Hinges Between Days
curated by Kirsten Lloyd
catalogue text by Henriette Huldische
When entering Elín Jakobsdóttir's Stills Gallery exhibition, the viewer faces a strange object from its side: Two-Sided Table (2008) is just that, a sparse if meticulously constructed table made from birch and beech, with an upright frame dividing the surface in the centre. The table top consists of glass, encasing two elaborate cutout paper pieces. At first glance, the sinuous shapes resemble lace textiles, lying flat at the sides but winding up vertically in the glass division. Another silhouette titled Black Paper Cutout No. 1 (2008) is mounted to the right of the sculpture, as if a larger, more bulbous version had spilled over from its glass container and landed on the wall, where the dynamic structure seems to contract and expand. The irregular, hand-made quality of the mesh is thrown into relief with the sharp, fabricated lines of the table itself, one of many subtle tensions that run throughout Jakobsdóttir's show bringing together seven works in drawing, photography, sculpture, and film completed over the last two years.
Jakobsdóttir's work engages at bottom deeply philosophical questions; the artist herself describes the search for appropriate forms as a significant part of her process. In the case of the cutout pieces it was the articulation of a kind of "overflowing" (she uses the French ‘débordement’). In broader terms, she evokes what she thinks of as the more fluid world of the mind that contrasts with the hard lines and edges of the world around us.1 In this sense, her artistic practice treads terrain that might be compared to Henri Bergson's distinction between our lived experience as duration (durée), which is continuous, simultaneous, heterogenous, ultimately inexplicable, versus the scientific understanding of time identifying successive, discrete, measurable units in space. If there are indeed those irreconcilable spaces, Jakobsdóttir's indeterminate works traverse irreverently back and forth between them, and objects such as Two-Sided Table are, impossibly, as utilitarian as they are enigmatic. At the heart of her work perhaps lies just this sense of mystery hidden underneath the surface of the everyday, where the familiar upon close reflection appears infinitely strange.
Work Table (2007) is suffused with this sense of ambiguity. The video (transferred from Super-8 film) consists of a series of oneiric scenes in which a young boy executes various repetitive tasks. In an extended bird's eye shot we see him drawing a labyrinthine floor plan on a large piece of paper; whether the complicated form springs from memory or the imagination is left open. His actions— cutting geometric shapes from canvas, sewing a garment wrapped around a women's neck, tying red string around the legs of a table— are domestic and intimate. At the same time, the sense of looking in onto a private scene is leavened by the static camera that keeps at a medium distance from its subjects, not showing faces and expressions. In this way, the artist moves the boy's activities into more general psychological territory, probing processes of perception. The tasks seem purposeful and inscrutable at once, much like the logic of a dream. To Jakobsdóttir this is a conundrum that, in the end, applies to all works of art (and possibly all objects), which are both uncertain and intelligible. What are these things doing here, she seems to ask, and why do we understand them in the first place?
Work Table is screened onto a piece of painted MDF mounted on a plinth. Projected on the other side is Work Table Two(2009), a loose restaging of the film several years later. The passage of time is made manifest in the image of the boy, who has grown into an adolescent but is shown alongside his younger self. This adjacent installation effectively collapses the intervening time and space, but the thin division of the screen acts as a factual reminder of an ultimately unbridgeable gap between past and present, former and current self. In other words, the two films together also form something like a meditation on the contradictory experience of time, as articulated by Bergson. Further, they hint at processes of becoming which run throughout Jakobsdóttir's work, embodied here not only in the return of the boy but also the Two-Sided Table which appears prominently as a prop in the second film (and whose form is echoed in the spatial arrangement of the dual projection).
The theme of doubling is brought fully to the fore in Janus (2009), a work encompassing 24 black-and-white photographs. Arranged in a long row running along and wrapping around the gallery wall, the images function like a quasi-narrative storyboard. Among these are several images including paper silhouettes of a human profile, a reference to the two-faced Roman God of the title, deity of beginnings and endings, doors and entries. The notion of transition resonates in a number of images connected to death, such as a grave surrounded by an ornate wrought-iron fence, commemorative sculptures in public spaces, even a man lying on a park bench, face unseen, but similar to Janus's various realms of power, in Jakobsdóttir's work the boundaries between metaphysical, psychic, and material space are always malleable. Her stated interest in how "objects pass through spaces,"2 for example, refers both to physical movement through buildings as well as the leap from imagination to realized form, a fact underlined by her process, at the root of which lies drawing (she was originally trained as a painter). As indicated in Janus, most of her works begin with an image conjured in the mind, sketched on paper, and then realized as sculptures, photographs, or films. In a kind of artistic twist on Platonic idealism, the actual objects are thus no more manifest or "real" than their original, non-material form.
All of these ideas are born out in Wooden Horsebox (2009), a sculptural work that is also the centrepiece of a separate 10-minute 16mm film by the same title. The object itself is an oblong wood box on legs, variously resembling a table, a coffin, and a horse, which is being moved through the streets of Berlin. If the contrasting materials in Two-Sided Table implicitly reference notions of work and craft, these are made overt in the beginning of film, where two workers assemble the piece in a workshop. (Similar to Jakobsdóttir's use of understated materials elsewhere, the box is constructed from modest, functional woods.) Closeup shots of hands and tools have a matter-of-fact, documentary quality, which develops into a more playful passage where the men peek through the box like a peep hole, sticking in heads and legs, backside poking out. Later we see them outside carrying the anthropomorphic object alongside an old industrial building (Peter Behrens's acclaimed turbine factory designed for the electrical company AEG in 1908-09), and rounding a corner in a series of jump cuts, before it is dismantled and carried away in separate parts. While the cinematography is crisp and austere, the film's slapstick overtones are reminiscent of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy's comical struggle in lugging a piano up a long flight of stairs in The Music Box (1932). The urban terrain for the horsebox's sisyphean trajectory, however, couldn't be more different than the Southern Californian steps. In fact, the artist states that while the object's shape popped into her mind seemingly "out of nowhere" several years ago,3 the idea to use it in the film was brought about by the atmosphere of her adopted hometown. Berlin's manufacturing past is now a specter, having been replaced by culture, tourism, and service industries (however, belying the city's perpetual financial crisis). The Wedding neighborhood where the film was shot may well epitomize its bygone industrial glory. Furniture left for the taking in the deserted streets served as one point of inspiration, connecting Jakobsdóttir's preoccupation with an object's passage through different people's lives and lived-in spaces, collecting the traces of its use, with the cycle of production and labor that resonated in this particular environment. Staged against the backdrop of the now defunct factory, the surreal horsebox thus charts, as she says, a "progression from its construction to its being discarded [following] a pathway laid by the subconscious through the city."4 If the object's origin in the imagination was elusive, its cumbersome move through the street is equally indeterminate and in sense no less elusive. A fantastical form without clear purpose, the horsebox traverses filmic space, imaginary space, and the one we call real. So if Jakobsdóttir's work proposes a poetic ontology that asks where these objects come from and how they make sense, her answers are typically as simple as they are perplexing: They are. They do.
1 Conversation with the artist, Berlin, June 9, 2009
4 Quoted in Christine Nippe, Place Makers, Berlin: Curators Without Borders Gallery, 2007