Repetitions, rhythms and the running of time.
German artist Johanna Odersky’s work interrogates how repetition is used to track the passing of time. Multidisciplinary in her approach, Odersky is an active figure in both the fine art and music scenes, asserting that the two practices complement each other. Her series exhibited at Intersticio has the artist indulging in her fascination of tracing her own time charts. She explores how dissonance, harmony, or synchronization can occur when different cycles of daily life are merged together, and how they can be fractured and stretched by changes and events. The works exhibited in ‘Time Keepers’, just like calendars or maps, are organizational structures, yet their main distinction is that they hold no functional being other than their beauty. The artist is interested in how representation and figurative language influence the way we read reality, and how these knowledge systems in turn inscribe themselves as a cultural form onto our bodies and the landscape we live in. I talked to Odersky about her latest relief paintings, the interrelation between her musical and artistic output, and how her nomad biography informs a metamorphic cycle, crumbling constrictive power relations.
You have been quite a nomad and lived in various different countries. Where do you encounter a sense of belonging and has that changed your practice at all?
I was born in Germany but moved away when I was three. My family relocated a lot, but I spent the majority of my childhood in the French part of Switzerland. I returned five years ago to study at the Städelschule in Frankfurt.To this day, I don’t quite feel like I belong in Germany. I have discovered pathways throughout the city, but like many who move to Frankfurt, I navigate the city from a slightly disconnected stance. My practice has transformed drastically subsequent to living here, as I didn’t have a previous fine arts education. The close contact and intense exchange with my friends and fellow artists has been the best schooling possible.
I am aware that you learned to play classical music at an early age, but what do you think came first: music or art? How do you feel they interlace with one another?
While I was growing up I wasn’t regularly exposed to fine art, but I was sketching constantly. Music has always been more present in my life because of its proximity to mainstream culture. Popular music is easier to access and to comprehend, at least on a sensory plane, without specifically being trained. Music aided me to understand aesthetics; it allowed me to think in dynamics, shapes, spaces, tensions… This gave me a huge relief from the buzzing world of words and meaning; and I still listen to music to regulate my sensory input. I identify both my artistic and musical practices as being intertwined, even complementary. Often when I’m struggling with a work or a sculpture, listening or making music helps me figure it out– and vice versa. Ultimately, the practices require varying attention spans and modes of consumption.
Has studying with Judith Hopf in Städelschule influenced your practice? If so, how?
Not only is Judith Hopf very well-read and open with research suggestions, she also made me aware of how vital it is to actively build an “economy” around your practice. I am so appreciative for demystifying the art world and proving me that it is crucial to carve out a place for yourself within a community and support structure that fulfils your specific needs and desires, rather than to count on the simplified competition of being seen as the most “talented” or the most “genius.” I’ve found that in reality these concepts are used to normalize the precariousness of the creative industry and elsewhere.
This is your inaugural exhibition in the UK. Could you talk us through how it came along and how you have experienced showing your works in London for the first time?
Cristina Herraiz Peleteiro reached out to me after seeing my works at Yaby in Madrid. We were exchanging emails for some time and after opening her project space Intersticio in London this February, she invited me to do a solo show there. It was the first time I was confronted with working on and in a space by myself and I really enjoyed it. It felt great to be in control over how the show comes together from start to finish and collaborating with Cristina was one of the best curatorial experiences I’ve had so far. She is incredibly generous, proactive and professional, making the whole process very smooth.
In ‘Time Keepers’, the repetition of traces is represented both in the watercolours and the spinning canvas, keeping the obsession around the circular shape… Can you let us know how you evoke time in this idea?
From low-frequency phenomena like the rhythm of day and night, the changes from season to season, or the waxing and waning of the moon, to the high-frequency oscillation of a caesium atom, humans tend to use cyclical motions to differentiate one moment from another. Repetition is used to track the passing of time, and most of its representations and mappings follow this fluctuation and are presented in a circular shape. Even though Time Keepers are organizational structures like maps or calendars, their body as an artefact isn’t secondary to the theoretical knowledge that produced them. In fact, they are entirely illegible and have no transactional meaning ruling over the reality they generate as drawings.
It might be an overstatement, but the watercolour series Time Keeper I, II, and III remind me of Theosophical Art, they have a special resemblance to the figures and palette of Swedish artist Hilma af Klint. Have you been directly inspired by her work at all?
I saw Hilma af Klint’s retrospective at the Guggenheim in New York in 2019 and was mind blown. Abstraction has always seemed a very conceptual and brainy thing to me and af Klint’s work marks the first time I saw an artist implement this on such a sensory level. In this way, I feel quite connected to her work. Concerning the “theosophical” meaning, I’m not sure I can relate. Mathematics can be fairly esoteric or have spiritual effects on people. Often when I notice structural similarities between otherwise unrelated things, I feel as if there were an underlying rule to the universe, maybe even a god-like figure who created all of it. Personally, I’m not interested in searching for meaning or a single truth behind it all. I resonate with thinking in and through relationships a lot more. I get an almost musical pleasure from recognizing similar colours, motions and shapes in things and from juxtaposing opposing patterns, rhythms and textures.
That brings us nicely on to Types of Clouds, the second series of works shown at Intersticio
I happened to be reading John P. Snyder’s book about map projections–mathematical methods for depicting the round earth on a flat surface–around the same time I glanced through an article about the harmonograph–a mechanical device that was fashionable in the late 19th century that produced visual images of musical harmonies. I noticed a likeness between some of the illustrations in both texts. These images influenced what I painted on the canvases for Types of Clouds. Superposing the map projections and the harmonograph’s drawings produced a very satisfying buzz in my brain, a feeling of getting closer to understanding the logic of the universe. Eventually, it was no surprise that there are similarities between the depictions in both texts, as both the movements of the harmonograph’s pendulums and the lines of longitude and latitude that envelop the globe trace a circular motion. Both the mathematics of the map projections and the mechanics of the harmonograph attempt to translate these shifts into two-dimensional representations. They are capable of telling us some information about the melodies and the landmass depicted, but they remain relational and will never be able to give us the full picture and a complete grasp of their substance. Any projection or rendition inevitably distorts the portrayal of its subject and, in the end, tells us more about the mechanisms or tools we use to abstract these things, than about the content itself.
Your practice has transitioned from working with steel to more delicate materials. Could you explain how that came through?
I am still fond of working with steel, but I came to the point of requiring a more direct process. Working with steel demands a lot of planning for a very short period of execution. I needed something in which I could see an immediate result and be adept to alter it instantly. Needless to say, in recent months, it has become increasingly important not to depend on facilities such as metal workshops and to be able to work from home.
All the works in this exhibition were produced during the pandemic. What has it been like making them in these uncertain times?
It was weird because due to health reasons, I’ve found myself in a position not so dissimilar from the current corona times for almost a year now. I was confronted with an inability to participate in daily life as I used to and I’ve had to slow down and reorganize my experience by trying to find more suitable ways to structure my identity, life and memory. This rupture has now merged with the global health crisis and strangely enough, I feel like the world and I are finally synched, moving at the same tempo.
I’ve been working with Creamcake for several years now and it’s been fantastic to recognize how they adapt their format to meet the challenges of changing situations. They’ve been so supportive and I’m glad that I can participate in their program from time to time! I think the audience was also very thankful to be able to attend a live event! The video for «Sweet Days of Discipline» came together as a result of another joint effort with a dear friend, artist Nadia Perlov. Nadia and I have been sharing our studio at university for four years now and we have come to be very close. We went to the Swiss region I grew up in together this summer and more or less spontaneously decided to shoot a video for my track. Nadia is one of the most brilliant filmmakers around and the communication between us was so familiar and easy, we knew exactly what we wanted to produce without having to say much. We ended up shooting the video and doing most of the editing in just one day.
Music gives you the ability to perform. Does performance have a space in your other artistic endeavours?
When I started playing live sets, I was dreading the moment of performing. I didn’t want to be present and just wanted people to listen to my music without reading my body in any specific way. But that, of course, was impossible. I’ve now come to terms with the fact that as someone presenting mostly as femme, my body will constantly and necessarily be read within discursive power relations, so I concluded that I might as well play around with them. I commenced dressing up as characters while performing and this helps me deal with the situation much better.
How do you feel that relates to your work?
It branches from a desire to become someone else in order to escape from an expected role or position, and I see that translated into some of my sculptures too. The blacksmith work Newfound Instincts (2019), for example, is made of two scissors forged out of steel. They have managed to escape their function as paper cutting tools and instead find themselves frozen amid dancing or performing. Somehow it’s always about this instant of breaking free from one power relation, just to find oneself spiralling right into another.
I hope I won’t face too much of a transition in the next few months. I have the impression that I have just recently arrived at a place within my practice where “things make sense.” I want to hold onto that feeling for a little bit longer.
Could you tell us what else you are working on?
I’m participating in the upcoming edition of the Urbaines Festival in Lausanne this December. I’ll be showing some works in their exhibition and will also play a live set in their music and performance program. It’s rare to find set ups that allow me to exhibit both my art and my music, so even though it involves more work, it also means that I can establish connections between both shows and experiment. I’m excited about that!
Words by Marta Garcia de Faria