With more than 200 works from all creative periods, Haus der Kunst
honors Miriam Cahns artistic career, which has spanned more than five decades. Her work provokes a discussion about new images of the body and humanity today through painting. Even in her early work, Cahn (born 1949 in Basel) explored the female body as a vehicle of social significance, as well as its involvement in the network of power structures. In the 1970s the reduction of women to their physical being was addressed in art forms such as performance or video; the body itself was also being employed as an artistic material and instrument. At the time, Cahn was already translating these ideas and practices into radically extended forms of painting.
In her pictorial worlds, Cahn pushes for the abolishment of social norms and counters the traditional representation of female and gender-specific roles; her images nevertheless seek to include physical experiences that fundamentally elude a visual representation. From her early works, which were strongly influenced by feminism, to her later creations, the focus of her painting has been the body, which Cahn addresses exclusively in its nudity and thus situates in a psychologized sphere of placelessness and timelessness. Clearly outlined in its contours, the body nevertheless dissolves into its surroundings. In her thinking, the artist often explores the boundary between inside and outside and what actually constitutes a human. We do not really know what skin is or where the boundary between the outside and the inside lies, says Cahn. The artist depicts humans irrespective of gender in all their fragility. Particularly in her later oil paintings, the artist finds new ways of depicting the destruction of identity beyond binary gender discourses.
The exhibition brings together key works from all phases of Cahns oeuvre, from the artists early Super 8 films, sculptures, larger-than-life chalk drawings and watercolors, to the oil paintings which constitute her main body of work. The beginnings of the younger, Basel-based artist are evident in the charcoal drawings executed on the concrete walls and pillars of the underpasses and tunnels of Basels Nordtangente freeway one of her earliest actions. Cahn was subsequently charged with vandalism and faced claims for damages. In the ensuing trial, she made an appeal to publicize the private and the intimate, a conviction that was also revealed in the actions title, being a woman is my public part (1979-80). Like her recurring house, these motifs, which Cahn refers to as signs, represent the artists struggle for a greater participation of women in public life and a turn against archaic notions of gender relations.
Cahn studied at the School of Applied Arts in Basel (1968-73), where, in a graphic arts class, she became familiar with techniques and strategies of the formation of public opinion. At the same time, she experienced the establishment of new artistic expressions of performance and video art. Like Friederike Pezold, Ulrike Rosenbach, Jochen Gerz and Pipilotti Rist, Miriam Cahn was part of a heterogeneous avant-garde that wanted to redefine the relationship between ones own body and society. Her larger-than-life charcoal drawings on parchment, such as handelsschiff, doppelkanone, W H worldtrade or computer (all 1982) were executed on the floor and are signs of the mentality of patriarchal conquest. Works such as haus (1982), menstruationshaus (1981) and k-bett (1982) also refer to power structures and constructed patterns of representation. Performative as well as intuitive processes influenced the composition of the artists images beyond perfect craftsmanship or the cult of the genius in painting.
The installations WACHRAUM I-III (1982), which unite various male and female signs, revolve around such topics as a hospital stay and the painful loss of her sister, as does the series silent sister (1980). These works emerged from the artists need to figuratively formulate vulnerability and defenselessness: experiencing the body and psyche, particularly from a womans perspective. Based on a dialogue between these signs, complex contexts of trade and economy, information and power, control and oppression, war and destruction, as well as existential conditions like illness and vulnerability, life and death are visualized.
In the series Das klassische Lieben (1981), Miriam Cahn made virtuoso images of the body in a supposedly academic manner, but which she had borrowed from pornographic films. Cahn explored interpersonal attraction and repulsion, the ambivalence of lust, sexuality, violence and love. In so doing, she created counter-images to the humanistic concept of art of the beautiful and pure and counteracted the underestimation of the creative and sexual potency of women.
Cahn received an invitation to exhibit in documenta 7 (1982), where she was to be represented with Wachraum II. However, contrary to the agreement, the director Rudi Fuchs invited another participant to present work in the same exhibition space as Cahn, which would have deprived Cahns work of its female signs; the artist therefore decided not to participate in the show. Around the same time, she reached a first peak in her career with her solo exhibition at the Kunsthalle Basel under director Jean-Christoph Ammann in 1983 and an invitation to represent Switzerland at the 41st Venice Biennale in 1984.
The light-dark compositions of her early work culminated in a series of works executed in crushed dark chalk dust LESEN IM STAUB (1986-88). These pieces can be read as an attempt to work with a feminine energy defined by the rhythm of the menstrual cycle. With the representation of children and animals, new motifs find their way into Cahns imagery; the figures introduce care and protection as aspects of female existence into her work.
In the mid-1990s Cahn turned to oil painting. From the beginning, her paintings have beguiled with their virtuosic use of bright, vibrant colors, while they disturb with the radical nature of their content: nuclear threat, the Gulf War, the wars in Yugoslavia, the attack on the World Trade Center and, more recently, the refugee crisis. Cahn cites her Jewish roots and the biography of her parents, who emigrated to Switzerland from Nazi Germany, as one of her reasons for exploring war, flight and expulsion.
In her art, Cahn focuses on moments when people are on their own, alone in the face of their fates. Her paintings tell of people who have empowered themselves to decide about the lives of others; she refers to Giorgio Agambens concept of the naked, treacherous and tormented life of the disempowered. Despite distinctly represented genitals, the figures appear sexless and depersonalized, like proxies of a collective subject. The artist works with diffused, psychological colors and seductive, colorful pictorial spaces to express the immense pain of others. Cahns paintings convey empathy with the life of others as an essential aspect of humanity.
In times of rekindling nationalism, populism, xenophobia, sexism and contempt for pluralism, Cahn's artistic work has become enormously explosive. The artists central importance for a radically expanded understanding of the role of women in art historiography has become indisputable, says curator Jana Baumann.
Cahn questions traditional societal, collective ideas and challenges the standardization of society. Her focus ranges from the initial development of new portrayals of the body to the disclosure of the current entanglement of people in the web of economic and ideological contexts.
Curated by Jana Baumann