Meredyth Sparks: Gudrun Constructed

Exhibition: 31 Jan - 30 March 2009

In her collages and installative spatial works, the US-based artist Meredyth Sparks (born 1972 in Tennessee) deals with notions of glamour and camp in pop- and subcultures by analogously appropriating photographs of well-known 1970s and 80s underground bands and rock icons such as Roxy Music, Joy Division, The Clash or David Bowie and press images of political activists of the same time. In the exhibition, two digitally-manipulated, red collages (Untitled, 2009) refer to the 1978 album "Die Mensch-Maschine" by German "Krautrock" legend Kraftwerk. Here, the seriality and uniformity characteristic of the band’s visual and acoustic language have been transferred to the artistic technique of collage.

Sparks herself refers to the process of selecting visual fragments, of sampling, deleting or either digitally or manually transferring them to new visual contexts as "subtraction". She selects key points in found images, plays with positive and negative forms and successively eludes (subtracts) the image’s narrative function. The collages also provide the temporal frame for the exhibition Gudrun Constructed: Examining the historiography behind the first-generation Red Army Fraction (RAF) Movement in the late 1980s, Sparks is as interested in its specific visual sources as she is in its languages and format within the media. The five-part poster series Gudrun Constructed I-V (2009) and the floor piece Record Player 1977 (sleeve) from 2008 – a stacked pile offset-printed record sleeves – refer respectively to press images of the German Autumn, particularly to Gerhard Richter’s fifteen-painting cycle 18. October 1977 (1988).

From what was originally five black-and-white press photographs of Gudrun Ensslin imprisoned in Stammheim (close to Stuttgart), first published in 1974 in Stern and Spiegel magazine, Richter selected three to paint for his portraits Confrontation (1), (2) and (3). Gerhard Richter focuses exclusively on her face, blurs the personal elements and neutralises the background to a monochrome grey surface. By contrast, the press images show a life-sized Gudrun Ensslin in a prison uniform, standing in a corridor in Stammheim like a "drilled child in a Nazi’s home" (Astrid Proll). Frame by frame, as if in a film sequence or photo shooting, she slowly passes the viewer in sandals and stockings with a tentative smile, holding a white envelope in one hand and slipping it, with every passing frame, into her skirt pocket.

Meredyth Sparks scans Richter’s master photographs – including his added crop marks, arrows and repainted parts – and overlays them with abstract-geometric patterns of aluminium foil, vinyl and glitter. The collages’ sparkling aesthetic surface subtly alludes to Richter’s critically reviewed analogy between RAF terrorists and pop stars. On the one hand, the circles, bars, lines and irregular contours on the collage are generated from the image itself; on the other, their structures and colour scale are derived from the formal language of early 20th century suprematist compositions, adding spatial depth to its surfaces. Likewise to the Kraftwerk- collages, Meredyth Sparks has already exhibited altered versions of her Gudrun Series in two exhibitions, most recently at Elizabeth Dee Gallery in New York. For Projects in Art Theory, she re-photographed the New York-collages, printed them to the same size on poster paper and once again added aluminium foil and glitter elements to the surfaces. In this process, constantly subject to reinvention, the image becomes increasingly removed from the original: shown parallel to the series of pop music collages, Ensslin as a person recedes more and more into the background. The poster print as mass media image refers to the temporal as an artistic process of reception. In her work, Meredyth Sparks reveals the process of recycling and adaptation and amplifies the temporal aspect of sequentially. At the same time, the almost life-sized images of Gudrun Ensslin and their hanging in sequence allow the visitor to follow her through the exhibition space in real time.

The suprematist elements – taken from Kasimir Malevich’s Suprematistic Composition: Flying Airplane (1915) – reappear as decoration, divided into the smallest sections of black and silver vinyl on the window pane, and as a linking element on the wall below the collages and posters. The window pattern obstructs the view through glass depending on the time of day. It plays with the refraction of light and has a vertiginous effect, alluding once again to the interaction between time, movement, sequentiality and rhythm.

The piece Record Player 1977 (sleeve) consists of offset-printed record sleeves, installed in equal heights as a regular record player and lying directly on the floor. The image is taken from a press photo shot in Andreas Baader’s prison cell shortly after the RAF member’s collaborative suicide, and shows Baader’s record player with Eric Clapton’s Solo-LP "There Is One In Every Crowd" (1975). Just as Sparks offers the record sleeves as ephemeral and content-laden give-aways and recognises them as linking element to her band collages, Richter used this image for his painting Record Player as part of his Stammheim cycle. It is assumed that Baader used the record player to hide his gun. Gudrun Ensslin took her own life on the same night, on October 18th, by supposably hanging herself with the record player’s power cable. The sound piece Field Recording. After Walter de Maria’s The Broken Kilometer, Dia Center for the Arts, NY (2009) reproduces the knocking and violently rattling spatial sounds within Walter de Maria’s site-specific work from 1979. When the heating is on, the entire building quakes, jarring its solemnity. Everything in the space – apart from the sound – is precisely controlled: five hundred golden, highly polished brass bars are arranged in five rows in a fixed distance and angle. No photography is allowed. The piece is made to be viewed from the entrance and the only light comes from artificial stadium lights installed outside of the space. Meredyth Sparks uses the not-controllable sounds as a latent ambient sound for her show, atmospherically amplifying it on yet another temporal-contextual level.