Catalogue entry

T04921 City 1985 Stadt

Charcoal on machine-made wove paper 2720 × 3790 (107 × 149 1/4)
Inscribed ‘L.I.S. | M.2.11.85’ and ‘Stadt 3.80’ on back b.r.
Purchased from Galerie Stampa, Basel (Grant-in-Aid) 1987
Lit: Sandy Nairne, State of the Art: Ideas and Images in the 1980s, 1987, pp.109–14

City’ [T04921] and ‘Mountains’ [T04922] are two large-scale charcoal drawings depicting imaginary aerial views over a city and a mountain range respectively. In both pictures the dominant compositional lines, which are the streets in T04921 and the valleys in T04922, recede towards a vanishing point on the horizon, like furrows in a field. The pictures also share a swirling mass of black charcoal marks depicting a thunderous storm. Some of these marks are drawn, others are smudged with fingers, hands and knees. The artist's footprints are visible in both works, particularly in ‘City’.

‘City’ is made of two sheets of paper joined with tape and glue, the joining line being quite visible on the left side of the picture. ‘Mountains’ comprises a single sheet. The overwhelming scale of both drawings is a device used to draw the viewer into the pictures. In conversation on 14 June 1994, the artist told the compiler that in the early 1980s she began to conceive her work in the form of room installations as she wanted the viewer to be forced into a physical relationship with the work, ‘to respond with the whole body to an art environment’.

Both works belong to a series of eight charcoal landscape drawings made on a similar scale between 26 October and 2 November 1985. The other six are: ‘Meer’ (‘Sea’); ‘Hügel’ (‘Hills’, repr. Strategische Orte, exh. cat., Staatliche Kunsthalle, Baden-Baden 1985, pp.11–12); ‘Stadt’ (‘City’, Nationalversicherung, Basel, repr. ibid., pp.13–14); ‘See’ (‘Lake’); ‘Berge’ (‘Mountains’, Nationalversicherung, Basel, repr. ibid., pp.9–10); ‘Fluss’ (‘River’). All of the works give the viewer the sensation of moving over a landscape at a great height. In a letter of 15 June 1994 the artist explained to the compiler that the drawings were conceived as a ‘variable room-installation’. Her intention was to select different works from the series for display at different times. The landscapes were devised as part of a larger installation focusing on two books of drawings made by Cahn in 1984, entitled 2 Seiten (meines Wesens), mit den Kindern und Tieren + A-und H-tests (2 Sides (of my Being), with the Children and Animals and A and H tests). Cahn made two pairs of these books, each pair unique, although the content of both pairs was similar. One pair is now in the Museum of Contemporary Art, Basel. The installation was first exhibited in 1985 as ‘Strategische Orte’ (‘Strategic Places’) at the Staatliche Kunsthalle, Baden-Baden. The form and subject of the landscapes developed out of the books, one of which contained colourful pastels alluding to the light generated by an atomic explosion, the other comprising childlike drawings in black charcoal (repr. Baden-Baden exh. cat., 1985 [p.7]). The books were displayed in the main room, surrounded on the walls by charcoal images of female figures, ancestor heads, animals and children. Three of the works from the landscape series, ‘Berge, 29.9.85’, ‘Hügel, 1.10.85’ and ‘Stadt, 2.10.85’, were selected by Cahn and shown as part of the installation in a neighbouring room (see Annelie Pohlen, ‘Miriam Cahn’, trans. Leslie Strickland, Artforum, vol.24, no.10, Summer 1986, p.136). Although closely related to these works, ‘City’ and ‘Mountains’ differ in that they both have a vanishing point placed roughly in the centre of the picture. The vanishing point is emphasised by a thick, black, receding line representing a valley or road, that leads the eye up the middle of each image until it reaches the horizon line. By comparison with the other works, in which light is more or less restricted to a streak breaking along the horizon, the storms depicted in ‘City’ and ‘Mountains’ convey a greater contrast between light and dark.

In later manifestations of ‘Strategische Orte’, for example, at the Daad Galerie, Berlin in 1986, the artist added watercolours reminiscent of atomic explosions. She described the new arrangement of the works as comprising two spaces, one called water, the other dust:

in the water space, i create big watercolours that depict atom or hydrogen bombs exclusively. they come into existence within seconds: i hurl the three basic colors yellow, magenta, blue from the bottom of the paper to the top (like a nuclear explosion); the colors flow back down (like fallout), slip from my control (like nuclear energy from humankind) and mix together ...
in the dust space i strew the black chalk dust on white papers, i crawl, cower, kneel on the sheets and ‘read’ in the dust with my hands. series and complete spaces emerge, having various titles, among them ‘the careful looking’, ‘with the children + animals’, ‘heads’, ‘my ancestors’, ‘for one minute i myself’, ‘animals calling the water’, ‘bad day’, etc. then there are also ‘strategic places’, landscapes that often form complete spaces: mountains, lakes, seas, hills, islands, cities etc. the name of the process as well as the principle of all works is: READING IN DUST ([the German titles being] L.I.S.).

(The Impossible Self, exh. cat., Winnipeg Art Gallery 1988, pp.45–6)

Both T04921 and T04922 are inscribed with the intials ‘L.I.S.’. All works with this inscription were made according to the artist's working method of ‘LESEN IN STAUB’ (‘READING IN DUST’). She held an exhibition called LESEN IN STAUB at Galerie Schmela in Düsseldorf in 1987. The letter ‘M’ in the inscriptions stands for Miriam.

T04921 and T04922 were made on the floor using charcoal dust and charcoal pieces, which the artist smudged with her palms and fingers. In conversation with the compiler on 14 June 1994, Cahn reported that each work took about half an hour to complete. In this time Cahn ‘lost control’ over the making of the images, relying on her ‘body memory’ to produce the work. By ‘body memory’ the artist refers to physical experiences that may have been erased from the mind but which remain with the body (Cahn discusses ‘body memory’ or ‘Körpergedächtnis’ in ‘Miriam Cahn in einem Gespräch’, Stiller Nachmittage: Aspekte Junger Schweizer Kunst, exh. cat., Kunsthaus, Zürich, p.36). She has written:

When I create these landscapes I stand right in the middle of them, I lie around in them, I'm not actually in control. The breaking of perspective and playing with perspective and removal of perspective are extremely important because it's spatial work which makes people standing in front of it start to hover themselves.

(quoted in Nairne 1987, p.109)

The subject of the landscape is part of Cahn's concept of ‘Strategische Orte’, while ‘LESEN IN STAUB’ describes how they were made. For Cahn, subject and process are inseparable. In both subject-matter and creative process Cahn's intention at this time was to produce a specifically feminine type of work. She became actively involved in the feminist movement in the mid-1970s and a feminist consciousness has subsequently underpinned her working practice. Her first public gesture as an artist, for example, was a site-specific piece called ‘Mein Frausein ist mein öffentlicher Teil’ (‘Being a Woman is my Public Side’), made in December 1979. For this piece she covered the concrete walls and pillars of a motorway bridge in the district of Basel where she was living with large drawings of symbolic objects such as a battleship, a tube shaped like a gun barrel, a television set, blood flowing from a cubicle or house, a bed, and graphic signs for fences and radio masts (repr. Cross-Currents in Swiss Art, exh. cat., Serpentine Gallery 1985, p.5). Her intention was to create archetypal symbols for opposite forces such as male and female, public and private, industry and domesticity. Cahn has written that the landscapes were a logical development of earlier work and particularly of her exhibition Das klassischen Lieben at the Kunsthalle, Basel in 1983. Here she juxtaposed images of machines with female figures in order to draw attention to the polarity between woman's sphere and the outside world dominated by men. Her intention with ‘Strategische Orte’ was to create a work that explored this issue in a more complex way (see Zürich exh. cat., 1987, p.37).

‘Strategische Orte’ dwells on the appropriation of the world by men through military endeavour. The apocalyptic storms raging over the landscapes represent the impending destruction of the earth by man-made weapons such as the atomic bomb. The artist imagined flying over various types of landscape as if in a dream. She has also said that her vision suggests a militarist's view of the earth, as the viewer could be a pilot flying over the landscape in search of his target. In conversation with the compiler the artist suggested that the landscape drawings amalgamate male and female attitudes towards the earth, acknowledging the difficulty of establishing fixed boundaries between the two.

The landscape drawings were made when the artist was on a DAAD (Deutscher Akademischer Austauchdienst) scholarship in Berlin between 1985 and 1986. She told the compiler that living in West Berlin in the mid-1980s, then a heavily protected pocket of West Germany situated within the Eastern block, made her very conscious of war and stimulated the idea of ‘Strategische Orte’. The city of Berlin also confronted Cahn, who is Jewish, with Germany's Nazi past, and stimulated a curiosity about her ancestors and about the Holocaust. When she was living in Berlin Cahn returned regularly to Switzerland and visited the mountains. In conversation with the complier on 14 June 1994 she recalled that this contrast between the city and the mountains made a strong impact on her and directly influenced the making of the landscape series.

Cahn's landscape drawings compare on a superficial level with Anselm Kiefer's romantic landscapes of the 1970s and 1980s (see for example, ‘Maikäfer Flieg’, 1974, repr. A New Spirit in Painting, exh. cat., Royal Academy of Arts 1981, pl.69). However, the artist believes her drawings oppose Kiefer's vision of the landscape. In conversation with the compiler on 14 June 1994, Cahn said that in general Kiefer's landscapes consciously relate to the idea of a national cultural identity, and in particular to the German Romantic tradition. By comparison, her work has less to do with an art historical tradition of landscape than with the changes taking place in the natural environment. In the mid-1980s she felt that her work needed to engage with current political debates, for example, feminism and Green Party issues, such as global warming. As T04921 and T04922 were made on the floor, Cahn was not aware of quite how dramatic they would look once fixed to a wall and was surprised to see how romantic they appeared with their emphasis on the horizon line and with their suggestion of agitated, moody atmospheres. This prompted her to make later landscape drawings quite differently (see, for example, ‘Berge’, 11.6.1985, in which the horizon line is pushed to the top of the drawing, diminishing its impact, and ‘1 weiblicher Monat (nachkrieg’), 21.7.91, an image of a mountain range which almost dispenses with the horizon completely, both repr. Miriam Cahn, Was Mich Anschaut, Darmstadt 1993, p.50).

Cahn has made numerous groups of landscape drawings similar in scale to ‘City’, ‘Mountains’ and their related works, although she cannot recall the exact number or whereabouts of these works. One of these groups comprised four works made between December 1986 and January 1987 (repr. Tekenen 87, exh. cat., Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam 1987, p.23). All of her landscapes, including T04921 and T04922, were made from memory or imagination. In such later landscape drawings as ‘1 weiblicher Monat (nachkrieg)’ the artist attempted to push her working method to its limit by making the drawing with her eyes closed.

Once begun, the making of ‘City’ and ‘Mountains’ was directed by Cahn's physical energy rather than by a preconceived design. She worked on the series in tandem with the rhythm of her menstrual cycle, ceasing to work during menstruation. Works are dated so that their relation to her menstural cycle is clearly recorded. She noticed that the most effective time for her to produce work was just before her period started and she identified the premenstrual works in the series by inscribing them with the title ‘blutungsarbeit’. Relying on her body to determine her working practice Cahn hoped to produce a feminine art that would counterbalance the dominant masculine values in Western art and culture. She has written:

It used to be said that a woman was nervous before her period and nowadays a woman is capable of working with it. It is certainly a form of energy which exists. I really do structure my work in this way ... It is really something very simple and something of an everyday nature and is concerned with the fact that I really would like women's culture to gain more importance again. At least that it should have equality with men's culture.

(quoted in Nairne 1987, p.113)

The artist told the compiler that her emphasis on the body as the determining factor in her work was stimulated by the positive atmosphere of the 1970s, by political activism and the feminist movement. Her working practice was directly influenced by the performance art of that decade (Cahn has since presented her first performance piece, ‘Kurze Stücke’ (‘Short Piece’), on 7 June 1994 at the Galerie Stampa, Basel). She especially admired the performance art of German feminist Ulrick Rosenbach (born 1943), who from the early 1980s developed themes around her identity as a woman, and also the North American Vito Acconci (born 1940), who has been a leading exponent of body art since the early 1970s.

Neither T04921 nor T04922 are fixed or framed and when installed they are pinned to the wall. This lack of concern for the longevity of the works stems from Cahn's opposition to what she sees as a male dominated museum culture. She has written:

Fixing and framing is a matter of maintaining thè work for posterity. I think that's nonsense. The idea is more important to me than maintaining a work. The fact that it's so delicate is connected to the fact that one should be able to just tell by looking at it that time has passed. Some of the dust should fall off it, it should change somewhat, it should be transformed by touching.

(quoted in Nairne 1997, p.114)

This entry has been approved by the artist.

Published in:
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996