Hanna von Goeler [Germany]

The Shadows Cast by Ordinary Objects (2009)

location: tower on Zamurze, Historical Museum of Gdańsk

Confronting categories as both constrictions and negations, German-American artist Hanna von Goeler bends the physical integrity of everyday materials to re-open/renew their cultural meaning. She is especially interested in the alteration of archetypes, and how normative codes can mutate as they ripple across egos, objects and time. In so doing, her work stands purposefully outside the structures man has instituted to order and define the world – instead lingering in, and cultivating the in-between; the interstitial, ambiguous, complex, transitory and mystical. Pushing the assumed and ordinary into an enervating state of the uncanny, von Goeler employs displacement as an active strategy across modes of drawing, object-making and installation. Her materials tend to be familiar, tactile and delicate, turning newspaper, book pages, money, fruit, watercolor and glassware into the surreal instruments of perceptual re-formation. From painting upon dollar bills and crafting garments with tomato skins to freeing printed trees from the pages for which they died, her work shimmers with a gentle, but no less thoughtful iconoclasm. Migrating solid matter/s into a more unstable, but potentially revelatory semiotic realm, von Goeler enacts an emancipatory instability that pushes against the stasis of being and thought. In the open field of the post-material, she suggests new meanings that are quiet, meditative and deliberately contingent.

In one of Gdansk’s oldest buildings (now part of the city’s Museum of History) and its preservation of a past way of life, one can imagine this conference room as a meeting place for personal, cultural and national histories. Von Goeler imagines the aftermath of such a stately meal in The Shadows Cast by Ordinary Objects: conjuring actual shadows to reflect upon the larger legacies of ideology, politics and war upon today. Amidst a dining table strewn with goblets, glassware, porcelain, silverware, and small drawings etched onto mirrors, she makes reference to equally deposed histories from the Third Reich to the present world economy. Etchings of skulls, warplanes and various German illustrations are meant to evoke World War II, the Holocaust, Joseph Goebbel’s infamous “Chamber of Film” and the Nazi propaganda apparatus – as well as the capacity of film to indoctrinate cult/ural narratives. A toy train weaves its way through this crowded (and conflicted) terrain in an infinity pattern, shining its bright light on, and through, every object passed. In the process, a “still life” tableau becomes “time-based” cinema, and the cast shadows refracted by these otherwise static objects turn the surrounding walls into a silent motion picture. The fluid quality of the light (likened to a wet brushstroke by the artist) and the black & white tone evoke the earliest days of film, as well as an 18th century phantasmagoria of smoke, mirrors and magic lanterns. Yet beyond simple evocation, von Goeler’s train propels every one of these historical references into a state of flux – their shifting reflections living and changing through the lens of memory. Every shadow offers a fleeting impression as its objective reference becomes unfixed, speaking to the way that all history – even that which we consider absolute – will mutate through literal, and symbolic reflection.

As our shadows mingle with those upon the table the viewer is conspicuously implicated in this evolving arena: not only as agents of destabilizing (re)interpretation, but as executors of legacies good and evil. As the train loops like a needle stuck in the track of a broken record, von Goeler reflects on the cyclical nature of trauma; the repetition of history (everything comes back around…); and the radical nature of our memory to both inscribe and obscure. In this particular historical, quasi-domestic setting – surrounded by heavy walls, archival relics and the residue of Gdansk’s former lives – these shadows bring to light the malleable properties of our past.