Statements of Sensuality


Paula Doepfner deals with the interaction between nature and art, with emotion and science. She creates a tension between emotionality and rationality, harmony and agitation. Her works confront the viewer with an analysis of feelings and neuronal processes. Her realisations of this experience employ materials such as glass, plants and ice. And as the materials themselves suggest, the process of change is an essential part of her work.

Doepfner situates her work somewhere between scientific analysis and artistic interpretation. She embarks on a path that has the potential to bring her closer to the truth about our feelings. She makes the intangible tangible; the observer is given the opportunity to get that little bit closer to the hidden world of consciousness, to find an individual truth in her work. Physical works are accompanied by performance pieces. Doepfner uses music and sound to introduce moments of proximity and estrangement to the space of the exhibition.


Manifest in ice

The word ‘nature’ is derived from the Latin nasci, which in turn corresponds to the words ‘begotten’ and ‘to be born’. It is to be understood as a process; something is engendered and then subject to change over time.

As a historical concept, nature doesn’t directly presuppose that its manifestations should exhibit ‘beauty’ or balanced proportions. In the modern discourse on nature, physical laws are actually of far greater importance. Both unaesthetic and aesthetic phenomena are included as constituents of the whole. A coherent and comprehensive definition of the term seems impossible, since every experience of nature is influenced by social and cultural factors. This also affects art that deals with nature. Individual perspectives and momentary experiences are inevitable aspects of such art.

In dealing with ice as a material, Doepfner’s work provides a visualisation of this process. Art and nature are not antithetical here. The work is a symbiosis of antithetical poles, although it never discloses quite how the one influences the other.

This gives rise to one of the aesthetic experiences entailed by involvement with both the work and its surrounding space. The place of art is shifted from somewhere far from life and society to a space which, in a sense, gives the viewer the opportunity to approach Doepfner’s works experimentally. This facilitates an individual experience that goes hand in hand with the perpetual change of the work until an ‘overall impression’ of sensuality emerges.


For you I have been absent in the spring

There’s a rectangular metal tray on the floor of the exhibition space. Initially it contains a rectangular block of ice with various materials frozen inside it. The ice is an opaque mantle that makes it hard for the viewer to see its content. Within just a few minutes, the melting process starts to provide a glimpse of the individual components. It gradually becomes clear that the mantle of ice contains moss, branches, thistles and an inscribed sheet of paper, all suspended in a moment of apparent weightlessness.

This impression changes markedly as the process of evaporation runs its course. Plants start to grow again once the ice has melted, while other twigs and branches dry out. A permanent process of renewed blossoming and repeated passing begins. Not even the metal tray is immune to change. The melted water, which only evaporates after a considerable period, seems to literally eat away at the metal, producing an orange ‘drawing’ in rust. In conjunction with these processes, which form a fundamental part of Doepfner’s work, viewers are put in a situation where they are obliged to endure the display of transience that confronts them and, by virtue of the fact that the work is placed in the middle of the space without any sort of plinth, prompted to move around and regard its various aspects from a number of different perspectives. This participation on the viewer’s side constitutes a changed involvement with the work of art and entails an implicit questioning of the viewer’s own position in space.

Since chance is such an important factor in these ice works, their reception has to be individual and process-based. But the changing states can be described as a form of recollection that lacks an endpoint. Ice becomes water and then rust, though the process doesn’t come to an end even then. Doepfner uses individual elements such as the rusted metal tray in other, subsequent states of the work. The process of transformation becomes detached from the laws of space and time. On the one hand the change in material is firmly anchored in the laws of physics; on the other it exists beyond the scope of any potential scientific explanation. This gives rise to an almost dreamlike state in the viewer. Dream as a component of sleep, sleep as the source of human energy. It’s a cycle that sustains terrestrial life. As a process, though, it’s almost impossible to grasp or categorise.

The title of this work is a modified version of a line from “Sonnet 98” by Shakespeare. The content of this poem deals with the spatial separation of two lovers and the feelings associated with that separation. The cycle of the seasons, which bring both joy and sadness, loses its significance. For the narrator of these lyrics, only the winter seems to offer a fitting state in which to dwell. Doepfner’s interpretation adopts and visualises this theme. Plants are frozen, a moment is arrested, a memory. But the melting process can’t be stopped; that state can’t be preserved forever. It is inevitable that change will happen, so the moment itself becomes memory and fades in time after its passing.


Strands of thought

Doepfner’s dot drawings on gampi paper also constitute the beginnings of an analysis of neurological processes and address the broad spectrum of emotions. The handmade paper on which these nerve-like formations are drawn is as fragile as it is resilient. This tension starts with the materials and runs through her work like a red thread, emerging from individual points of overlap and lending visual form to the interplay between nature and the organic structures of the human body.

This analysis is spun out through the interpretation of poetic and scientific texts. Individual letters take the place of the dots and lend the drawings a further level of emotional significance. The interrelated texts and excerpts are drawn from song lyrics by artists such as Bob Dylan, lyrics that focus on overcoming the conflicts and emotional states that go hand in hand with human relationships. The counterparts to these subjective and emotionally charged texts are taken from specialist articles on neuroscience, which allows Doepfner to generate a substantial tension between intimate emotional processes and universally valid scientific investigations. These ramifications combine various approaches to the field of the emotions and approximate a holistic understanding of the world of feelings.


Did you ever wish me dead, oh lover boy oh fever head

The title of this work is a couplet from the chorus of the song “Legs” by P.J. Harvey. The piece is about a relationship crisis. There’s a fragment of text by the philospher David Chalmers arranged in the form a rhombus. The individual letters coalesce into a single construct. The characteristic appearance and legibility of the text recede in favour of this single graphic figure. The text is still legible but can’t be identified as such at first glance. The content erupts out of the rationally delineated outline of the form.

Several strands break away from this fragment and connect it to the similarly rhombic forms of the fern leaves which, as a result of being pressed, also have a graphic appearance and seem to grow down toward the text from above. The retained roots of the plant reinforce this impression and appear to adopt the formal principles of nerve fibres. We continue along the path that leads toward the comprehension of the totality of human life, in both its emotive and its rational aspects. The intangible sphere in which this work exists is brought symbolically to the fore.

The result is a single ramified construct consisting of natural materials and manmade text. This inherent tension is taken up by the splayed strands of text and synthesised into a harmonic whole.


Shards of memory

Glass is made of melted sand. It’s a material that’s already undergone a process of change. Rather than leaving it in its found state, Doepfner supplements prior changes with the traces of various other processes. Sheets of glass marked by acts of vandalism are subjected to further reworking by the artist. The material conserves this moment of rage or desperation and preserves them in Doepfner’s work. All these works share the same political background of deliberate destruction. Foremost among them is gentrification, which evokes such destructive forces in the fabric of society. At the same time, though, the cracked panes of glass also serve as mounting devices for the plants that Doepfner dries and presses when they’re in bloom. In conjunction with a variety of coloured pigments, these plants are arrested in a state of temporal suspension. The encapsulated beauty of this state forms a palpable contrast to the brute force of past violence, uniting the two poles in one work.

And there’s no use in tryin’ to deal with the dyin’ though I cannot explain that in lines

This work from 2014 quotes Bob Dylan’s song “To Ramona” and takes as its theme the fleetingness and perpetual change of human life. The work is one of the first to use damaged armoured glass. It is a preserved moment that etches itself in memory and can still be seen in the blossoms arrested between the panes of glass. Despite the paradox, this mnemonic retention of a specific memory of rage, desperation, love or grief is intrinsic to both poles, and Doepfner uses it as an analogy for the cognitive processes that turn impressions into feelings and memories for retention. Hence the cracked panes of glass and the branches of organic matter evoke the neuronal ramifications of the nervous system and, like a network of immaterial memories, cast a visible and thus mentally comprehensible shadow onto the wall.


It’s all just a dream, babe, a vacuum, a scheme, babe

Dylan’s “To Ramona” is also the source of this work from 2016. The two works are linked by the expression of an overwhelming emotion and by a political statement anchored in the title.

The pane of glass is affixed to a black stela. A picture of devastation is presented to the viewer at eye-level. There are some heavy ‘traces of the working process’ visible here; in this case they’re actually the result of a violent altercation. The plants retained in this ‘window of memory’ bear the marks of this destruction within them. They even seem to bleed from within the shattered panes of glass, turning their innards outward, with coloured pigment running down the inside of the glass. They take on an almost corporeal appearance; it’s as though they were a part of the mnemonic process.

For Doepfner, these works are ‘drawings’ that exist in a sphere between both image and space and space and time. As the latter passes it becomes evident that in the course of time even the colour of the blossoms behaves differently to the way pigment usually would. The bleaching of the flowers only emphasises the constant colour of the pigment as the unchanging aspect of the work, an aspect that in turn preserves the initial state of the work.


Sound space

When seen from this perspective, the passing of time also becomes a central theme in Doepfner’s performance pieces. Temporality is visualised in a variety of ways, serving as a link between the various performances. Branches, twigs and the foliage they support become installations that endure as memories of prior performances.

The same goes for music, another medium that depends on time for its effect. Sounds are only able to ring out in the elapsing of space-time. It’s impossible to arrest a single moment. The ephemeral character of music relies on the passing of sounds as they ring out, individual moments that have passed as soon as they come into being.

Doepfner came into contact with compositional theory, with the harmonic and structural principles of music, at a relatively early stage. But she consciously eschews them in her performances. The sounds of an accompanying string instrument, for instance, tend to revolve around a single note. Dissonances and rhythmic transfigurations become expressive elements. Far from any composed score, the focus here is on situational feeling. This generates notes and noises that would be almost impossible to be put down in notation. They cannot be repeated, so their transience becomes all the more evident. And yet they aren’t reminders of the transience of all things or the viewer’s own mortality so much as illustrations of perpetual change.


I gave him my heart but he wanted my soul

Bob Dylan again. In this case the lyric has been re-written to correspond to the perspective of a female protagonist. Here, too, the central problematic in this song – “Don’t think twice it’s alright” – is the painful separation from a beloved person.

An accumulation of branches is piled up in the space. Doepfner lies in among it all, between the branches, almost a living part of the ramified organic matter. A double bass player sits across from her. They communicate intuitively with one another. Together they create an invisible but nevertheless palpable space of sounds and noises. The artist moves in her cocoon of foliage; the rustling of the individual leaves becomes audible. The double bass player responds to these movements and seems to externalise her emotions as ‘aphonic’ sounds. A state of suspension engulfs the space. The music itself is no longer perceived as such; it combines with the sounds of the dry leaves to form a texture of noise that makes it almost impossible to differentiate between the separate sources of the various sounds.

These moments are recorded on tape and played back during the exhibition; a sound space that no longer exists is superimposed onto the installation and creates a place of memory. A place that spreads out beyond the other works in the exhibition and connects them, completely filling the space. In this way, Doepfner draws an invisible ribbon of sound around her works. They are connected to one another in an almost mystical way, their manifest character both transient yet lingering.


A sense of place in the work of art

The natural materials in Doepfner’s installations make one want to take them out of the exhibition space and put them back in their natural environment. But to do so would negate the pregnant contrast between installation and the natural environment. And ultimately it’s precisely this dialogue between work and space and viewer that’s meant to be foregrounded.

The reciprocal relationship between place and subject as embodied in the work of art has been a pronounced feature of art ever since the 1960s. Initially, minimalist art foregrounded the work and connected it to the surrounding space, creating an interplay between work, site and viewer. Doepfner’s work doesn’t explicitly involve any fixed positions or definite site specificity. There is, however, an intensive engagement with the work’s location in space and its relationship to the viewer. The close connection between a work and its surrounding space is most evident in her performances, though it is most obviously manifest in the placement of the works in exhibition spaces, far from any kind of natural environment.

The agitation of the carefully arranged branches forms a visual contrast with the clean white surfaces of the surrounding walls. In this way the artistic object establishes a visual connection to the space. After the performance this connection is preserved as a mnemonic object to just that relationship, so that the tension between artist and musician, natural and artificial environments, the space and the artwork can still be experienced by the viewer.


A space of sensuality

In her works Doepfner creates a space of memory with the ability to embody or elicit from the viewer a broad spectrum of feelings. In confronting these visualisations of rage, desperation, love and grief, the gaze is thrown back on the observer’s own self. The works evoke individual memories and feelings that make it almost impossible to avoid submerging oneself in the space of sensuality thus created.

The works themselves assume responsibility for mediating between subjects. Countless individual perspectives open up potentially unconventional readings. Memories that won’t ever completely disclose all their contents. The reception of the work and the works themselves can never be completed. They transcend the bounds of space, time and viewing distance, elevating themselves above the merely material world into an intangible sphere of dreams and emotions. The various natural and social materials are combined into a great space of experience. Just as individual nerve cells are connected to one another, Doepfner creates a communicating network where the individual groups of work combine to form an emotive statement of sensuality in which you can both lose and find yourself again.


Vanessa Braun

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

Translation by Jonathan Blower