Anja Luithle


Is anybody there? – Yes, no, nobody’s there!

Anja Luithle’s sculptures and installations turn the exhibition space into a stage upon which the objects perform, move, dance, like actors, essentially playing roles as representatives. The choreography of the artistic staging condenses and concentrates the action into one image, in which movement patterns make one moment of life tangible in one or a few gestures. The motifs, the objects and actions keep the everyday in view. The secret of the artworks lies in the role of the absent person, who is nonetheless to be thought of as the very essence of the game. It is to this person and his actions that the associative potential of the objects refer, their materials, their colours and forms, the multi-dimensionality of the narrative moment, where short stories appear in gestures, feelings merge with the mechanical repetition and this fascination finds its counterpart in the movement and in the enigma of the real everyday. All this takes place in the experience and in the imaginative power of the acting and experiencing person. The principal secret of the imagination is to be found in a paradox that is constitutive of the works: ‘Presence is produced through absence.’1 Rote Dame (Red Lady, 1996) does not show a specific person, it is not a portrait. It is, rather, a red, full-length dress that appears to hover weightlessly above the ground. The absent female body can be generally discerned in the classic cut of the dress, but it is not concretely delineated anywhere in the surface or in the form of the dress. On the contrary, all sensuality – in the first instance – lies in the material, in the bright red, quilted velvet. Even from a distance, the colour red signals attention, eroticism, love, passion and fervour. If one understands the dress as an adjunct of a lady, the secret of the red dress lies in its felt presence and real absence – no one is inside the red dress, no body, no name, no distinctive, individual physiognomy. Our perception becomes blurred when we step closer to it. Kinetics come into play, the dress vibrates. This could be interpreted as trembling, an expression of arousal, of feelings such as fear, anger, joy, expectation. But who is trembling there in fear or arousal? Nobody. There is no body inside the dress, no individual, only a small, invisible, spinning electric motor that is producing the vibration. While the article and gender of the German word for nobody (‘niemand’), as well as all pictorial personifications of nobody, have always been masculine in the history of art2, Anja Luithle works with a female ‘nobody’. Nobody is perfect. The English word ‘nobody’ (no one, not anybody) perfectly corresponds to her artistic concept of incorporeality. Digression: Who is ‘Nobody’, where are his roots? When asked by the cyclops Polyphemus for his name, Odysseus answers: Nobody.3 When Polyphemus cries out to the other cyclopes that Nobody has blinded him, they do not pay much attention to him. Odysseus’ cunning ruse in naming his alter ago Nobody, and the cyclopes’ misunderstanding of the situation, make Nobody appear ungraspable, thereby securing Odysseus’ freedom. At the end of the fifteenth century, Georg Schan published a didactic poem on good housekeeping under the title ‘Niemand’ (Nobody), in which this figure always comes into play when the servants – accused of theft, causing clutter or some other misdeed – offer Nobody as a scapegoat. A woodcut from that period is inscribed with the words: ‘Nobody is my name, what everybody does, for that I am blamed.’4 From that, the man of the house draws the conclusion that: ‘If I don’t work, Nobody works.’5 The red dress thereby imparts a thoroughly ambivalent relationship with the values and feelings expressed in this picture: they are positive when I, as a person with a body and mind, master this world of emotion and can deal with it well; they are negative when they get out of control due to deception and seduction. In that case, the red dress is better put on a (female) Nobody that does not have a body. With the sumptuous dress, the ‘Red Lady’ only pretends to be a Somebody, a lady. In reality she does not have a body, no I, no figure of her own, she is silent, unable to give an account of herself, unable to be… – and she remains a Nobody inside. The two-part, unambiguously installed floor piece Komme gleich wieder (I’ll be Back in a Flash, 1998, 2008) always elicits curiosity and astonishment. One is tempted by the promising title of the work to wait for the mysterious, unknown woman who has left her dark-blue satin bikini and disappeared for exactly the moment in which the artwork is perceived. And? Nobody is coming.6 The linguistic game ‘Nobody’ works – deception and disappointment characterise the picture in equal measure – an expectant imagination animated by the form and position of the bikini and the vain hope that this expectation could ever be fulfilled by somebody in reality. If nobody comes, the viewer is dependent on his imagination and the few shapely signs present – an imagination that may be able to fill the empty space of incorporeality, but one that better not be divulged to anyone at this point, whither one can harmlessly direct the concepts and feelings that are at question in this picture. The Kopfüber (Upside Down, 2007) installation also displays a similarly ironic sense of humour. A handstand is depicted, carried out in a long, sleeveless, timeless, black cotton dress and two equally elegant, opera gloves. No matter in which situation a woman wears this kind of dress, making a handstand would be unconventional, nonconformist behaviour. Nobody does that for such an outrageously long period of time, without moving, without signs of fatigue; but she does not have a body and the black cotton fabric has been hardened using synthetic resin, and holds its shape rebelliously. There is no reason – at best one can say freedom from all rationality and convention. It is, rather, one of the countless exercises in otherness in the work of Anja Luithle. There is hardly a more suitable literary source on transformations from a Somebody to a Nobody than Daphne’s story in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The nymph escapes Apollo’s clutches by transforming into a tree. In the linocuts, Anja Luithle has already transformed Daphne into the metaphor of the dress. The dress disappears in the long lines of the linocut, and she thereby becomes Nobody for the second time and is absorbed, disappearing in the abstract structure of the wood. There is a resistant force in the beautiful grotesque. All that is required to instantiate a swing of the hips is mainly – indeed, only – a long skirt made out of a generous cut of silk fabric, in which this seductive ritual, which can be repeated as often as desired, really comes into its own. The interactive kinetic installation Broadway (2008) may express a delight in movement, in so-called social life. The reduction to the dresses themselves, the indissoluble conjunction of the audience’s handclapping, which is more of a demand that an expression of applause and approbation, and the eternal repetition of the same ritual – all this also contains an element of slapstick and of an absurdly conventional entertainment. Anja Luithle’s kinetic sculptures bear reference to the history of the automaton, the magically mechanical tableaux vivants. In them, syntheses from the opposition between art and technology, man and machine, play and purpose, arise again and again. Created over several years, Casting Shoes (2012) is a rich group of works. Anja Luithle presents shoes on pedestals, on the ground and on the wall. They dance and act, always as a pair, with a keen awareness of the language and psychology of the gestures. The shoes have been reproduced deceptively accurately, cast in synthetic resin and painted. Once again, a Nobody has dressed up for an artwork. Powered by a device inside the base, each pair of shoes moves to a precisely created choreography. The viewer must imagine a person, because every pair expresses a particular state of mind in the play of its movements: impatience, dainty scurrying, agitated waiting, buzzing nervousness, shy approach and contact, embarrassment… – as a movement pattern and little dance.7 In sculpture, the fascination with movement as an expression of aliveness is very important – that which moves, lives. The contrapposto between the standing leg and the free leg brought marble sculptures to life, giving them a sense of movement. Ovid’s story of the sculptor Pygmalion and the transformation of his marble statue into a living woman is one of the founding myths about animation in art. Anja Luithle evokes this event in the viewer’s imagination. Once again in the linguistic game of presence and absence, Somebody and Nobody: in his notoriously absent presence, it is not (a present) Somebody but rather (the absent) Nobody who has what it takes to be the ideal aspired to in all art. Nobody is perfect, said with an emphasis on the subject ‘nobody’, is a resigned platitude. The same declaration against convention, when spoken with an emphasis on the adjective ‘perfect’, assigns the ideal, beauty, perfection, an appropriate equality with Nobody’s present absence. And that is why the supposed emptiness in Anja Luithle’s sculptures is not nothingness, but rather all that which Nobody, the rebellious saint, does.8 Anja Luithle has her dresses make handstands, tremble, lean over railings as uninhibited observers, and open and close… The internal mechanisms make figures dance, shoes perform short plays, and gloves feel their way up walls for inexplicable reasons, complete with telling movements and sounds. On her Der Kaffeetisch (The Coffee Table, 2006), cups, plates, coffee pot, milk jug and sugar bowl fly their orbits as if by magic. In Sammeltasse (Ornamental Cup, 2011), the spoon stirs of its own volition. Automaton means ‘a self-operating machine’ here in Anja Luithle’s theatre of the absurd, in which Nobody plays the mysterious leading part. 1 See Heiderose Langer, ‘A moment of life. Unterwegs in Anja Luithles Figurenwelt’, in Anja Luithle. Flüchtige Anwesenheiten (Nürtingen, 2012), p. 42 2 See Gerta Calmann, ‘The Picture Of Nobody. An Iconographical Study’, in Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. XXIII (1960), pp. 60 – 104 3 See Homer, Odyssey 9, 105 – 567 4 ‘Niemand heiße ich, was jeder tut, das lastet man mir an.’ / ‘Nobody is my name, what everybody does, for that I am blamed.’ See Gerta Calmann 1960, p. 63 5 Quoted from H. Grimm, Ulrich von Huttens Lehrjahre (1933), p. 144. See Gerta Calmann 1960, p. 63 6 This work brings to mind the installation by Robert Filliou, La Joconde est dans les escaliers / Back in 10 minutes, Mona Lisa (1969/1973), which features a cleaning bucket, cloth and broom. A sign hanging from the broom is inscribed with the title of the piece. 7 Anja Luithle does not borrow from Charlie Chaplin but the ‘table ballet’ scene from the silent comedy film The Gold Rush (1925) made film history. 8 See Apokalypse 3.7

Lóránd Hegyi
Musée d´Art Moderne Saint-Etienne