images that cut. Radical cuts and unusual confrontations in her choice of motif are a basic aesthetic principle in Maria Sewcz’ work. The moment she decides in favour of a pictorial detail, it seems as if this is violently cut out of the original context, irrevocably separated from the whole. Cutting off, apart or into something is an everyday technique, but there is always something violent, cruel, destructive about it. As the result of a brutally carried out amputation, therefore, a tree in the series tagelauf (Berlin 1996-98) is hard to recognise as a tree – what remains is a torso, mutilated until hardly recognisable, with jutting stumps cut through – from a narrow perspective – by three high-tension power cables at the top left. As if that were not enough: in the series tagelauf Maria Sewcz turns all the motifs, whether vertical or horizontal formats, onto the horizontal plane and mounts them two by two, in pairs of images chosen according to an incomprehensible, purely formally determined system. She treats city motifs, still-lifes and portraits in the same way. It is like a game of Pelmanism in which the artist is the only one who knows which cards match. But actually, the rule is quite simple: “The order of the photographs,” according to Maria Sewcz, “corresponds to the true sequence of the events as they are documented on the photographic film. By systematically producing what is initially a matter of chance, the visual contrasts emerge which carry my vision of the urban, the elementary and the social with them. The pairs of images formulate contexts which lead beyond whatever can actually be perceived, at the same time abstracting things beyond that. The presentation in a frieze-like form leads to different associative constellations”. Paradoxically, therefore, the cuts and the separation of the pictorial motifs arise due to the camera technique, at exactly the moment when the photographic film is winding on, being transported further. According to this principle of working, the next motif is always undetermined and unpredictable in order, although its selection is intuitively charged and defined. Calculated chance therefore plays an important role in Maria Sewcz’ work, as well as technical automation within the camera.
Since Surrealism and Dadaism, not only “chance” has been used methodically; since the invention of collage and montage in the 1920s, everyday objects like knives and scissors, illustrated magazines and newspapers have become tools of the artist alongside brushes and canvas. Writing and photos have entered pictures as elements of equal value, and in face of the events of the times – as a “citation” of reality – they have outshone the impression made by invented reality. Especially in Hannah Höch’s dadaist anti-history picture Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada through the Last Weimar Beer Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany (1919/20), the world is turned upside down and an ailing society is dissected with no pity – using the weapons of a woman, a “housewife”. In Verism, artists paint – symbolically speaking – with the scalpel, which is the only thing that promises selectivity in an analysis of reality. As anatomists, realists penetrate into the functional cycle of society, for “reality”, according to Brecht, long ago “slipped into the functional”. Luis Bunuel’s film image of a knife cutting through a human eye Un chien andalou, (1925) raises the dissection of the organ of perception itself into the main task of artistic activity. The message of the moment: not only what is perceived, but perception itself must be analysed with the necessary acuteness. A prophetic image: man’s organ of sight – suffering from a flood of stimuli – is destroyed, and the insistent visual impressions are wiped out: burnout of images.
images that flee / images that remain. However, the destructive gesture of cutting up and destroying, part of the aesthetic heritage passed on by the moderns, does not remain the higher principle in Maria Sewcz’ photographic work. She herself finds new forms, unfamiliar contexts, ways of seeing which leave behind traces and images that impress themselves onto our memory like a burning glass. Her perception and depiction of the world resembles a film full of holes, one which has empty spaces and seeks to animate us to fill these with our own images: “In search of images, I concentrate on the everyday things that are passed by unnoticed – and I try to define these photographically in order to place them in our awareness. Moments, passed, forgotten, become existent. They transport the circumstances of time”. It is logical, therefore, that Maria Sewcz has now begun to work with video films in which she thematises almost imperceptible observations, everyday situations and actions, which tell of failure, ritual and the constantly repeated experience of futility – for example the scenes, mounted in a loop, showing a boy circling around a backyard on his scooter: again and again, he topples over and falls in exactly the same place.
Just as movement in ever-narrowing circles leads to a loss of balance in the video, many of the photographs by Maria Sewcz are full of moving energies that develop into a centrifugal force and explode beyond the picture area, pointing out into external reality. Other shots are full of quiet and steadfastness; they concentrate our view and permit no distraction – two opposite principles in the work of Maria Sewcz, which perhaps show some influence of political events in the former GDR on her own socialisation as an artist and her experience of seeing. The sense of life and everyday perception before the political transition in 1989 – the bottled up signs of change in the ideologically rigid society of “actually existing socialism” until their revolution into a social form anticipated as free and democratic – were experienced by many intellectuals and artists as an increase of the “fleeting in what could be seen, experienced, recognised (…) the more incalculable processes became: there were times when it would have been possible to read every book, to look at every photo and film. Today an entire life is not long enough” (3).
This is where Maria Sewcz’ photographs of details, resembling cut-outs, begin to operate: they offer us fleeting views of her exploration of everyday life, no information about reality, no accusations. “Point out” is her motto, she aims to create a concentrated view with her photographs and to offer indications – no more. Then the work in the viewer’s eyes must begin. She knows that an artistic assertion of contexts, of cause and effect can fall prey to illusion all to easily. She thus prefers to guide and concentrate her view “onto inconspicuous parts of a whole, pointing out things and events which might be overlooked, take place on the side (…) The fascination of familiar dreariness. The sense of an inescapable everyday. Milieu, atmospheres. Traces of life – leading to an abstraction that is aimed at concentration. The language of this photography is hard, not malleable. Our stomach contracts at this feeling of carelessness and coldness, the surfaces oscillate” (4).
Diagonal lines in the composition, crossed-over picture diagonals, extreme views from above or below, falling motion are characteristic of this oscillation: pictorial worlds breaking apart, reflection of an image of the world that has gone awry. The oscillation of the surfaces may thus be read as expressing the lack of firm ground beneath our feet, an experience of life and seeing in times of radical change; positive as well as negative.
Once before, during the first part of the 20th century, altered perspectives in art and photography commented on a change in the times: in 1918, when the beginning of the October Revolution was mirrored in the Utopian, expressively composed and ideologically charged photographs and films of the Soviet avant-garde. By the end of the 20th century, this undertaking – with its gigantic social utopias – had failed, and with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the GDR it passed, bankrupt, into history.
Maria Sewcz belongs to a generation of artists which has closely experienced the reverberations of those radical changes as the “Wende” in Germany. There no enthusiasm to be found in her pictures, they speak the silent language of disillusionment, they are cool and unpretentious in their observations. The “perspective”, Maria Sewcz knows, is no longer a reliable construct of human agreement, but a social problem: it has begun to waver, is no longer binding. It is a question for each one of us individually. It encompasses the entirety of a person. It is the movement of one’s own body with which Maria Sewcz captures this oscillation, and this joins everyday themes and the principle of chance in her pictures. The uncertainty and fragility of today’s experience of reality are grasped while still in flight and captured in an image.
3. Gabriele Muschter: ….damit ich dich besser sehen kann, in: dies (eds.): DDR Frauen fotografieren, Berlin (ex pose) 1989, p. 14
4. Gabriele Muschter, ibid.
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Coming to the point . Photographic works by Maria Sewcz, 1985–2004
Text by Barbara Straka in: point out, jovis-verlag, Berlin 2004