Sara Riel: art as a state of meditative unconscious
Automatic, Sara Riel´s exhibition at Kling og Bang, presents intuitive drawings and perplexing forms that cleverly imbue elements of the uncanny and spontaneous creation. Riel´s practice is based in Surrealism; she trains herself into a state of drawing that is characterized by improvisation and a release of control so as to liberate the subconscious. In Riel’s drawings we follow the thread of her imagination as it flows through her pen and onto paper.
Sara Riel follows in the steps of artists like Andre Breton, Hans Arp, Joan Miró, Salvador Dalí, and Max Ernst, pioneers of surrealism and automatism. These artists attempted to access the psyche at the purest level through art. Andre Másson first translated techniques of automatic writing to painting, and much like Másson and Miró, Automatic progresses from drawing into the painting medium. The exhibition consists of drawing, painting, sculpture, video, and performance work, and is quite based in this historical influence.
Riel´s hand moves randomly as artworks are created through intuition and accidental mark making. Take Stundir á staðnum/Moments in situ; the shapes are delicate and vaguely representational. I can make out noses, the inside of an ear, faces, birds, flowers, snails, if I really look for it. But maybe my brain is just playing tricks on me, searching for and creating something recognizable in order to make sense of it for myself. In these terms the rational mind is seen as an oppressive system against creation. Creating without intent is very much fighting against human nature. Another way to describe it is self-censorship, as if your conscious and logical thinking blocks a discovery about the true self. This artistic method is then in a way a rebellion, against norms and status quo, against predetermined ways of thinking and creating.
However, can a drawing, and are Riel’s, ever fully free from the conscious and from purpose? Riel says she throws away any drawings where she starts to notice her conscious presence taking over. How does one know when they have reached a truly authentic state of meditative unconscious? Her works are somewhere between sense and nonsense, but exactly that, in between. Elements register as visually pleasing and grounded in forms we can at least attempt to make sense of. Unconscious and conscious creation necessarily feed off each other, but Riel seems to enter into some realm beyond. She taps into a trance like state as she draws and paints without any preconceived notions of the end product, and so too can the viewer tap into such a state as well in looking.
A paper scroll, Stundir með litum og grafít-hreyfing/Moments with colors and graphite-hreyfing, unrolls onto the ground, revealing a colorfully flowing form with motion and direction. The textures of brushstroke reference to the painterly method, but the work feels otherwise quite natural and earthly: a waterfall cascading to the earth below, the waves of the sea, a cloud formation ascending to the heavens. A small stairway hints at the artist’s continued presence with the object. Imagine Riel standing at this stairway, unfurling the scroll, paintbrush in hand. Like nature itself, the piece is never still or constant. Next to it, Stundir með fimm litum og grafít/Moments with five colors and graphite suggests something human, but also quite foreign. We can’t place it, and that’s disconcerting in a way, this inability to place. The drawings seem to take the form of something from a dream, somewhere between the realm of the tangibly real and pure fantasy.
On the floor, a glass sculpture, Stund með pensla pennum og lazer- hringur/Moment with brush pens og lazer – circle. Moving over it, we peer into what registers as an endless abyss of glass, like looking into a wishing well. Formations are carved into the top layer, extending deep and down into the reflecting layers past our vision. This descending effect has a quickness of motion to it, as if caught moving at light speed. The shapes form a reflective halo around our faces, murky and shaded, shimmering, confusing.
In Stundir með blá-grá-grænum litum, ögn af appelsínugulum og grafít/Moments with Blue-grey-green colors, dash of orange and graphite, blue toned drawings register as marine or cloud formations, wisps of foamy waves. A large glass etched panel, Stundir með pensla pennum og laser- fljótandi, fljúgandi/Moments with brush pen and lazer-floating/flying, reflects onto the wall behind it. In the etchings we can almost make out forms of the body, but not quite. Next to this work are two larger framed ink drawings, Stundir með pensla pennum og heitum og köldum litum/Moments with brush pens and warm and cold colors, presenting repeating iterations of earthly green forms. They reference to all sorts of things natural: Tree trunks? Oysters? Fungus? The piece is intricately detailed yet without purpose. Our brain grasps at straws as we try to orient the shapes in something we know.
As viewers, we are stuck in this mind set of rational thinking, of orienting these forms as representations. Otherwise, if we free them from any purpose or meaning as they were meant as, they feel almost unsettling. So, the viewer makes associations to things we know, places we’ve visited, things we’ve dreamt of. The works become personal and real to our individual experience. Automatic is then more so a commentary on our own inner selves than on Riel herself. That we make something out of these forms points to our conscious’ need to form and categorize. Why this constant need for meaning? Why can we not accept an object as something unknown, uncategorizable?
In a black box room is a video and projecting sculpture work: Stund með 0.3 teiknipenna og laser- þyrping/Moment with 0.3 fineliner and lazer-cluster and Stundir á staðnum/Moments in situ. Three etched glass panels are reflected with light from a projection box, which slowly brightens and dims. A second sea-green colored reflection occurs, muddled and murky. Our own reflections interrupt the piece, changing its form. The video presents footage taken from below a projection box as Sara draws. At moments the action in the video stops as she switches out pieces of paper. We see then only the adjusting zoom of the camera on the projection box as it tries to orient itself, zooming the lens in and out. This orienting action of the lens is precisely how the viewer interacts with this exhibition. Constantly adjusting and repositioning, we attempt to orient ourselves in something we can’t quite understand, but desperately want to.
Our personal viewpoints very much inform and create meaning in these works, it is not prescribed or predetermined to us. Automatic is a diary of sorts, revealing inner parts of Riel’s subconscious as well as of ourselves. Through a spontaneous, artistic creation Riel creates pieces that are beautifully open to experience. References to Sigmund Freud are abound, and the associations we make in these drawings almost feel like a Rorshach test as psychological allusions of our inner thoughts are revealed. But there is an accessibility and simpleness to Riel’s methods, a meditative mindset that any of us can access. If we seize the moment the tools are presented to us. To follow her on this journey, accessing a state of freedom from logical thinking, brings us to question our own modes of thinking. This is ultimately what successful art should do, cause us to think, question, and reevaluate. Automatic is then a notable exploration into an artist’s search for an ultimately pure and free creation.
Sara Riel is recognized for her impressive public commission wall paintings. Her latest work To the Ocean, located on the Fishing Industry Building close to Harpa, has become a well known outdoor installation in Reykjavik’s urban landscape. Riel studied art at Fjölbrautaskólinn in Breiðholt and then at the Iceland Academy of the Arts from 2000-2001. She attended the Kunsthochschule Weissensee in Berlin from 2001-2005, and the Mesiterschuler in Berlin from 2005-2006.
“Automatic” is running until November the 25th at Kling & Bang
Daría Sól Andrews
Photo credits: Lilja Birgisdóttir, Daría Sól Andrews, Ana Victoria Bruno