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Photo by Lisa Edi
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Photo by Lisa Edi
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Photo by Lisa Edi
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Photo by Lisa Edi
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Photo by Lisa Edi
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Photo by Lisa Edi

Sophie Gogl: The Tapestry of Madness

January 6, 2022
Text by Sophia Roxane Rohwetter

Sophie Gogl uses imagery of daily life to raise questions about social and visual reproduction, thereby reflecting on both media cultures and aesthetics of domesticity.

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Photo by Lisa Edi

Sophie Gogl’s paintings usually begin with found images taken from personal photographs or pop culture. She often works in series and recently presented a group of circular jam jar lid paintings at the Berlin gallery KOW that continue her interest in binge production. Her use of cans and jars, suitcases and glass containers reveal her fascination with questions and forms of containment and art’s capacity to produce, preserve and consume both meaning and ambivalence. In this conversation with Sophia Roxane Rohwetter, she speaks about art as a placeholder, the fear of copying and contemporary scenes of séance.

I first encountered your work in the group exhibition No Dandy, No Fun at Kunsthalle Bern in 2020. It featured your painting of Anna Sorokin, the high society imposter. What interested you about her story?

The Anna painting was created at a time when my sense of pictorial invention was less self-confident and stringent than it is today. At that time, I lived from image production to image production, not knowing what I was going to paint next – it stressed me. Anna, as subject, or object in this case, provided a narrative to which you, as an artist, don’t have to add much. The Anna paintings were more of a study in technique, an exercise with a new airbrush gun. So, the painting itself, unlike Anna, is insanely innocent. Of course, I knew that the subject would work because her story is so absurd. After the Anna painting, I started working in series because I realized that it would spare me a lot of stress with pictorial invention.

You paint self-portraits or portraits of people, but your paintings are also inhabited by non-human agents who are usually personified or anthropomorphic and who often have something existential or nonsensical to say. I’m thinking of »Lobster« (2020), in which a lobster writes »No one cares what my definition of ‘is’ is.« Where did that brilliant line come from?

This sentence is taken from a Simpsons chalkboard gag, referring to a statement made by Bill Clinton during the Lewinsky affair. He claimed that he had »no sexual relations with that woman«, and when he was convicted of this lie, he said that he had not lied because at the time of his statement he had not had any relations with her. I was interested in the lobster because of this film by Yorgos Lanthimos. By the way, did you know that Olivia Coleman, who plays the hotel manager in The Lobster, also plays the stepmother in the series »Fleabag«? I like that show, even if it may be seen as the latest rendition of »The Fabulous Destiny of Amélie«. As an artist, I am interested in the stylistic and technical devices used in the show, such as the way the protagonist addresses the audience directly, breaking the fourth wall. There’s a moment when the priest Fleabag has fallen in love with notices her turning away and talking to someone. As a viewer, it is only then that you realize that you are her attachment figure, and you fear that there is an intruder coming to take her away from you, that she will eventually turn away. The whole series plays with that kind of psychological interaction.

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Photo by Lisa Edi

Your paintings seem to be psychologically interactive too, the way they address the audience or attempt to break the barrier between them and the image. Like when a grinning toilet paper roll says »Relax no one cares whose side I am on« or when a small handwritten note asks viewers to switch on their phone torch so they can orient themselves. Do you think there is a fourth wall to break in visual art?

I definitely believe that there is a fourth wall in visual art. In classical theatre, we know that we are in the theatre and that a play is being performed, and I would say in art it is very similar. There is art that says »I am art and there is a barrier between us«. I’m curious about the direct address to the viewer, but I’m even more interested in the gaze. I think it’s all about catching attention, being noticed and then walking off again.

Fear and anxiety are recurrent themes in your work. An exhibition at Zeller van Almsick was titled second hand angst, and as part of your presentation of toilet seats at Miart Milan ‘21 you included a text comparing a snake attack with fear. You write: »You can’t help it, it appears and attacks you, and it’s also not rationally attainable in its form.« It goes on to describe the transformation of fear, how it passes from the abstract to the figurative, how it becomes legible and therefore less threatening. What role does fear play in your practice?

I am interested in the permanence of fear. In a way, fear offers security because it is a constant that always follows you, like an outsourced companion. Anxiety is an attractive mental state because it’s like a soliloquy, an inner voice that social media has suppressed a bit. The boredom of the internal monologue, the language of repetitive thought no longer exists in that form. These days the radio is not enough to let my thoughts wander and I have to listen to a podcast. I once worked as a chambermaid in an alpine hut with no internet. I only had a Hildegard Knef and a Devendra Banhart album on my mobile phone and I listened to that every day for three months. A structured activity, the tapestry of madness.

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Photo by Lisa Edi

Then there’s the fear of appropriation, copying and plagiarism in your work. For the exhibition She brings the pain at Schwabinggrad in Munich, you wrote a short story about two artists who both paint cans.

Yes, that is something I think about a lot: what happens when someone paints the same thing as me? The short story is about an artist who paints cans and another artist who also paints cans and claims that he has much more of a right to paint these cans because he comes from a working class family that toils in a can factory. So they both paint cans, and he goes mad.

And has that fear ever come to pass?

Funnily enough, what I describe in that story happened to me à la lettre, just recently. It’s been haunting me for a very long time, and now that it has finally happened, it’s very unexciting. But the fear of copying others is always there too. When I was finishing a painting that only needed eyelashes, it suddenly reminded me of a Jana Euler painting. I thought »Shit, this is a Jana Euler painting« and wanted to withdraw it from Art Basel because of plagiarism. Then I painted the eyelashes and it was okay. I understood a lot more about painting thanks to that one. It’s called »Plastikvogel« (2021).

How do you see the relationship between that painting and the series of Jars, which you showed shortly before, at the Berlin gallery KOW?

The »Jars« work like classic Warholian screen prints. After this ADHD-like working off a motif, I wanted to produce a large painting that can stand on its own. It’s a very carefully composed painting because the photography that preceded it required it to be so. But it was only in painting it that I noticed how the photograph submits to the rules of painting. The painting has appealed to so many people, why? I think it’s because of its many layers. They play with the human need to cover oneself. Even in summer when it’s forty degrees, we crawl under blankets because it’s comforting. Basically, painterly layers function like a layer, a blanket that you pull over yourself. For the size and the way it’s painted, the painting is very discreet.

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Photo by Lisa Edi

It has a sense of intimacy which is also present in your older video works. These are very different from the newer paintings and sculptures, but use similar motifs, like animals and toys.

At that time, in my rather unhappy early 20s, I wanted to recall that phase of feeling sheltered. I tried to calm myself down with toys, weaving frames, iron-on images and window colour, just to feel something. I made those videos to record what a tragic figure I once was. I don’t think I’ve ever approached anything so unselfconsciously again. As you get older, you try to tell yourself that the old stuff is embarrassing. But I do believe that the older work has a strength because you lose that defiant attitude over time. I couldn’t make videos like that anymore, that’s why it’s cool. They show a different person.

There seems to be some longing for security and shelter in the paintings too. There are images of domestic places and objects: furnishings, preserving jars, bird cages, ultrasound images. These are nests, safe spaces where something lives, where warmth is created, but at the same time something is enclosed.

My therapist describes my upbringing as a transparent corset. Not a traditional corset that you are laced up into, but a transparent one. Transparency is about rules and frameworks that are abstract and static.

Some of the jam jar lid paintings suggest home and the homemade, others, like the one that mimics the logo of the jam manufacturer »Bonne Maman«, explicitly (or: literally) conjure up images of motherhood.

The Bonne Maman is an advertising figure, a symbol of the good caring mother. The good mother is a constructed image that doesn’t exist. The very fact that the adjective »good« is prefixed to the mother is evil. I like Winnicott’s notion of the »good enough mother«.

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Photo by Lisa Edi

How has motherhood changed your artistic practice?

It has made me more ambitious. When you are on your own, you might be able to make a living from art, but when you have a child, it becomes very difficult. Being a mother and an artist, being a mother and part of society is an inherently political undertaking, and it has made me more aware of different social contexts and relations. I think motherhood is at the heart of many questions about social reproduction.

The way you equate your personal life, motherhood for example, with generic, banal everyday signifiers, like Bonne Maman, suggests that you are using your own biography as a placeholder or a conduit for addressing broader social issues.

Art often functions as a placeholder. In my diploma thesis »Stuck in the middle class with you«, I dealt with the placeholder lorem ipsum as a dadaistic expression, something without sense. As an artist, you have the power and creative freedom to name and fill these placeholders. You can fill images with meaning and significance, but you can also sweep out all intentions and opinions and only represent the thing itself. Keeping this ambivalence is important to me, also in motherhood. You are a mother and you drop your child off at kindergarten every day and you madly hope that it won’t die on the way to the playground, but on the other hand you are also a working being and part of society. It’s a beautiful, but also ugly ambivalence. My work is a lot about ambivalences, symbioses and symbols. It’s a bit like a séance, except you’re there all the time waiting for your friends to bring the right mushrooms. Séance, a life surrounded by spirits, that we have all lost a little bit. There is this thesis that abstract art emerged from the séance, and to me that seems quite conceivable. But I also think that a lot has been done to suppress the paranormal and the magical. I’m currently reading »Caliban and the Witch« by Silvia Federici (thank you, Marina, for the recommendation), which deals with the suppression of the knowledge of midwives and healers. Federici opposes the understanding of witch hunts and burnings as secondary historical events and shows that the primitive accumulation of capital cannot be understood without taking into account how women were deprived of their bodies and knowledge. I find it interesting that artists today are so attracted to witches. It’s like there is a historical trauma that lives on in the image of the witch. That’s why it’s important to not only read the canonised works of Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf or Simone de Beauvoir, that have been shaping our narrative about femininity for a long time, but also the book by Federici. Only then does one understand the rise and fall of existences and privileges. Quite little has remained between witch and whore.

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Photo by Lisa Edi

This idea about the power of filling in placeholders reminds me of the essay »The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction«, in which Ursula K. Le Guin refutes the thesis that tools and weapons were humanity’s most important inventions and instead outlines a feminist history of technology in which baskets, bundles and other carrier bags like stories are central to collective sustainment. In your paintings, you often show these kinds of carrier bags and containers. But one could also see your sculptures as containers. I’m thinking of the filled suitcases in your exhibition Storno at MAK.

For this exhibition, I was originally supposed to do something on the subject of sustainability. I didn’t think that was so bad, because it’s a very broad concept. So I made these suitcases and filled them somehow. As with the Anna painting, I approached it quite innocently at first. But when I later looked at the exhibition, I realised that it wasn’t about sustainability, it was about violence against women. Until you cover a blonde wig in humus, you just don’t know what it will look like.

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Photo by Susanna Hofer

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PW-Magazine is a bilingual online magazine for contemporary culture.