Ulrike Johannsen

How personal or authentic can desires be in a world in which the impact of clichés and fictions created by the mass media is very real? What mental states are provoked between identification and inner distance in light of the growing consumption of different life styles and public characters? What is the outside that structures our own self and how does it let itself be influenced?

In her installations, objects and paper works Ulrike Johannsen studies the identificatory potential of our life-style and consumption-oriented culture with its promise of happiness, She cites, processes and manipulates the seductive language of a pop and media industry which claims to encompass all realms of life. In doing so she always acts from the perspective of a participant keenly aware of the fact that the desires, fantasies and (dis)illusions that she calls into question are always also part of her self.

A central group of her works created since 1998 are the text collages in which she literally penetrates the surfaces of her allusive material. In addition to photographs, film and advertising posters she has used TV journals, and more recently also high-gloss home-living and lifestyle magazines like Home and Cosmopolitan which she manipulates with her targeted interventions. More precisely, she cuts out individual letters and assembles them to create new words and texts and pastes them. In the created surface structures various visual processes and levels merge. What becomes clear right away is that the act of cutting up the posters and journals is not an aggressive one and that perforating the glamour and fashion world is not born by a destructive thrust. The cuts are made with great care, almost with affection and precision. The interventions in the accompanying text and information material of the advertisement images can often only be recognized at second glance. The same holds true for the pasted words that merge so harmoniously with the layout. Still the pictorial motives are only seemingly untouched in their message and impact.  In reality they are subtly subverted when juxtaposed with the dazzling promises that they convey, poetic texts on recourse actually found, love that has been fulfilled but also solitude, helplessness and dashed hopes.

With the cut out and rearranged letters Ulrike Johannsen often remains within the individual motifs so that the old and new context of the signs coexist, invariably giving way to an interplay of meanings. On the one hand, she thus underscores the technical process of production and on the other hand, she creates an ambivalence between what is found and what is generated, an ambivalence that shapes her final project. The juxtapositions stem from pages on which they inscribe themselves anew. Here one special feature of her works is that the newly arranged words and texts are not immediate personal statements developed in response to individual motifs but citations of literary sources and familiar song lyrics. In particular, in the case of the latter one manifestation of popular culture is thus confronted with another, with one potential of identification being played out against another. The thus generated messages are anything but straightforward. The desire for a better life that is triggered by the surfaces presented on the one hand and the awareness of the vacuity behind it on the other relate to each other in an irresolvable tension. The media-critical thrust of these works is thus not to be found in the mere revelation of the machinery on which these illusions are based. Rather, their premise lies in their functioning being sufficiently familiar. Instead the question is raised whether desire, once it has realized that its goals have to do with false symbols and promises that cannot be fulfilled, loses its impact and results in a distancing or whether it gains impact which could possibly assume extreme proportions of a phantasm. Ulrike Johannsen’s pieces work like a mirror, which she holds up to both herself and the viewer. The image that they show reflects the feeling everyone knows of being split, the dual structure of me-too: I am different and this is something I also want.

  Many of Ulrike Johannsen’s works are informed by a romantic longing that – similar to the historical manifestation – dreams of healing the rift dividing the world and of overcoming alienation. The sites of retreat and metaphors of the soul can, however, no longer be found in the solitude of nature. She also does not focus on the romantic subject, the self-representation of the artist as the quintessence of modern individuality.[i] She feels more affinity to an approach that has, for instance, been adopted by Daniele Buetti, who in his works reflects on mental states on the basis of strategies of mass culture and phenomena of everyday aesthetics.[ii] The experience of feelings and passions seems, in Johannsen’s case, to be individual only to a limited extent. These shifts can be observed or better experienced in the way in which she uses textual quotes as templates of self-discovery and reflection. Thus the songs, for instance, refer through their reduction to texts to prototypical situations of being alone. Reading song lyrics, for instance, usually takes place in isolation, in the cave of one’s own home and includes the communal experience of a concert as a conserved memory at best. At the same time the selected song hits are by Madonna, the Talking Heads, Billy Holliday, Bob Dylan and John Lennon. Even if the memory of counter-culture still resonates in them, they have long become a part of mainstream, songs that offer consolation to millions. A comparable phenomenon is watching videos. For Meine Sonntagnachmittage (My Sunday Afternoons) Johannsen cut a text by Murakami, which deals with a paralyzing lack of energy and inertia when it comes to meaningful projects into a series of advertising posters for blockbusters found in the shop windows of a videothèque. The formal tension between self-forgotten, intricate cutting work and the maintained presentation in public, on the street, finds its counterpart in the contrast between emotional stagnation and big non-genuine feelings, between the unbearable situation of being thrown back to oneself and the consumption of overwhelming empathy. The theme that sneaks in here is melancholy. Relief for one’s embattled sense of self-esteem is only promised by the certainty that this is a collective experience, that others also have this feeling on Sunday afternoons.

  The motives of retreat, self-inquiry and inner space are found, implemented with different means, in the installations as well. The various symbolic spaces that Ulrike Johannsen explores in this connection include both sleep (Heaven) as well as the eyes that are proverbially seen as the mirror of the human soul. One of her first artistic works, Augenarbeit (Eye Work) was mounted on a number of bowls, inside and outside images of eyeballs. The uncanny effect of these objects on the viewer is also drawn from the renunciation of the gaze, of the organs rolling around aimlessly, liberated from their corporeality.

  The experiential spaces Love Lounge 2 / 2,5 Kubikmeter Unendlichkeit und Love Lounge 3 / Desperados, by contrast, put the viewer center stage. Both works consist of a cube that can only accommodate one person and is accessible by a ladder. Their inner space of each cube is completely clad with mirror tiles. They allude to the disco aesthetics which used cool, reflecting metal surfaces and stroboscope light to create spaces of experience that would heighten consciousness and celebrate dance as something liberating. Here, however, the dialectic of finding oneself by losing oneself is not only cited but also performed. In the space that has been shrunk to the size of a cave, the broken mirror surface becomes an instrument of self-reflection. The viewer not only experiences him- or herself as a whole in front of a depth space in perspectival alignment but sees him-/herself fragmented and reproduced, vis-à-vis an inner space which cannot be clearly recognized in terms of dimensions and boundary lines.

Ulrike Johannsen’s most recent works were created during a sojourn in Beijing. As opposed to the older pieces these works seem more offensive, more directed to the outside world. Exemplary of this are her manipulations of a Chinese edition of Cosmopolitan. The appearance of high-gloss magazines since the late 1990s is closely related to China’s rapidly growing urban consumer culture. The launching of international brands alongside domestic products has a strong public visibility thanks to the many sales stands found on the streets. This, however, should not belie the fact that the public sphere is still characterized by the lack of a general freedom of speech and state censorship of the contents of the mass media..[iii] Here Johannsen has not opted for a quote but for the syllable of negation, Bu, cutting it out and pasting it on pictures of fashion models and objects. This recalls the politicizing slogans printed on T-Shirts, evoking contradiction, revolt and openly displayed protest. The appendix with the meaning ’no’ or ’not’ refers directly to the limits of freedom and of what can be attained, to the ambivalence of up to here and no further to the extent that the characters symbolize a bird which touches the sky.

  The series of works with the title Stockholm Syndrom questions the structural boundaries between private and public spaces as well as the (im)possibility of transgressing them and the role that the individual plays here. The semi-transparent curtain XX, Bu zou/don’t  cut out of red sheet first recalls traditional Chinese wooden windows and their function as sun and vision protection. Whereas the texture describes the architectural situation of a threshold, the transition from inside to outside, in The Suits it is clothes that makes the man, as it were, just as clothing serves as the individual’s self-elected representation surface. The suits are a continuation of the piece No Mercy from 1987 for which Ulrike Johanssen had a series of knitted sweaters made with the a pattern consisting of short statements such as “see me“, “watch me“, “touch me“, “love me“, “fuck me“, “fear me“ and “save me“. The implorations informed by a desire for attention, contact and togetherness as a couple now yield to demands such as “control me“ and “obey me“. Transformed into subtle, small patterns, printed on gray fabric, processed into suits in the style of international, formal business dress and worn by someone from a typical one-child family, the sentences express a basic structure of private and social conditions of power and dependence. They generate a disconcerting ambivalence since it remains unclear who has sent the messages. Does the family, each one of the three, wear the suits and thus conveys the message because he/she identifies with it or because he/she hides behind the uniform which is used as a protective shield to conceal one’s true face? The same tension informs the drawings in this group of works. Ulrike Johannsen uses ink to ’cut’ faces, in some instances only the eyes and mouths, out of fashion photographs - an intervention in which she elaborates the perfect but also mask-like appearance of individuals. She also employs this technique to give them masks behind which she they can hide and thus evade identification.

  The title Stockholm Syndrom which Ulrike Johanssen selected not just for this group of works but also for the catalogue refers explicitly to the juxtaposition of opposing perceptions and behavior vis-à-vis a relationship of dependency. The syndrome relates to a psychological phenomenon described for the first time in 1973 in connection with a kidnapping in Stockholm when it was noted that victims develop a positive emotional relationship to their kidnappers. Their sympathizing or even cooperating with them was seen as reflecting a protective mechanism. To avoid danger, but even more importantly, to not feel alone and to not lose their sense of self-esteem, the victim shows appreciation for even the slightest favor. The behavior, from the outside clearly recognized as a distortion of perception which only captures one part of the context, thus has a clear inner logic. One of Ulríke Johannsen’s main achievements has been to show that the overbearing force of a consumer culture governed by the mass media has resulted a similar distortion of perception.

She studies how under these circumstances the everday negotion of acceptance and rejection manifests itself.



[i] Siehe dazu: Texte zur Kunst, Romantik, Nr. 65, März 2007; insbesondere den Artikel von Sven Lütticken: Der Rebell als Kosument / über Künstlermythen romantisch und / oder zeitgenössisch, S. 66ff.

[ii] Daniele Buetti. Maybe You Can Be One of Us, hrsg. von Anna Graf, Ausstellungskatalog Swiss Institute of Contemporary Art, New York, Kunsthalle Recklinghausen und Kunstmuseum Mühlheim Ruhr, Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz 2008.

[iii] Kevin Latham: Pop Culture China! Media, Arts, and Livestyle, Santa Barbara, Calif.; Oxfort: ABC-CLIO 2007.