Michael Sailstorfer - Brainwashed

16.06.2023 - 05.08.2023

Images of the Exhibition


When do we give form, when are we formed? And who actually does the forming? The cryptic BRAINWASHED exhibition by Michael Sailstorfer lays out a trail. To the brain, to consciousness, but also to the question of how much independent life and agency there is in matter itself. 

The term BRAINWASHED usually refers to a process involving influence and manipulation. One brain washes the other. One person, or instance, tries to control another's will, to reshape it, until the person concerned is no longer capable of any autonomous action.

In his BRAINWASHED exhibition, Michael Sailstorfer, who is one of the most important sculptors and conceptual artists of his generation, explores mutual influences, playfully subverts them and raises questions about the emergence of elementary actions, of activity and passivity, and ultimately also of freedom and determination. Sailstorfer is concerned with the blurring of sculpture's boundaries in time - through the process, transformation and movement. 

In the HEAVY EYES series of works, Sailstorfer explores the creative power of materials that react with each other. The artist stretches a thin sheet of lead over a wooden frame and paints the surface with eye shadow. Thus applying everyday cosmetics that are available in the supermarket under names such as "Heritage Rouge" or "Blue Brown". The unusual combination triggers a range of metaphors and material processes.

When the heavy metal lead is used, ideas of weight and serious pollution resonate with it. Lead is toxic to us humans, and is also evocative of melancholy and a gloomy disposition. In artistic positions, the heavy metal was used, among other things, for memory work (Joseph Beuys) and for auratization (Anselm Kiefer) or found a specific use in Günther Förg's "lead pictures". Sailstorfer picks up on the interpretation within art history, but places the ongoing process centre stage.

In HEAVY EYES, Sailstorfer repeats geometric elements, similar to abstract painting. This reinforces the serial nature of the works. At the same time, this impression is repeatedly brushed against the grain. The lead resists the hasty painting, every little touch, because of its difficult material quality as one of the densest metals of all. Moreover, the eyeshadow and its function in the process is misappropriated. It is normally used to make the wearer stand out from looking the same as everyone else and to perfect an individual expression of beauty. 

Finally, the materials produce effects themselves. The lead reacts tirelessly with the air and at the same time forms a chemical bond with the applied paint. What is the result? Transformation, a new cycle or decay? In the spirit of the philosopher Jane Benett, the materials come alive because they exhaust their material potential. Here Sailstorfer's open concept of sculpture links with New Materialism or Political Ecology discourse. Both trends ascribe active agency not just to humans, but also to living beings, indeed to things themselves. What would change if we humans admitted that matter also acts? And we no longer perceive it as rigid and inanimate? 

The HEAVY TEARS group of works picks up on this way of working with lead: a large  tear has been banished onto a lead background using bright lipstick. As a symbol of emotional release, the tear enters into a chemical bond with the seemingly toxic heavy metal. Sailstorfer has explored the transitory nature of tears in many work contexts, from the liquid figure that transcends physical boundaries from the inside out, to the tear-shaped wrecking ball demolishing a house in Spessart. 

In TRÄNENTROCKNER (TEAR DRIERS), he processes the existential possibility of transformation in the language of the readymade. To do this, Sailstorfer had old glass reblown and shaped by hand into the form of a tear as part of a cycle of materials. The former beer bottle is replaced by a glass tear that now hangs on a solid drying rack. The amorphous glass has changed form through melting and now, in collective suspension, tells us again of the wealth of possibilities dormant within it. What actually happens when all the tears have dried, as the title of the work suggests?

The associative play between content and materiality also opens up a wide space for thought in the BRAIN I2 sculpture. The head-sized ball of about 35 metres of rope instantly makes us think of the characteristic coils in our brain. This undulating landscape with its deep furrows mediates our perceptions, our thinking, feelings and actions. It is formed by the cerebral cortex, known as grey matter – a two to four millimetre thick layer full of nerve cells. Sailstorfer materialises this grey matter with aluminium; a conductive but also paramagnetic metal which internal currents can flow through, but which can also be influenced by external currents, which again makes us think about influence and interdependence. 

The pedestal suggests the brain's prominent position. At the same time, the feeling sneaks up on us that it is precisely this stabilisation of the form that lets everything living escape. Also because brains, and the nervous systems based on them, only appeared in their original function in evolution to enable movement, as the neurologist Gerd Kempermann has researched. Among other things, BRAIN I2 raises the question of the extent to which we can even succeed in visualising living processes? 

The KNOTEN (KNOTS) series of works also follows on from this, making us think about the essence of tying and knotting. Anthropologist Tim Ingold notes that a knot is a constitutive element in that it creates trailing ends that set off in search of new connections. Moreover, a knot never starts right at the end and is never the end, but a floating, liminal form. The knot marks a kind of in-between state – on the one hand, it reminds us of its creation, the tying of a loop, i.e. of a circular gesture, and on the other hand, it inherently has the possibility of loosening again.  

In seafaring, for example, energy is released by untying a knot. Picking up the wind. In antiquity, the knot form was said to have a magical effect. In architecture, the knot mainly means compression. Finally, in the field of human relationships, the knot stands for connection, commitment and all kinds of entanglements. While it is astonishing that the lines are connected when the knot originates but they can actually only grow apart. Isn't that precisely where the promise lies? In discovering other ends to reconnect with? 

Sailstorfer turns the knot's performance into a puzzling conundrum. On the one hand, he shows us that in knotting, contradictory forces of tension and friction create new forms that seem mysterious. On the other hand, he makes us ponder how forms are held in place within such a force field. In short: what creates the connection, what holds it in place? Tension is created by the works' bronze patina, which reinforces the sculptural nature, and the block-like plinth. The block is virtually the counterpart to the knot. As a world composed of blocks cannot accommodate life as a woven mesh. Nothing would be able move and grow and connect anymore.

In the VERSUCHSREAKTOR (EXPERIMENTAL REACTOR) work, movement in space plays a key part. Microphones were cast in concrete, steel and in spheres of epoxy and polyurethane resin and connected to a black powered loudspeaker. The arrangement is reminiscent of a strange planetary system that seems to be bound by an undefined force. The work interacts with the people, the space, the environment. Microphone spheres perceive movements in the room through the vibrations in the floor and reproduce them with a time delay through the loudspeaker. Even the smallest movements can fill the room with a deep roar. The architecture and outside noises can also change the pitch and amplify the soundscape. In Versuchsreaktor, the invisible, a flow of movement, is transformed into an expression that fills the space. VERSUCHSREAKTOR is reminiscent of the kinetic art of the sixties and seventies, which expanded the essence of being to include the process of action and performativity. 

All in all, Sailstorfer's handling of time and space, processuality and expansion is so charged with tension that his works can take on a new playful meaning at any moment. Ambiguous, light, sometimes of subtle wit, sometimes of expressive force, his works are surrounded by a state of semantic suspension, a sense of transformation that defies definitive classification.

Sailstorfer's treatment of materiality can be interpreted as an enigmatic critique of capitalist practices of simply ascribing fixed functions to things and at the same time perverting the concept of plasticity – and confusing it with flexibility. According to philosopher Catherina Malabou, plasticity is "the capacity to take form". To remain changeable, even under pressure or in resistance. But still malleable. Are people, like matter, therefore plastic rather than flexible? Can we be endlessly bent back and forth, as the rationale of exploitation suggests? Or is it not the case that plastic material, once formed, can never return to its original form? What is the consequence of this? A different relationship between autonomy and responsibility. Wouldn't we then have to grant each living being and living matter its own power to develop, its agency – and at the same time deal more responsibly with creative interventions?

By working towards a poetic space in sculpture that promises procedural openness and destabilizes firmly established purposes of existence, Sailstorfer makes it possible to reflect on the spaces of possibility that lie behind the supremacy of categories, how much improvisation lies in the determined, how much becoming lies in being. The BRAINWASHED exhibition invites us to let the questions become plastic: When do we give form, when are we formed? And who actually does the forming?


Frank Steinhofer