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Shrouded in Folds

 

“The fold of the world is the fan. And as
soon as it opens, it lets all material particles
rise and fall—ashes and fog through which
one perceives the visible as though through
the holes of a veil.”

The hip-high, untreated sculptures of the series Röcke und Schnittmuster [Skirts and Patterns] (2001-04) by Alke Reeh are raised by means of a fixture just a few centimeters above the floor, giving them lightness and the impression of floating. Looking into the tube from above, one sees an idiosyncratic world that is more than the interior of an exterior. The artist exhibits these works often in a spatial context together with photographs: mounted, computer-processed, images of women wearing skirts, and also square-formatted images that direct the view up into the cupolas of churches and mosques, or from above down into an empty cup.
When I saw these works by Alke Reeh for the first time, I was reminded of Oskar Schlemmer’s figures and costumes for his Triadic Ballet (1922) which are referring toward a demonstration of sculptural forms. Unlike Schlemmer’s figures, however, Alke Reeh’s Röcke have upper bodies only when the artist includes them in the form of montage. The sculptures and photographs of their fictive users maintain a close connection between clothing and the clothed, of enclosed and excluded space.

The sculptor and stage designer Oskar Schlemmer (1888–1943) explicitly thematized the position of the human figure in space in his works. He was one of the most important teachers at the Bauhaus in Weimar, and after its move to Dessau in 1925 he directed the Bauhaus stage as an independent department and wrote his ground-breaking essay ‘Mensch und Kunstfigur’ [Human Being and Art Figure], in which he formulated a universally applicable typology by means of masks and costumes: “The abstraction of the human figure [...] creates the effigy in a higher sense; it does not create man as a natural, but rather as an artificial being; it creates an allegory, a symbol of the human figure.” Similarly Alke Reeh’s Röcke appear factually cool and devoid of humanity, yet refer to the human body as the source of visible forms.

Schlemmer began his education in 1903 in the leading inlay workshop Wölfel & Kiessling in Stuttgart. This deserves special mention because the outdoor works Implantate [Implants] (2001) by Alke Reeh are based on the principle of intarsia. In conventional inlays, various wooden pieces are laid next to or into each other on a flat surface, resulting again in a flat finish, but now including insertions of various color and structure. In the case of Implantate for the Münsterland, the emphasis is not the decorative and ornamental aspect but rather a deeper meaning that arises from the replacement of a circular segment of a green meadow through a piece of a tarred path with curbstones of the same size. One sees only the top layer of the sculpture whose meaning reaches into the depth and signifies an interest in space (actually for the social living space)—an idea which can be seen in the Bauhaus tradition in which by returning to handicrafts, artists attempted to develop an experimental and clear language of form which satisfied modern everyday life without neglecting the human measure and the simple form.

The Bauhaus was also the place where the work with textile materials was for the first time freed from the narrow confines of arts and crafts, thereby enhancing the textile qualities of the weavings through abstract patterns with the result that in the middle of the 20th century textiles “as materials of free artistic creation entered into a multifarious competition with architecture, painting, and sculpture“ and were disassociated from the sphere of decisively femi0nine production.
In the context of the new presentation of the collection in the Museum Kunstpalast Ehrenhof in Düsseldorf two Röcke and one Plissee [Plissé] (2005) by Alke Reeh made of plaster and fabric are exhibited in spatial connection with baroque painting. The portraits of Dutch gentlemen and ladies with opulent ruffs and the painting of two young women with conical crinolines modify the principle of the fold and function as prototypes for the sculptures—or conversely, as though Alke Reeh had isolated those structures from the large fund of baroque representations of the figure in order to generate an “an optimal folding.”
Originating as early as the 16th century, the ruff was as a rule made of starched linen rolled up into tube-like shapes with a curling iron. In Dutch bourgeois clothing, the ruff survived for a long time as an element of official attire. The stylization of body shapes expressed in aristocratic and bourgeois portraits of the Rubens period in Museum Kunstpalast form the bridge to the formalization of figures that are also typical for the work of Alke Reeh, resulting in a number of topical and formal relationships originating from the context of Alka Reeh’s new sculptures and a genre of painting that could be characterized as continuous pleating.

In his philosophical work Le pli − Leibniz et le baroque (1988) [English title: The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque, 1993] Gilles Deleuze defines pleated space as the characteristic feature of Baroque. In the sculpture, architecture, painting, and fashion of that period he sees the formation of a new relationship to conventional categories and classical perceptual principles—for example vertical and horizontal, interior and exterior, figure and background. “Baroque did not arise merely as a fashion on its own. At all times and everywhere, it projects the thousand pleats in clothing that tend to conjoin its respective wearers, blurring their demeanor, overcoming their physical contradictions and turning their heads into swimmers.” With Röcke und Schnittmuster, Reeh thematizes a similar thinking about sculpture and space, about interior and exterior. Formally she refers to the pattern of the human body on whose contours, curves, and pleating the plaster sculptures are based. They are reminiscent of vases or vessels from antiquity, but despite their textile metaphor they cannot be understood as a garment or fabric, for they are stiff and cannot be unfolded. “The endless pleat separates or continues between matter and soul, between façade and interior space, the exterior and the interior.”

The Gewänder [Garments] (2006), which are characterized by free-falling pleats and the charm of drapery, form Alke Reeh’s most current work group. Here textile materials are no longer hardened with plaster as in Plissee or, as in Strumpfhosen und Strickjacken [Tights and Cardigans] (2003), crocheted around plaster rings, but instead, various unicolored fabrics are fixed on a wooden ring. In his “Notes on Sculpture” (1967) Robert Morris had demanded a playing with the force of gravity: “The autonomous and literal essence of sculpture requires it to have its own space—not a surface area which it shares with painting. Furthermore, an object attached to the wall does not have to deal with the force of gravity: it fearfully defies it.” Not so a Gewand that presents itself as an empty veil on the wall, but one which could be animated by an air draft—or by the notion that an invisible body has just caused a new fold.
“One of the preconditions for recognizing an object is provided by the perception of the force of gravity that impacts on it in the actual space. Not the wall, but the surface of the floor is the necessary basis for a maximal awareness of the object,” according to Morris.

In his book Ninfa Moderna: Essai Sur de Drape Tombe [Ninfa Moderna: Essay on Falling Drapes] the French art historian Georges Didi-Huberman traces the transformation of the pleat motif from the Renaissance to the Baroque and on to the present with its rag-shrouded beggars of the large cities and the sidewalk rags. In the conclusion of the chapter “On the Shapeless and Its Drapery,” he develops a notion of the pleat that carries Deleuze’s thoughts further:
“As the interface of act and potency, of the organic and inorganic, of the incessant pulse of the center and the edge, of the important and the negligible, of the living and the decomposed, drapery can fold the former and the now.“

Alke Reeh’s figural abstractions focus on the relationship between body volume and space, on the kinetics of the body, and finally on the intellectual combination of textile motifs that relates to the pleat of fabric and the human body, to the drapery of a garment and the windings of the cortex of the brain. The fold contains the potential for the space: compression and expansion.

Markus Lepper

 

GILLES DELEUZE, Die Falte, Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1996, p. 54.
From a lecture by Schlemmer from 10.26.1930, quoted after exh.cat. Stuttgart, Essen 1993/94, p. 210.
SILKE TAMMEN, “Textilien,” in: MONIKA WAGNER (ed.), Lexikon des künstlerischen Materials, Munich: C.H. Beck, 2002, p. 220.
GILLES DELEUZE, Die Falte, Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1996, p. 197.
GILLES DELEUZE, Die Falte, Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1996, p. 62.
ROBERT MORRIS, “Notes on Sculpture,” in: GREGOR STEMMRICH (ed.), Minimal Art. Eine kritische Retrospektive, Dresden/Basel: Verlag der Kunst, 1995, p. 95.
GEORGES DIDI-HUBERMAN, Ninfa Moderna, Zurich/Berlin: Diaphanes, 2006, p. 136.

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