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Julia Oschatz: Where Else
April 4–July 6, 2008

Julia Oschatz
untitled (122-07)
, 2007
oil, acrylic, spray paint on canvas
21 5/8 x 29 1/8 inches
Courtesy of the artist and Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects , New York

Born in 1970 in Darmstadt, Germany, Julia Oschatz currently lives in Berlin.  She holds a degree in studio art from Hochschule für Gestaltung, Offenbach, Germany, and conducted post graduate studies at the École des beaux-arts, Bourges, France, and Myndlistaskólinn, Reykjavík, Iceland.  Oschatz’s work has been featured in one-person exhibitions at Centro de Arte, Caja de Burgos, Spain; and in Germany at Städtische Galerie, Delmenhorst; Institut für moderne Kunst Nürnberg; Galerie Anita Beckers, Frankfurt am Main; Kunstmuseum Mülheim an der Ruhr in der Alten Post; and Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York.  She has also participated in numerous group exhibitions, including Landscapes/Landschaften at upstairs berlin and Träume von Räumen at Art Agents Gallery, Hamburg.  This fall her work will be included in Damaged Romanticism: A Mirror of Modern Emotion at the Blaffer Gallery, University of Houston, Texas.  Where Else is Oschatz’s first solo museum exhibition in the United States.  She is a visiting artist at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art.

I live on Earth at present, and I don’t know what I am. I know that I am not a category. I am not a thing—a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process—an integral function of the universe.

                                                Buckminster Fuller, I Seem To Be a Verb, 1970

Entering into Julia Oschatz’s room-size installations may feel like stepping onto the stage of a theatrical performance. Props, cluttering the space, are constructed from cardboard strips and boxes, oftentimes configured to resemble cavelike chambers, strange rock formations, or even large-scale boats that are certainly not seaworthy. Clusters of variously sized paintings adorn the surrounding walls, while looping videos play on monitors strategically housed within the cardboard formations, filling the dim area with flickering light and faint noises. All of these elements coalesce into a mise en scène charting the eternal odyssey of the “Wesen”—a genderless, ageless, hybrid character with a long snout, tall doglike ears, and a drab gray uniform with oversized, clunky shoes. “Wesen,” which is German for “being” or “essence,” stars as an idiosyncratic protagonist condemned to a nomadic life, perpetually traveling to places far and wide, frequently stumbling upon rather bizarre and dubious situations. Uncertainty and potential peril underlie these sojourns because the being travels alone and without sight: tragically, it has no eyes and is forever blind to its place in the world. Nonetheless, this wayward figure trudges onward through the revolving scenes of its existence.

In previous adventures, the Wesen has piloted 18th-century schooners across the high seas, swung on vines in dense forests, camped on tropical islands, explored labyrinthine caverns, and trekked inhospitable, mountainous terrains. Through these excursions, the being encounters real-life adversities and comically wrestles with failure and humilitywith an absurd, clownlike demeanor (and footwear to fit the bill). But what are we, as viewers, to make of it? No matter what the scenario, fundamental questions lurk just below the surface: What is the Wesen doing? Where is it going? What import does its blindness have on its being? And perhaps most perplexingly, what is its true purpose? Questioning the nature and purpose of being is, of course, a dominant theme in the history of ideas and in the writings of many philosophers—from Plato and Aristotle to René Descartes, Friedrich Nietzsche, Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, and Jean-Paul Sartre, to name just a few. The Wesen can be fruitfully considered in light of a broad range of these ideas, and yet, ever frolicking and subverting expectations, it remains compellingly unknowable.

For the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art’s exhibition Julia Oschatz: Where Else, the Berlin-based artist has transformed the white gallery into a cosmic stage, where walls are as dark as the night sky and mapped by astronomical drawings. Like constellations, variously sized canvas paintings puncture the heavens, each illustrating the being’s whereabouts in this otherworldly place. In addition, irregularly shaped cardboard forms hover high above the gallery floor, like planets or asteroids traveling through outer space, while a third cardboard construction suggesting a stalagmite rests on the gallery floor. Conjuring scenes from the upper levels of Dante’s Inferno or Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 sci-fi thriller 2001: A Space Odyssey, Where Else casts the Wesen beyond our familiar world and into the distant, abstract edges of the universe.

As depicted in Oschatz’s paintings and videos, the planetary topography is dramatically different from the environs previously traversed by the Wesen. Compared to the lush green jungles or the breathtaking mountain vistas of Earth, this new world exemplifies a reductive aesthetic: its physical traits are subtle and sparse, while its color palette—primarily pale grays, blacks, and whites with an occasional burst of yellow, orange, or red— is greatly simplified, injecting the atmosphere with melancholy and mystery. The reduced and almost monochromatic scenes call to mind traditional Chinese landscape paintings, in which natural formations, such as trees, rivers, and hills are executed with quick, minimal brushwork, instilling a mood of contemplation and solitude. These pared-down landscapes, according to author François Jullien, reveal the Chinese philosophy of the bland—a strategy of thought stemming from Taoist and Confucian traditions pronouncing that while flavor provokes attachment and categorization, blandness provokes detachment, which can be liberating, calming, and conducive to growth and freedom.1 Within this framework, the being’s frenetic travels throughout the galaxy may be the result of a bland mindset, allowing the being to meander freely and unattached through life.

Throughout Where Else, the individual paintings on canvas serve as storyboards to an imaginative, nonlinear narrative. Each painted scene captures a specific moment of the Wesen roving about this unearthly place. Several of the paintings illustrate rough, desolate terrains riddled with erupting volcanoes. In untitled (16-08) and untitled (11-08) (both 2008), flames and dark debris explode into the sky, while in untitled (20-08) (2008), the being leans toward white steam shooting from a large geyser—turbulent conditions that may be the result of a newly forming land, or the signs of an imploding world. Either way, this curious being continues to inspect various locales, such as a cluster of slender stalagmites and a vast, icy region peppered with massive rocks. In untitled (13-08) (2008), it pauses for a brief moment next to a small campfire to admire a moonlit sky from atop a tall, jagged mountainside. Then it is on the move again, this time navigating the multiple waterways of this uninhabited world. On several of its walkabouts, the Wesen encounters some rather peculiar sites, such as a light tower rising from a choppy sea and encircled by a cloudy halo, and a curved walkway leading to the dark center of a tightly bound spiral—a motif reflecting the cyclical nature of the being’s continuous journey and a visual metaphor for transcendence.

The three looping videos emanating from the cardboard formations in Where Else expand on the themes of the Wesen’s incessant globetrotting. Part performance and part digital animation, the videos embrace a low-budget, do-it-yourself aesthetic, mirroring the makeshift nature of the rocklike forms piecemealed together with tape and found cardboard. Performed and filmed by the artist in front of a blue screen in her Berlin studio, the imperfect audio and simple visual effects allude to their homespun origins, negating strides toward any suspension of disbelief and mirroring the main character’s pathetic persona.

In each of the videos, the Wesen performs rather absurd, repetitive tasks, such as leaping from the top of one planet to another as they enter the bottom of the screen (untitled [venus] [2007]). Outfitted in its standard uniform and awkward shoes, the Wesen flails clumsily and occasionally falls as it lands on the firm surfaces—a fruitless situation that quickly turns from slapstick humor to agonizing futility. Similarly, in untitled (augen) (2007), the Wesen enters the dark screen and spray paints eyes onto the palms of its hands. Then, holding its hands against its head, the being reveals the illusion of the painted eyes as paint slowly drips down its hands. This stunt proves useless after the Wesen trips and falls and a loud crash is heard after exiting the scene. While the video subtitle, augen, refers to the large, lenticular eye-shape mineral aggregates found in metamorphic rocks, the eye-in-the-hand symbol is a pancultural icon that weds two essential human functions: observation (the eye) and action (the hand), together symbolizing omniscience and omnipotence. Feigning this symbolic power, however, fails to imbue the Wesen with knowledge or control of its uncertain reality.

Oschatz’s videos breathe life into the Wesen, activating and uniting the entire installation. The character displays human qualities along its journey, suffering bouts with humility and its inability to understand or govern its own fate. The being’s plights echo those of the human condition, which may encourage viewers to empathize with its trials and tribulations. In this light, the Wesen’s dilemmas may speak to our own existence in the universe, provoking existential questions about the significance and meaning of life. In Oschatz’s imaginative narrative, however, the being is not equipped to answer these philosophical questions—it simply exists in the universe. Through its cycle of seemingly arbitrary excursions and exercises, the Wesen remains a content being, never failing its purpose to simply be.

Christopher Cook


1. See François Jullien, In Praise of Blandness: Proceeding from Chinese Thought and Aesthetics (New York: Zone Books, 2004).