Karin Sander: Hybrid Encounters

An elderly, gray-haired man wearing a blue suit stands with one foot ahead of the other: you feel age pressing on his body but also note his calm resolve. A child with a slightly concerned expression, nervous shoulders, and turned-in feet seems at once brave and scared; a young woman in bright, circa-1970s clothing, including a colorful hat with flaps over her ears, is an insouciant representative of youth culture on the loose. Everything is in miniature—a scale of 1:10—and everyone stands atop white pedestals. The reduced scale invites close attention to bodily details and what they express psychologically, or what you think they might express, and you find yourself enormously alert to the nuances of each individual: to how feet and hands are positioned, to a slope of the shoulders, to what a particular way of gazing might signify. You see the Turkish artist Ayse Erkmen, staring straight out with a calm gaze; Gudrun Inboden from the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart, neck to ankles in a red cape and with a look of serene confidence; a self-conscious policeman in his uniform; and Karin Sander herself—the German artist who has come up with this startling new series of figurative sculptures that challenges just about every convention associated with the genre.

25 Personen 1:10, 1998–99. 3-D bodyscans, computer construction, and ABS airbrush, installation view.

The twist here is that these figures were not made by hand at all and reveal nothing of Sander’s own interpretations or subjectivity. Instead, they are made by an advanced technological process of three-dimensional photographic body-scanning in the one machine in Germany that does this sort of thing (usually for the fashion industry), leading to a computerized, layer-by-layer construction (fused deposition modeling, to be precise) in ABS plastic, a commercial acrylic, and finally to an application of precise, airbrushed color by a technician.

Sander has so far invited some 25 people to be scanned, including art world colleagues, but also friends, associates, and, in a couple of instances, virtual strangers. The results are intensely—also eerily—human, right down to the nuances of expressions, creases in clothes, postures, eye color, and hairdos. It is like looking not at miniature sculptures but at miniaturized people. All the big and tiny details of the body are there, but then so too are pronounced high-tech traces, like a slight blurring of the features, arising from how photographic images are sent through the computer and then brought back to the acrylic, and the ridges of the uniform, circular layers that comprise the figures. While Sander has completely dispensed with traditional notions of craft or personal touch with tools and materials, her figures remain enormously sculptural and visually engaging—not via hands-on effort in the studio, but through a seamless integration of photography, computers, mechanical production, and industrial collaboration.

Karin Sander 1:10, 1998. 3-D bodyscan, computer construction, ABS plastic, and airbrushed color.

Mixing an ultra-verisimilitude with references to toys and dolls, copies and clones, these figures are hybrid in the extreme, and as much as they suggest next-generation computer-based simulacra, they also recall the 19th-century obsession with automatons and other mechanical reproductions of the human.

Throw in sci-fi scenarios like The Incredible Shrinking Man; certain alarming dreams when one is very, very small; horror flick terrors when a person, soul and all, is turned into an inanimate statuette; commemorative statues honoring some famous person; and natural history museum dioramas—and you get an idea of just some of the associations these figures evoke.

Haarzeichnungen (Hair drawings), 1998. 10 pieces of hair collected from each of 80 people, dry glue, and paper, 770 drawings, each sheet 28 x 22 cm.

Interestingly, Sander reaches this associative expansiveness not by intensifying her own interpretive powers, but by vaulting over the long-standing role of the artist as an interpreter or arbiter of the figure. In the process, she opens up some significant new territory for figurative sculpture, which has been enjoying a resurgence for the past several years. Unlike the wooden statues of Stephan Balkenhol, which are carved in that position and no other; the manic, emotionally-charged video projections of Tony Oursler, which are assembled and arranged; or Charles Ray’s notorious life-sized nuclear family, which is intended to evoke a kind of mutant creepiness, Sander’s figures are neutral and objective. They deal with objective visual information—exactly what the cameras recorded as the people stood in the scanning machine, and what the computerized process transcribed in acrylic. Also, these are not really portraits but self-portraits, for the people were free to choose their clothes, what posture they wanted to assume, what they wanted to physically communicate. But even though these are high-tech artifices, produced by a more or less automatic process, they engender a profoundly human response, precisely because they capture so much of the actual person.

Gerd Hatje 1:10, 1999. 3-D bodyscan, computer construction, ABS plastic, and airbrushed color.

Viewing them can be considerably disconcerting, for there is something disturbing and voyeuristic about scrutinizing these high-tech miniature copies of warm, breathing people. You almost feel as if you’re breaking some taboo, looking a little too closely, intruding on another person’s privacy—except for the fact that it’s not a person at all but an acrylic statuette. It’s not polite to stare, so the saying goes, but that’s precisely what you do, with both wonder and consternation. This is a way of working with the figure that taps deeply into the slipperiness of “otherness,” how one perceives others and is in turn perceived, how much one notices or doesn’t notice. Through these images, you feel close to the people, but simultaneously remote, and you can’t help but be aware of your own interior psychology: the alienation of incontrovertible distance from others, the vigor when that distance is breached through total engagement.

The whole series originated with a single work for last year’s Kleinplastiktriennale in Stuttgart. Taking the term kleinplastik (small sculpture) literally, Sander presented a small acrylic version of the exhibition’s curator, Werner Meyer, with some humorously subversive results: instead of a curator presenting an artist, the artist presented the curator, and instead of a curator looming over the exhibition and its theme as some giant, custodial force, this suddenly small-scale curator took his place among all the other works. Of course, there was something absurd, ungainly, and, to borrow a term from Vladimir Nabokov, “topsy-turvical” about this work—but then Sander often allows for an element of the ridiculous to enter her otherwise rigorously conceived and executed projects.

Werner Meyer 1:10, 1999. 3-D bodyscan, computer construction, ABS plastic, and airbrushed color.

For those familiar with Sander’s work, this series of figures probably comes as a real surprise, chiefly because she has never been identified with the figure per se. There are, however, profound connections with her past work, for she has long been interested not in made or invented forms—for instance, autonomous art objects introduced into a space—but in taking and transforming things which already belong to the site in question, notably architectural structures like walls, wallpaper, windows, and floors, and in this case the curator of the exhibition himself. What results is an unusual principle of simultaneity, in which the space or situation as it normally is and as it has been reconfigured into art, coexist side by side in a delicate yet frictional balance.

A wall installation at the Basel Art Fair consisted of cut-out squares of the thin fabric already covering the walls, which were then fit into dozens of differently sized clip-on frames and displayed in a top-to-bottom salon style: not paintings on the wall but the wall hung as paintings. When each work was sold it was immediately removed to reveal the underlying excision which it covered, and in a hilarious take on the kind of buying and selling occurring everywhere else, prices were determined solely by size—bigger ones were more expensive, and smaller ones cheaper.

Stoffraum (Canvas Room), 1996. 434 clip-on frames containing canvas, signed and numbered. Installed at the Basel Art Fair.

It is tough to imagine a more bland and forgettable material than this wallpaper-like fabric which gives offices and exposition halls their generic, institutional look, but here it took on a new, thriving life as an emphasized and active force. Another time, Sander photographed every room in a university institute for telecommunications technology from a central perspective, turning these images into stacks of postcards, which were displayed as a grid on a front wall inside the building, like a photographic rendition of surveillance monitors: 216 shots of empty, interior spaces, each in its own small box on the wall. When entering, one saw a concentrated yet expansive rendition of the institute itself, but when the postcards were used (and they were free for the taking; editions of 5,000 were made for each room, which itself was pretty outlandish) the space was then distributed around the world through the postal routes: a dematerialized building in pieces, in motion, in full flight.

Haarzeichnungen (Hair drawings), 1998. 10 pieces of hair collected from each of 80 people, dry glue, and paper, 770 drawings, each sheet 28 x 22 cm.

Perhaps the most acute example of the way Sander uses minimal interventions to transform space is a series of wall-polishings, which have been accomplished at many different sites, including a permanent work on the second floor of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. For these works, Sander sands and polishes rectangular forms directly into the surface of a wall. These forms refer to paintings on museum or gallery walls, but they are more like paintings in reverse: paintings that jettison pretty much all of what has traditionally constituted a painting, including canvas, brushstroke, and ultimately paint. What results are fantastically smooth fields with a mirror sheen that, depending on one’s perspective, withdraw altogether into a near-invisibility or are startlingly reflective and shimmering. And rather than presenting self-contained visual events to the viewer, they are intensely active fields that directly respond to their environment with a kind of hyper-alertness: concentrating light on their surfaces, catching and displaying external space and events as fleeting imagery, serving as screens upon which the site itself is both projected and distorted. It is interesting to note that Sander’s figures are also “screens” upon which the photographically captured surfaces of people are likewise projected. Immaterial in the extreme, and at times almost breathtakingly gorgeous, these wall-polishings quietly disrupt the surrounding architecture, dissolving it into ephemeral moments of flickering and reflection.

Kunst am Bau, Postkarten von 216 Lehr und Forschungsräumen (Art in Architecture, Postcards from 216 Teaching and Research Rooms), 1997. Installation of 5,000 postcards.

Constantly in Sander’s work you find this drive toward the empirical facts of the situation: not a work on the wall, but a work that is the wall, however much transformed; not invented figures in a gallery or museum, but 3-D photographic renditions of actual people who might very well be there anyway. Not an egg-shaped sculpture, but a sculpture that is an egg, in an acclaimed work from 1994, which consists of nothing more than a raw, polished chicken egg set atop a pedestal. Sander used sandpaper to polish the egg by hand, turning its fragile surface into a shimmering, highly reflective field. Suddenly a normal egg becomes wildly sensual and luminous. It seems, in fact, like a rare, exotic treasure: a 19th-century Fabergé egg, perhaps, or a bejeweled heirloom; even a devotional object with spiritual significance. It has an ethereal gorgeousness that seems frankly sublime, and it also resonates with suggestions of primal origins and primal femininity. At the same time it is an over-the-top take on anti-monumental sculpture. While all sorts of “soft,” temporary, or fragile materials have entered into sculpture during the past couple of decades, you just can’t get more fragile than an egg.

Haarzeichnungen (Hair drawings), 1998. 10 pieces of hair collected from each of 80 people, dry glue, and paper, 770 drawings, each sheet 28 x 22 cm.

Sander’s work can be very austere and reductive, but there is also something refreshingly eccentric, and near-absurd, about how far she pushes her ideas. Consider an exhibition from last year at the Stiftung für Konkrete Kunst in Reutlingen, Germany. A horizontal band of framed works on paper traveled along the walls throughout three huge exhibition halls on separate floors—770 works in total, which proliferated through the space and made a kind of path or route at eye level. At first glance they looked like a tremendous number of spare but exquisite line drawings, but when you looked closer you discovered these weren’t drawn marks at all but strands of human hair: one strand on each picture. Sander collected 10 strands of hair each from some 80 people, which were then pulled through dry glue and dropped, one by one, onto paper.

Wandstück 3-teilig (Wallpiece, 3 parts), 1993/96. Polished wall paint, each part 9.8 x 13.8 ft.

The drawings consist of exactly how the hair landed; the physics of these mini-events, as well as the properties of the hair itself (whether it’s curled, looped, winding, or straightened) and not any subjective decision by the artist, determined the composition.

As you followed these hair strands through the vast space, they formed an endlessly permutating pictorial alphabet—sometimes minimal and serene, for instance a more or less straight strand forming a wispy horizon line or angling upward to a gentle diagonal, but also tangled shapes that recalled juiced-up Abstract Expressionist gestures, and others in which the hair extended off the paper and over the edge to form extremely delicate mini-sculptures in space. Just about everything that could happen with a small line did, while the individuality of the hair, with its differences in thickness and tint, shape and length, wound up underscoring the individuality of the donors. A lot came together here: Minimalist-inflected austerities and a maximal, space-transforming presence; system and chance; serial repetition and unique, lyrical moments. Also, because the same person’s hair was played out on a group of successive drawings, each group became a kind of self-portrait, one built from the tiniest of bodily details.

Hühnerei, poliert, roh, Grösse O (Chicken egg, polished, raw, size O),
1994. Chicken egg.

These “self-portraits” are just one example of the many times when people figure prominently in Sander’s projects. For an artist who constantly seeks to rid her pared-down aesthetic of expressively human attributes, it is interesting to note just how often people, in some manner, are engaged, either as subjects or as viewers who are no longer mere observers but active participants. Emptying a gallery of anything recognizable as art, Sander once built a new floor rising six inches above the gallery’s original one, which slightly yet decisively altered one’s spatial orientation and turned the activity of visiting the gallery into a highly self-conscious, but comical and invigorating, experience. An Astroturf floor piece at the Museum of Modern Art, half inside the museum and half outside in the sculpture garden, doubled as a place where people could lounge and relax, read and converse, and Sander’s wall-polishings bring the viewer in as a muted reflection while they also constantly change according to the viewer’s own movements. For an early work from 1990 in Lodz, Poland—which essentially heralded Sander’s emergence as a major young artist—she repaired and restored two grimy passageways between buildings leading from the street to the courtyard and painted them a luminous white. Highlighting the everyday activity of pedestrians moving from here to there in a city, they suggested regeneration and renewal, and they also responded to the society-wide transition and hopefulness going on in Poland at the time, as it emerged from decades of communism.

Astroturf Floorpiece, 1994. Two intersecting circles of astroturf, 69 x 52 ft. View of installation at the Museum of Modern Art.

Now people have directly entered Sander’s work and in a way that change scrambles the borders between computer-based simulation and close-to-home human encounters. At Kunsthalle Göppingen, the first time Sander’s figures were shown en masse, they were together in one part of a large exhibition hall, and they all faced the same direction, namely the entrance. When you walked in, expecting to see works on the wall or the floor, you were instead faced with this group of mini-figures eyeing you. At Künstlerwerkstatt–Lothringer Strasse in Munich, where they constituted a discreet installation in a four-person group show, they were also gathered together, but this time facing different directions, and at the more intimate Kunstverein Arnsberg they were interspersed, seemingly randomly, through four rooms, to make a hilarious and hugely mediated version of an audience milling about, perhaps on opening night. You wander among them, and look at them separately: distinct individuals frozen into a particular posture, an instant of a life. Step back a little to look at them together and they are an absorbing mini-society filled with correspondences, differences, and personal idiosyncrasies. There is something richly humane about Sander’s miniature renditions of human figures. This is a way of working with the figure that is at once challenging and magical, unnerving and chock-full of intricate life.

Gregory Volk is a New York-based art critic and curator.