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Jan Peter Kern

People will always die

About the works of Susan Donath

Candles, gloves, a garbage bag. Susan Donath doesn’t need more when she is going to the cemetery. She carefully dresses the gloves, cleans the surroundings and starts to collect old leaves from the ground. Then she lights two candles and slides them gently into the red plastic grave light holders. She has been doing this since 2008 even though she doesn’t know those buried there.

Den Toten – is the name of the project on the Střekov cemetery in the Czech city Ústí nad Labem for which the artist deals with sepulchral culture, with cultural manifestations of burial and death remembrance. She likes to go to places that are usually visited by many others only when someone has died: cemeteries.

In 2008 Susan Donath visited the Střekov cemetery for the first time. She saw magnificently decorated Czech graves on one side and on the other side completely neglected tombs of the former Sudeten German population. It was a strange picture. She was asking herself, what would be if one of the old graves would be taken care of. How would it be for the locals? She explicitly searched for a German-Czech grave, researched, clarified property issues and finally found the place for her project: the grave of the Lehmann family and Růžička from the early 20th century.

Susan Donath signed a contract for tending the grave and started to repair the tomb. Since then, she has been there regularly, to care of the grave of the two dead, about whom she knows next to nothing. 
Who is buried there doesn’t matter. For her the dead are a symbol, an image. She wants to make people aware of something suppressed, a prevailing disproportion.

The artist, born in 1979, wants to irritate, disturb and direct attention to social dissonances. Here, as in many of her works, she follows a strongly conceptual approach. Her long-term project “Den Toten” is an artistic intervention, an intervention in something existing in public space, without having received an order for it.

Already dead but not yet under the ground is Susan Donath's “Schneewittchen” (2012) - Snow-White lying in a casket made of solid wood. The girlish doll has pale skin, blood red lips, wide-open eyes, wearing a tiara and is bedded in a white wedding dress on a red cloth – all of which the viewer can only see when the coffin is open. If the Snow-White casket is closed, everything remains a game of thought, since it is not transparent as in the fairy tale of the Brothers Grimm. Is the beauty with hair, black as ebony, in the coffin or is the coffin empty- as in the Readymade Made in Romania (2007) a zinc coffin, used to transport corpses, which Susan Donath transformed into a minimalist wall object.

The starting point for “Schneewittchen” was the stereotype image of women, which, in the artist's view, no longer fits in with today's society and should therefore be buried. The note “work in progress” indicates that the installation is not yet finished. The aim is to find a cemetery where the doll may be buried. Only when the fairytale icon rests deep under the earth, the work is completed. A happy ending like in a fairy tale? Hopefully not.

The work “12 Apostel” (2010) deals with the handling of religion and forms of faith. Twelve wooden sewing machine cases hang on the wall, strictly linear. The cases of various heights are empty. Only in one drawer there is a small key - an allusion to the Apostle Peter. For irreligious people, they may just be twelve empty sewing-machine boxes, or maybe even small coffins or empty cases, which have no purpose anymore, since they are no longer needed for sewing. The fact that seamstresses once kept their secrets in such boxes may also be a profane thought when looking at them. For religious people, the twelve sewing machine boxes can be full - filled with ideas. Either way - the void provides space for different interpretations.

Susan Donath also deals with political issues, for example in the work “Urne” (2009), which is related to her family history. The artist has designed an urn whose inscription „Stasi-Akten Familie Donath“ ("Stasi files family Donath") - refers to the content: documents about her family from the time of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). A time, Susan Donath, aged eleven at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, cannot really relate to. Her original plan was to burn the Stasi files of her family and bury them on the family property. Unfortunately, due to privacy protection law it is very difficult to get all the documents. Not all family members wanted to give the artist access to the files created at that time and kept by the Stasi document authority.

Until the artist has not seen all the documents, the urn will remain on a pedestal. The note “work in progress” will disappear - as in the case of “Schneewitchen” – only when all the documents have been collected, the family history has been dealt with, and a ritual conclusion has been reached by burning and burying them. This will only be the case when the privacy protection of the family members, who did not give their consent, ends: at the time of their death.

Hamburg, Waldtstadt

Michael Klipphahn

The absence of women

The works "Schneewittchen (work in progress)" from 2006 and "Hamburg, Waldstadt" from 2016 by the artist Susan Donath in the context of the concept of the feminine by Elisabeth Bronfen and Sigmund Freud

According to Sigmund Freud, the uncanny stands in contrast to the secret, which is often socially associated with the attribute of motherhood. Contrary to this attribution, Freud sees the core of the uncanny in femininity itself. Freud's reflections on aesthetic and artistic practice have the figure of the productive incomprehension in common with his reflections on gender and femininity. More precisely, the uncanny as an exciting state can be read as an analogy to Freud's construction of femininity.

In her works, the artist Susan Donath often makes contextual use of the Freudian eeriness relation and forces the viewer into a voyeuristic role – insofar as the fusion of gaze and object is fetishistic. This basic idea of a hierarchy of viewing is fully fulfilled when the coveted object remains indeterminate and it so becomes possible to draw on Elisabeth Bronfens theories of the media reception of corporeality.  Lust and misery can not only relate to each other in their spectrum of desire, but share a similarly constituted area in their confrontation with a non-acting or non-autonomous subject, quasi an object. In the case of Donath's works, this object is often a woman, not formulated, physically present only in reminiscences, or in its own contingencies exclusively capable of stagnation or stillness. The area of objects in Donath's situational installations is usually defined by the absence of female agitation - as a critical commentary on the female "desire for demancipation", the acceptance of heteronormative social structures and patriarchal power relations. Donath's concern becomes particularly acute in two works whose origin lies ten years apart and which are based on the theme of the uncanny in the feminine.

In the work "Snow White (work in progress)" from 2006, we see a group of chairs standing by a wooden coffin in which the sculpture of an immaculate female corpse remains: the young woman is bridely dressed, provided with typical female attributes, made up and styled in reference to the fairytale - her hair black like ebony, her skin white like snow and her lips red like blood. The mythical production of supposedly feminine attributes deliberately defames feminist aspirations not to think about collective identities of women as illusionary closed subjects.  The fetishist notion of necrophilia also plays an overriding role in the display of the object of the preserved woman, which seems to be removed from all handling - not exclusively a result of the awkward situation of the king's daughter, but rather the result of the self-empowerment through growing up in an autocratic order as illustrated in the fairy tale.

The contemplation of the work by the recipients in the roles of dwarf and/or prince is tantamount to the seemingly imposed act of the erotic gaze, since a touch through the traditional conventions of art contemplation is just as impossible today as the touch of the intact corpse through the glazing of the coffin in the fairy tale context. Looking at a beautiful female corpse demonstrates that the object of desire is never real, but always a symptom of the imagination. The grief over the loss of the Snow White is merely a self-reflexive moment for the beholder in the role of the prince, a self-mourning, because the act of seeing implies not only desire, but also the will to possess.

The sculpture as a fetish and the corpse of Snow White as a fictitious figure also have their imperishability in common, which is otherwise only offered to the highest clergyman in the doctrines Christianity, for example the corpse of Saint Bernadette Soubirous, who, remaining in eternal virginity, is still laid out today in St. Gildard in Nevers.  The social dimension of supposed virginity before death plays an overriding role, especially in Catholic circles, in the homage of such saints - Snow White as a symbol of virginity thus becomes the apotheosis of the central position of Western culture as an icon of decent femininity: the confirmation of the male gaze through the contemplation of the female body.

The sculpture as a fetish and the corpse of Snow White as a fictitious figure also have their imperishability in common, which is otherwise only offered to the highest clergyman in the Christian doctrine, for example the corpse of Saint Bernadette Soubirous, who, remaining in eternal virginity, is still laid out today in St. Gildard in Nevers.  The social dimension of supposed virginity before death plays an overriding role, especially in Catholic circles, in the homage of such saints - Snow White as a symbol of virginity thus becomes the apotheosis of the central position of Western culture as an icon of decent femininity: the confirmation of the male gaze through the contemplation of the female body.

Donath's plan to bury the coffin and make it inaccessible contrasts with the reincarnation of Snow White and her resurrection described in the fairy tale. Contrary to the conventional reading of this symbolic return, the animation of the supposedly dead body can also be understood as the extinction of the sinful fetish; as a consequence, the joining into the socially conform institution of marriage also releases the prince from the covetous rigidity of necromancy. And for Snow White, the consequence is not only the death of the stepmother, caused by heroic hand, but also the connection to the death of her own mother, who in turn died at his birth. Freud's theory of the eeriness of the feminine is applied here, since the sexuality of the dead protagonist is reestablished with her revival and set in difference to the masculine sex. In addition, the resurrection idea makes it clear that the abnormal interest in an intact corpse is linked to a fascination for supposed immortality: through the possibility of preserving the physical material, believers are tempted to hope for an undamaged self-resurrection.  Donath's plan to bury the corpse takes this very thought into account, since the sculpture inside her coffin is already protected from decay by its own materiality.

In Donath's most recent work, the absence of the women also rises to the proverbial pedestal - in "Hamburg, Waldstadt" from 2016, the artist contrasts the doll of a black refugee child with the home of a wealthy, single woman open to the viewer on the show side. In the fictitious Hamburg district of "Waldstadt", the refugee child leans against a fence in blue shorts and a red shirt and looks across the front garden to the door of the classicist (doll) house. However, it is the feeling of desire that arises from suffering that puts this work in relation to the work "Snow White": In this work, too, the necessary desire for security shifts to a level of the gaze.  In this work, Freud's turn from the "Other to the Self" is projected onto the viewers of the work through the void, the absence of the woman in the house, as a symbol of a Western megalomaniac supersaturation culture - one does not look like the refugee child from outside to inside, one looks in the role of the woman from inside to outside. 

The house as a re-presentation surface of one's own pleasure principle is thrown towards the neediness of a foreign subject - the absence of a female instance is also a symbol for the absent mother. The implied assumption of childlessness on one side of the fence and motherlessness on the other is staged as a cross-cultural moment of the uncanny. The coveted object can be found on both sides - as a child or as a mother - and yet it is obscured by social conventions and implications.

The aspect of the fetishistic accumulation of property correlates with the contemplation of the beautiful corpse in the work "Snow White", since the child can only touch the surplus of goods with his eyes. The confirmation of the symbolic body of the woman in the objects of her house evokes the same inner damage as the confirmation of the symbolic objects of the child by his bare body.

The uncanny quality of the created image of the reception of refugees can only be commented on by the disappearance of the woman or by her "absence", for the portrait of an absent woman in Western society illustrates above all the desire to participate in an imaginary identification.

The western cultural convention of reproducing femininity as images is particularly significant in the absence of active and/or autonomous women. Thus, as a creative gesture of the uncanny, Donath also expresses otherness as a category of intangible identities and appropriates Freud's theory of the uncanny of femininity as a strategy of resistance to gender norms. Gender as constructed corporeality thus knows about its own eeriness in her works of art. 

Author: Michael Klipphahn, visual artist and art historian, born 1987, Dresden, Germany