Art Review: Katya Sander – Publicness

Art Review: Katya Sander – Publicness 

Katya Sander’s Publicness is showing at Plymouth Arts Centre from 1 September – 29 October. Helen Tope reviews the exhibition.



Publicness is an exhibition that takes stock of Katya Sander’s career to date, with many of the pieces revisited and recreated by Sander especially for Plymouth Arts Centre. It lends the exhibition an immediacy that is sometimes lacking in traditionally-staged retrospectives, giving Sander’s ideas a freshness and vivacity.


Born in 1970, Katya Sander lives and works in Copenhagen and Berlin. Sander balances an impressive academic career with a busy exhibition schedule. Most recently showing in solo exhibitions at Tate Modern and MOMA, Sander’s work has travelled the world.


Indeed, in reviewing the details of Katya’s career, it becomes clear is just how much of her work is shown internationally. In an essay on the Danish contemporary art scene, critic Lisbeth Bonde discusses how ‘pluralistic’ young Danish artists’ work has become. Through the support of organisations such as the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts and the Danish Art Council, artists are encouraged to network – not just across Europe, but showing their work in creative hubs such as New York and Tokyo. As a result, Danish artists are creating work that speaks many languages. The Danish art scene itself has undergone a ‘golden age’ over the past 15 years, with artists such as Tal R, Elmgreen & Dragset and Olafur Eliasson building an international reputation.


Working in a variety of mediums, Sander’s work takes on a restless, roaming quality. The mind is never quiet – but always searching, always asking. Having participated in group and solo exhibitions, Sander has developed a singular voice. Questioning societal structures, patterns, obligations – and our place within them – Sander creates work beyond nationality. The work is everywhere and nowhere at the same time, and it soaks up influence from wherever it has been displayed. Sander’s work never stays still for too long – it is the consummate traveller and needs no translation.


There is a strong DIY aesthetic throughout the exhibition, with the production of the artwork (excepting the videos) taking place on-site. This gives a personalised, improvised quality to the exhibits. Sander’s choice to work quickly and within set contexts gives the artwork real specificity. Talking about her work at Plymouth Arts Centre earlier this month, Sander remarked that she tends to focus on ‘nerdy’ details – and it is the absolute focus on a question, or a supposition, that makes her work so individual.


The exhibition takes in several pieces from Sander’s career so far, and one of the most accessible pieces (especially for film buffs) is The 100 Most Watched. Originally created in 1998, the artwork is based on IMDB’s list of films in order of their global ticket sales. Painted in bold black letters on the ground floor wall, the graffiti-style, rambling narrative is allowed to drip and run into the line below it.


For this exhibition, Sander has gone back to the list and updated her artwork – which is why we see films such as Avatar (2009), next to films such as Star Wars and Titanic, which would have been featured in the original.


In looking at the box-office appeal of Hollywood’s leading men, Sander decides to investigate the power of the narrative by inverting the gender roles in each film, meaning that every male character becomes female, and vice versa. By taking the films out of their original context, Sander re-tells familiar stories. Not only does the narrative seem to change, but how we read it appears to change also. It neatly explores how we graft certain personality traits onto gender (bravery, heroism, a sense of adventure = must be male). Located next to the Arts Centre cinema, it’s a great, thought-provoking piece and the perfect place to start exploring the exhibition.


Sander’s work stretches over several mediums, from light, quick sketches to edited film. In the first of two videos featured in the exhibition, Exterior City (2005) shows a woman putting up posters – ‘a manuscript’ she calls it in one scene – around a city. The posters are lists of names – addressing groups such as ‘Dear workers, bosses, tenants, landlords…”


Sander presents this city as an imagined state – sat ideologically somewhere between Vienna and Malmo (Sweden’s third largest city). Sander’s references are deliberate – both Sweden and Vienna have a long history of providing social housing. For Sander, it raises questions around what happens when the residential (personal) and political coincide.


In a group exhibition Home Sweet Home (Sweden, 2011) Sander’s contribution was a lecture titled ‘The usefulness of inadequate models’. In the lecture, Sander discusses how social dictations are created by society, and in turn how they influence individual thoughts and actions. In Exterior City, Sander creates a tension between real and staged actions. The woman in the video often looks off-camera, questioning where she should go next. Interspersed with this are real interactions between the woman and people who see her putting up the posters. Some ask questions, others simply read the poster as she tapes it up. When asked by one of the bystanders if she is acting, the woman replies that the process of putting up the posters is an act. The bystander pretends to understand and walks away.


What I found particularly interesting, and it’s a thread running through many of Sander’s works, is just how vocal the pieces are. Words are everywhere in this exhibition – written and spoken. Rather than dictating terms, I found that the constant presence of words and sentences provoked me to ask questions. In Exterior City, there are subtitles: some reflect what is literally being said, others provide commentary on what is implied by the action on-screen.


The video’s narration jumps about, from 1st person to 3rd person, with male and female narrators. ‘I’ moves to ‘she’ with alarming ease; “She imagines a catastrophe”. Sander keeps the viewer engaged with questions, spoken or inferred. It is a singular motif that you can identify in the works featured in the Publicness exhibition. Sander questions the politicisation of architecture and our place within it, and as we move through the exhibition, it becomes evident that Sander’s interests move between the political and the individual, producing work that questions the social constructs we take for granted.


You can see in this exhibition how Sander’s exploration of social constructs is informed by her interest in commerce. In Statements in Relation to a Bank, Sander fills an entire wall with rainbow blocks of colour. Handwritten across those blocks of colour are excerpts from interviews Sander held with investment bankers.


The original piece was produced in 2008 in collaboration with Nykredit, one of Denmark’s largest banks. Sander gained access to this world by asking unexpected questions as a ‘way in’ (eg: asking during a tour of a bank’s premises, if she could touch the server) It was an attempt to throw the interviewees off-guard, to get beyond the well-practised, corporate patter.


The excerpts from the interviews, taken out of context, become highly revealing – Sander’s attempt to throw the bankers off-balance makes for interesting reading. The colour blue, we learn, is a shade favoured for outlining corporate identity in the banking world – quite literally “blue-chip”. One interviewee reveals that Pantone 280 is their institution’s corporate shade – a very sober shade of blue. They talk a lot about imbuing trust in their customers, their clients. Is blue an honest colour? Barclays certainly seem to think so.


Statements in Relation to a Bank plays with colour – its moods, tones and associations. As the questions get more serious, the handwriting strays into the more playful shades – pinks and yellows. The insecurity of the finance world is written on the wall for all to see. Sander asks about the physicality of this world? How solid is a banknote? Why is it considered more ‘real’ than numbers on a screen?


Servers are now storing information – huge servers – so money (even as electronic data) is taking up more physical space than ever before. But even this vastness is transitory –it will be replaced by another technology in time, and the servers will be defunct. The shuffling of numbers on a screen – profit and loss– is at once enormous and ephemeral. With the jargon tailored to the banking world, Sander illustrates how the people working within the system are literally speaking a different language.


In order to engage with the interviewees, Katya had to learn the lingo (words such as ‘derivatives’ and ‘futures’ have very specific meanings in the finance world). Definitions of these terms can be found on websites such as Investopedia – and just glancing through this website gives an insight into how differently the world is viewed through this particular lens. It’s both fascinating and unnerving, and I think this is why I found this piece to strike most clearly at the heart of Katya’s work.


Created just before the advent of the global financial crisis in 2008, this piece now, by necessity, is read differently. We cannot help but project experience onto it – and the tone changes. Gentle inquisitions take on a darker hue. Our value is a number on a screen, and it is this idea that Sander explores further in Financialisation.


It is a video taken from an earlier work where Sander interviewed statistician Emmanuel Didier about the role statistics have to play in the global financial markets. Here, Sander gives us the footage of the full interview with Didier.


In Financialisation, Sander muses on our relationship to money: how we ourselves are both debt and risk. Through student loans, credit cards, mortgages, we assimilate debt and through that debt, we become risk. A bank buys multiple high-risk debts and that risk then becomes diffused – any impact through loss becomes minimised. In this context, a person becomes merely a calculation of loss and risk – you are a standardised fragment of yourself.


Financialisation is one of the most open-ended pieces in the Publicness exhibition – it touches on many of the themes that have influenced Katya’s career. How notions of value, commerce and identity exist within a collective subconscious. It’s a space without limits and boundaries, as it’s constantly shifting and evolving. Publicness may be a summary of where Sander is now, but it’s clear from this exhibition that there will always more to examine.


While retrospectives remain highly popular with art galleries, exhibitions featuring mid-career reviews seem far thinner on the ground, and yet with Publicness, there’s a compelling case to be made for them.


What ties this collection together is how work changes over time. Even when created in a very specific context, we see here that artwork continues to evolve and adapt, because we imprint our experiences and thoughts onto it. Sander’s exploration of the financial world not only highlights its separateness, but its tendency to dehumanise. Learning that we are considered statistical fragments isn’t too much of a surprise, but it also explains why the financial markets are so eager to take risks. It’s a high-stakes game where the consequences are shouldered by someone else. The pain is deferred, and the game plays on.


It’s this dehumanising that Sander seems to be rallying against in much of her work. The hand-crafted, improvised technique that goes into creating many of her pieces, is a refreshing antidote to the glossy, industrialised productions associated with contemporary art. Her hand is visible in all of this work, and it makes the exhibition an intensely personal experience. Nothing is perfect in Sander’s world; the raw edges – physically and metaphorically – add to the sense that Katya is always revising, revisiting. Nothing is finished, and that’s entirely the point. No work is complete because its meanings will change and adapt as the world moves on. New obsessions and talking points will reveal themselves. In Publicness, art is never done. The artist looks back, then forward – and the work continues.

Helen Tope

Twitter: Scholar1977

Film Review: Childhood of a Leader

The Childhood of a Leader is showing in the Plymouth Arts Centre cinema from 23-29 September. Review by Ieuan Jones.

If you’ve seen Michael Haneke’s remake of his own Funny Games (2007), then you’ll remember Brady Corbet as one of the malicious pair that terrorise a wholesome family in that film. Now Corbet has carried over a quite a bit of what he learned from Haneke into his debut feature, The Childhood of a Leader. Continue reading

Vickie’s Tips for the Plymouth Art Weekender


By Vickie Fear, Programme Delivery Co-ordinator at Plymouth Arts Centre

There are more than 90 events listed for this year’s Plymouth Art Weekender so it will be impossible to see everything. This does mean however that there’s plenty to pick and choose between and there really will be something for everyone. I’ve been asked for some recommendations so here are a few of the things I’m circling on my pink map and listed here in a rough itinerary to help you plan a route (check for full address details, timings and ticket prices). Image: Karanjit Panesar. Continue reading

Art Review: TRUE TO SIZE by Heather Phillipson

Helen Tope reviews Heather Phillipson‘s TRUE TO SIZE which showed at Plymouth Arts Centre from 24 June – 20 August 2016. 

Heather Phillipson’s TRUE TO SIZE is one of the Arts Council Collection’s 70th anniversary commissions. It is the mid-point of a busy year for the award-winning poet and artist who has had solo exhibitions this year at the Schirn in Frankfurt, Whitechapel Gallery, Frieze Projects in New York and the 32nd Sao Paolo Biennale. Continue reading

Open Air Cinema at Mount Edgcumbe

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Reviewed by Nigel Watson, Photos by Dom Moore

Terrestrial, date, time, location: 20 August 2016, 8pm, Plympton. I’ve got tickets for the outdoor screening of Star Wars: The Force Awakens at Mount Edgcumbe, but it’s continuing to rain outside. Every time I open the door even our cat refuses to leave the comfort of the living room sofa. She looks at me with an ‘are you kidding look’ in her eyes. Then I remembered that the website says it will only be cancelled if there are extreme weather conditions, and by Plymouth standards the rain (and wind) was rather piffling. I could tell that despite the cat and the weather, The Force was calling me.

It was fun going on the Cremyll ferry, travelling with a number of passengers over the dark waters to what could be an even damper evening of entertainment. Walking through the gloomy countryside it was good to finally arrive at our destination to find so many people already camped out in front of the screen. There were several Storm Troopers prowling around to keep the audience in order, though it was more disconcerting to see a person with a fake (I hope!) human head on a stick in front of us when we queued to collect our tickets at the pop-up box office.

Then to the film, an escapist ballet of zooming spaceships, aliens, flashing light sabres, stars streaking as we travel faster than the speed-of-light, droids, the thunderous roar of light and energy sucked from stars to fuel the destructive power of the Starkiller Base and the powerful pulse of John Williams’ score.

That at first sight, and to the casual viewer, is the essence of Star Wars yet its indelible impact on popular culture is as strong and enigmatic as The Force that infiltrates our Universe. Yet, it is more than that as it plays on the heritage of popular, arthouse and experimental filmmaking. A good example of this is how in the original Star Wars: A New Hope (1977) director George Lucas used ideas and motifs from at least 45 war movies, including most obviously The Dam Busters and 633 Squadron, to put together the dogfight sequence at the end of the film. Star Wars also draws on the Western genre that at their simplest always had goodies and baddies, as well as from documentary, science fiction and action movies.

From this collage of movies Lucas built up a filmic empire, which creates an intense technological mythology largely based on the works of scholar Joseph Campbell, who in such books as The Hero with a Thousand Faces defined the concept of the Hero Cycle. In the case of Star Wars, Luke Skywalker is the hero who has to find his destiny by meeting challenges, finding allies and discovering the nature of his existence. Indeed, Lucas is credited as being the first mass media mythologist.

In Awakens we get not one but two new heroes, Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega), in keeping with our times it is significant that they are a woman and black man. Their equality is quickly pointed out when he tries to help her out, she says don’t hold my hand, and a few minutes later she tells him to hold her hand when he falls over. They are even more linked when, after stealing the Millennium Falcon spacecraft, they discover they are in complete harmony with this vessel. In future films we should learn more about their origins and the tasks ahead of them.

The New Republic represents democracy and freedom, whereas the First Order represents dictatorship and repression. In this mix of forces there are the intricate family ties between the main characters and the next generation, in this sense Star Wars has always gone beyond merely spaceships shooting each other down, and takes it to the human dimension of the meaning of warfare, politics and society. The films take us on cycles of power and the complexities of understanding or acknowledging The Force that binds us together in this endless struggle.

As the film progressed the weather improved and the powers of lightness took us away from the dark side, making the journey home an easy (star) trek.


Film Review – Star Wars: The Force Awakens

A potted introduction to Star Wars, ahead of our Open Air Cinema screening at Mount Edgcumbe on August 20th, by Nigel Watson. 

Star Wars blasted onto our cinema screens in 1977 and took us to a galaxy created by the imagination of George Lucas. To everyone’s surprise it was worldwide sensation, allowing Lucas to produce two sequels, The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983). A trilogy of prequel films set 30 years before Star Wars was released between 1999 and 2005, causing the original film to be subtitled, Episode IV: A New Hope. Over this period there have been numerous video games, novels and animated TV series based on the Star Wars universe, and a 3D animated feature film Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008) set in the period between the live action feature film Episodes II (Attack of the Clones) and III (Revenge of the Sith). Continue reading