Essay by Lisa Le Feuvre
Over a two month period Noëmi Lakmaier has been artist in residence in Camden Arts Centre’s Artists’ Studio, shifting her practice from a small studio that doubles as an office into an expansive, high ceilinged space, open to interruption from curious visitors. Lakmaier’s temporary environment requires her to assert control over both her own ways of operating and her surroundings. Such difficulties are the very conditions the artist embraces: she consistently seeks to place herself in a zone of uncertainty to be negotiated using a process of production. Lakmaier brought with her a number of items to use, refer to, refute and question: the residency has seen the arrival of boxes of bathroom tiles, inflatable balls that become soft over time and collections of pots of yellow paint — the very specific kind used to mark out double-yellow lines along the street. Since March, the walls have gradually filled with quantitative descriptions. Each day Lakmaier has taken an image of the studio and collected arbitrary information about her own body — including what has been ingested, waking-up times, temperature and weight. Wholly irrelevant to her production, this data invites the visitor to invent correlations between personal data and artistic practice, making a wry nod to the mythical figure of the artist observable while at work.
One existing artwork has taken up residence in the temporary studio: Exercise in Losing Control that consolidates a number of Lakmaier’s concerns, highlighting humour, absurdity and a tendency towards dangerous behaviour. Based on the child’s toy the weeble — which was marketed with the slogan “weebles wobble but they don’t fall down” — it operates across the registers of object, event and documentation, taking the form of a homemade yellow sphere constructed using a blown-up ball as an armature, punctuated by three holes just large enough to push a pair of arms and a head through. When first shown in 2007 Exercise in Losing Control became a prop for an event — impossibly the artist slotted herself inside the ball, exiting only when feeling in her body started to disappear. Once Lakmaier was inserted inside the weeble it could indeed be wobbled — but acting on such an invitation comes with a set of responsibilities. The exercise, not to be repeated, sought to define the limits of the artist’s body when used as a medium that then becomes circulated through documentation and rumour — generally initiating a gasp as to how the artist possibly could have fitted into this tiny space.
Throughout her artistic practice, Lakmaier balances between event and object in a series of temporal sculptures reminiscent of the vocabulary of Robert Morris’ early sculptural descriptions. Working with surrounding architectures within which her own body is used as simply one material amongst others, the artist manipulates conflicting languages of restraint and power. In 1960–1 Morris developed a group of performance scripts titled Blank Form Sculpture where he described three simple objects to which viewers would respond differently depending on whether they regarded them as art or not. One described a “cabinet just large enough to enter”, and another “a column with perfectly smooth, rectangular surfaces, 2 feet by 2 feet by 8 feet, painted grey”. The latter became an enacted description in January 1962 for an event at the Living Theatre organised by George Brecht. The column sat vertically on a stage for three minutes and then was pulled to the floor, where it lay on its side for a further three and a half minutes. The object became theatre and changed its character as the spatial relation to the viewer shifted. The column itself was hollow and large enough for a person to be able to stand in — in fact Morris’ first idea was to be inside the column himself and to cause the fall with the movement of his own body. However, he was forced to use strings, controlled offstage, for the final performance due to the injury a fall caused to him during rehearsal. There is something Buster Keaton like about this and Exercise in Losing Control — blank faced, deadpan, obvious and, like all objects, dumb.
Literature informs Lakmaier’s thinking, and during this residency she has been considering Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s 1956 play The Visit that she read as a child growing up in Austria. Dürrenmatt’s story of greed, retribution and dissatisfaction calls for an active audience, demanding responsibility to be taken for one’s own actions. In this dark comedy, the central character is an elderly woman who returns to her impoverished hometown, having become extremely wealthy over the intervening years. As a young woman she was betrayed by her lover and driven out of the town. Nearly 40 years later she returns filled with vengeance, offering a significant amount of money to the town and its population on the proviso that the man who shamed her, an upstanding member of the community who runs the local store, is killed. The woman proclaims: “feeling for humanity, gentleman, is cut for the course of an ordinary millionaire; with financial resources like mine you can afford a new world order”. The offer is met with horror, yet over time the townspeople imagine the difference her gift of money would make and gradually begin taking up credit to buy luxuries, using the obfuscatory nature of language to disguise their intentions.
Since studying the play at school, Lakmaier has always remembered the tale of the townspeople buying yellow shoes as a marker of their choice of consumption over moral conduct. Over the last two months she has been collecting pairs of shoes, which are painted yellow with road-marking paint, turning worn items into pristine-surfaced doubles. Collected together into a large sphere, the shoes stand waiting for their wearers. One pair fits Lakmaier exactly, and in a single one-off event she will try them on, perversely making both herself and the ball of yellow shoes immobile unless rolled, an action invited by the artist, yet one that few would choose to accept.
The politics of conduct in relation to the constraints of architecture and objects are key references for Lakmaier’s work. She is fascinated by the ways individuals take control of space, investigating how power can be relinquished, taken or collaborated with. Bad architecture intrigues her — from the public buildings that require tensile barriers to guide the public through spaces, to the transport nodes that grow lines of waiting people or the homes where doors grind spaces for door handles into walls. Home improvement disasters capture her attention too, as evidenced by her ever-growing cache of DIY materials during the residency. Screws hammered into walls, shelves that fall off and tiles with misaligned perspectives, for Lakmaier, are opportunities for reasserting control over imperfect frameworks for behaviour and proposed solutions. These familiar failures that breed frustration often initiate lateral, and sometimes subversive, thinking as individuals seek ways of operating in spite of tangible and attitudinal obstacles. It is in this very space that Lakmaier situates her artistic practice.
Albert Camus The Plague, Penguin Classics; New Ed edition (5 Dec 2002), ISBN 13: 978-0141185132
Albert Camus The Myth of Sisyphus, Penguin Books Ltd (25 Aug 2005), ISBN 13: 978-0141023991
Friedrich Durrenmatt The Visit, Jonathan Cape; New Ed edition (23 Aug 1973), ISBN 13: 978-0224009140
Franz Kafka The Castle, Vintage; New Ed edition (1 Sep 2005), ISBN 13: 978-0749399528
Margaret Atwood The Handmaid’s Tale, Longman (29 Aug 2003), ISBN 13: 978-0582784369
Freaks dir. Tod Browning (1932) Warner Home Video
Das Experiment dir. Oliver Hirschbiegel (2006)
You too, Hofbauer.
You’re wearing new shoes too.
You too. New shoes.
New yellow shoes.
What’s so extraordinary
about new shoes?
You can’t go around in
same old shoes forever.
How did you all get new shoes?
The Two Women.
We got them on account,
Mr Ill, we got them on account. The Visit, Freidrich Durrentmatt
Noëmi Lakmaier (b. Austria, 1980) lives and works in London. Studied for both her BA (2003) and MA (2004) in Fine Art at Winchester School of Art. She has exhibited widely in the UK including The Works of Others, Whitechapel Gallery Project Space, London 2006, Redundancy, Aspex Gallery, Portsmouth 2005, Dada-South Launch Exhibition, Fabrica, Brighton 2005. She has been a visiting lecturer at the University of Sussex, Brighton since 2006 as well as teaching at the University of Hertfordshire since 2005. For this residency Lakmaier has been the inaugural recipient of the Adam Reynolds Memorial Bursary.
Lisa Le Feuvre.
The residency at Camden Arts Centre is generously supported
by Angela Nikolakopoulou.