This conversation has been inspired by Bildbeschreibung (Description of a painting) by the German playwright Heiner Müller. Bildbeschreibung is the detailed description of an immaterial painting, that no one sees and that perhaps does not exist. A memory’s journey, or maybe a currently reoccurring nightmare.
In the work of the German playwright, the words describe the image that is in front of us, they suggest where to look, they point out a detail, a color, a shape, they lead us to investigate the causes and the effects of what we start to see even if the painting is not there. In Müller’s work as much as in Rita Siegfried’s paintings, poetry springs from the sum of details.
Rita, how would you start describing one of your paintings that isn’t there yet?
I would start from the format.
Tell me more…
The painting has a vertical format.
What does that represent?
It’s a snapshot taken late at night. On the left, the moonlight falls on a series of houses in a row, whereas the row of houses on the right stands in the shadow. Between those houses, you can see a faible light coming from a window, someone is still awake.
Go on please…
The scene is set in the mid-nineteenth century. There is a cobblestone street and a little wall where a guardian is sitting, he has fallen asleep. Following the road path, we can see it disappear in the skyline, dissolving into a nocturnal landscape. The horizon line is low and there’s a starry sky above it. City lights are shining from a distance. They are a bit irritating. What does the intense red line of smoke that we witness in the background mean?
Does this painting represent reality or is it the guardian’s dream?
It is the observer’s decision. In that image, time does not pass in a linear way, but different times coincide in it. It is a painting made up of several superimposed images.
As if they were the pieces of a puzzle?
Your practice seems to hold many clues. Which solution do we reach if we sum them up?
Maybe my practice holds some clues in it but there isn’t any solution.
I observed your paintings as an investigator that has to analyse the image, inspect it in order to be able to interpret it beyond its formal surface.
My aim wasn’t that. The most I expect to achieve with my work is to have a pleased observer standing in front of one of my paintings not understanding a thing.
That’s a very strong statement! Could you tell me more about it?
Art speaks to the unconscious. It seems to me that all that is important in a work of art is owed to the unconscious impulses rather than to the conscious intellect. However, we should leave the psychiatrists decoding these riddles.
The human figure is often absent in your work, and when it is present, it is partially depicted or represented as an ambiguous or indirect manifestation. There is a man seen from behind in the painting Spaziergang (Passeggio), 2020, a woman seen in the reflection of a mirror in Vergissmeinnicht (Forgetmenot), 2020, the fragment of a face in Orsino, 2003, a hand mysteriously laid on a stick in Sleeping Dog, 2003. The scenes that you paint are often domestic but I have the impression that people have run away from the places, that those houses are empty or inhabited by shadows as in Blaues Zimmer, 2020.
People haven’t run away and I have no interest in exploring their absence. I rather imagine that they have just gone to another room. They are in the same space and they could be part of that image, but they find themselves outside the frame, beyond the edges of the painting.
Like when in a group picture there’s someone on the side who is cut out?
Exactly, but not by mistake.
I get it…
I find the human figure fully reproduced in paintings a bit boring in general. I like the environment, the landscape, the objects and the light to be the centre of the artwork more than the human figure. Light is very important to me. This is why the human figures in my paintings are only partially present, such as in reflections or as shadows. What isn’t at the centre of the painting arouses the spectator’s curiosity and mine as well.
I am a theatre director and a set designer and the feeling that I have when I look at your paintings is that they represent many little theatres that disclose beyond the wall. Complex dioramas as in Die Amsel (Il Merlo), 2020, baroque scenographies as in Kreuzung (Incrocio), 2020 . What is your relationship with theatre?
My relationship with theatre is pretty much non-existent because I never go to it. It is undoubtedly a pity, a mistake.
And which is your relationship with the representation of reality? I truly like how you use the internal frames to distort the dimension of the scene and increase the illusion of depth: a veranda frames a series of doors and windows that frame portions of rooms in White rabbit, 2017. Very scenic!
I have precise memories of shows from the 80s that impressed me so much that I can still recollect some of their scenes. But such memories are more related to the actors than the sets.
Are the objects that you paint and that often also give the title to your works, souvenirs of yours?
Few of the objects that I paint really exist or are mine. Most often they are images that I find in books or on the Internet.
So you have never visited the East?
I inherited from my grandmother a book of very colorful erotic Chinese drawings. It was a visual anthology going from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century and I liked the mixture of indoor and outdoor spaces in it. That book inspired a series of paintings on the oriental tradition such as Arbeit (Moon Window), 2016 and Wind 2, 2017, but I do not have a specific connection to the East. I like to cook “Japanese-style” and I practice Taiji.
What is that?
Tàijíquán is the martial art in which body, mind and breath align, an internal meditation in motion.
And the Flemish painting tradition? It seems to insistently recur in many of your works, not only in the small paintings series from 2013.
When I visited the National Gallery in London I saw The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck. However, the painting wasn’t well visible, because as it always happens in museums, it was dark, and you couldn’t get close to it. But some details of the painting were displayed on a large screen positioned to its side. I could therefore observe the details in very high resolution. That is how my interest in painting and the willingness to study the canvases has originated.
And also your interest in copying them…
In the traditional Asian art there often are copies of the artworks that are as valuable as the original one. The concept of archetype is a Western thing. I often copy existing paintings. For example, my Blaues Zimmer, 2020 has been inspired by the eponymous painting by Anna Ancher. Although, in my version I did not include the girl sitting at the window, and I added the shadow of a character by Carl Spitzweg, a man who is listening to a blackbird. For me, every work is the mirror or rather the answer to a previous work.
The East, the Flemish painting, what else inspires your work?
A radio show in which you can listen to five different excerpts of a classical music piece. Music experts discuss the different interpretations of the same excerpt played differently for five times. So I realise that interpretations can be miles away from one another. It inspires me, because I realise that it’s worth being, or trying to be, a perfectionist. You have to choose and commit. But above all, their words on music inspire me, and I try to translate them into painting.
Do you like poetry?
I read Haiku.
Are you inspired by their synthesis? Or by their small size?
I only did a painting inspired by a Haiku. It’s called The Neighbour, it’s sold.
Do you read a lot?
I read in the evening, as other people watch TV. I read to relax and immerse in another world. Lately, I took inspiration from a book by Alex Capus for a painting, but I’ve just started it and I still don’t know what it will look like.
What will be the title of your exhibition?
I don’t know yet, but I have a proposal.
Magic Lantern or Camera Lucida. The latter is a simple apparatus with which painters, before the invention of the photographic camera, could copy a three-dimensional object on a two-dimensional support.
It comes to mind the scene of Fanny and Alexander by Bergman, when in the middle of the night, the children protagonists get fascinated by the magic lantern in their beautiful room and by the amazing stories full of images that relentlessly arise from the fervent imagination of the boy, who is the director’s alter-ego. Can we find parts of your biography in your paintings?
If there is something biographical in my paintings, it is unconscious and unintentional.
They seem so “Swiss” to me.
Do you see something typically Swiss in them? I really do not think so.
Fabio Cherstich in conversation with Rita Siegfried
Bern, 1964. Lives and works in Bern.
She received the Aeschlimann Corti scholarship in 1996 and ‘Werkbeiträge’ from the city of Bern in 2001. Recent exhibtions include Fioretti, Gomo Art Space, Wien, 2020; Geisterspiel / Ghost Game , at Suns Works, Zurich, 2020 ; Cantonale Berne Jura at Kunsthalle Bern 2019, and A Room of one’s Own at Milieu, Bern 2019 ; Weihnachtsausstellung, Kunstmuseum Bern, 2004.
Via Giuseppe Luosi 30, 20131 Milan Milan, Italy