“The most certain – and fastest – route to astonishment is: always to keep the same object firmly in view. All of a sudden this object – wonderful – seems to us as if we had never seen it.” (Cesare Pavese)
“Should I show you the most beautiful thing I’ve ever filmed?” Ricky Fitts asks his girlfriend Jane in the Oscar-winning film “American Beauty” and enchants her with a video of a white plastic bag dancing in the wind. Neither the soughing of the wind nor the rustling of the bag can be heard. Stillness reigns in this place in nowhere. To this day, this short cinematic sequence is regarded as an unforgettable image of a liberated life, the intense experience of the moment, and the beauty of the ephemeral. Decisive is that the thoughts and feelings aroused by watching the dancing plastic bag transform the everyday, throwaway article into an object of aesthetic perception. The banal turns into something complex, the coincidental into something significant, the real into the fictional.
The setting for this wondrous transformation of a plastic bag is public space; by contrast, Sabine Christmann presents her bags and other packaging material in a neutral white room that cannot be clearly localized. It is artificial, almost without structure, and surveyable. A stage of possibilities. One could imagine that her protagonists, usually appearing in an ensemble of the likeminded, regard themselves as wanderers between the worlds of the everyday and art, naturalness and artificiality, reality and fiction, and that they don’t really want to be captured and pinned down, whether with words or with the brush.
Like a choreographer, she assigns her selected and arranged bags a place in the still life that serves as a model for painting, determining individual positions and relationships. The bags stand on a pane of glass in front of a wall, stabilized with wires, exposed to the changing play of light and shadow, always suffused with the fear that a sudden gust of wind could abruptly destroy their joint performance. The impression of this self-presentation oscillates between firm, self-confident steadfastness and loose-light, dancing movements. Transformation and standing still are equally determining modes of action for the actors. It almost seems as if, because it is so easily destructible, this real arrangement needs the medium of painting to be able to fulfill the dream of timelessness, sublimity, and beauty in a fictional space.
Sabine Christmann gives a body to these hulls, by “nature” flaccid and empty, and places them in moments of concentrated self-collection and playful interaction. “I experience the arranged objects as representatives of persons with their own past who enter into relationships with each other. Moving closer to each other, leaning on each other, pressing forward, withdrawing, narrow confines or security within a group, loneliness in a room, vulnerability on the stage; the situations of the real still life can express all of this for me,” says Sabine Christmann. Many of the plastic and paper bags behave as if they can hardly contain themselves for their high spirits. One stands coquettishly on its tiptoes, the other inflates itself as if on the verge of flying away. Their movements express lightness, elegance, and grace. Some of the “body postures” must be ambivalently interpreted. What is being staged, a loving snuggling or a shy hiding away? And then it must be recalled that the bag with its potential contents also possesses an invisible level.
For weeks, the arranged still life is Sabine Christmann’s interlocutor, functioning as a partner in an intense exchange. As the long process of painting continues, her interest shifts from depicting the real still life to her own subjective perception, the picture’s reality, and its own inherent laws. And to the degree that she explores the world behind things, she increasingly allows the painterly reproduction of the everyday objects to be guided by a personal look inside, by thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Influenced by her mood on the particular day and by the observed light conditions, which depend on the time of day and the weather, her view of things, their color, form, and surroundings changes. And the phenomenon of time thereby becomes an important element of composition.
Fundamental to her understanding of painting as a process are not only external changes and her self-exploration, but also the exploration of the artistic means, the choice of colors, their nuances and brilliance, line and surface in their ability to suggest space and motion, the changeability of the brush’s gesture, the texture of the picture surface. Sabine Christmann increasingly distances the painting from the real still life and shifts her artistic work in the area of abstraction.
In her pictures, she moves the actually unedifying everyday objects onto an aesthetic level of viewing and lends the task’s hardly suitable-seeming candidates a sensual aura and sublimity. In contrast to the fixed arrangement of things, in this way a freedom of design and expression comes into play. Spaces of possibility for intuition and fantasy open up as she paints. The level of the function and meaning of objects retreats into the background to make way for a poetic glorification that lends wings to them. One thinks one feels a hushed breath of wind moving between the objects and a quiet rustling of the plastic bags. A fantasized band of connection between the individual protagonists condenses into an imaginary image of unity. “The unity that I venerate behind the multiplicity,” writes Hermann Hesse, “is no boring, no gray, conceptual, theoretical unity. It is life itself, full of play, full of pain, full of laughter.”
In Sabine Christmann’s stagings, objects tell stories of life. The bags show traces of use and age like creases and kinks; the words, texts, logos, and visual images printed on them point to their worldwide origin and use. They thereby out themselves as widely traveled, elegant or banal design products that present themselves together and point to the colorful diversity of the graphic compositional possibilities of a global bearer of advertising. References to literature can also be discovered on them. For example, German Romanticism comes into play, and with it yearning, magic, and feeling. “Eichendorff” can be read on one bag (untitled picture with beans) along with words from his poem “A song sleeps in all things that dream on and on, and the world commences singing if you only find the magic word.” Is the magic word ITO-YA, as we see on one bag? And what is the down-to-earth bag of beans doing amid this gathering of illustrious carrier bags? It says, “I am beautiful, flowery, and green. By concentrating on me while painting, the painter put me in excessively sharp focus. I leave reality behind me and turn into an enchanted or fairytale garden.”
If the modern world has been disenchanted by precise knowledge and perfect technology, human beings feel the vague desire to be enchanted. Various producers of illusion tout their services: theater, poetry, painting. What is played in the theater wants to conjure up the appearance of reality and evokes it in the viewer’s imagination. But he is soon rudely awakened from his submersion in the fictional play. He becomes aware that he has been a spectator in a theater, and he turns, sobered, back to prosaic reality. In regard to Sabine Christmann’s painting, this means that the viewer directs his attention to the use of artistic means, color, form, line, and their possibilities for image generation, and he senses that chance has been allowed to play a role, as well.
Even if concreteness is within grasp in her oeuvre, for example the strawberry milk mix box, the Korean milk carton, the Boston bag, and the green tea bag, initially the point is the everyday object quoted in the picture. The completed transfer is present in the picture and part of what is seen. During the process of painting, these representatives of the culture of everyday life increasingly become deputies of the artist’s conceptual and emotional world in a period of time she chooses, a world mirrored in the pictures. With that, the object is no longer what we believe we see and know, but a storage medium for lived life and the embodiment of an individual view of the world.
Sabine Christmann does not regard things as static and pinned down by their everyday function, as clearly definable objects. Rather, she views the things of everyday life as objects of study, shaped by the subjective perspective of the producer and of the viewer. There is no solely valid, objective reproduction of a thing, but a multiplicity of possible pictures. Perhaps that’s why in her pictorial world she places each everyday object together with its mirror image. When doubled, reality appears unclear, fragmentary, and ephemeral; and the viewer suspects that reality never appears in the clarity, perfection, and order that it pretends to in Sabine Christmann’s stage pictures. Does that make the mirror image closer to the truth than the object being mirrored is?
What can be observed is that the mirror images make the bags on the pictures gently float, lifting them into a space of the spiritual, mysterious, and visionary. It is as if opposites like rationality and irrationality, reality and fantasy, the conscious and the unconscious met here for harmonious interplay at the threshold of the transformation of the object to its mirroring. It must be suspected that this romantic yearning for a reconciliation of opposites might be only short-lived, because the harmonious overall effect of the pictures with their calmness, atmospheric quality, and beauty remains latently endangered. Many objects are conspicuously transparent, their arrangements unstable, their “physical” presence ephemeral, their surfaces fragile. Aspects of transience peek through when the painted products are viewed. One has an inkling of their short-term existence and limited utility.
It is like a leap out of the reality of life onto a stage on which facets of life are repeatedly taken as theme, and at the same time the viewer reflects upon his own activity, this swinging between reality and fiction: in Sabine Christmann’s pictorial world, the boundaries of the accustomed are dissolved and rapprochements are permitted again, for example between knowledge and yearning or wakefulness and dreams. Banal things inspire astonishment, radiating an enchantment of the usual and stimulating thought about painting’s tasks and conditions. Sabine Christmann’s painting expands the familiar view of what we call reality, thereby questioning the polarity of subjective and objective, real and fictional. The bags begin quietly vibrating, as if they were just about to show a glimpse beneath their surface and unveil their being, to define which is the viewer’s task.
Exhibition catalog Vollkommen Gewöhnlich, Eine Ausstellung des Kunstfonds, Kunstverein Freiburg, 1998
Jean Baudrillard, Das System der Dinge, Über unser Verhältnis zu den alltäglichen Gegenständen, Frankfurt/New York, 2nd ed., 2001
Arthur C. Danto, Die Verklärung des Gewöhnlichen, Eine Philosophie der Kunst, Frankfurt am Main 1984
Hermann Hesse, Lektüre für Minuten, Frankfurt am Main 1977, p. 135