language of children. Along with the spoken language, melodic onomatopoeia and the rhetoric of récit entered the visual arts. They are an essential part of Ströbel’s video works.

Just as a boy talks about his trip to the moon in one of her video works, Rita, another child featured in a video of the same name, tells about a country in which there are enchanted flowers and exotic-looking animals, lots of money and lots of gold but also robots which make themselves useful to the people in the country she is talking about. Ancient topoi that recur in fairy tales surface as do visions of technology that have already almost become reality. Past and future, which have always joined hands in the wondrous world of stories and tales, are also assembled in the land of a child’s imagination. The wood passing in the video image recalls, in its black-and-white blurriness and lack of sharp focus, both the forests of fairy tales, in which mysterious, terrible and miraculous occurrences are played out, and the view from the window of a car, bus or train when we are travelling.

Thus the linkage of image and text fuses dream and reality, leaving them to persist in a hovering state of ambivalence, state hovering between spaces, a state essentially informing Katrin Ströbel’s works.

Dr. Eleonora Louis (1958-2009) was curator and head of the collection of the Museum der Moderne in Salzburg