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Katharina Fritsch (London)

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Tate Modern, Bankside, London.

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      09.10.2001 02:46
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      Back in 1999 the publishers Taschen produced a book entitled "Art at the turn of the Millennium" highlighting 137 contemporary artists to look out for in years to come. At the time, all of the artists had had a few major exhibitions, but many were hardly known on the international stage. It has been interesting, since then, to see which of the artists featured have gone on to have successful careers and further major exhibitions. One of the artists that I was most intrigued by in the book was Katharina Fritsch, a German artist, who takes a very precise approach to her art, presenting monochromatic objects which examine the role of myth and folklore in the modern world. Fritsch takes astonishingly painstaking care over her art, carefully selecting the colours used (only eight specific hues have been used in her work since 1979), and taking meticulous care over exacting details of her pieces. Fritsch's works largely consist of sculptures of various sizes - from the enormous green 'Elephant' (1987) to the small multiples such as the yellow 'Madonna's (1987) - all of which are rich with carefully sculpted detail. Inevitably, the care that Fritsch takes over her works means that she has produced relatively little work over the last couple of decades, and the eighteen installations on display at the Tate Modern represent a large portion of her work over that period. THE EXHIBITION As with all temporary exhibitions at the Tate Modern, the work is simply presented in a series of rooms on the fourth floor. All fourteen rooms have bare wooden floorboards (which are increasingly starting to show marks from where walls and installations have previously stood), and stark white walls. Unusually, there is little explanatory text on the walls around the exhibition - only small plaques describing the title, date and media of each work are provided. Visitors are provided with an unwieldy unfolding sheet accomp
      anying the exhibition, which includes six black and white illustrations of the installations, and a brief description of each piece. This information is lively and interesting, and most rooms are accompanied by a (translated) quote from Fritsch herself. THE INSTALLATIONS Rather than describe all of the pieces on display in the exhibition, I'll focus on a few of my favourites, and speak in general about Fritsch's "Display Stand"s. The collection of installations in the Tate Modern includes four "Display Stands". Two of these hold many copies of a single object, and two hold a collection of different objects. One of the single object Display Stands consists of a stack of 145 vases, designed by Fritsch. Each vase has been produced using cast polyester, and decorated with a crude rendering of an ocean liner - looking not unlike a souvenir. The other Display Stand holds 288 identical vivid yellow statues of the Madonna, identical in size and shape to souvenirs available from Lourdes. Both of these stands serve to illustrate how the meaning and significance of an object can be reduced by its replication - in the first case, commercial kitsch, and in the second, religious symbolism. As Fritsch herself says of the "Display Stand with Madonnas", "The Madonna is just a plaster figure, not Mary herself... The uniqueness disappears in my work, but essentially it disappears long before, in every souvenir shop." The two other Display Stands one labelled as "Display Stand (1979-84)", the other "Display Stand II (2001)" carry a single example of every object used in the multiple object Display Stands produced by Fritsch. It is interesting to compare these pieces with the single object installations. Here, the diversity of the objects displayed makes the objects look like items in a shop, or even more bizarrely, exhibits in a museum (which, of course, they are). The other
      interesting observation that can be made from considering the two Display Stands is the change in focus in Fritsch's work over her career. The earlier stand seems much lighter than the latter - carrying brightly coloured objects; red marbles; one of the vivid yellow Madonnas; a blue car, compared to the latter stand's starker black and white objects. Additionally, the nature of the objects appear to have become more sombre, with Fritsch examining more serious themes - there's a white skull, silver hands positioned as though at prayer, black rats and a black snake. One of Fritsch's best-known works on display is the 1988 work "Company at Table". A series of identical life-sized statues of men are seated on either side of a long table covered with a repetitively patterned red and white tablecloth. The statues of each man are absolutely identical - dressed with identical black shirts and trousers, with identical black hair, and identical white featureless faces. The men gaze down at the table between them, their white hands placed palm down on the table in front of them. Even though the room "Company at Table" has been placed in is in the middle of the exhibition, and hence visitors are continually passing through or past the room, there is an odd sense of stillness and of non-communication around the installation. Standing at one end of the table and looking past the rows of identical figures is like a vision from a nightmare. When I visited the exhibition a group of American students rushed through. They looked at the lines of men seated at the table, and immediately began searching for minute differences between the figures. "This one's shirt's slightly different," announced one female student, her friends rushing over to assess how true her statement was, and indeed it was. One figure did appear to have received slight damage, possibly in transit, with a slight chip in the folds of th
      e sculpted shirt. However, I can't help thinking that they were missing the point. While the statues were not completely identical, it doesn't matter to the installation - the principle of a series of identical figures remains the same, regardless of whether the actual figures are perfectly identical. The neighbouring room also contains three figures; "Monk" (1999); "Doctor" (1999); and "Dealer" (2001). The three male figures are probably the most amusing of Fritsch's works on display in the exhibition. Each figure is a plaster sculpture, painted a single colour. The monk is completely black, his eyes closed as though in prayer, and seeming to suck the energy from the area around him. The doctor figure is a stark white skeleton dressed in a lab coat, suggesting the hygiene and purity associated with the profession, if not those who practise it. The third figure, that of the dealer is being displayed here for the first time, and appears to complete the trio. The dealer is painted red, as though to suggest a diabolic side to his character, and to confirm this, his left foot has been turned into a hoof. Another of Fritsch's best known works on display here is "Man and Mouse" (1991-2). The huge work dominates one room of the exhibition, and of a life-sized man in bed made of sculpted plaster painted white, pinned in place by a giant black mouse made of painted sculpted plaster. The work is loosely based on Henry Fuseli's 1781 painting "The Nightmare", which depicts a male demon squatting on a sleeping woman. Here, Fritsch reverses the gender roles - 'Mousi' is a German term of affection for a woman. The imagery of the installation is an amusing one, but at the same time, a nightmarish one. There are parallels with the feeling of unrequited love; the man is pinned down by his unreciprocated love for a woman, which has turned nightmarish. This is certainly one of the most intri
      guing pieces on display, and the contrast between the black and white objects strengthens the imagery, making the installation instantly memorable. The final installation from the exhibition that I'm going to describe, which is also the final piece in the exhibition, is "Child With Poodles" (1995-6). Again, like "Man and Mouse", there are few colours in the installation. The work consists of 224 identical black sculptures of poodles arranged in four concentric circles around a central white sculpture of a baby resting on a golden star. Again, Fritsch mixes comedy with terror - there is something unsettling about the entrapment of the central baby, but the appearance of the identically sculpted poodles is far from menacing. Fritsch does remind visitors that in Goethe's "Faust", Mephistopheles disguises himself as a black poodle, but this reminder fails to detract from the ridiculous appearance of the rows of poodles. CONCLUSIONS This is, I believe, Fritsch's first solo exhibition in the United Kingdom, and it certainly doesn't disappoint. The Tate Modern have managed to collect many of the artist's most challenging pieces, which cleverly contrast amusing and nightmarish aspects. The simplicity of Fritsch's works is impressive, and the works are certainly thought provoking. The exhibition is nicely arranged, and with most rooms only containing a single piece, is certainly not overcrowded. This does mean that there aren't many pieces in the exhibition, but those that are included represent a good cross-section of Fritsch's work to date. The admission price of £5 (£3.50 concessions) is a little on the high side. However, if you have an interest in contemporary art, it is well worth it for the collection on display. Fritsch is, for my money, one of the most interesting contemporary artists working in the world today, and consequently, I highly recommend this exhibit


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