Olivia Kaiser

Where Are You, Why Am I Here? Bodies in Absentia
Christian Egger

The paintings of Olivia Kaiser (born 1983 in Vienna, lives in Vienna) in the exhibition Ghosting, on view at the Künstlerhaus, Halle für Kunst & Medien in Graz and subsequently at the Galerie im Traklhaus, are the result of an in-depth examination of specific problems relevant to the medium of painting but extending beyond the canvas.

The title of the exhibition is a reference to the current sociopsychological phenomenon of “ghosting,” which describes the unannounced and absolute withdrawal of a person that one is close to – all of a sudden – in which the person offers no logical reason for his or her actions and refuses to contact the individual with whom he or she shared an emotional bond. The electronic space of communication remains empty from this moment onward. One’s email or messaging in-box and conversations only display a last – unanswered – message. With every day of silence, this final communication addressed to the disappeared becomes more luminous, assuming the oversized proportions of a painful totem of the doubt shrouding the intimacy of communication once shared. If trust and friendship are made from the longstanding layers and movements of the familiar and unknown, things that divide and unite, things that persist, and moments of going above and beyond oneself, Kaiser explores how images could potentially look which address the irrational and abrupt termination of these dynamics.
When developing the concept of the paintings, the artist researched the figure of the Dibbuk, popular in Jewish mythology. The Dibbuk is a dead spirit that enters the body of a living person and produces emotional confusion and irrational behavior. The outward manifestations commonly associated with the belief in Dibbukim are viewed by modern medicine and psychology as cases of hysteria or indications of the onset of schizophrenia. Current approaches to gender studies consider the fact that largely women are subject to being possessed by a Dibbuk as an indication of a link between the belief in Dibbukim and female religiosity.
Rooted philosophy and specifically indebted to French thinker Jacques Derrida, the term haun­tology 1 gained traction in the mid two-thousands, and it lends itself to an attempt to explain the artist’s most recent series of images. In his book Specters of Marx Derrida argues that Karl Marx and his teachings continue to haunt western societies from the grave. He concludes that we must assume the inheritance of Marxism, employing its most “living” parts, and that we can only reaffirm this legacy by transforming it as radically as possible: “Inheritance is never a given, it is always a task.”2
Uniting the three assertions is their substantial relevance to the considerations, practices, and approaches to abstract painting and to the larger debate currently surrounding the medium. In her own painting practice the artist works from rough pencil sketches, transferring formal aspects of these drawings, in addition to their inherent technique, perspective, and gesture, into oil on canvas. Kaiser is primarily concerned with a probing, applied analysis of the early avantgarde ideas accompanying the development of painting in the first half of the twentieth century; she is not interested in a display of isolated “retro” effects. In stark contrast to artists that could be grouped under the telling catchword of “zombie formalism” – a neologism introduced by artist and critic Walter Robinson describing a set of artists who have managed to achieve a staggering increase in value in a very brief time period with paintings that look astoundingly similar to other paintings – Kaiser is interested in a new way of overtly, and physically, performing the tested and tried gestures of painting. For example, borrowing from the open-ended style of Abstract Expressionism, she works in the idiom of Joan Mitchell, Arshile Gorky, and Amy Sillman’s reduction. The artist repeatedly returns to an investigation of the memory of painting and an interrogation of painterly abstraction in terms of their potential to translate this legacy into the language of the present. She is neither interested in spirituality as a social concept nor in abstraction as a historical category. Instead her approach stems from a sincere belief in the metaphysical qualities of the work, materials, technique, and the articulation of a profane understanding of the potential for artistic agency in the context of abstract imagery. All this is founded on the knowledge that since the discourses of the nineteen-nineties the production of painting has been determined by its surrounding context, and its content and motifs tend to relate to spheres extending beyond art, such as identity politics, post-colonialism, and the reflection of capitalism (also in the form of ghosting, the Dibbuk, and hauntology). In addition, since the theoretical impact made by David Joselit’s article “Painting Beside Itself,”3 predominant questions not only address how painting is to meet the challenges inherent to an increasingly medialized society defined by technical reproduction and a globalized structures and which media, structures, and surfaces it should employ in the process. Also at issue is the network of painting and its embedment in the framework by which it is produced. The particular appeal of Kaiser’s work is that these parameters and conditions of a networked existence are revealed as fragmentary and illusionistic. Despite their abstract form, the deep psychosocial conflicts addressed in her images are palpable and remain legible. The paradoxes of human existence, which have exerted their influence long before the emergence of digital social media gadgets, are a consistent theme in her choice of motifs. Percepti- ble in her work are intermediate worlds occupied by the living and the dead and the significance of the umbrella term “friendship” and its ancient, inherently antagonistic potential, which can lead to violence or which – in the on-off modus of digital communication – can produce feelings of abandonment that are emotionally hard to swallow. In these current projects, large-format series of images on canvas, the forms that appear and vanish exist in an active, creative, and two-way short circuit with the processes that define paint- ing – the activities of searching, finding, and losing again that painter Amy Sillman interestingly associated with the notion of embarrassment in a recent essay:
I would rather call it a metabolism: the inti­mate and discomforting process of things changing as they go awry, look uncomfortable, have to be confronted, repaired, or risked, i.e., the process of trying to figure something out while doing it. I don’t know if that’s abstraction, but I know it’s awkward. Finding a form is building these feelings (in this case, dissatisfaction, embarrassment and doubt) into a substance. This is a very fragile thing to do. 4
In a similar vein, Kaiser writes:
I believe that various memories and situations come to mind during the creative process, when you stand alone in front of a work. In this process significant and irrelevant things are sometimes tightly interwoven and impacted, which, in the most productive situations, can generate contradiction. It is definitely a brooding, projective, and endless loop of interpretations, of meanings that can be whispered to the self only in this way (resonating with a double echo, which can lead to confusion in the work­ ing process, to intense questioning). 5

Concluding this introduction, I would like to express my sincere thanks to the artist Olivia Kaiser for her forthcoming collaboration during the preparation of the exhibition and catalogue and for providing many rewarding insights into her work. Furthermore, I would like to thank the two Austrian institutions hosting the exhibition, Kunst im Traklhaus in Salzburg and Künstlerhaus, Halle fu?r Kunst & Medien in Graz, for their synergetic cooperation in presenting this young and unusual position in painting. Furthermore, I would like to thank visitors and the exhibition’s public funding agencies. My thanks also go to Nik Thoenen and Maia Gusberti for the design of this catalogue.

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1 Hauntology developed into a catchword in a range of fields, including visual arts, philosophy, electronic music, politics, and literature. It was often used to explain phenomena such as fake vintage photography, lonely places, and TV series like Life on Mars. See: Mark Fisher, Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures (Winchester: Zero Books, 2014); and the interdisciplinary exhibition project of Thomas Edlinger and Christian Höller: HAUNTINGS – GHOST BOX MEDIA: Heimliche und unheimliche Präsenz in Medien, Kunst und Pop, at Kunstverein Medienturm, Graz, September 25 –
December 17, 2001.
2 Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of Debt, the
Work of Mourning, and the New International
(New York
and London: Routledge, 1994), p. 54.
3 David Joselit, Painting Beside Itself, October 130 (2009),
pp. 125–134.
4 Amy Sillman, “Shit Happens: Notes on Awkwardness,
Frieze d/e 22 (December 2015–February 2016), p. 79.
5 Olivia Kaiser in an email to the author on November 28,
2015.