Susanne Wawra: Painting memory, subjectivity, emergence

Shortly after the opening of A Vague Anxiety (April-August 2019) at the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA), their first exhibition to specifically show a group of ‘emerging artists’, I arranged to meet Susanne Wawra in the gallery. We’re familiar with each other from college, she having graduated a year ahead of me from the paint department at the National College of Art and Design (NCAD), and I had planned to discuss her work in three parts. Firstly, the painterly process itself – she makes collage-style paintings by layering transfer printed photographs and oil paint on canvas or domestic fabrics. Secondly, her subject matter –  the intersection between personal memories and history, returning to her childhood in rural East Germany under the German Democratic Republic. Finally, I wanted to talk to her about the idea of the ‘emerging artist’, what does it mean to have that label in Ireland?  I should have expected that these aspects would merge, muddle and become messy throughout our conversation.

Within A Vague Anxiety, Susanne Wawra’s paintings and sound installation are shown across a few rooms, sharing space with Marie Farrington’s abstract plaster sculptures, photographs by Helio León and interrupting objects by Saidhbhín Gibson. Although this is not a collaborative exhibition (the artists did not necessarily know each other and all decisions were made by curator Seán Kissane), the diverse works cannot be seen as independent of each other. They are arranged thematically by room, together insisting that the viewer confront the major anxieties and concerns facing contemporary society; climate change, hard borders and politics, homelessness, intimacy and sexuality, history and memory. 

Susanne Wawra has a long and intense making process, evidenced by the surface of her paintings. The bedsheet support of Mama’s Schwarm (Mama’s Darling) is starting to buckle under the waxy weight of vigorously applied paint. Her canvas, or fabric, is stapled onto a wall before the transfer printing of photocopies of family photographs, advertisements or propaganda from GDR Berlin, the wall is a necessary support for the fabric as unwanted parts of the print are rubbed away. This labour-intensive process serves as both physical and mental preparation for the “main event” of painting; the most enjoyable, stimulating and intense part of the artworking for Wawra. It’s a ‘high’ she finds difficult to tear herself away from, and to set healthy boundaries around. She will work within the oil and fumes until she’s exhausted, a state which contemporary painter Amy Sillman understands; “after a while, your body is partner to the materials, you are the medium as well as the tool, the boundaries between you and object become unclear, mirroring or antagonising each other”. Through this process the labour of the painter inscribes itself into the surface of the work. Looking at the outcomes I imagine what it would be like to make these paintings, what would the paint feel, smell and sound like? What consistency would I mix it to? What would surround me in the studio? What tools would I use to make that mark, and what would it feel like to drag the paint across the canvas in that way? To encounter the work is to encounter the bodily experience of the artist in the making of it.   

A Vague Anxiety, Room 5. Image by Natalie Pullen

Three of Wawra’s largest paintings fill a wall opposite an architectural drawing by plattenbaustudio, showing a housing complex in former East Berlin (an example of the cross-disciplinary thematics of the exhibition). The paintings are marked by expressionistic brush strokes, patterns and films of colour over the black and white photocopied images. As they move between figuration and abstraction, collage and paint, they similarly move between political histories and personal memories, fact and fiction. 

Muttersturm (Mother Storm) began with a transfer print of her mother as a young woman, an image that has nearly been obliterated by the storm of blues spilling from her and circulating across the canvas. Susanne shows her mother as “a force of nature, with all the good and the bad”. In the neighbouring piece, Mama’s Schwarm (Mother’s Darling), Wawra has chosen a photograph of her mother gazing wistfully at a young man at a social event, her coy expression and his unknowing laugh have been enlarged and repeated across the canvas. It is a celebration of her mother as a woman before motherhood, shown as a thinking, feeling, sexual being. This narrative is continued in another piece not shown in this exhibition, which imagines that her mother and the young man have married and are living together – an alternative past which would, of course, erase Wawra’s existence.

In these pieces Wawra accesses, explores and manifests the speculation that surrounds trying to truly know our mothers as individuals independent of us. It becomes evident that the process of painting into the printed archival photographs is one through which Wawra works with, through and against the people, times and places which formed her past, but which she cannot fully understand. Wawra’s work testifies that the personal is never independent of the political. Works which may appear entirely about family, pay attention to the complex web of social and political conditions within which those personal relationships and private moments are embedded.

Susanne Wawra, Muttersturm (Mother Storm)< 119cm x 145cm, 2016. Image courtesy of the artist.

In Wenn der weiße Flieder wieder blüht (When the white lilacs bloom again) glimpses of childhood memories on a farm emerge through a fog of yellow, red and blue paint. Although Wawra’s painting process is consciously intuitive, aesthetic decisions are clearly considered; the primary colours, the repeated circles of paint responding to the wheels of farm machinery. This is not a nostalgic reflection on childhood play, rather it tells the story of how her grandparents lost their own farm land under the GDR regime, forced to become workers for the state. These personal memories bear political truths and hidden traumas, and this barely-grasped information is suspended within a painted blur. Wawra has an encompassing relationship with her medium, tools, and surface. I begin to grasp this as a process of inserting herself into these ambiguous and ambivalent memories, making her mark on them with the brush and palette knife. Her mother and grandmother are figures frequently returned to, which fits with her work’s attempt to reconcile her own identity and place in the world with the histories that formed her. 

Susanne Wawra, Wenn der weiße Flieder wieder blüht (When the white lilacs bloom again), Mixed media, 170cm x180cm, 2017. Image courtesy of the artist.

In 2015 Shine Arts published a collection of collaborative poems by Susanne Wawra and her partner Kevin Nolan, “Schizo-Poetry: Fragments of Mind”, in which each individually wrote poems responding to specific colours, then placed them side-by-side. The poet and activist Audre Lorde (“black, lesbian, mother, warrior”) said that poetry is “the way we give name to the nameless so that it can be thought”. I understand Wawra’s artworking as a process by which she gives form to the unarticulated and uncognised, so that it can be observed as an object in the world. The paint becomes a fog of subjectivity, which surrounds how we come to terms with formative events and traumas. It’s a way of knowing the past, a process of reclaiming agency, of making sense, of reconciliation. 

‘Kinderkurheim’ is an installation comprised of sound and twenty handwritten letters in a display case. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Wawra was an unwell nine-year-old. Her refusal to eat and periods of crying led to state intervention and she was institutionalised in a children’s cure home called ‘Happy Future’. Her strongest memory of this time is being forced to stay at the table until she had finished her meal, resulting in hours spent staring at a plate of cold food and waiting for another to take its place. These issues around food remain with her still, and her will to eat is the first thing that goes during periods of stress or depression. The letters were sent to her by classmates during her time in the institution. Each contains eerily consistent information; they are disappointed that she didn’t include more information in her letter, the price of ice cream has gone up in the local store, which now sells West German goods but only for West German money, when she comes back they will have a spelling test. It’s a powerful demonstration of the level of control exercised over communications and education under the GDR. Once again, an understanding of the political emerges within an examination of the personal. The narration of the letters, intermingled with haunting harmonies performed by Susanne, seep through the exhibition. Wawra travelled back to her home town, with her partner-collaborator Kevin Nolan, to record the letters read by school children with her local accent, as well as English and Irish speaking children in Ireland. Nolan, a musician, worked with Susanne to develop this complex sound piece. 

I am struck by the different way she has handled this particular material, and by the authenticity and accuracy she pursued by seeking voices as close to the originals as possible. It’s a very different process than printing the letters on canvas and painting into them would be. Perhaps because of the lack of memories she has surrounding this time, and the lasting impact which continues to act directly on her body, she has been particularly careful in her aestheticising of this past. The work almost resists the subjectivity and muddling of fact and fiction which defines her paintings. Wawra explains that her motivation was to show the truth in the letters, and considered her artistic role in this case as simply to “breathe life into them”. 

Kiderkurheim, Susanne Wawra, 2019. Image by Natalie Pullen

Susanne Wawra and I end our meeting with a frank discussion about the conditions of being an ‘emerging artist’ in Ireland today. It’s a first for IMMA to specifically show the work of ‘emerging artists’, and I wonder if at some point during this exhibition they become ‘emerged’, or graduate to just ‘artists’. I am fascinated that she is showing some pieces from her 2016 degree show here. There’s a sense that the paintings you make have one chance to shine and sell, and then become obsolete, put into storage. By refusing that there’s a feeling of resistance to the notion of artwork as commodity, the pressure to continuously produce new objects to be viewed and judged. No, says Susanne, look at this one again, it’s still worthy. Isabel Graw has connected the enduring economic value of painting to its capacity “to appear saturated with the lifetime of its author”. If, as Graw argues, “acquiring a work of art means getting a hold on the artist’s labour capacity and therefore owning a slice of her life”, Wawra’s paintings should prove desirable. 

For the last year she has been making work in a friend’s warehouse, but that has recently been reclaimed. Now she, like many Dublin based artists, is studio-less. Rather than renting she is making do with a small attic space, hoping to get by with residencies and asking favours from friends with large studio walls. She tells me about the many studio visits she arranged with curators while at Talbot Studios (an awarded graduate residency), some of them “soul-destroying”, and of going to the Visual Artist’s Ireland speed-curating, shortly after graduating, and feeling like a fish out of water amongst the significantly more developed artists. Working through the times of discomfort, even embarrassment, has had its benefits. She says the opportunity to exhibit in A Vague Anxiety came about “from all the little seeds you plant, and you don’t know which is going to catch, or if they’ll just blow away”. 


References:

Amy Sillman, Shit Happens, Notes on Awkwardness, Frieze magazine, 2015

Audre Lorde, Your Silence Will Not Protect You. 1st ed. UK: Silver Press, 2017, p.8

 Isabel Graw, The Value of Painting: Notes on Unspecificity, Indexicality, and Highly Valuable Quasi-Persons. In: Thinking Through Painting, Reflexivity and Agency Beyond the Canvas. Sternberg Press. 2012, p. 56

Published by nataliepullen

Dublin-based visual artist, writer and researcher. Visual art practice: www.nataliepullen.com MA Art in the Contemporary World (1.1), National College of Art and Design, 2019

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