The White Cube and the White Dress

Sebastian Cichocki

Danuta Karsten's installations evolve as a response to the architecture of the room, filling its interior with geometric and anthropomorphic forms, whose characteristics always remain hidden from the viewer. Elements such as synthetic hair, and angular, interwoven film strips touch the ceiling, embrace the walls, and snake themselves over the floor.
The artist avails herself of these elements to create drawings and three-dimensional objects, structures that hover in the air, disorienting the onlookers' spatial perception and forcing them to maintain their balance between fragile ornaments. The materials that Danuta Karsten uses seem to swell quietly and subtly until they take on the form of strange clusters and other formations. The character of this art is reminiscent of complex chemical and biological processes, with their constant growth and entropy – which corresponds with the situation in an art gallery, in which a nebulous process is halted and subjected to a detailed analysis. Time, an essential raw material of Karsten's installations, becomes manifest and is brought to a standstill. For example, in the work which the artist created for the Koło Gallery in Danzig, (Untitled, 1998), she employed waterglass, which underwent intentional transformations, almost organic in nature. A metal frame was erected which contained such glassy lenses; these then dropped or dripped onto the floor. The final visible form of this work was indeterminate: it decayed as it underwent transition into new, unexpected formations of sticky and slimy membranes. This was an installation which required viewers to view an after-effect rather than simply inspect a piece of work. Danuta Karsten also made use of the special properties of waterglass in her monumental installation for the Ostdeutsche Galerie museum in Regensburg (Untitled, 1998). She constructed an additional ceiling, composed of a layer of cloudy, vitreous lenses, reminiscent of insect colonies, or a honeycomb, by virtue of their regular structure, which nevertheless allows each component an "individual" character. This biological facet of Danuta Karsten's works shows up clearly in the installation that she created for the Gdansk National Museum (Spektrum exhibition, 1999), in which she employed simple, air-filled transparent plastic bags. The light penetrating the amoeba-like structure became murky and diffuse, instilling in the onlooker the illusion of an underwater colony of primitive organisms. The biological nature of these artworks goes beyond the structural similarities of her figures on the one hand and nature on the other (a spider's web, a shell or marine plants) and also goes beyond the bounds of artistic production. For Danuta Karsten it is more a question of discipline and consequence than the product of spontaneous decision. Indeed, it could be said that her works grow constantly rather than being produced.
But Danuta Karsten's art not only harbours biological connotations but also evokes architectural structures. The fact that her works are created in the concrete dimensions of a room in a gallery underlines the quietened, contemplative character of the white cube, thus assumed by the advocates of the institutional autonomy of the white cube. The installations illustrate the character of apparently neutral walls and floors, and focus attention at the same time on that which is missing, the emptiness that fills them. By undergoing a consistent dialogue with the room (or sacred space), she concentrates on exposing the white dress of contemporary architecture. Mark Wigley wrote that architecture is inseparably connected with psycho-sexual economy. The white that covers the walls is not plain white, he says, with the result that modern buildings are never naked. They remain clothed in white dresses, beneath which the natural blemishes and discolorations of the materials remain concealed. Danuta Karsten's installation "Kleider" (dresses), displayed in the Hattingen city museum (2001), seems to constitute the perfect exemplification of this theory – structures resemblant of a woman's dress serve to illustrate the blurry notions of the "rootstocks" of the original architecture. One element of the installation in particular, which is made from white film, looks as if it were an integral part of the ceiling, or an absurd divergence. In this way, neutral interiors take on a sensuality and their sterile character is softened by puzzles and optical traps. The gallery room is therefore not packed or filled with installations, but is copied from somewhere else, like a text available in two versions, each differing only in terms of their handwriting. An example of this is the installation Danuta Karsten composed for the Remscheid city gallery (Untitled, 1998), in which she created a room outline within a room, using textile rubber. She singled out a section of the room for the viewer, causing an ephemeral "shadow" of the original interior to become apparent. Such measures result in mesmeric concentrations of material, pulsating circles, and scenic clusters. Essentially, there is little that changes, and yet one's perception of a known room undergoes metamorphosis. A multiplied object of banal origin becomes incorporated in dreamlike landscapes, in which the human eye can wander and imagine it is seeing larger structures. Danuta Karsten disturbs the existing spatial order by applying puzzling interventions, which are in themselves absurd, and constitute an aesthetic superstructure. Such an installation is the staircase built in the "Galerie m" in Bochum (Traum/Treppe [Dream/staircase], 1999): it fails to penetrate the ceiling and simply remains stuck in it. A stubborn rejection of architectural functionality, a trap for the viewer's imagination. The use of generally available materials, leftover pieces of film and cloth, allows contexts to be recognised between the intimacy of the private sphere and the public nature of the institutional room, where emotional distraction is essentially reduced to a minimum. By effecting the repetition and agglomeration of identical objects, the artist is citing all which is everyday and usual, simultaneously glorifying, and even anointing it. Danuta Karsten lends her works (which are spectacular, although modest) a rhythm that is reminiscent of the hypnotic cycle of housework. The modernist yearning for the white cube is tantamount to taking personal, emotive care of the "white dress", which clothes the architecture.

Mark Wigley, White Walls, Designer Dresses: The Fashioning of Modern Architecture, MIT 2001