The Photographic Practice of Karen Knorr
“No space of representation without a subject, and no subject without a space it is not. No subject, therefore, without a boundary”. (Victor Burgin, In Different Spaces, Place & Memory in Visual Culture, University of California press, 1996: p52).
The work of Karen Knorr has developed intellectually and aesthetically at quite a speed since the mid 1980’s. Following an initial practice relating to social documentary, Knorr discovered a new area of investigation that went hand in hand with her natural curiosity, interest and knowledge of art theory and art history.
More recently, Knorr’s practice has engaged with increasing fascination with taxidermy, objects and spaces, and a conceptual practice that continually and consistently plays at disrupting the institutional gaze. Knorr’s practice embraces pluralism and the deconstruction of institutions, language, desire and fantasy; issues that dominated the post structural theoretical landscape of the 1980’s and 90’s but the originality and strength of Knorr’s recent work has taken these themes a step further.
In her photographs, Knorr uses space in a formalist way, but also acknowledges the natural world. Her take on subverting the museum can be seen via the French philosopher Michelle Foucault’s writing on power and his singularity to see through the fictions of the structures of society, and the need to subvert those restrictions.
Simultaneously Knorr is fascinated by ritual, display and death, and her work can be described as poetic, deeply mysterious, playful, smart, and fascinating in its originality, in ideas and concepts, and in her methods of production.
Knorr’s vision is also important, there is no doubt that her originality and the techniques that she utilises make her akin to a painter rather than a ‘straight’ photographer. Following on from a location (museum) photo shoot, Knorr spends many hours in her studio on the production of a single image, moving and inserting, editing, enhancing, highlighting and intensifying colours; Knorr’s key board and computer screen are her palette and paintbrush, the final photographic print that the viewer sees via the gallery is her canvas. Knorr’s practice is enacted via a creative process that is a direct and intense encounter with technology whilst at the same time embracing traditional photographic techniques.
Knorr also, if diffidently perhaps, embraces the spaces of high culture, as she recognises they represent something that still resonates, a nostalgic link with the past, the disappearing rituals and sensibility, hierarchical values, royalty and aristocracy as a lost race, a trace of history, private as well as public as in the past many of the museums Knorr chooses to photograph were the homes of the royal and aristocratic families.
Another predominant element to Knorr’s photographs is a sense of the ‘Baroque’ aesthetic. Knorr’s prints embody perfection; the intense colouration drenched onto the surface of the photographic paper produces an excess of aesthetic experience, which is a familiar sign in Baroque imagery and architecture. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, the Baroque style was set out in relation to the Roman Catholic Church. Art and architecture was required to communicate religious themes in a direct and emotional manner.
The drama of Baroque architecture expresses scale, power and control, the entrances of courts, grand staircases and reception rooms of sequentially increasing opulence. Knorr is obsessed with such details, as well as a rendition of architectural space her photos are an encounter with repeated patterns, excessive interior decoration and fixed notions of class and aristocracy. Knorr’s photographic prints contain an abundant amount of detail, bright colour hues, as well as strange and unexpected content, producing a sense of awe and wonder in the viewer, which was also one of the most fundamental aims of the Baroque aesthetic.
As well as acknowledging and recognising the importance of these historical, voluptuous and highly decorated and preserved institutions, in her choice of venue as a back drop to her aesthetic and conceptual ideas, Knorr subverts their original intention via her playful interceptions of stuffed and live animals. Surrealism could be one influence on Knorr’s practice; the chance encounter of Andre Breton, the strange juxtaposition of incongruous objects.
In L’Amour fou Breton speaks of an aura and anxiety in relation to an intensity of sensation when experiencing the chance event, he describes it as, “a mixture of panic-provoking terror and joy” (Amour Fou, Editions Gallimand, Paris 1937: p40)
In the Surrealist Manifesto of 1920 Breton sets out an agenda to subvert the institution and bourgeoisie culture of art via playful and subversive interactions, desire and experimental methods and language. Breton’s link with Freud’s unconscious was explicit, as he rallied the Surrealists to pay attention to the dream world as set out by Sigmund Freud as a separate sphere, or a ‘dream reality’.
Knorr’s recent photographic practice is a series of works ‘Fables’ in which she utilises stuffed and live animals.
This can be viewed as a return to, and a reinstating of surreal imagery at the same time as infiltrating the museum context. Knorr’s imagery and symbols carry plural meanings and yet engage also on a psychological level, animal desire, a wish to tame and control the primitive instincts, also discussed by Freud in his essays on Sexuality (Sigmund Freud, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905), in The Essentials of Psychoanalysis, Penguin 1986). Knorr’s imagery moves toward the uncanny, and eventually the death drive.
Traditionally fables (stories or myths) have intersecting narratives and deeper latent meanings as in Freud’s writings on dreams. Knorr’s work also engages with the aesthetics of the dream, particularly dream landscape, or a screen memory from the past. Knorr’s repetition and spaces uninhabited by human existence also equate with Foster’s discussion of Surrealism and compulsive beauty.
“Breton hoped that the surreal would become the real, that surrealism would overcome this opposition with liberatory effects for all. But might it be that the reverse has occurred that in the postmodern world of advanced capitalism the real has become the surreal, that our forest of symbols is less disruptive in its uncanniness than disciplinary in its delirium?” (Hal Foster, Compulsive Beauty, MIT Press 1993: p210)
In The Blue Salon- Louis XV1no 2, (Musée Carnavalet) Knorr’s choice of abundant furniture crammed into the corner creates a dialectic with the single fox which we as the viewer see only the back of. Curvature of the French chairs and harp and the intense colouration of the walls and patterning of the rug, in combination with the framing, intensify the claustrophobic effect of the image. The insistence of the reality of the fox brings a sense of the uncanny for the viewer, and draws on our fears of the wild animal, it’s stillness and perfection, glossy coat and fixed gaze produce an encounter with the death drive, exacerbating the question for the audience of whether the fox is alive or taxidermied (dead), and a drive to see or know, to uncover the truth.
A disparity between the romanticised museum space and the animal occurs here. The fox is related to wolves but they are not usually pack animals, as loners they are able to sneak up and to kill their prey quickly using a pouncing technique practised from an earlier primitive age. In folklore of some cultures, the fox represents cunning and trickery, or as a familiar animal possessing magical powers.
Wild foxes are normally extremely wary of humans and are not kept as pets however the urban fox is a recent phenomena whereby suburban houses and city apartment buildings are stalked by foxes that ravage through waste bins causing havoc. The presence of the fox and other taxidermied birds and animals in Knorr’s images offers something both frightening and familiar, something that disturbs everyday existence, that makes dysfunctional the calm and quiet of the museum space;
“The subject of the uncanny is a province of this kind. It is undoubtedly related to what is frightening – to what arouses dread and horror . . . the uncanny is that class of the frightening which leads us back to what is known of old and long familiar”. (Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny, Penguin Classics 2003: p124)
Two of Knorr’s images that can be compared to each other in many conceptual and visual ways are The King & Queen’s Bedchamber, which Knorr made at Chambord. Gender plays a part. The wild boar in The King’s Bedchamber is centre stage, and moves towards the door, its strange, large and cumbersome feral presence permeates the pristine interior. Along the corridor (perhaps, as we do not know for sure the exact whereabouts) is The Queen’s Bedchamber which is inhabited by some smaller animals as well, a vixen is curled up on the bed and a nervous badger snarls and displays its teeth as the massive boar billows towards the bed, the scale of the animals is exaggerated and uneven. The combination of playfulness and threat within this single image is strong, as finally we see a parrot jay above the four-poster bed, evoking otherness, strangeness and the uncanny. It seems as if the outside inhabitants of the natural world have invaded the interior, and taken it over, as the animals stand in for the once controlling human element symbolic of power and control, the hierarchical structures of patriarchy, of male power and sexual threat is also enacted via metaphor in Knorr’s animal invasion of the King and Queen’s bedrooms.
Fantasy and play form part of our psychic imagination and Knorr’s images penetrate those spaces as well as re arranging material from the real world. The imagination can advance into the full depth of our visual field as well. In Freud’s essay Creative Writers and Daydreaming 1908 he discusses activities in the imagination such as dreaming, fantasising, playing and the creation of art as means of accumulating pleasure by re arranging reality into new and more congenial forms. Freud searches for activities analogous to the imaginative work of the creative writer that occupies all human beings and he discovers it in child’s play. Freud’s ‘reality principal’ places restrictions in adulthood on the directions that play can be encouraged and useful, but the creativity of the artist is one way that the conflict between the reality/pleasure principal can be resolved and balanced out. (Sigmund Freud, The Essentials of Psychoanalysis, Penguin 1986, p505).
Knorr’s intense ‘work’ in her production methods can also be seen as analogous to the key theories of Object Relations, as set out by Melanie Klein (Juliet Mitchell, The Selected Melanie Klein, Penguin 1986). Klein maps out an internal psychic drama, based on our relation with objects that we have attachments to from the first experiences in life. The objects are metaphors for many things, the mother’s breast, goodness and nourishment for example. Destructive urges against the mothers breast form part of the psychological pattern in this theory as mapped out by Klein as an intense internal psychic drama, as she delved deep into the psyche and fantasies, Klein also emphasised the defence mechanisms, which were utilised by the child.
These early anxieties, fantasies, , and defences had not been previously explored, and her conclusions radically altered perceptions in the development of what Freud had called, “the super-ego”, to an earlier stage of development, the time of the ‘Imaginary’, the semiotic time and space before language is formed. Klein revealed a harsh and self-critical/accusatory aspect inherent in this early super-ego development. Klein also established that the libidinal drive in the child is related to the drive ‘to know’, and placed all curiosity from a knowledge-seeking component of the libido.
The final stage of this internal drama for the infant is accompanied by feelings of anxiety and guilt, and a desire to preserve the mother from his/her aggression and destructive instincts. ‘Restorative’ fantasies and behaviour resolve the depressive anxiety, and so the ‘reparation’ is complete. Reparation is possible only if the constitutional capacity of the ego is strong enough to tolerate the feelings of anxiety and guilt.
Klein is optimistic in relation to the reparation. She sees this as a genuine expression of love for the mother, regret for the destructive fantasies, and a deep gratitude for the goodness and nourishment he/she has received from her, rather than a reaction formation against destructiveness, or simple anxiety arising from dependence on the object. “Along with the increase in love for one’s good and real object goes a greater trust in one’s capacity to love and a lessening of the paranoid anxiety of bad objects”.
This process of reparation has since been emphasised in writing on art and creativity as it manifests by means of ‘creative labour’ on the part of an individual, most notably it has been discussed by Hanna Seagal Segal and Adrian Stokes. Stokes made a direct analogy between this “symbiotic relationship” between good and bad, part and whole objects, to the creative process involved in the production of an artwork.
Klein’s radical methods of play-technique free the limitations within language of the possible communication between the pre-conscious, which holds the key to consciousness and many neurotic and psychotic states. So Knorr’s practice similarly involves processes of play, of mapping together and reparation, of psychic dynamism and intent.
Knorr takes objects from the outside and places them in a series of incongruous situations; she infiltrates the stasis of the museum with animals that symbolise the unpredictable power of nature, primitive sexuality, the passing of time and death are also implicit. The final perfect complete photographic prints are a result of Knorr’s restorative playful creative process, and intense workmanship and labour.
The artist who is driven mainly by the imagination aims to provide an alternative reality where possibilities are more flexible than the real world. The spatial expanses of Knorr’s photographs, are equivalent to the ‘transitional spaces of play’ described by the English psychologist DW Winnicott. Knorr’s engagement with disrupting the museum space produces an interesting analogy that corresponds with Winnicott’s theories of ‘transitional’ space described in his book Playing and Reality (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1971).
The cultural spaces of for example the gallery and museum are where adult play can take place, also in the artist’s studio. Winnicott was one of the best-known psychoanalysts in Britain during 1950’s and 60’s. He was a gifted communicator, and was able to describe sophisticated psychoanalytic concepts in simple terms, and so was a widely known broadcaster and public speaker. Winnicott delivered his theories in easily understood and engaging lectures, and was criticised as being too personal and idiosyncratic to be held within the general body of scientific knowledge.
Winnicott introduced the idea of a third realm of experience, apart from the two described in previous psychoanalytic theories, internal and external realities. Winnicott described a (third) ‘transitional’ space, and noted it’s importance in establishing a creative and healthy life-style in order to promote mental well-being.
Objects in this space possess both internal and external reality, selfhood and otherness, and activity is fluid, satisfying and accommodating.
“All playing, all culture, and all religion belong in this transitional realm, which only develops in so far as the mother responds sufficiently sensitively and promptly to the infant’s tendency to hallucinate the objects of it’s desire, to create for itself the illusion that it has subjectively created objects that objectively exist independently…if this is successfully created, and premature disillusionment is avoided, the individual will feel at home in the world and have a creative relationship with it”. (Charles Rycroft, Edited: P.Fuller, Psychoanalysis and Beyond, Chatto & Windus, Hogarth Press, 1985 p. 145).
Architectural space can also relate to Winnicott’s transitional spaces and third realm as it produces a barrier between the internal and external worlds, and we experience architectural space physically and psychologically on a daily basis. Knorr’s photographs from Villa Savoye can be discussed particularly in relation to this. Villa Savoye (1929) is considered to be the seminal work of the Swiss architect Le Corbusier, built just outside of Paris at Poissy, it is one of the most recognisable architectural presentations of the International Style, a new aesthetic of architecture from the beginning of the twentieth century, and is constructed in reinforced concrete.
Knorr’s choice of Villa Savoye as a location for her photographs moves the discussion of her work to a consideration of the domestic site and space, even though the house now acts as a museum. Le Corbusier’s house is emblematic of formal modernism, however, the scale of the rooms in the photos by Knorr is more intimate than in the museum pieces interiors.
In Gaston Bachelard’s writings from his book The Poetics of Space (Beacon Press 1994), the emphasis is on the house as a habitat, dwelling, as ‘home’, where we accumulate physical things, where habits are formed, and where memory is located. This type of space is never indifferent, even when empty or uninhabited. Houses, nests, rooms, corners, cupboards etc are all examined in Bachelard’s phenomenological theories of space as vessels for the imagination, and havens for objects, as he explores the structures and experience of space.
Human beings have an understanding of space on a deeper unconscious level for Bachelard, a separate realm of understanding that transcends time. Bachelard states that people crave private space to shelter not only their physical selves, but also to accommodate the interior space of the imagination and reverie particularly for daydreaming; the house protects the dreamer and allows one to dream in peace. Le Corbusier wanted to design the perfect house for habitation in the Villa Savoye.
In Knorr’s photograph from Villa Savoye, The Shelf, two exotic birds swallows inhabit the corner of a room. Knorr again is playful with scale, and there is a humorous element here, a dream-like quality, also we are not certain if the shelf that the little bird perches upon actually exists or was part of Knorr’s re creation. In The Stairs another incongruous pairing of birds stand in the hallway of Villa Savoye, facing different directions. In both photos there is an emphasis of the surreal, as well as ‘pure’ architecture, as Knorr’s birds wander nonchalantly inhabiting the space inside this modernist palace, looking for an exit perhaps?
As viewers we are reminded that the house we inhabit on a daily basis is made of real people and things, objects and memories, spaces to hide in and to safely retreat into the world of the imagination. Knorr’s tribute to Le Corbusier re instates Bachelard’s text, her photos re frame modernism as a drive to perfection, minimal and empty.
Reading a system of signs as within post structuralist theories produces the meaning of Knorr’s work and can produce many interpretations. The juxtapositioning of objects and environments in her photographs enables the viewer to interpret on many levels as fragmentation occurs, and attempts to produce an understanding of the psyche, that is constituted of many layers, evoking memories, cultural, social and personal.
Photography’s place in art history is also one theme of Knorr’s oeuvre, as within the paradigms of postmodernism Knorr has created her own unique visual language that is playful and intelligent, and she has consistently created beautifully rendered photographs that mimic paintings and resonate with many layers of meaning. Knorr’s practice can be seen as a series of dialogues with psychoanalysis and space via surrealism, desire and the unconscious; objects, play and phenomenology; the museum, history and memory; aesthetics, photography and technology.