Arctic Violet

Seven Leaves for Paula Doepfner


1 Image and text, text and image

As makers of images and creators of objects, artists generally have quite a pragmatic relationship to the world of text and things laid down writing. In the context of a work of art, writing usually leads a diminished existence in the form of quotations and phrases in that specific idiom, footnotes and titles at the peripheries of images. The most widespread form is the accompanying text written after the fact: everything that grows up around a work of art in the form of ekphrastic description, art-historical theories, articles in art journals and commentaries in catalogues (such as this).

But the surfaces of panel paintings have featured all manner of script for centuries. At the height of the Christian era, in the period of Gothic painting, almost all imagery was based on Holy Scripture. Very few things that were painted, carved in wood or cast in metal existed independently of writing. Biblical quotations and the words of the evangelists were commonplace in the form of banners or speech bubbles, as inscriptions within the bounds of the image as well as on the frame. This changed during the Renaissance with the introduction of single-point perspective. From then on, writing had to be incorporated as an object, as an artefact in letters. It had to come, says art historian Peter Bürger, with its own rationale, “(as a page in an open book, for example), otherwise it was perceived by the viewer as a foreign body that was liable to spoil the illusion.”

With the return of pagan (mythological) motifs and the emergence of humanism and Neo-Platonism, the poetry of classical authors such as Horace, Virgil and Augustine grew in significance. From this point on there was a profusion of mnemonics and conundrums, hieroglyphs and philosophical aphorisms. In paintings by Netherlandish artists, proverbs and sayings celebrated festive pictorial lives of their own. Now the motifs could be drawn from contemporary literature, too, from the sacred and profane literature of the Baroque. The relationship between text and image was no longer that of literary source to illustration. Emancipated emblems and textual meanings began to compete for deeper meaning, intersecting and creating their own iconographic-semantic space.

This was how it went, from Ovid to Rubens and well beyond Goethe’s time, fired by the invention of the printing press, alternating with changing techniques in painting, historical events and circumstances. Then, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, text suddenly made a massive incursion into the territory of the image. Goya’s aquatint cycles Los Caprichos and Los Desastres de la Guerra, with their sarcastic commentaries penned by the painter himself, are representative of this process.

Before long the first newspapers started to appear, the heirs to pamphlets and printed proclamations. Graphics and visuals had been used to amplify the effect of textual propaganda ever since the Reformation, but at this point their relationship started to become increasingly complicated, their appearance on the page ever more aggressive.

Compelled by social developments and crises, text and image, script and pictography began to diverge; painting lost out. But it wasn’t long before it rediscovered its own intrinsic visual laws. It locked itself away behind the closed doors of aesthetics and defended itself with optical illusions, a means that no other medium could deploy. From now on, though, the emergent autonomy of the modern arts (for ultimately Modernism was just that) would at the same time be that of modern literature.

Victor Hugo, both author and draftsman, was one of its pioneers, Stéphane Mallarmé its closest harbinger; these and Charles Baudelaire, their master and commander, were succeeded by the free spirits of Modernism (who for various reasons made the greatest strides in France, originator of all future revolutions of western culture). Guillaume Apollinaire was one bearer of the new message. His calligrammes dealt graphic blows to the confines of alphabetic space, exploding the pages of the book, which had been limited for so long to text and its printed form.

From this point on, text began to migrate into the modern arts and had soon settled down to enjoy total sovereignty there.

Dada discovered the sound poem as a play on the potential of the letter case – for it was the letters that came first; the sounds came after. Raoul Hausmann printed posters featuring nothing but letters in the most language-averse combinations, as mere consonant soup. Tristan Tzara and his co-Dadaists were the first to print text obliquely onto the pages of pamphlets and magazines with graphics, symbols and slogans so heavily offset as to cause loss of hearing and vision in the viewer. This campaign ran parallel to the concurrent emergence of abstract (one could also say analytical) painting, the first form of painting to call all existing modes of painterly representation into question. Movements in modern painting came and went in quick succession: Futurism, Fauvism, Expressionism, Cubism, Verism, Constructivism, Orphism, Vorticism, Suprematism and so on.

Just a little later, all these isms were systematically dissected, satirised and correlated. Dadaist Hans Arp and Constructivist El Lissitzky were the first to subject these assorted avant-garde tendencies to the scrutiny of collaborative study and to illustrate them in a book. And after that, like a snake from a charmer’s basket, Surrealism crept out into the light of day, tailoring its own dreams from texts, images, objects and photographs by means of collage, psycho-analysis and the technique of superimposition.

Alongisde this there had always been other autonomous spirits, Modernist outsiders who followed their own intuitions. One of the best known among these solitary types is Paul Klee, who developed his very own type of textual and pictorial narrative, a graphic-poetic amalgam. Virtually the only other person to fly this flag in the twentieth century was the enigmatic Cy Twombly, an American from the pop era who became the subject of a pioneering study by the philosopher Roland Barthes: “Cy Twombly ou ‘Non multa sed multum'” – do one thing well rather than too much at once.

As free thinkers, artists pursue their own strategies when it comes to literature. They make use of texts, read their favourite authors, learn from philosophers, internalise the theory they needs to get along (often swallowing it down like a medicine – the bitter pill of concepts). Their books keep them busy for a while, as they do everyone. But when they’re working on canvas in the studio, with malleable stuff, the books are put aside and act only in the background, at the same desolate level as residual dreams and news stories.

The work of Berlin artist Paula Doepfner uses writing in a particularly unusual way.


2 Steady hand, steady eye

Paula Doepfner works with text in her pictures. You don’t see it at first, not from a distance. It’s only on approaching the glass encasements of her often large and seemingly filigree drawings that the lines, curves, grids and nets suddenly become lines of text. And the viewer has to step even closer to be able to decipher what’s written there, closer than any museum invigilator would allow, because to do so might set off the alarm.

Now it becomes clear: the linear textures and grid-like structures of her pictures are actually made up of letters, line upon line of tiny black letters written in the most delicate of hands over hours and days of patiently meticulous labour with the finest of fine-line pens: a Rapidograph 0.13. This sort of work evidently calls for a steady hand and a steady eye.

Doepfner has both of these qualtities in spades, as one soon realises on meeting her. The first thing you’re struck by is her searching gaze, an insistent, emphatic gaze that fixes and challenges you. Then her hands – the small, vigorous, down-to-earth hands of an artisan. I didn’t try a handshake, but I’d be willing to bet it’s pretty firm.

Doepfner is an uncommonly friendly person. She has the gift of being intensely receptive. She responds to people with a radiant attentiveness that temporarily excludes all else. This says nothing about her art, of course, though to a certain extent it does precede it; certainly it underlies all the artistic endeavours she turns her hand to. And at the very least it provides a starting point for better understanding the precision of her work. Everything she does involves this penetrating gaze, the ordering ductus of her definite hand. Her works are all very different – works on paper, on shattered glass, works with dried flowers, shrubs and branches, works in ice and metal trays – and yet this one quality holds everything together and ties up the loose ends.


3 Meditation exercises

What does she do exactly? She covers the page with script. She fills the white sheet of handmade gampi paper (a particularly sensitive, semi-transparent type of paper from Japan) with countless miniature majuscules. You could almost see it as a silent, microcosmic clash of civilizations. Latin calligraphic tradition, the marching columnar script of the world-conquering Romans, meets Asiatic ethereality and restraint. Hidden antitheses and contradictions such as this crop up time and again in Doepfner’s work.

That’s her handwriting, but rather than personal notes it writes quotes from other authors. Those are her capital letters in a neat hand, but they’re so small as to verge on illegibility. That’s the paper, but it’s a paper like milk glass, behind which the contours of things disappear as though in a fog. There are blocks of ice with things frozen inside them – plants, seeds and sheets of paper inscribed with felt-tip pens – but the ice melts over the duration of the exhibition; this is intended, so its lifespan is kept short. Doepfner uses glass as a protective layer and as a way of making things visible, but the glass is cracked, has been violently shattered or lies on the floor in a heap of shards, now a hazard in its own right. There are large metal trays, but these are filled with liquid that corrodes the metal until, consumed by rust, it loses its colour.

In truth, then, many of the contradictions are processes. This term has had a new resonance in the art world ever since Joseph Beuys. The emphasis on process has consigned works of art to an organic temporal order, demonstratively delivering them up to decay and decomposition. It has created a new sensibility for natural changes (metamorphoses) in material (matter).

The fact that even paintings age was not lost on Marcel Duchamp; he was the first to realise its full implications. In his youth he saw the faded, musty colours of the Old Masters in the museums, saw the craquelure of tired canvasses and knew what was in store for even the freshest of modern works. He was so horrified at this that he renounced painting and started work on a large reverse glass (Le Grand Verre). It would occupy him for decades but remained unfinished until it too was broken in transit. Duchamp took it well, for it seemed to validate his attitude of indifference to all things. The signs of its destruction later became integral parts of the work; the damaged version can now be seen at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

And it is no coincidence that it was glass – the material glass – that provided him with a potential escape from the tunnels of panel painting. Glass as a window and room-divider: two panes of glass in a metal frame, installed in the middle of the space as a translucent screen (another one of those paradoxes).

Doepfner has also found a way of dealing with the disastrous effects of time. Knowing full well that she can never arrest decay, she places it centre stage, makes it the focus of attention. One of her processes consists in putting as much life-time as possible into a single image. Hence the concentration on drawn-out handwriting, hence the many meditative hours of copying by hand at the easel. Much the same exercise was practised for centuries by monks in their scriptoriums before the invention of the letterpress. These monastic scribes were copyists too, filigrists who garlanded many a letter with foliage and flora. As it is here, copying back then was an exercise in humility and patience and was thought to foster the forgetting of time and the self. But it was also a process of physical appropriation and was more intensive than mere learning by heart. What could deliberate mnemonic exercises possibly have on the many states of consciousness that arise in the act of copying? It is said that many of the medieval scribes were actually illiterate and that others often only possessed a passive, superficial knowledge of Latin. Perfection was the total obliteration of any trace of the individual – even his own handwriting.

Doepfner wouldn’t go that far, but then why should she? She makes her drawings without any kind of expedient, neither rulers, magnifying glasses nor spectacles. She works with the naked eye, which suggests quite phenomenal eyesight – it seems to be a special talent. You sense that someone like her doesn’t need an optician, that making out the letters on their reading charts wouldn’t be much trouble for her at all. Even the smallest typeface would probably be far too big for her. It used to be quite common to see poetry printed on these test charts; on one occasion I saw the following lines in diminishing sizes, like a visualisation of the transience of all things, an allegory of the gradual waning of consciousness:

Who’ll remember you when you’re dead and gone?
Within a year perhaps still plenty,
After ten maybe one,
Not a soul after twenty.


4 Nouns, nerves and neurons

But what does this minute and barely legible text leave the viewer with? Perhaps the promise of legibility. It triggers something off that otherwise only books can set in motion; the image simultaneously invites and impedes reading. In this respect it comes close to the ideal of the open book (Le Livre) conceived but not realised as a mobile work of art by the poet Stéphane Mallarmé. At the same time, this approach to writing also points to the fundamental problem of hermeneutics: the comprehensibility and ambiguity of text.

But the first impression these drawings make is graphic and illustrative. It’s no coincidence that the tendrils of script, the lexical entrails and the branches of text that criss-cross the page recall the neural networks of neuroscience. One could almost think of them as script neurons and text synapses. They resemble early illustrations of the fine histoid structure of the central nervous system, specifically those made around 1900, with the help of a new histological staining process, by the Spanish physician Ramón y Cajal, one of the scientists credited with the discovery of the neuron.

This association is by no means arbitrary; it springs from a motif that’s central to Doepfner’s works and forms the conceptual link between many of them. Doepfner says she’s interested in the problem of consciousness. One of the authorities whose writings she consults and frequently cites is the Australian philosopher David Chalmers, cognitive scientist and proponent of a non-reductionist theory of consciousness. Besides passages from his magnum opus, The Conscious Mind, many of Doepfner’s images contain excerpts from the anthology Philosophy of Mind, epistemological positions from Descartes to the present. One such quotation says the following: “A central element of neuroscientific research on consciousness is the quest for neuronal correlates of consciousness.”

The associated drawing bears the title Foundationed deep, somehow, and there’s a bunch of mint suspended at its top edge, stuck to the paper as a dried specimen in the manner of a herbarium. The motto is taken from “My Back Pages,” an early song by the music legend Bob Dylan. As in many of Doepfner’s works, the lyric here mediates between the parallel idioms of art and science. It may well be that it refers in passing to the verso of the drawing, the invisible side of the image. That said, her drawings on Japan paper, her blocks of ice, her sheets of glass always play with the possibility of translucency, too, even if it’s an optical illusion. For in a sense the backs of her images are always also the fronts, and vice versa.

If one end of Doepfner’s expressive range is marked by the prose of scientific writing (in the most arid form of analytical philosophy), at the other stands the language of poetry. Sometimes the two are allowed to run side by side without mediation. Other than philosophical texts and quotations from scientific literature, Doepfner also quotes liberally from poems by the likes of Giuseppe Ungaretti and his German contemporaries, though Robert Musil’s Man without Qualities and Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet are also among her most frequently cited sources. Besides that she is particularly spellbound by the writings of the mystics and the idea “that writing passes through us.” The titular lyrics all stem from singers and singer-songwriters such as Bob Dylan, Bessie Smith, Odetta, Robert Johnson, Blind Willie Johnson and others. They extend the whole into a musical dimension, neatly adhering to Mallarmé’s poetic principle: “I say ‘a flower’ and… the absentee, sweet idea itself, rises up in music.” A quote from Ungaretti, written in the original Italian in vanishingly small text below a large, dried bridal bouquet, provides the perfect affirmation: “Eternally | Between the picking and giving of a flower | Inexpressible nothingness.”

Alongside this there are Doepfner’s own dream notations, which always seem to revolve around the problem of consciousness, its departure and return, its focus on an object and its diffusion in spirits. The illusion of the ego as an apparent continuum of consciousness.


5 Flowers in ice

Here we see them, all these flowers, beyond everyday use, this side of the neuronal networks of writing (which denotes forgetting, since it preserves ideas for everyone and no-one, at once available to and withdrawn from the reader, beyond individuals, who develop their own language through the books they read over the course of a lifetime).

Flowers, removed from the occasions for which they were intended – birthdays, weddings, festivities – taken out of vases, picked from the borders of fields, conserved under laboratory conditions. It soon becomes clear that these works of art are very far from immortal. Flowers can last a long time, preserved between the pages of a book, consigned to poetry albums, professionally prepared in herbariums. The botanical collections of Humboldt and Darwin spring to mind here, the natural history collections of many a museum and archive. The collector knows his work of art has an expiry date; it’s a time bomb ticking inaudibly.

We see them pressed, affixed behind glass; their dried blossoms, their crinkled, tattered, dishevelled stems, wedding bouquets, occasional posies, tender gifts from one loving friend to another. Sometimes no more than a single, almost skeletal leaf carried off into the sphere of art and death deferred.

More decisively than Joseph Beuys or Rebecca Horn (her tutor at Berlin’s Universität der Künste), Doepfner’s work has concentrated on the language of flowers; a clandestine language – what else?

Poppies, thyme, delphiniums, gentians, wild roses, elderflower, anemones, ivy, Japanese bloodgrass, pansies – many of them cultivated by Doepfner herself. It’s hard to believe, but she even cultivates ferns and horsetails in her laboratory, plants with their origins in distant geological eras. Others are found, such as the Italian touch-me-not, while some, like most of the lilies and orchids, are bought; Doepfner was especially taken with their vein formations.

The dry and the liquid form another pair of opposites in Doepfner’s work. There are the pressed flowers, preserved by the removal of water, and there are those conserved in ice, swimming in water, left to putrefaction and temporary exhibition. Their outstanding attributes are their colour pigments. They radiate every colour of the fruits of this earth. One of the most impressive tones is a certain arctic violet that often recurs. The only question is how long its radiance will last – an open question entirely appropriate to the open-ended logic of the work. Yet the artist is not really interested in the aesthetics of the fragmentary, in the sort of unfinished or abandoned works that formed the focal point of the famous study by Umberto Eco. Doepfner’s themes are memory and transience, which tend to be disavowed by a theory of art that espouses the processes of decay and dissolution. This may explain her ice fixation.

The eternal ice in drill samples taken from the frozen regions of the globe contains some of the most incredible information about space-time. In Iceland, for example, there is a library that keeps an archive of nothing but drill cores: the Library of Water in the coastal town of Stykkishólmur. I still regret not being able to take up the invitation to go there; I just couldn’t fit it in at the time. The place has been made famous by the documentary work of American photo artist Roni Horn, and I wonder whether Doepfner might somehow find her way there one day.

In the Antarctic, where the European ice coring project has been going on for so many years, there have been experiments that drilled down to 3,000 metres. As a result scientists now estimate the duration of the ice age at around 810,000 years. Flowers frozen in ice are a cautious indicator of the early processes in the earth’s development, of geological periods devoid of organic matter; no single-cell organisms, no chlorophyll and thus no plants. A Chinese proverb says that those who get to know men will love animals. A friend of mine from Berlin, a writer, says that those who know animals love plants. Those who know plants…


6 Berlin studio

I hop onto my Vespa. An appointment at the artist’s studio near Alexanderplatz. It’s a Friday in April, a radiant spring day in Berlin.

Paula meets me at the goods lift. She’s read my books, so she’s known me longer than I’ve known her. And there’s that gaze again; I have to struggle to withstand it. In this moment she too sees what I see, I think, though I know she sees things differently, perceives other things, certainly with greater acuity and more precision than me.

She leads me down the corridor of the multipurpose building; the young landlord says hello in passing, keeping an eye on who’s coming and going. There’s a techno club in the cellar, offices and storage spaces on the upper levels; stickers and signs mark out various business spaces. No-one lives here; it’s for work and occasionally for parties, potentially for dancing and kissing in the corners; maybe someone runs courses during the daytime. Foreign languages, martial arts, psychotherapy?

It’s not a large studio, but her well-secured door opens onto a well-defined world in itself. Her pictures are stacked up against the wall obliquely in their heavy metal frames. There are numerous writing desks, a suite of leather seats, a broad drawing board, light boxes, several large freezers and various fridges. It could almost be the laboratory of a pathologist or a private forensic scientist. But then there are the flower presses, blocks of glass lined up against the wall, dried flowers laid out on trestle tables. High up in one of the corners hangs an abandoned wasps’ nest. And a bookcase of books: mainly poetry, a few novels, academic books. Such are the objects in the studio.

Doepfner is very forthcoming and gladly answers questions about her working methods. We talk about her research at the botanical gardens and about the museums she regularly visits. It turns out she’s already spent hours in the operating theatre and, like a first-year medic, has even taken a pathology course in autopsy. She knows the sections of the human brain and has seen diseased tumour tissue with her own eyes.

I ask where she gets her inspiration. From ecclesiastical spaces, medical laboratories, reading rooms in libraries, she says. “Anywhere where memories are kept.”

I look around me and realise that this is someone who goes about her art as if it were a science unto itself. This is clear from the all the tests and experiments she’s conducting: plants in refrigerators, preparations in freezers, an improvised greenhouse. This is the workplace of a botanist, a plant morphologist with a specialism in the structures of her objects. She’s always been interested in the similarity between root formations and the nerve fibres of higher life forms. There’s a microscope here too, of course. Then she shows me some paper samples from various Japanese suppliers: handmade, translucent Japan paper made from the bast fibres of plants that only grow on the Japanese islands. I’m told the paper tree is called gampi; other papers are made from the fibres of the mulberry tree. I’d like to know more about this paper tree; it could symbolise all Doepfner’s works.

Several shipping crates stand in another corner of the studio. They’ve just been delivered and contain a selection of broken panes of glass from her neighbourhood, the spoils of street battles and demonstrations in Kreuzberg. Usually they’d end up in landfill, but she has an agreement with a glazing company that keeps them for her so she can turn them to artistic purposes. On top of everything else, I think to myself, this is a sociologist at work. She dispassionately collects the evidence of anti-capitalist criminal damage and sets it down in a new context. As an artist she doesn’t feel the need to force her way to the front to adopt a political position. It’s enough to take up and defamiliarise the evidence of everyday violence. I ask whether she’d consider using glass with bullet holes. Perhaps in America, she replies in her quietly thoughtful way, a manner that lends and aura of pacifism, femininity and humanism to everything she touches. I’m reminded of an object by the New York artist Yoko Ono: her sculpture A Hole. The glass is from the foyer of the Dakota Building on Central Park, where her husband John Lennon was shot by a psychopath right in front of her on the night of 8 December 1980. The solo album that Ono recorded soon after the murder of that generational idol was called Season of Glass. It featured the remarkable lyric, “Goodbye sadness… I don’t need you anymore.”


7 Always crashing in the same car

David Bowie died just recently. He’d been ill for a long time. Though no-one from the world of the rich and famous was allowed to know about it, he had been fighting liver cancer. In an email Doepfner told me that Bowie had never been a particular favourite, though she didn’t like to say so. He had his Berlin period, too, way back at the end of the ‘seventies, when the wall was still standing. The Cold War made the free half of Berlin into a resonance chamber for him. This was when he made the album Low, with “Breaking Glass” at track two. That song contained the following lyric: “Baby, I’ve been | breaking glass | In your room again | Listen. | Don’t look at the carpet, | I drew something awful on it | See | You’re such a wonderful person | But you got problems oh-oh-oh | I’ll never touch you.”

This is the sphere from which Doepfner draws her inspiration, the mode in which her subtle plant works emerge – as a collaboration between eye and ear and hand, always following the sense of the text, her inner antennae set to receive. Her pictures enshrine signals from a place where many lines intersect: the conscious space of our transitory present.

Doepfner’s living in Rome at the moment. Time will tell what comes of her experiments. I’m just thankful that some of my own writing has been captured in the amber of her pictures.


Durs Grünbein
July 2016

Text for the exhibition ‘Paula Doepfner – Put it right here (or keep it out there)’ at the Kunstverein Reutlingen.

Translation by Jonathan Blower