Reflections on the Work of Elisabeth Rosenthal
In his famous Treatise on Water Leonardo da Vinci describes »a method of escaping in a tempest and shipwreck at sea«. To save yourself, he writes, you need »a coat made of leather, which must be double across the breast, that is having a hem on each side of about a finger’s breadth. Thus it will be double from the waist to the knee; and the leather must be quite air-tight. When you want to leap into the sea, blow out the skirt of your coat through the double hems of the breast, […] and allow yourself to be carried by the waves; when you see no shore near, give your attention to the sea you are in«.iHis recommendation to pilots in the rather likely event of a crash adheres to much the same principle. An inflatable ring, so he posits in Codice sul volo degli uccelli(1505), should prevent the worst.ii For Leonardo, whose sketches of lifebelts are the oldest to have come down to us, such safety devices – such insignia of potential failure – were the foremost attribute of any would-be adventurer. Indeed, the proto-modern hero of his flights of discovery bore neither sword nor shield, but rather wings or fins and some manner of harness. No lifebelt, no glory.
Elisabeth Rosenthal’s »Sailor-Single« seems to embody this early message to modern human beings in their quest to reach the highest and deepest and farthest corners of the universe. It is emblematised by her 2010 photograph Glory, in which the artist’s alter ego, holding a large white wing, poses in front of a bright orange freight container emblazoned with the word »GLORY«. At once sailor and figurehead, angel and siren, the solo traveller at the core of Rosenthal’s artistic practice wears her lifebelt in a manner both proud and matter-of-fact. The same can be said of the rope that – contrary to the severed umbilical cord it evokes – could be attached to anything, anywhere, at any time, if the going were to get tough. For all the metamorphoses of her predominantly white uniform, and for all the variety of her stylised equipment, Sailor-Single never goes without her belt. Indeed, without this endlessly enabling marvel of modern technology – and its inadvertent invocation of failure – Rosenthal’s complex persona never embarks on a voyage. Yet what is the nature of her journey? And where might it take her and us?
Up on the roof, to begin with. Like Leonardo, who kept his eye on the birds for years in the hope of one day emulating their flight, Sailor-Single ever and again finds herself drawn to the haunts and habits of winged creatures. Whether the sun is shining, or snow is falling, Rosenthal’s seemingly nostalgic explorer perches up high in the otherwise seldom frequented places favoured by birds. Caught up in a process of perpetual fledging, Sailor-Single adopts multifarious avian poses. As attested by the artist’s roof photo series, begun in 2008, she is fascinated less by the mechanics and mathematics of flight than she is by feathered existence per se. What appears to so reliably capture Rosenthal’sattention is the lingering of birds in improbably precarious places, their sublime perspective, their profound knowledge of materials, their cheerful will to rearrange their environment, their unbridled freedom of movement and, at the same time, their unabashedly imitation- and variation-based interaction with one another. One bird calls, another one answers. And thus – as the artist shows in Birdywork, performed several times since 2008 – a conversation ensues. This nuanced exchange between all manner of voices renders palpable not only the inherently mimetic nature of human communication and action, but also the social and productive relationship that exists between imitation and creativity, between the grasping and making of worlds that forms the basis of Elisabeth Rosenthal’s artistic practice.
In the artist’s performance installations, sailing the seven seas of imitation proves an equally complex and creative endeavour. Whether we consider the Arbeitsplatz (Workplace) she installed in 2008 at the Hochschule für Bildende Künste in Dresden or the Archiv (Archive) she conceived in 2015 for the Kunsthalle HGN in Duderstadt, there is a palpable tension in her work between the frequently referenced topoi of cultural history and the processual aspects of chance, between well-rehearsed actions and formal innovation. On the one hand, we invariably find Sailor-Single at the helm. Her pantomimic facial expressions and gestures are similarly prescribed. Her costume, poised between film star and fetish, is an integral part of each performance. Fancy, chauffeur-driven motor cars are her transport of choice; snap hooks and ropes her faible. And wherever she goes, she seems to encounter a familiar repertory of flotsam and jetsam: mattresses, plastic buckets, foam mats and wooden blocks. Yet, on the other hand, for all the recurring elements we might encounter, the role of the shipwrecked showgirl is always a new one. Her stage is forever shifting, as are the challenges of the performance and the sculptural objects with which she surrounds herself. In the highly artificial world of the sailor – an environment under constant reconstruction – there emerges a dynamics of perpetual rehearsal, a culture of skilful unfinishedness, an aesthetic of »failing again« and »failing better« that would inevitably invoke Samuel Beckettiii were the whole thing not so delightfully camp.iv
Even if Sailor-Single hadn’t impersonated camp icon Carmen Miranda – see »The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat« (1943) – on several occasions, it would be hard to overlook Rosenthal’s affinity for this mode of aesthetic experience. Her affection for the artificial and popular, for glamour and hyperbole, makes everything she does in the context of her artistic practice, whether its playing a paper piano or lip-syncing golden oldies, appear in quotation marks. She turns a clock into a »clock«, as it were, or a woman into a »woman«, to cite Susan Sontag’s example in her seminal »Notes on ›Camp‹« (1964). The artist conceives of being and existence as »playing a role«. She theatricalises experience.v And, in her charmingly non-didactic manner, she explores what, since Judith Butler, has come to be known as the performativity of gender.vi
Despite the artist’s overt affection for the camp sensibility, one cannot help but wonder whether Rosenthal’s alter ego is not about more than mere role play, about more than the proposition of a consistently aesthetic experience of the world, or the contestation of social norms. For in contrast to the travesties of a femme queen, the artist’s project is both universal in scope and worldmaking. In her interrogation of imitation, which she articulates in all the media available to the visual arts, everything is at stake. Of primary importance is the creation of new forms, emergence, becoming. Indeed, the artist’s sea may well be imagined and her sailor modelled on a pin-up girl, yet the indispensable lifebelt worn by Sailor-Single seems less ironic than heroic. Like Arthur Rimbaud’s »Drunken Boat«, Rosenthal’s solo traveller embodies a special model of creativity. In the work of the artist, the Romantic metaphor of the sea passage as a process of subjectification similarly gives way to a new metaphor of formulation. Rosenthal’s »I« is also »another«,vii a Sailor-Single who doesn’t think, but is thought, who is less concerned with reflecting on the world around her than with taking part in the processes that make up that world, by means of imitation, creation and transformation.
i Leonardo da Vinci, The Da Vinci Notebooks (London: Profile Books, 2005), 129.
ii See Blanche Stillson, »The Labours of Leonardo da Vinci«, in Wings: Insects, Birds, Men (Indianapolis and New York: Bobbs Merrill: 1954), 201–213 at 210.
iii See Samuel Beckett’s late prose piece »Worstward Ho« (1983), in Nohow On: Company, Ill Seen, Ill Said, Worstward Ho (New York: Grove Press, 1996), 87–116 at 89.
iv Susan Sontag describes this »post-dandy« phenomenon as a »love of the unnatural: of and artifice and exaggeration«, as a sensibility that finds the »success in certain passionate failures«, as a preference for surfaces, imitation and travesty. See Sontag, »Notes on ›Camp‹« (1964), in Against Interpretation (London: Vintage, 1994), 275–292 at 275, 280, 291.
v Ibid., 286.
vi See Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990) (London and New York: Routledge, 2006).
vii The famous sentences »Je est un autre« and »C’est faux de dire: je pense. On devrait dire: on me pense« appeared in Rimbaud’s Lettres du Voyant (1871), see Arthur Rimbaud, Complete Works, Selected Letters, trans. Wallace Fowlie (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1966), 302–311