Bernhard Sachs: A Space of Lostness - Art Collector

Issue 38, October - December 2006

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Bernhard Sachs treats his images as allegories; lost, erased and misremembered. Ingrid Periz believes this is an indication the artist is entering his own late phase.

Bernhard Sachs has been exhibiting for more than 20 years, during which time he’s studied in Germany and been awarded residencies at the Paris Cité International des Arts and New York’s PS1 Institute of Contemporary Art. His work has been seen in China, Japan, Spain and the United Kingdom and, as his numerous self-penned catalogue essays reveal, he is a sophisticated exegete of his own practice. But when I ask him to describe his work and career he laughs. “An image occurs to me,” he says. “I’m in a lift pushing buttons, but there’s a radical disconnect between the buttons you push and the floor you get to.”

Sachs avoids facile answers but his Kafka-esque image hints at some of the abiding preoccupations of his work: the particular historical weight of European culture, guarded and undone by the German masters of suspicion – Freud, Nietzsche, Marx – all this worked through a later, indelibly French, critique of representation. Lest this sound like a postgraduate seminar in literary theory, it’s important to note that Sachs’s work is anything but dry. Images, particularly cinematic ones, engage him. A skilled draftsman and printmaker, his drawings are beautiful, and the elaborate, brooding environments he creates in gallery spaces powerfully and physically affecting. As he puts it, “the aesthetic has become a corrective to the linguistic turn” in his thinking about art.

Sachs’s earliest public work in the mid-1980s concerned migration and his own history: Sachs is a second generation Australian, the son of a German immigrant father and an Australian mother of German descent. Uncomfortable with the autobiographical turn of this, he shifted his interest, using the history of painting as his material. He explains: “The history of painting is like a museum of images you carry around in your head. I call these images ghosts. While I may or may not be dealing with painting as a medium in any specific work, I deal with it as an idea. One never leaves the ghost of painting.” Two art historical themes that recur in Sachs’s work are versions of Judith slaying Holofernes, and the vision of St. Eustace where the martyr sees a crucifix between a stag’s antlers. In the densely material exhibitions that followed this shift, Sachs used a principle of accretion in his photographs and large drawings, building up and layering references. His residency at PS1 10 years later marked a definitive change. While in New York –“the financial black hole of the art world, sucking everything in” – Sachs began physically reworking his own work, often to the point of disappearance or erasure. Since that time, he has used erasure both literally and conceptually, mining art history as well as his own earlier practice, in order to consider history’s traces.

(Reconstruction of) The Polish Game, an exhibition at the artists’ collective Ocular Lab space in Brunswick Street in 2004 is a good example of his method. Responding to the space itself and operating without a plan, Sachs drew on every surface of the exhibition space over a five-week period. During this time he produced a series of large-scale charcoal drawings that referred, distantly, to the history of painting for they were conceived as x-ray images of fictional masterpieces. To these doubly obscured references to art history he added graffitied slogans from Italy’s terrorist Red Brigade and, shifting sensory registers, concluded his work with the remains of a dinner party, Cassoulet Alexandrin di Rizkalla, in collaboration with fellow Ocular Lab member, Alex Rizkalla. Viewers were able to watch Sachs at work during limited intervals over the five weeks, while the end result was viewable only within a four hour period at the end of the procedure. The result, with its allusions to failed utopias, radical violence, outmoded aesthetics, and interrupted pleasure was, in Sachs’s phrase, “an operatic set of false memories”.

In writing about this work, Sachs mentions filmmakers Pier Paolo Pasolini, Bernardo Bertolucci and Liliana Cavani along with the writer Alberto Moravia, Italians all and all creators of claustrophobic visions of doomed European worlds. (Reconstruction of) The Polish Game inhabited the same kind of atmosphere with Sachs’s drawings covering the windows of the Brunswick Street venue, creating a bunker similar in effect to his exhibition Das Fatale: the Paranoiac Critical Method held earlier this year at the Victorian College of the Arts. Bunkers suggest finality, or at least its expectation, but with Sachs’s mise-en-scenes it is difficult to tell whether the end is nigh or been and gone.

Viewers get to judge for themselves in The Paranoiac Critical Method— Chloroform Vision of St. Eustace, Sachs’s November exhibition at Spacement’s basement space in Melbourne. Here the sense of transience produced by waiting rooms serves as an oblique reference as Sachs pushes the experience of arrested or failed narratives in a worked over, layered environment. Drawings of x-rayed paintings – the paintings again are fictions, this time of late works by Titian and Goya – are combined with mural-sized oil paintings on wooden panels and very large etchings. The images these bear all relate to St. Eustace’s vision but here the stag’s head is decapitated and relocated, occasionally on a plate like St John the Baptist after his encounter with Salome. Any remaining wall surface has been covered in stained newspapers, and the space punctuated by odd objects like a bicycle, partially painted in cheap gold paint.

Sachs’s fictitious images circulate in what he calls “a space of lostness,” called up in this installation in a newsprint-shrouded space that could be equally a demolition site or renovating job. (This undecidability is part of the plan.) It may be that Sachs, who has been delving into the late works of Goya and Titian, has entered into his own “late” phase where, as he notes, “the work either plateaus into caricature through repetition or, as in Titian and Goya, it develops a dense, sensuous, evasive language.” Allegory is the name for this last kind of language and it’s as allegories that Sachs treats his images: lost, erased, mis-remembered. Like history itself, he would say, not going anywhere but stalled in one of those ante-rooms where “no-one lives … but everyone is here one way or another.” •

Works by Bernhard Sachs will be showing at Spacement Gallery, Melbourne in November 2006.

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