Loops and Escapes: Sophie Reinhold
Sophie Reinhold interviewed by Francesco Tenaglia
“Both gods and men are angry with a man who lives idle, for in nature he is like the stingless drones who waste the labor of the bees, eating without working; but let it be your care to order your work properly, that in the right season your barns may be full of victual. Through work men grow rich in flocks and substance, and working they are much better loved by the immortals.”
— Hesiod, Work and Days
The centerpiece of the exhibition The Ballad of the Lost Hops, titled Die Allegorie der vier Jahreszeiten (The Allegory of the Four Seasons), is a four-part work in oil and marble powder on jute. It evokes, in playful and ectoplasmic form, the celebratory representations of physical labor decorating facades under Western and Eastern European totalitarian regimes.
Each canvas contains silhouettes of anonymous—and thus universal—protagonists performing different tasks, and hints, as in Japanese haiku poetry, at a different time of year. But we are not on the street; we are inside a Parisian apartment, where Sundogs is located, and the artist chooses to make contemplating these emblematic workers more pleasant by offering two sculpture-armchairs on which the visitor can comfortably sit. Out the window we enjoy an agreeable view of the Republique area, which Reinhold answers with a painting of a window—hanging on the wall opposite the real one—grimly painted in black. Perhaps this is to mirror the city symbol of the bourgeois revolution, Paris, and therefore the early epicenter of art world infrastructure as we continue to know it, with the residues of a truncated revolution set in the city where she was born, Berlin, during the last decade of the GDR. Or perhaps the black window simply alludes to a party that will continue through the night. One of the foundational metaphors of the exhibition is beer production—the raw materials that can be lost if the process goes awry, but that more frequently blend in a successful concoction—thus, alcohol flowing, inebriated conversations, dances. Fun follows fatigue cyclically, as if per an ancestral pact. Hunter (2019) portrays a swan without wings guiding two children who have lost their heads, a fairy-tale allusion to loss of control as the two urinals, titled Water of Life (2019). Drunkenness and self-containment, propaganda and decor, the regimented division of work and leisure, Paris and Berlin, folklore and art history. The Ballad of Lost Hops exceeds these premises, using a constellation of polarized references like bricks to build—with a distinctively commanding voice—a complex and powerful display.
FRANCESCO TENAGLIA: To “enter” your show at Sundogs, Paris, the first crucial thing is to understand its title: The Ballad of the Lost Hops.
SOPHIE REINHOLD: The exhibition title deals directly with the individual works and their context. A ballad is a narrative poem with multiple verses, usually telling of a tragic event. It is a hybrid between an epic, a lyrical poem, and a drama. Following the idea of verses, The Ballad of the Lost Hops suggests relatedness between the different elements in the exhibition. At the same time, the entire setting can be seen as a kind of stage design for a corresponding action. The German proverb “when hops and malt are lost” comes from beer brewing. When the process goes wrong, the main ingredients—hops and malt—are lost. In the proverbial sense, it describes something or someone as a hopeless case.
FT: The allegory of the four seasons—which has manifested in many, many permutations since the classical era—has been used to illustrate the ages of humanity, from youth to old age, therefore the transience of mortal life. How did you reinterpret this trope in the economy of the exhibition?
SR: The allegory puts time and space in an interesting relationship. The seasons suggest a universal order, a constant continuum of change and life. To me, it was important to include this epic-ness, especially chromatically. I used the formal structure of four individual canvases, each depicting one figure, as a nod to this extensively used format. I simultaneously reference historical allegorical representations in which the seasons are illustrated by a human activity. I’m curious about the interconnections between the seasons and different types of labor. Although in the contemporary workplace, the link is supposedly missing. Today, everything (and everyone) is designed to function all year round. This leads to detachment—in the interest of capital—from a certain reality, namely aging and its natural cycles. At the same time, the idea of immortality prevails. Like the tech companies that offer their female employees the option to freeze their eggs so they can keep working and worry about having kids later. This corresponds to the interruption of the work/recreation rhythm, a temporal and spatial expansion of labor processes to all available areas. I see this as closely linked to aging prevention, research geared toward immortality, and the obsession with never-ending youth.
FT: One has the feeling that Paris is an important counterpart for the construction of the exhibition, both in visual terms—I am thinking of the black window that contrasts with the marvelous panorama of roofs and streets that can be glimpsed from Sundogs—and in terms of calcified connotations of the city. Could you expand on how valuable Paris was for you as a reference?
SR: When I made the works, I considered the fact that Sundogs is located in a private residence. The painted window, its proportions and grid structure, refer directly to the apartment’s window, from which one has a typical view of Paris. Seen from the outside and in the daylight, the window appears black, the view inside blocked. I see my work as a mirroring of that view. You see a surface that doesn’t reveal anything, and at the same time you have to assume that something is behind it. Growing up in the GDR, Paris was a projection plane that was historically rich and unreachable. When I was seventeen I spent some time in the city, and the projection mixed with actual experiences. After the system changed, and after all the longing, I had a very curious but humble attitude toward everything that was part of the Western reality. Sometimes I’m quite happy that I grew up with this different perspective. When I see how readily Western values are accepted, I have to smile at how transparently the system actually functions. How inherited status and money are passed on and celebrated, completely unquestioned. This has its effect on the art world. I can see the boredom with which things are created and how it’s expected that we sit and watch how the codes of privilege are reproduced. It’s not really about the eye level.
FT: In what way—beyond formal and chromatic echoes—do the sculptural chairs relate to the paintings?
SR: In its form, the bathtub is already related to the body, and the chairs are made from tubs that I’ve sawn into pieces. They remind me of Caesar’s throne in the French Astérix comics. The way in which the objects are arranged in the apartment makes them function like interior decor or design elements. The distribution of the objects in the space appears generous, almost lavish and decadent. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was possible to live in enormous old apartments without this connotation. Money and space had a different relationship. On the one hand, I am interested in the tension between comfort and work, leisure and money and decadence. In Berlin, for example, living space is becoming moreexpensive due to speculation. What used to be a rather comfortable situation has become a luxury. Experiencing these changes raises questions.
FT: I find it very interesting that you use urinals, beyond making them less the object of artistic contemplation (the plinth, the signature, the decades that separate us from the significance of the first gesture). You stick them on the wall as one would a normal toilet, even if at a bizarre height, to invoke the alternating cycle of work and inebriation that is one of the themes of the exhibition. Do you have a particular interest in Marcel Duchamp and the readymade?
SR: In my exhibition Dear Hannes at Schiefe Zähne, Berlin, last year, I installed under a painting an object reminiscent of a “piss channel.” The sculptures at Sundogs are casts of urinals and clearly a few steps away from readymades. I find them intriguing as objects. They’re important as a verse in the ballad. In reality, urinals have a functional role. They’ve been appropriated by art history. But hopefully this doesn’t lead to a reduction of their reading! I find it interesting to enter mined territory, art historically speaking, because I like the irritation that comes with it. First and foremost the urinal makes us think of the act of pissing and, as such, it addresses circulation. Hanging them higher makes them more suitable to receive vomit, and they become less gender-specific. Their title, Water of Life, is a term that comes from “urine therapy,” the belief that drinking the so-called “middle stream” of morning urine has health benefits. Seen this way, the cycle hermetically closes: the human being itself becomes the fountain.
Sophie Reinhold (b. 1981, Berlin, GDR) lives and works in Berlin. Recently, her work was exhibited at Galerie Tobias Nähring, Leipzig; Schiefe Zähne, Berlin; Galerie Rüdiger Schöttle, Munich; Sophie Tappeiner, Vienna; Villa Romana, Florence and Kunstverein Friedrichshafen. She has a forthcoming solo exhibition at Kunsverein Reutlingen.
at Sundogs, Paris
until 30 June (by appointment)