For this edition of Fan Mail, Sandra Erbacher of Madison, Wisconsin has been selected from our worthy reader submissions. Two artists are featured each month—the next one could be you! If you would like to be considered, please submit your website link to firstname.lastname@example.org with ‘Fan Mail’ in the subject line.
At first, Sandra Erbacher’s sculptures and installations seem simple, dealing with space, geometry, and formal concerns in a playful way. After learning that she lived in Germany until age 19, her identity emerges more fully, contextualized in the era of the Berlin wall and her divided country. She says that her imagery “can equally refer to former East Germany, former Soviet Yugoslavia, the Communist Manifesto by Marx, Minimalism or Brutalist architecture-all instances or manifestations of failed Utopian thought.”
On the surface, her work is an antidote to our often overwhelming/overstimulating world. She uses common material, often industrial or commercial products, but renders them anti-monumental. She calls this approach “material failure”, showing the “inadequacy of the object or image to reveal its history and former or indeed current function.” For her digital billboard display, the image first appears as a landscape, especially from a distance. But upon deeper investigation, the viewer is rewarded when the material is detected.
Erbacher explains this temporal display: “It is a photograph of the opening of a battered, old cardboard box…. Formally, the image vibrates between the illusion of landscape and the representation of an object. …Displaying an image of a discarded object that has outlived its use-value on a billboard, a tool of communication reserved for the marketing of products earmarked for consumption, creates a subtle sense of disruption….”
She describes her #117, wall paper collage as “the ruins of a WW II war memorial are resurrected and translated into the burnt out skeletal structure of a house”, provoking the viewer to consider the state of Germany after WWII, and the past in general as it reverberates through the present. Though there is “no literal translation of a personal narrative,” she tells us, Erbacher describes the connection between mass memory, history, and her identity: “My work is certainly marked by a sense of personal displacement stemming from my departure from Germany almost 15 years ago (at the age of 19) and my move to, first the UK and now the US. This displacement led to a constant search for a sense of belonging and roots, and a curious feeling of nostalgia combined with a sense of detachment towards my country of birth. This personal search for identity and history, which is marked by an acute sense of loss or melancholia and the wish to recover past memories is coupled with an analytical fascination with the history of my country and a more general need to understand and deconstruct a political or social system, its structures and ideologies as well as the mechanisms through which it perpetuates itself. In particular, the works deal with the idea of the breakdown of a system, the obsolescence of monuments and ideologies and the voids these leave behind. They are in essence the result of a process of borrowing and sampling in a continuous rewriting and questioning of history.”
When viewing Erbacher’s #118 spray paint on a wall, images of graffiti on the Berlin wall immediately come to mind. Upon first seeing a piece of the wall, I was mystified by the layers of paint–the transformation of the structure shows an eruptive need for art and the how citizens dealt with the imposing form. Erbacher’s #118 is directly informed by the wall, Berlin, and her experiences of being a tourist in her own country.
She recounts her experiences of Berlin as she struggles to understand her identity: “It was only while I was already living in London that I spent my first summer in Berlin in 2001. All of the reference points that I had of the city until then were filtered through media images. I remember watching the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 on TV with my parents. I was moved to tears like everyone else while at the same time I was struggling to understand the politics or actual scale/meaning of the situation. It seemed like a strange mythological event, distant yet at the same time ever present. When I finally arrived in Berlin it was very different than what I had expected. I remember feeling curiously detached and adrift while searching for resonances, fragments of history, and a sense of belonging. Buildings and places look familiar yet at the same time alien, undefined and constantly in flux. …I am searching for meaningful scraps of the past – a past that I can only imagine – that might offer a sense of belonging in an unstable world marked by uncertainties. I walk the streets with a map of the wall that formerly divided the city struggling to find and follow its trajectory. Instead of the ruins I was hoping to find that would give me a clue to the city’s troubled history, I am confronted with streets, apartment blocks or wasteland – pauses inscribed in the patchwork fabric of the city. It is only at a closer look that Berlin’s everyday environment, which seems to be filled with conflicting architectural styles, empty spaces or absences, offers us its story. Far from being silent, these gaps speak of a city marked by multiple erasures and inscriptions of ideological struggles. Burdened with the weight of history and in constant search for its identity, there is no other city like Berlin manifesting the instabilities of ideology in such a dramatic way.
Speaking directly about #118 spray paint on a wall, Erbacher says: “The work clearly echoes my many visits to the city of Berlin…. In particular, it relates to a sequence of images I took in the Berlin subway station ‘Oranienburger Tor’. They index the passing of time and the ideological and territorial struggles that have taken place and have been inscribed in the walls of the subway station. Whose city is it and whose stories are heard? On these walls, history is continuously erased and re-written. The result of these multiple acts of obliteration, however, is not a silencing of voices or chapters of history but an emphasising of the fragmented nature of history, its multiple points of view and the struggles that have taken place.”
Erbacher tells us that her “multidisciplinary practice evolves from a symbolic act of translation: the dislocation, fragmentation, and re-contextualization of visual signs.” For the wooden sign she created, she uses Deleuze and Guattari’s “A Thousand Plateaus” (1980), a text which is itself formally fragmented in its attempt to examine fragmentation in language. She tells us that it is not a direct quote but instead “a deconstructive ‘enactment’ of the performativity of language as suggested by these theorists” and “a kind of counter-method or theory turned against itself.” The statement present on the wooden sign (The diagonal frees itself from the current order of things) was created when she “combed through the book picking random fragments of sentences” mimicking the “performative and rhizomatic character of language pinpointed by Deleuze and Guattari”. Erbacher wonders about this work, “Is there a larger meaning at play or is what we see a rebellious gesture of refusal whose potential for action or defiance is arrested by its obscurity?”
Upcoming exhibitions by Sandra Erbacher include “Neon and Light Biennial: A national exhibition of artists using light as a medium” at the University of Wisconsin, Stock Pavillion, April 19 & 20, 2013; “Sandra Erbacher and Eddie Villanueva” at Circuit 12 Contemporary, Dallas, June 29-August 3, 2013; and “System Failure”, a group show curated by Erbacher, represented by The Contemporary London, September 2013. Erbacher studied Sociology and Cultural Studies and graduated with an MA and BA from Goldsmiths College, London, in 2003 and achieved a BFA in painting at Camberwell College of Art, London in 2009. Her work has been featured in exhibitions at the School of Visual Arts (New York), Kunstverein Speyer (Germany), Umbrella Gallery (Leeds), and Five Years (London). She is the recipient of a University of Wisconsin Fellowship, winner of the city of Madison Blink Grant 2012 and is currently studying towards her MFA at UW Madison.