Let us […] admit that no one has ever observed a human society that has not been built with things. […] Things do not exist without being full of people, and the more modern and complicated they are, the more people swarm through them.
Bruno Latour, The Berlin Key (2000), p. 10.
The quote above by the French sociologist Bruno Latour originates from a short essay in which Latour deals with the inscription of social codes of behavior and expectations on everyday things. He argues that the things surrounding us determine and generate our social interactions. They tell us how to deal with such interactions: they are able to regulate our behavior, open or close possibilities of action, and in this way educate us. Social togetherness, therefore, arises from an interplay between both human and objectual protagonists, which makes things and their effects central to shaping our society.
When one looks through the window into the almost cubic space in which Antonia Rodrian’s “Schere, Stein, Papier, Wir” is exhibited, one glimpses large-format paintings that suggest a complex interplay of moving assemblies of human and object-like figures. The exhibition title’s reference to the world-famous hand game (“Rock, paper, scissors”) acts as a metaphor for the metamorphoses of hand gestures. The fist, the flat hand, and the spread of fingers symbolize figurative objects as gestures in a game: the stone, the paper, and the scissors. Following our introductory quote, one might ask whether objects can also have human qualities, and perhaps whether they too can be assigned an independent capacity to act. Antonia Rodrian’s paintings blur the alleged boundary between human and representational protagonists. Sometimes the depicted objects become active protagonists, such that the human hand serves only as an extra; sometimes they interact with one another on an equal footing, without pushing for a known outcome. The relationship between them is often unpredictable, follows its own logic, and generates new perspectives. In Rodrian’s paintings, well-known objects appear in new, unexpected contexts, form collectives capable of acting, and are thus freed from their original context and their fixed functional logic.
In Who works the fields, stylized rakes (and spatulas) enter the powdery, clay-like pictorial space from each of its sides. In the center, these formations of garden tools meet their respective counterparts and hook themselves into their respective notches. This mutual interlocking oscillates between competitive tension and calm, gentle, lingering contact – but does so without becoming completely absorbed in one or the other mode of interaction. Their encounter can be read as an idiosyncratic game, a strenuous struggle, or a curious touch. The enigmatic conjunction reveals neither its motivation nor its outcome, but rather illustrates the state of a moving process in an undefined space. The cast shadows and the objects from which they originate rhythmize and structure the pictorial space, conveying relations of distance and proximity, and thereby create a spatial impression without providing any information about precise locations. The ground is a flat-looking surface on which things emerge from their invisibility, in a manner comparable to that of actors who step onto an illuminated stage.
The theatrical aspect of “appearing” assumes a different quality in the painting Fossils (Look what I got). Here, the objects do not move independently onto the dark stage of the pictorial space, but are brought into view by several hands, gesturing as though in presentation of something. As an addition to the title of the work, “Look what I got” is, on the one hand, an appeal for careful observation, and, on the other hand, an expression of enthusiasm for the presented stone fossils. Four hands move into the center of the painting and offer up pastel green stones, in which traces of past vegetal lifeforms have been inscribed. Sometimes the fossil rests gently in the palm of a hand, and sometimes it is seized in the firm grip of fingers; the front side of the stone, however, is always visible. Who is supposed to look at it? Who is the addressee here?
The hands offer each other their findings, while the demonstrative gesture calls, as though in appeal, for the attention of visitors. In this way, the pictorial space advances to a place of negotiation in a collective competition for attention. From the lower right corner, one hand cupping its exhibited matter strives towards the others, does not reach the center of the space, and remains largely outside the frame of the painting, frozen in a state of intended movement. The gathering of hands and stones, and the cutting off of the rising hand, produces the impression of a fragile state that can be broken by minimal shifts. If just one hand pulls its stone away, it will immediately change the dynamic of the group. And as much as the hands appear human through their gestures, their stone-smooth surface textures make them seem all the more object-like.
Fossils depicts an ambiguous relationship, in which it is unclear whether it is human or sculpturally formed hands holding the stone fossils, and equally unclear whether these fossils are naturally developed or the result of artistic work. This ambiguity complicates the boundary between the products of intentional shaping (of material) in terms of desired aesthetic qualities and the passive processes of nature’s molding of things.
Although the subjects in Antonia Rodrian’s painting make no direct reference to the current pandemic, the artist nonetheless processes pandemic-related issues in her own stylistic vocabulary. The title Who works the fields subtly brings up the question of work distribution and working conditions, as well as the discussion about the shortage of seasonal workers in the spring of 2020, and so has overtly political implications. The preoccupation with the subject of work as a literally formative activity is always traced back to the tool and its object. In the current situation, the relevance of objects to our everyday lives and the ways in which we connect with them is coming into increasing focus. Right now, much of our society spends more time with things than with people. Our social interaction has shifted into a tile-like arrangement of moving portrait squares on our laptops. These surfaces quite literally become hidden object puzzles, composed of people who appear in the space of things.