Lena Schmidt's »Broken Places« series: Disasters without Incident
Broken streets, collapsed buildings, destroyed power networks, immersed in a gloomy atmosphere of temporal indeterminacy. In her work series »Broken Places«, the Hamburg artist Lena Schmidt shows pictures of catastrophes as they have been inscribed in cultural memory. The drama of the immersive scenes, however, does not result from the insight into human fates, because the urban views are deserted. Instead, the abandonment of the destroyed evidence of human lives and dwellings as well as the ambiguous temporality of the scenes generate a disturbing moment of tension: the traces of a catastrophic event point at the same time into a disastrous future. Inspired by documentary photographs of current events of destruction, Lena Schmidt transfers her collected visual impressions into her sculptural and painterly woodwork. In doing so, she transforms the technical images to a haptic sensuality that updates what is shown. In the traces of the destruction, the previous violence is still present and palpable. Even the artistic material, consisting of collected pieces of wood, does not seem safe from the devastating destruction that rages within it, the counterpart of which, however, is (artistic) creation.
»Fire No.2«, Lena Schmidt, 2021, marker, ink, acrylic paint on wood, carved into wood
»The Other Side No. 2«, 2021, acrylic marker, acrylic paint, bitumen, enamel and carvings on found plywood, 124 × 107 cm
»Fire No. 1«, Lena Schmidt, acrylic marker, acrylic paint and carvings on found plywood, 164 × 122 cm
»Broken Street No.5«, Lena Schmidt, 2020, mixed media on found wood 165 × 120 cm
»Broken Street No. 6«, Lena Schmidt, 2020, mixed media on found wood, 122 × 72 cm
»Storm No.2«, Lena Schmidt, 2019, mixed media on found wood, 164 × 163 cm
»Broken Street No.3«, Lena Schmidt, 2017, mixed technique on wood 72 × 94 cm
»Broken Street No.2«, Lena Schmidt, 2017, mixed technique on wood, 72 × 94 cm
»Storm No.1«, 2016, Lena Schmidt, acrylic paint and marker on wood, carved into wood (found object), 122 × 142 cm
»The Other Side«, Lena Schmidt, 2016, acrylic marker and paint on wood, carved into wood (found object), 66 × 33 cm
Lena Schmidt's work series »Broken Places« is part of a specific genre of art that has only recently been identified as such and is attracting increasing attention in exhibitions and research projects. Images of catastrophes are not only evidence of individual tragic events, but are perceived in public discourse as icons of our time. Now, that there is an overall awareness of the climate crisis and the importance of humans as the dominant geological force in the age of the Anthropocene, the boundary between natural disasters and those made by humans has dissolved. In the »Broken Places« work series, too, the reason for the destruction remains unclear, but it hits the basics of our lives: the crumbling architecture does not invite imaginary completion in the sense of a romantic ruin aesthetic, but points to an impending irretrievable loss. No individuals are shown who have lost their homes; Rather, it is the faceless and shapeless human race as such that have to look for new perspectives in a time of global catastrophes, i.e. without anchoring or safe retreat.
Life as a refugee will no longer be the exception in the future, that is what Lena Schmidt's works seem to communicate, through an apocalyptic foreboding glow on the horizon in the vanishing point of the broken streets or an apparently flaming inferno raging behind the windows of a dark house wall. We are confronted with the gaping abysses of impenetrable blackness, the threatening depth of which the artist evokes with varnish and marker pen.
The artist's interest in destroyed infrastructure and damaged architecture is symptomatic of the understanding of catastrophes as not just incisive, but ongoing events. As a means of communication, the roads and masts are symbols of the connection and technical achievements of civilization. Through them, humans inscribe themselves into nature and produce perspectivated landscapes. They symbolically mark the structures of human progress and ability to shape the earth. By showing fallen or falling masts and torn cables hanging uselessly from extinguished traffic lights, the artist poses the question of the future of human communities, their demarcation from one another and their integration into the world around them.
At the same time, the works address the collapse of human sign and symbol systems not only on a motivic, but also on a material level. The cryptic signs, sometimes written like graffiti over the cracked street surfaces, symbolise namely a spatial and material tipping point in the work. Here the viewer's gaze, following the unyielding deep suction of the images, is suddenly directed to a destruction that also affects the image carrier like an erosion. Analogous to the crumbling facades of the pictorial worlds, the woodwork is also part of a natural as well as man-made process of destruction. The age and history of the wooden finds are evident in their grain and damage. In addition, the artist attacked them with an ax and chisel. And yet the moment of violence is also the moment of creation. The destruction increases as the artist's physical violence on the pieces of wood is transformed into visual worlds of renewed destruction. The hope for a new beginning is carved into the images of the catastrophe, as is the certainty of their unstoppable repetition. Traces of physical violence are transformed into a meditation on the individual meaning of specific places, their exemplary nature and impermanence.
Since the current climate change, our awareness has sharpened that a catastrophe can no longer be assigned to a specific event, but means a permanent state of the world and thus eludes immediate perception. The visualization of catastrophes is therefore an increasing challenge for artists. Lena Schmidt meets this challenge by giving the objects and infrastructures of her urban scenes their own agency. Equipped with an uncanny liveliness, which is articulated in its sublime color and agitated form, the detached traffic lights, sloping power lines and crumbling streets become actors in a process that is rising to the surface. As a result, the destroyed streets, despite their abandonment, appear to be permeated by an inner movement that makes the recipients aware of the increasing loss of their own, once safe standpoint.
When looking at Lena Schmidt's works in the »Broken Places« series, viewers see themselves in the spirit of Bruno Latour as someone who is earthbound, who has lost his ground, that is, his home and the connection to his environment. And yet when looking at the sensually affecting works it becomes clear that in art, through the experience of wood as a natural material and at the same time limited ressource, a connection between nature and civilization is essentially possible. The future of our time, Lena Schmidt's placeless and decontextualized images of catastrophes (certainly with Donna Harraway) suggest, is uncertain and requires new ways of reflection and connectivity. Lena Schmidt's »Broken Places« series is thus an active component of a visual discourse that is subject to a particular urgency. Not as images of a dramatic event, but as objects that affect the senses, they are media of the timelessness and limitlessness of a contemporary awareness of catastrophes, which the works help to shape in simultaneously.
Text: Anne Hemkendreis
Text: Anne Hemkendreis