Paula Doepfner – “Death Letter Blues”

I am myself
I am the enemy

These three lines, written by hand, stand on a piece of paper encased in a slowly melting block of ice. This is a work of art by Paula Doepfner, Death Letter Blues, from 2020; it has just been installed in the open air on Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz. The quotation is from a collection of poems by the female poet Joyce Mansour (1928–1986), Déchirures, from 1955. Doepfner’s art installation is a sculptural response to that collection of poems. Mansour is generally associated with the French Surrealists. Yet this poet, who was born in England to Jewish-Egyptian parents and later moved from Cairo to Paris, has a very particular and personal style of writing. She writes from the perspective of an emancipated woman, a perspective that combines love, violence, death and pleasure. The three lines that Doepfner has chosen for this work deal with the self and with solitude.

Poetry and works by Paula Doepfner have much in common. They seem to speak the same language. It’s an approachable, narrative language, though its meaning is never straightforward or obvious. It has too many layers for that, and it’s always subject to change. Doepfner seems interested primarily in the non-permanent, in the not-yet-ossified, in things whose form and meaning are still in flux. That said, her material of choice is text, and the type of text is frequently but not exclusively verse. Just as she works with different materials and substances, Doepfner also works with different types of text: philosophical works, scientific texts, song lyrics. For one series of works on paper Doepfner even used the Istanbul Protocol, a United Nations text on the investigation and documentation of torture; she put it down on paper in letters so small and fine that they’re almost impossible to decipher from a distance. By contrast, the smashed panes of glass that so tenderly envelop the pigment and dried flowers in her other works come from buildings in Berlin’s Kreuzberg, buildings that have borne the brunt of anticapitalist altercations. Doepfner’s works often work in this way: at first glance they seem abstract and aesthetically beautiful, but on closer inspection, as we gradually draw near, they reveal another dimension that refers to tragic political realities.

The work shown here, Death Letter Blues, also invokes the themes of time and temporality. The block of ice rises up on Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz like a sculpture carved for eternity. Contained within it are Mansour’s lines, “I am myself. I am the enemy. Alone…”, lines likewise exempt from the passing of time. But this work, the block of ice, is still subject to the laws of physics and will of course melt. There’s not a single moment when it’s not in the process of changing. The presence of the work changes with the melting of the ice; the block is collected as liquid in a metal basin and the lines of text slowly sink from surface to ground. In accepting this transience and explicitly making it the content of her work, Doepfner reveals the strength of her art, where visual, textual and formal languages flow together as a single poetic work. It’s this change, this transformation, the morphing of the present into the past, that draws Doepfner’s attention. She isn’t afraid of the transient work of art. Her works don’t depend on eternity for their effectiveness; they stay with us even without it.

Kristina Schrei
June 2020

Translated by
Jonathan Blower