I visited Suse last year after seeing some of her work at Barbara Weiss in Berlin. Suse’s studio is in a former Afro-Caribbean hair salon in a district of Berlin called Wedding. The basement still has some hothouse lighting and ventilation for the marijuana that used to be grown there, and Suse still gets the occasional knock on the door from people trying to score some weed.
In the storefront part of the studio were hanging bright blue plastic barrels with yellow nylon rope “legs” and “arms” with bobbing heads – iconic and cartoonish figures that she had prepared for her upcoming show. These proved to fit in with a body of her work that takes the notion of the “Marionette” as a starting point. Painted green bleacher seating left from a recent performance stood against the studio walls, giving further indication of the role of performance in Suse’s work. At the back near the kitchen, was installed a shelving system that contained within its rigid, standardized structure cardboard components of cool solid colours and photographed imagery.
As I listened to Suse describe the thought processes and evolution of the work and her own journey as a young artist coming of age in Leipzig just as the Berlin Wall came down, I was struck with the richness and multiple layers her work embodies. There is an intensity and idealism about Suse that I found very engaging. Her roots in East Germany, where she was sequestered from any art post-dating 1945, are perceptible in her refreshing honesty. She described a circuitous and self-determined route of art education that involved Belgium and its Congolese colonial outpost and research into some of the ways that economics, politics and trade affect social norms and behaviours. Her interest in archival photos of propaganda dance performances suggested to me that she was identifying in many everyday activities if not an agenda, then some kind of socially and culturally-determined typology. The physical appearance of her work, made of low-budget materials marshalled into graphic, regular patterns and structures brought to mind early Russian Constructivist experiments. And like those demonstrations of utopian zeal, such as Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International, Suse’s work is more emblematic than pragmatic. The elements that comprise her sculpture – physical units of colour, shape, texture and imagery – are interchangeable and conditioned by the circumstances of a given performance. As Suse explains, her work “is not sculpture. It is the grammar of sculpture.” I found this way of thinking of sculpture like language very compelling, and the more I thought about it, the more I was excited by Suse’s rather Structuralist investigation.
The performative aspect of Suse’s work struck me as just the right element of risk to introduce as my first Launch Pad exhibition. While performance is very much enjoying a renaissance in contemporary art, Suse’s version involves a greater than usual degree of unpredictability, since it’s as much her own activity as the participation of the viewing audience that determines the outcome. In this way, her work is like the traditional travelling marionette theatres that Suse has studied. As Suse explained, when these troupes of puppeteers would travel from village to village, the characters of the marionettes would remain the same, but the stories and narratives would vary from town to town, depending on the local customs and traditions. I liked the idea that visitors to Launch Pad could affect the way Suse’s work unfolded on site. And indeed, they did. Suse’s open and accessible nature ensured that visitors felt welcome to engage in conversation, question her choices, and even attempt minor rearrangements of the components throughout the week-long exhibition. As soon as guests to Launch Pad entered the space, they became part of the theatre of “Formula:Marionette.” Suse’s large-scale “coat rack” made of cardboard and wooden dowels that dominated the wall of the mezzanine, invited each visitor to make an aesthetic decision: where and how to display their winter coat.
Suse left me with a large-scale wall installation and a “vocabulary” of over 100 elements – copper coils, felt, rubber ribbons, cardboard cutouts, brass rods and melamine templates – and instructions for 7 different arrangements of the materials (one for each day of the week). It dominates the wall of a double height atrium space. So far I’ve changed it three times, climbing up on a ladder and following the map like a DIY kit. And each time I do, I’m reminded of when Suse and I found ourselves one day wondering exactly who is the Marionette? Who controls the strings here? Suse… or me?