Thomas Fischer Gallery, Berlin

By Heidi Ballet

The Fake, the Fold and the Erased

Aby Warburg wasn't your average character. Born the oldest son in a Jewish banking family in Hamburg, he traded his privileges with his brother, making a deal that, in exchange for all his rights to the family property, his brother would supply him with all the books he would ever want to own. Warburg then moved to Florence to study the Renaissance and he devoted much time to studying the representation of gestures and movement in the art of the Renaissance and beyond, how each image contains a 'pathos formula' by which it achieves its expressive value. It was in 1924, after Warburg had suffered a severe period of depression and schizophrenia, that he started working on what would become his unequalled masterpiece: the Mnemosyne Atlas. The Atlas consisted of 79 plates on which he collected a mix of images that eclectically belonged to completely different eras, each plate relating to one theme. Making the Atlas was a laborious and arduous task, and 12 plates would get lost while it was moved from Hamburg to London. Nevertheless, the Atlas became a kind of inventory of pre-coined classical forms based on social psychology expressed in art that would go into history as an unfinished curiosity after Warburg's untimely death in 1929.


Among many other things, the Mnemosyne Atlas came to serve as an important inspiration for Laetitia Gendre in the show The Fake, the Fold and the Erased that is currently on view at Thomas Fischer Gallery in Berlin, in which she chooses to focus not only on the images but also on the repository. The work The Erased (2014) consists of an archival box and a video slide show. In the archival box, on the left hand side, is placed a photo that represents Warburg's library in Hamburg, while on the right hand side there is a pile of 66 graphite drawings made after the plates of the Atlas. Gendre's attention for the outlines of the images in the Atlas becomes a composition of the shapes that is projected in the adjacent video, making the emptiness where the images would normally be even more obvious. Warburg himself would ceaselessly revise and review the shape of the images in the Atlas, proofs of which can be found in many of his notebooks filled with compositions. In this gesture Gendre might be alluding to the Atlas' 'being in-between times,' a space that has been subject to several studies. Warburg himself coined the Atlas as 'an iconology of the interval' (1) while Giorgio Agamben stated that between these images is residing ‘the dark demon of an unnamed science whose contours we are only today beginning to glimpse’ (2). A similar ghostly play is undoubtedly present in the video Wind on a Reel (2013), projected on the full size of the wall upon entering the exhibition. The black and white grainy image shows two large rolls of white paper that are peacefully rolling next to each other on a larger machinery, accompanied by classical music which was improvised by a piano player who specializes in music for silent movies. As the tension that was built up by the piano tones' upward and downward movement finally reached a catharsis when the paper got stuck, an anti-climax brought me right back to reality, to a realization that the video is in fact a piece of footage from a paper factory's surveillance camera.


Gendre's medium is drawing, but it is a medium that she approaches with a painterly eye, informed by an early career as a painter. It's not hard to imagine Gendre as a painter, a painter who concentrates on materiality and the canvas, a sensitivity that can be found in the large 3D paper sculptures that she has made in the past years. A remnant of this approach can be found in the work Time Out (2014), a trompe l'oeil 3D wall which upon closer inspection is built from graphite on paper, held together with thin wooden beams. The one-meter-tall brick wall that creates the atmosphere of a film set is an echo of a brick wall that appeared in a black and white photograph one room earlier in the show. Both walls are missing one brick in the middle of the upper row of bricks. During my visit to the show, Gendre explained that she got fascinated by the small wall because it was made solely for the purpose of an inauguration ceremony, the festive laying of the first brick of a new building. As the construction of the building had been postponed, the wall ended up on a deserted piece of land overgrown with plants, a receptacle waiting for its moment to be significant. 


If 'the erased' and 'the fake' are found in these works, 'the fold' is apparent in Tonight (2014), a large poster that is presented under a light like a poster in a movie theatre, composed of a collage of digital images that Gendre has redrawn by hand, folded, photographed and then printed. ‪This work, presented in the middle of the exhibition, introduces a series of paper works in the last exhibition space, a counterpoint of vivid images of frightened women, screaming faces, and grappling hands. They are collected emotional scenes copied from classical art and used to advertise films genres like horror and sci-fi movies. Based on the references to paper in the show at a certain point I wrongly assumed that Gendre's research is about the materiality of drawing. I believe it is in part, but the premise is much more complex, and it is clearly conveyed in these works with screaming images. Gendre shares with Warburg an anxiety that places art in the heart of civilization. According to Warburg, art creates a provisional balance between on the one hand the unconscious and natural forces and on the other hand the conscious and reason - nothing less than a condition for survival. In carrying forward Warburg's anxiety, Gendre starts a process that allows for a rereading between the lines of classical and contemporary visual heritage, and in doing so she is paying homage to Warburg's approach yet again.

1. Schapiro, Meyer, Style, Art et Société, ed. Gallimard, Paris, 1999, p.36

2. Giorgio Agamben, ‘Aby Warburg and the Nameless Science’, in Potentialities, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1999, p. 90.