Sandra Ackermann – 1974
Velten Wagner: Part of the year you live with your family in London, another part in the countryside on the Moselle. What significance do both places have for you with regards to your inner map?
Sandra Ackermann: One is home, family, history – my story, a heritage handed down to me by generations that I want to preserve for the next generation. It also means a close connection to nature, which is so beautiful there. One is surrounded by it everywhere – shrouded in that which has always been. It soothes mind and soul.
The other is the foreign, the adventure, the Mega City, which to an extent runs your life, the dynamics of which one must submit to, while also being carried away and inspired by it. It represents what we humans create. Culture, structure, the coexistence of things and people that do not naturally belong together. It also provides movement and vitality for the mind. Inspiration for my work, as well as something like a chosen home.
Can these experiences of familiarity and foreignness be transferred to your painting as a basic feeling?
Yes, I think so: but rather in the sense of microcosm and macrocosm. Or of inner and outer reality, personal and socio-cultural perception. These ambivalences always play a role in my work.
The first thing that stands out about your painting is the perfectly staged female motifs. Self-confident yet fragile women who look directly at the viewer. Women who could be from fashion magazines, or avatars of perfect artificiality. If ambiguity plays such a big role in your work, then why those flawless user interfaces?
These women tell the story of our society, our image of society, our social model. This social model is very much based on surfaces, externals, images and suggested reality. “Reality is not the truth” – is the title of one of my pictures and somehow a motto of our social and personal illusion. We are no longer what we are, but what we want to appear as. The fragility which shines through in spite of all perfection is the ambivalent moment and the connection to our emotion and intuition, to what is, but does not seem to be reproduced in our optimized media world.
Let us stay, for a moment, with the picture you mentioned “Reality is not the truth”. A half-naked, very long-legged woman is shown, who faces the viewer in a chair. She has turned her hip to the side, thereby denying him or her the view between her legs. Although I do not know what the gesture of her arms with her hands held to her temples means, my male intuition tells me that she is playing the age-old erotic game of lure and distance, or what is more, she seems to be misleading the expectant viewer. What stimulated you with regards to this picture, the pose of the woman or the question of reality and truth?
The pose of the woman interested me. The image-filling, self-confident performance of her body, which serves the masculine gaze and at the same time challenges it, even ridicules it. Painterly, I was fascinated by the haptic appearance of the pantyhose, concealing and exposing at the same time.
In addition to the stylized, seemingly timeless models, your images also show motifs that could have been taken from the daily press: a cage with a diver and sharks in “Rosenblume 1” or a soap bubble tank in “Toy Dream”. In “Rosenblume 2” the model wears the image of a soldier with a machine gun on her dress and in “No Man’s Land” a burning man. You once called your pictures a mirror. What is actually mirrored? Exterior views, emotional states, even visionary insights?
A little of all these. Some of the pictures are taken from the daily press, some from the world of design, advertising, street art, fashion, architecture, interior design and from photos I take myself. Everything visual that I encounter merges with my pictures, in the same way as when looking at the world it all blends in the mind and becomes a feeling. A feeling that captures the mood of a time; that is the mirror. This mirrored sense of the world, however, does not claim universality, but is my feeling of the world around me. And then again “reality is not the truth” comes in, because my reality is not the truth, just as no reality of a person can be the truth, but only a fraction of a large whole, a perspective on the world. And there are as many perspectives as there are people. But by attentively observing the visual world surrounding us, one will notice tendencies, make out moods more general than an individual feeling, and then other viewers can make the connection whilst bringing their own reality with them.
I have the impression that your characters are standing on a stage, and that o9whatever they encounter goes through them without leaving any real traces. And I am reminded of “Alice in Wonderland”, who encounters the strangest things on her journey. But she always remains unharmed and in a certain way untouched. Can your pictures be understood as painted fairytales or dreams? Does the “mirrored world feeling” that you speak of refer to a mood or rather a statement?
Definitely a mood rather than a statement. I have never thought of “Alice in Wonderland” in connection with my pictures. I also do not see them as painted fairy tales, and I do not feel that the characters remain untouched by what else is happening in the picture. But they continue to live, while people, out of protest, pour petrol on themselves and then ignite themselves and go up in flames. The figures are not indifferent to the it all, yet on the other hand they are no more involved than we are, when we read or hear about it or see a picture in the newspaper. The facade does not change at first. Just as our lives do not change, even after seven years of coverage of the Syrian war. But something does happen, behind the facade. Disillusionment maybe. Painful acceptance of the ambivalences of human existence. The beauty and the unbearable exist side by side; for no apparent reason.
Let’s transition from beauty to technology. There are ink drawings of technical objects like street lamps or surveillance cameras in combination with human figures. Then you scale modules, “inhabited” by minifigures, to seemingly endless megastructures. In your recent architecture collages, you associate structural building photography with random formations, that is, inkblots. How can these drawings be interpreted? As investigations at the interface of humans and civilization?
Yes, in a way. The megastructures were created in 2009, shortly after the financial crisis. I was in London and the City at the time, and also at the Docklands, where the financial centers are. It is very impressive how not unique a human being is in this system of high-rise buildings and networked computers. People there are part of a giant machine, functioning merely as a link, not as a designer. The large ink drawings equally depict human silhouettes next to silhouettes of structures intended to advance us as a society, such as mobile phone antennas or surveillance cameras. But these structures created by us have been dominating us for a long time, and somehow we seem not to have realized when this happened and appear to be unable or unwilling to stop it. In the newer collages I expose environments, created by humans, under aesthetic aspects, to the random interaction of ink and shellac. These structures, whose chemical reaction remain largely uninfluenced by me, seem to threaten man-made structures like a weather phenomenon.
Do you have any idea how the more and more intangible effects of technology will affect people’s self-perception? And is there an artistic potential in that?
There is artistic potential in everything that holds a question. The question of self- awareness is a central theme of our technological society: for society as a whole, but also for every individual. This will have to be considered more and more in the future, because with social media, reality shows, advertising and fake news has built up a perceptual space around us that encourages anomie, that is, a dissociation between cultural goals and the access of certain social classes or rather all social classes to the necessary means for achiving these goals. Because the necessary resources in the digital age have nothing to do with reality.
Don’t you think it’s progress that within this new perceptual space now traditionally educationally disadvantaged social classes can now make their voice heard? Why still paint pictures on canvas? Maybe we have to redefine our cultural goals…
Why should we redefine our cultural goals – because there is a new technology? I think culture is more durable and overriding. And yes, it is an achievement that parts of society can now unite and thus have the opportunity to be heard. But it’s not as if that was not possible before. Revolutions from the people were possible without social media. And rhetorical leaders – today they may be called multipliers or influencers, they are still necessary in the internet, to get a movement going. Painting, on canvas, is more important than ever, because a technical and digitized society needs the tactile, sensual and handmade all the more urgent, as mental balance.
Interview between Sandra Ackermann and Dr. Velten Wagner, Head of Engen Municipal Museum