“The role of figuration in times where people increasingly abstract themselves from their own physicality“. An interview with Sarah Księska

Sarah Księska (*1992, Frankfurt am Main) is an artist who lives and works in Amsterdam. She studied Fine Arts at the Hochschule für Bildende Künste in Hamburg, at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna and at the Städelschule in Frankfurt am Main. She is currently a resident at De Ateliers in Amsterdam.

The following interview emerged out of an email conversation between Sarah Księska and Tarika Johar (Art Historian, Goethe-University Frankfurt).

Let’s start off with a few short questions. What are you currently working on?

I am preparing a piece for a group exhibition in Frankfurt [29th September — 9th October 2018, fffriedrich]. It has developed into a questioning of the relationship between occultism and computer programming in the context of the social vs. anti-social. I am specifically looking at tools of hidden power manipulations, among which I include spirituality and witchcraft in networks and subcultures.

What is your specific interest in your art practice?

I am interested in belief systems, the connection between spirituality and technology and the unconscious effects of symbolic language. The last maybe developed from my love for Polish Posters. Now I keep mashing up post-millennial narrative fantasies and historical memories. As a result different aesthetics emerge out of the context. I often ask myself about the role of figuration in times where people increasingly abstract themselves from their own physicality. Surrealism seems to have stepped into reality, and I think that’s very interesting.

I would like to learn more about your ideas on the hidden manipulations in networks, the role of witchcraft in it and how this can be evoked through physical imaginary in your artwork. 

In a recent lecture in Frankfurt am Main the Professor for Art History, Julia Bryan-Wilson (UC Berkeley), traced aspects of witchcraft and unconscious power in the conceptual art of Robert Barry and James Lee Byars in the 1960s and 1970s in the United States. She examined how the artists’ interests corresponded with the culture and society of that time — e.g. the concerns about radioactivity in the context of the Vietnam War and the Cold War such as an emergent confidence in the power of belief related to the 1960s movement. 

What role could unconscious powers and witchcraft play in our time? What are the potentials of figuration? 

I think that the resurging interest in witchcraft goes beyond gender conflict. It feels like it comes from the ever-expanding service sector in developed nations, and how its workers handle their particular anxieties in regards to self-reliance vs. social dependency, group inclusion vs. rejection, and the constant pressure to establish oneself as being ascendant in hierarchy. There is also the fear of being figured out well enough to be replaced by a machine, so there is this comfort in spiritual obfuscation. All this can find expression when people “practice“ witchcraft: they rely on personal ritual, not social approval; they reject being inducted into the mainstream and embrace the risk of being disliked. And they do things which don‘t make logical, machine-reproducible sense. So witchcraft lets them handle their fears and offers respite from constant pressure of having to conform to a social standard.

There are a lot of different examples how hidden social manipulation can take place. Search engines, shadow-banning and the click-bait media have long been well known examples of information filtering and behavioral influence, and have recently become more common knowledge thanks to politicization. It is the strongest current tool for mass opinion shaping. On that note, I plan to work coding as an anti-social mechanism into my work. It invokes “spells“ that are written to move machines and human emotions. Also, due to the service industry, brands and icons have been established as the symbolic talismans of the collective unconscious. There are hypnotists all around.

I would say that the potential of figuration in art should take into account people’s belief systems as part of the psychological reality depicted. Therefore, one has to be aware of the possible dangers of figuration, because in our times people have become hypersensitive towards superficial appearances. Symbols have always been a useful tool for communication, because they are at the pivot between abstraction and figuration. Occult qualities in general, which are present throughout my work, have a certain visual language, depending on which time they come from. A big component is probably that something is going on that one doesn’t have access to yet.

Your piece Untitled (2018) directly addresses us by stating “search inside yourself”. Other works provide more initiations towards something that might still dwell in hiddenness – like the line that is drawn by the blue hand in Untitled (2018) which seems yet to be completed…

In your show Pas’ Auf Dich Auf Schwester at Pina (Vienna, 2017) airbrush figures on paper and on the walls filled the space in a very evocative, sensitive and sometimes playful way. The visitors had instruction how to trace a hidden door. Can you tell me more about the show? How did the medium of airbrush ink fed into the exhibition, creating silhouette-like figures?

My work is often pretty associative. The show in Vienna was influenced by a journey I made to eastern Europe and Russia some time ago. While exploring some Old Believers villages, I visited a few medieval orthodox churches and a cloister. I took pictures, and later extracted some imagery and combined it with my own experiences to create drawings. The mystical atmosphere of the exhibition arose naturally from the influence of my journey and the exhibition space itself, which lay in the souterrain of an old building. Producing delicate airbrush drawings in the space for two weeks while listening to some old Rammstein songs during a freezing Viennese winter was  „spiritual“ in a funny way. Additionally, I was affected by the movie Im Keller from the Austrian filmmaker Ulrich Seidl, a documentary about people doing obscure things in their cellars. I made kind of a present-day cave painting about a fictional history of the space and my own memories as shadows on the walls. Therefore, I felt airbrush would fit well as a medium with its distanced gestures.

Pictures by Neven Allgeier