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“Can you imagine something like that?”

Axel Dielmann

The Dressmaker
Model’s Cut

Translated by Michael Turnbull

Published: 25.10.2018


The curators were probably worried that someone would stumble carelessly up the stairs while looking at the exhibits—could I simply have gone past the first object at the bottom? Number 1, “Formless Veil, curtain” Must have been attached to the wall just between the entrance and exitus … “My dear colleague …!” and staircase. “… curtain, height 310 cm, width 475 cm.” I must already have seen it in the previous section, wall-high thing. What I’m overlooking, it occurs to me, is what’s essential. Which is the simplest form of analysis. I should actually go back down the gently curving stone stairs. But it’s over. Before me the Anatomical Theatre opens up along a last flat landing. Lights …

Set into the rectangular space is the oval of a gleaming brown wooden balustrade. From here you look down. Someone is whispering. The funnel of the auditorium declines in three narrowing ovals with a row of wooden seats on each floor for the students, who look down from all sides on the central table. Is that number 37 down there? The slab is draped with a cloth. Dissections won’t have taken place in this room for a long time, but its intimacy, I think—within me an impulse to note this down—the narrowing oval funnel goes perfectly with my artist’s objects in gauze and blood. I should really take some time to note this down. The moment I came in I saw the picture, opposite the entrance—number 29—and immediately associated it with Sandra B. Again I look down into the oval—murmurs—and again I look around me in this upper rectangle around me—what’s wrong?

I know very well they’re just slips, the “gauze-and-blood objects” and the idea of “my artist.” You must be joking! Her gauzes won’t be exhibited here. “Human Chain,” I read, strange title, and what’s hanging over there isn’t by her three times over. Still, it catches the eye on entering the upper floor of the dissecting room from the stairs, and now again it’s like a quotation of Sandra’s wound impressions. Even if this picture of a head can’t be by her for the very reason that nothing is simulated. Because, I think, a portrait she would make would no doubt have to be as similar as possible to her own, autobiographical. Are you sure?

“Can you imagine something like that?” she asked, having started on about a “shroud” a few weeks ago. “I mean spatially! Can you imagine it spatially? Geometric, just as a piece of cloth?” Where on earth is this leading, I thought. No. “So imagine for a moment you’re wrapping a cloth around a …” She looked at me as if I were the patient working up to being unbandaged: “… a football. Can you imagine that?” Bitch. I thought. Suppressing a grin. Sure. And then? “You wrap a cloth around a wet football. Then …” I mustn’t get into this. I had to let her speak. “Then you unwrap it. See?” I saw. Did I nod? “The cloth shows your football.” She outlined a ball between us with her pointy fingers. “And all the seams.” She paused, I noted. “All the seams, and, what’s it called? the valve. And the scratches on the ball too.” She didn’t pause, I noted. “Even the structure of the leather itself. You’ll be able to see it all in the cloth. As an impression.” I noted that Sandra B. sighed. “So could you now …”— later, in my notes, I read, “A stunning change: the friendliness of the invitation”—“imagine just such an impression,”—“seemed very smooth to me”—“of a whole body?” I could indeed. Or did Sandra say “of my body?” I imagined it. And the body wasn’t wet, wasn’t a ball. “My dear colleague …!” “And if it … let’s say”—pause—“has wounds …”—noted—but my spontaneous calculation said she didn’t have the surface area to really try it out. Drives you mad, how catching pathogenic logic can be! She cut short—“Can you imagine this cloth now?”—the countertransference—“Do you have this picture?”—thus stitching up her transference, and now played her fingertips about her body, very slowly. Why “stitching up?” “My dear colleague …!” Focused on a much to concrete field of lines, as if doing a security check with a sensitive hand-held gadget that was about to beep. Searching for traces, detecting cuts, so as to sound out what was soon to leave its impression on a larger-than-life cloth. And very quietly: “Can you imagine it?”

Don’t answer!

She: “Me, the projection surface!” And then in her bipolar upswing really loudly:

“But the screen strikes back!”

She said such things unexpectedly. How else? At first I had no idea what or whom she meant. But why wonder? If she meant anything or anyone at all, I took it to mean to me. “Check the board, not the king.” This outburst impressed, this dictum impressed me, no, this outburst made a particular impression on me. Well, sometimes it just comes to mind. It’s funny too: “Check the board, not the king, you poor fools.” There isn’t much else to laugh about. “My dear colleague …!” Though I can’t remember whether it was intended as an aesthetic statement to describe her works—careful: objects. “My dear …!”—or whether she said it in a different context.

Sandra B., put an end to my waiting. “What do you think of the title Shroud?”

I don’t want to think about it! Stare at the eyes over there.

It really is very strong, number 29. Directly opposite the stairs, “34 cm x 48 cm”—I take refuge in the catalogue—here are square pieces of gauze tacked onto a rotten board. They overlap to form a face; the tacks look coarsely out from the white bandaging, hacking the emerging countenance. Scars. Scary. For somehow, through the arrangement of the pieces of gauze into a rounded form, with a neck below and some of the smaller pieces bulging into a nose in the center, you see two laterally pouting lip bulges, a tuft of fraying swabs, a head, protruding scraps for ears. It could almost be playful. It isn’t scary because of the odd material, no, or because of some kind of similarity. The emphasis of the staples, the concentrations of tacks—you see the intention straight away. And from perhaps ten meters over the narrow floors of the anatomical funnel this rounded head also looks like Picasso. Don’t know how he looked—protruding ears, spherical head, is that it? Weird to think of sticky-out ears when all you can see is bits of white gauze and silvery grey staples.

But the eyes. The eyes particularly give you the creeps. Squinty gauze patches. Stinging tacks. My neck stiffens. Rags for orbital arches, pupils highlighted in wire. I’ll never get this out of my mind. The eyes are only really formed from the tacking of the bandaging material, and they’re gouged out as soon as they appear. As with Sandra Blei.

“My dear colleague …!”


Slowly now—nothing like this ever happened to me before …

I look down over the wooden railing into the middle of the theatre: number 37.

No, no, slowly!

Where’s the muttering coming from? No one in here.

I look right down into the cauldron. There, directly below me, in the lowermost row of seats stand the parents. Must have gone back, so as not to and didn’t have to struggle through the guided tour. But they are standing quite still, looking at something. The chatter must be coming from somewhere else, expressive, lecturing, maddening.

Slowly now!

Round to the left. Following the exhibition plan. Okay.

The dissecting room, the upper floor. Here, yes. Number 26.

Bondage photograph. Someone called “Nobuyoshi Araki, Japanese.” Luscious colors against a jet-black background. I leave it hanging there. Doesn’t interest me, a photograph aestheticizing a female body, lacing it into sections, like a butcher’s diagram you used to be able to see hanging between rings of sausage and sides of meat, the animal marked with dotted lines like those cords and knots: cutlet, haunch, saddle, sirloin. Once in Italy with Katja at Cecchini’s, the butcher artist, these portions on the paper place mats, here created by cords and ropes, the constrained body hung up in a network of fractionizations, the expressionless Japanese sacrificial lamb proud of being taken for an object and exhibited, so devoted to the visual power of the artist photographer that nothing hurts her, not the incisions of the rope, not the deflection of the joints, not the head-down circulation. While I am drawn to the next exhibit round the corner, I spitefully think that all we need now is for the artist, all eyes behind his camera, to reflect himself in the fish-eye lens of the oily bulging flesh of his pinioned model. I look back, avoiding the view to the bottom right. No, all my imagination. No buttock, thigh, or shoulder oiled into a convex mirror. No photographer to be seen. Were it not for the image itself.

In the corner I reach number 27. Then I hear little Kubin hopping down the long stairway. It’s him. Where was he hiding?

He’s standing somewhere along the curve of the stairs. I can hear the whispering I can’t locate. There’s a pause—have I missed an exhibit on the stairs after all, and he’s looking at it?

Nonsense. The boy hops on, squealing in to the top floor of the theatre. It stuns him. He looks around, not registering me, and down into the funnel. He doesn’t mind his parents standing there, looks straight across the auditorium—and it’s as if he’s been switched off again. He stares into the gauze eyes that had bored into mine, his gaze driven into the eye pads like the tacks over there, standing as if nailed to the ground.

It doesn’t seem to distract him in the least that I watch him for a moment, for a long moment. I notice he doesn’t look, in this standing and peering and being halted. It’s different. He opposes what he sees—and it’s as if I’m about to remember who he reminds me of at last. But it doesn’t come. I’m still standing in front of number 27:

“ORLAN,” reads the catalogue, “The Second Mouth / 7th Operation-Performance / Omnipresence.” I catch myself getting stuck in the glass again, “November 21, 1993.” The more mischievous the image or action, the more exact the dating, as if setting up a dossier—so where does that come from? “While Pyotr Pavlensky (#18) sews up his mouth with rough twine in a politically motivated action, the French body artist ORLAN has a second mouth operated into her chin.” Unbelievable. I stay in front of the glass.

“What you have seen always dissolves.” Is this true?

But don’t look down now. I read “Number 28.” I see Abramović, Rest Energy. I read no further. I look at the image. A woman, a man, bow and arrow between them. Spanned between the man and the woman, who is slim as a wand. She reminds me of a governess, in her long black skirt and her white cuffed blouse, rigid, leaning back, the bow in her hand. She’s holding it on the wrong side, though; the arrow is pointing at her chest. It’s being pulled from the other end towards the clasp, and the further it’s pulled, the more dangerous it becomes. For the shaft of the arrow, on the maximally tensed bowstring, is held between Ulay’s fingers. In black trousers and a white shirt, he leans rigidly back like his partner. He holds the arrow against the bowstring; she holds the bow against herself. Mutual aim. The tension is almost unbearable. I take a step back, collide with the railing behind me, but remain captured by the image. The fact that Abramović alone is the target breaks down the togetherness, the concentration between the almost identical figures, and the photograph stops being a snapshot; it is prolonged duration.

It must—I create some distance with the observation—be very exactly constructed, you can see that: the camera and photographer are positioned so as to follow the arrow; the gaze, mine, is oriented to the chest. So viewer also aims, and the tension resolves in a target. Can’t we come up with a better model than the axis? It doesn’t always have to mean arrowhead and arrow. Or does the tension really only come about when the target is reached? Depends on the speed of discharge, it occurs to me.

And how did the two of them, Ulay and Abramović, resolve it practically? By releasing the tension slowly?

Not a good concept, this Rest Energy, which is halted, in 1980, sleeping energy, everything a while back, held. Like me, in recollection.

Even if I briefly think that these photographs of the performances are stagings meticulously planned for their effect, nothing more, far away from pretend snapshots, it still gets to you—I can’t bear the tension. Move on. When do they close, actually? Transparent self-distraction. Yes, I can already hear the murmuring starting up again, something like pick apart the partridge.

Short-necked Kubin brushes past me, squealing and thumping on the wooden floor. I creak slowly after him towards 29. He stops briefly in front of the swab head. His parents whisper down below. The other whispering in the space comes from a tape, I see now. So—you take the partridge. My steps creak. I look around, look into the funnel, detached as a tourist, observe myself, and jam it between your legs. The boy carries on squealing, you jam it in really firmly. I too go gingerly past the gauze-and-tacks head.

Kubin has discovered the small staircase up here, a gap in the balustrade through which he hops down to the level below, which already takes on the curve of the lowest level around the dissecting table. “Shhh!” comes from his father this time. Unimpressed, he hops to the bottom of the stairs, squeals around the second floor above the table, with measured steps like a little soldier, and then does another circuit. I linger up here in the corner. Two photographs on the left, at the edge of the space, and two more behind them on the right, but I’m already out of my corner when I read “Number 30. Kira O’Reilly, performance, Succour. 2002.” The boy, who wants to remind me of something, marches in circles. I move along the wall. It doesn’t come to me. “Till …!” The mother augments the paternal warning in a constrained voice. The boy completes another circuit, unmoved. The conversational murmur, you could of course jam it into the vise. I look at number 31, “I Miss You and “Still Life,” then it would be sitting tight, more photographs. But we value tradition. “Franco B,” it says, oddly. But I suppress the impulse to look down to the left for Sandra. Look ahead, exactly, this time the object can be read as such, right, I don’t need to consult the catalogue, well-behaved, obviously a cheap joke: a book hangs, make me feel good, in a frame on the transverse wall. Below me, Till does another circuit past the exhibits on the second floor, all right, strangely unconcerned parents, subjecting the child to all this.

Overwritten Autobiography. Was it made by its author?

On the cover almost the whole of the author’s name has been obliterated by a thick red marker, and beneath it is written in rough letters “Didier Eribon.” Is that the father? The brother? Didn’t he die? So, or was it in fact his father? I’ve read about that book. You jam it between your legs.

“Returning,” on the line below, is crossed out by two thinner green lines, and then you pull on its neck, and overwritten with “Fleeing,” twice, as if to make sure, and then you open its beak wide and look inside. It has a clumsy effect, an absentminded doodle on the telephone, and from the depths the sun

Finally must shine out “Reims” is replaced by “home” in three pale blue strokes, how it shines, old people’s handwriting, yes, that had to retraced, lovely, reassuring itself again golden and again, how it shines out, holding out against disappearing, rather lovely …

Quite a lot of interpretation, yes, I don’t understand the thing, a mere mind game. And I want, clearly enough, to distract myself.

I turn around, and now have the gap in the balustrade in front of me, six steps down into the oval. The seating is staggered over a good meter. Till ends his circuits, and slips into the gap for the last stairway down to the bottom, and I look, while descending, at the table in the middle. The shroud, obviously. Look in the catalogue, utter nonsense, “Exhibits 26 to 42 are in the historical dissecting room, which you …” Careful! Don’t fall on the final step! The tour again goes to the left around the middle floor. It’s louder in here. The speaking, the lecturing, is coming from opposite, then you can break it apart, from the other side of the floor, then you can eat it. A monitor turning some tools or other in virtual space, but first you take the gouge. Down there is number 37, and then you gouge out the eyes from both sides. My ring finger is still on her place in the catalogue. With a little practice they come out easily. Slowly. Stay here, you see. One thing at a time, there they are.

Obviously the video-installation section, two beautiful eyeballs, this floor here, you put them in a separate bowl. To the left of the gap, in one like this, four small screens, yes, the well of the auditorium, the babbling thing, just like that, where the lecturing is coming from, you put them in there, but it carries on round to the right, and afterwards it makes a wonderful little dessert, another flat screen. Eye creme. A beau-like person with plenty of whisked egg white plucks and lots of sugar at an airbag attached to a partition wall, a flattened, but we haven’t got to the dessert yet, folded airbag. An experimental setup, which the beau seems to be explaining. I’d have to put on the headphones offered beneath the handbag-sized screen to hear his comments. Why “handbag”? The filmed artist elaborately applies make-up, white clothes again, the Swiss singsong seems to draw breath, this slowness, which keeps me from going down and which, I know, first you pluck all its feathers, keeps me from approaching number 37, you pluck it like anything, the beau dabs yellow powder onto his face, that can be plucked, around his eyes, nose, it’s quite easy, cheeks, dabs the fat puff, you can pull the feathers out in tufts several times under his nose, like this, re-powders his chin, does his forehead, and his eyes again, and then you just pull them away. Sometimes he speaks longwindedly to an invisible audience, and then you apply the skinner, clearly putting something off, here, takes up a push button, just behind the beak, a kind of trigger, and draw it nicely down to the rump, speaks and explains and displays. And every inch or so you do it again. Then he goes over to the airbag, until you’re all the way round. Takes a few steps towards the limp sack, it’s easy to remove the strips of skin, dancing like a boxer, back and forth, you can put them in the salad later. The camera is shy of him, very delicious, the perspective drops to his legs, bacon, and shoes, and ham are nothing like it. The man goes towards and away from his wall several times, partridge skin tastes lovely, you see him holding the trigger, and then you take the scraper, which he holds up, see now, and adjusting his posture, how nice and rosy it is, pauses, the meat, holds still. Presses the button.

A yellow cloud fills the screen. The man has been struck and thrown through the space. He turns, bends, and squirms, only just manages to stay on his feet. Powder swirls around him. The balloon of the airbag ostentatious in the adjusting image. A drawing on its bulging surface, roughly a face, but more of a mask. The camera is still trying to focus, as if it could get it sharper, then it freezes the image and slowly fades out, as if to decelerate the explosion.

You can use the skinner for this

When the closing credits appear on the dark screen, and then you take the stem with the roots, “William Hunt, Galerie Petra Rinck,” and kneed and turn it, “Düsseldorf. You’re gonna pay for it now,” you kneed and turn it, “Now you’re gonna pay for it, performance with airbag,” I’ve already been jostled away from the exploding cushion, until you have nice little balls, my thumb still in between the pages of the catalogue, and then you set the balls aside, I look inside, and make sure, “Number 34. William Hunt,” the balls become eggs all by themselves, “Galerie Petra Rinck, Düsseldorf.” And so you’ve made sure of offspring, “Performance,” I read stupidly, you don’t want, I have to pull myself together, the first partridge, it all seems, you have picked apart, unbelievably slack to me, to be the last one.

And all the time you have to keep it tight, here,

in your legs.

It needs strength.

A partridge has strength

But when they hatch from the eggs

Somewhere it’s squeaking, the chicks, behind the coaxing partridge, then you press, two monitors away, their eyes a little, preferably from the very beginning. Where has my Kubin got to? His parents have disappeared as well.

They aren’t on the lower floor any more. The dissecting table stands abandoned in the middle. They can’t be heard either. The, squeaking was something else. And it certainly didn’t come from the flat monitors staging their images in silence. With the exception of the next but one: Yes but it’s beginning to look a bit cruel to me, it tones in childish indignation, They’ve only just come into the world. Insistence has always, and they’re so small, provoked my opposition, my refusal. Cruel, yells the monitor, what do you mean, cruel? and I turn to the exhibit next to me. I want, I can tell you much worse, to fade it out, come on, don’t be dumb. Uh-oh!

That looks like … I turn the page:

  • museum
  • contemporary art
  • body
  • exhibition

My language

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English, French

Axel Dielmann

Axel Dielmann

Founded the literary journal Schritte in 1982. Art projects since 1987: Galerie Klaus Werth, Der Blaue Kompressor, Kunstbahn Hamburg. 1992/93 foundation of the axel dielmann – verlag. 1997 first multiples, from 2007 art narratives. 2011 acquisition of the Frankfurt Academic Press. His book of short stories Nizza oder Die Liebe zur Kunst appeared in 2013. Its third part is currently being filmed.
Other texts by Axel Dielmann for DIAPHANES