Sign. Sensation. Meaning. The conveyance of subjective experience has always been, if not at the heart, then in the blood of art. I Cannot Repeat What I Hear, Natalie Czech’s new exhibition at Capitain Petzel is an eloquent experiment in mediation and interpretation coupling the conceit of synesthesia with her signature combination of text, collage, and photography. As the title suggests, the running theme questions an artist’s ability to convey her reception and interpretation of the world through a catalyzing medium, be it paint, music, or dance.
In the largest presentation of her work this year, the exhibition divides Czech’s oeuvre into two groupings with the larger series Poems by Repetition on the ground floor, scattered in spare arrangements on the walls, and the compact Voyelles I and II on the mezzanine-style second floor. Though ostensibly a visual artist, Czech is equally interested in exploring the dubious linguistic foundation of thought and images, questioning which reigns supreme in the human mind. She uses words, both metaphorically and literally, to create images, which Capitain Petzel aptly describes as vacillating “between concrete poetry and conceptual photography”.
Natalie Czech, A poem by repetition by Emmett Williams, 2013, 3 color-prints, 3 frames, museum glass, 3 parts, Part 1: 39 x 45.9 cm / Part 2: 3.7 x 45.9 cm / Part 3: 16 x 45.9 cm, Edition of 5, 2 AP; © the artist; Photo: Jens Ziehe; Courtesy Capitain Petzel, Berlin.
In the Victorian novel, the house is often a metaphor for the body, with higher levels materializing matters of the mind. In that tradition, the heftier collection Poems by Repetition puts a palpable emphasis on materiality while Voyelles is a spare, largely literary and somewhat abstract meditation on communication. Both grapple somehow with the subject of synesthesia, the neurological condition in which senses, such as sound and vision, are confused.
In the first series, Czech photographs found texts, most related to popular music – Pink Floyd, Yoko Ono – in both analog and digital media, from a dance manual to a Kindle. Sometimes she duplicates or triplicates the image, employing different exposures and cropping. In each, Czech highlights words, phrases, letters, and fragments that, read in the correct order, recreate poems by writers like Gertrude Stein and Robert Creeley. There is often a loose connection between the poems and the texts. A review of Yoko Ono and John Lennon's films, for example, becomes a Yunte Huang poem about the sunset. The exposure is shortened on each of the triptych’s images to evoke a darkening sky.
Referring to Czech’s 2011 work A small bouquet by Andrew Berardini, in which the artist has highlighted text to visualize a flower, Capitain Petzel’s Svenja Schuhbauer comments how the flower could not manifest without the particular print specifications – font, margins, leading, baseline – of that text. Indeed, the creation of poetry and sabotage of meaning in the leftover text speaks to the intricacies of mediating artwork's subjective reception. Through the analogy of gleaning these poems, Czech highlights the selective process of generating meaning through reading, looking, listening. Meaning invariably changes in shape and content regardless of the degree of separation from its creator. In this way, the use of photography here becomes ironic. Despite its (arguable) reputation as a tool of precise reproduction, pictorially imitating Czech’s vision, its presence is merely a proxy for the actual materials it captures. Questions arise: did Czech tamper with the actual texts, or with the photographs of text, which she then photographed again? Were the photos edited?
Natalie Czech, Installation view: I Cannot Repeat What I Hear, November 23, 2013 - January 25, 2014; Photo: Jens Ziehe, © the artist; Courtesy Capitain Petzel, Berlin.
The two sets of Voyelles take their inspiration from Arthur Rimbaud's 1871 sonnet of the same name where the author describes synesthetic experience using vowels: A is black, E white, I red, U green, and O blue. Each set consist of five color-coded letters (pun intended?) focusing on one of the vowels, whether chromatically, aurally, or phonetically. Though signed by Czech, each letter is, in fact, written by an assigned writer to him/herself, inspired by a fabricated photograph. While envelopes bearing the writers' names and information are mounted above each letter, actual photographs are conspicuously absent.
Unlike Poems by Repetition, it seems Voyelles I and II attempt to transmit each writer's impressions as purely as possible by asking them first to write to themselves and by reducing any visual detail into washes of color. Yet with her signature, a decidedly authorial stamp, Czech acknowledges disruption of experience even here. The two sets’ visual symmetry deteriorates with the suspicious substitution of the non-canonical yellow for white and variations in the greens and blues. The node of inspiration, Rimbaud's schema, collapses as yet another subjective text. In the epistemological confusion, the only valid statement one can make is that the works are wholly Czech's.
(Image on top: Natalie Czech, A poem by repetition by Robert Creeley #3, 2013, 2 color-prints, 2 frames, museum glass, 2 parts, Part 1: 113.9 x 76.3 cm / Part 2: 130.6 x 76.7 cm, Edition of 5, 2 AP; © the artist; Photo: Jens Ziehe; Courtesy Capitain Petzel, Berlin)