Wilhelm Sasnal: Take Me To The Other Side

Lismore Castle Arts, Co. Waterford

With its soaring turrets, majestic battlements and lush location, Lismore Castle is a fairy tale feat of architecture, seemingly plucked straight out of a child’s picture book. It is quite fitting then that Polish artist Wilhelm Sasnal would choose this place to exhibit a selection of works inspired by the fantastical tales of Hans Christian Andersen. Renowned for his enchanting and frequently poignant children’s stories concerning unfortunate outcasts and moral quandaries, Andersen is an immediately evocative subject, made even more so by the prevalence of dark themes and macabre plot twists in his work. Just as Andersen’s tales are imbued with the juxtaposition of darkness and light, so too is Sasnal’s Take Me To The Other Side: a sense of foreboding pervades the exhibition, hanging dully in the air like a noxious plume of smog.

Located in the idyllic grounds of the castle, the gallery itself provides a counterpoint to the darker themes in Sasnal’s work. The space is attractive and bright with wood floors, rustic attic beams, exposed brick features, and clean white walls where shadows form and fade as the sun slips behind the clouds and day cedes to night. On entering the space, one takes inordinate pleasure in the unexpectedness of this fresh and modern gallery tucked into the grounds of a centuries-old castle, but that mere minute of reverie is rudely interrupted by an angry surge of music growling from a TV screen. As one registers the aggressive twang of electric guitar filtering though the serene surroundings of the gallery, a whole new unexpectedness takes shape whereby the vigour and potency of this choice of music heightens the experience and energy of the exhibition throughout.

Wilhelm Sasnal: Untitled (2013). 160 x 120 cms. Image copyright of the artist, courtesy of Sadie Coles HQ, London.
Wilhelm Sasnal: Untitled (2013). 160 x 120 cms. Image copyright of the artist, courtesy of Sadie Coles HQ, London.

Since the beginning of his career, music has been an essential reference point for Sasnal and, indeed, the title of this exhibition is borrowed from that of a song by English alternative rock band, Spacemen 3. Therefore, Sasnal’s use of music here is almost certainly a calculated move on his part. And what a choice of music it is: ‘Dirt’ by The Stooges, taken from their 1970 proto-punk album, Fun House, hailed by critics as a landmark composition in avant-garde rock. In using music as raw and reckless as this to play on loop and aloud, Sasnal right away makes it clear that the journey to the ‘Other Side’ is going to be bold and bumpy one.

The sweaty urgency of The Stooges’ music befits Sasnal’s edgy and unpolished style of painting, particularly corresponding with the sort of smudgy imprecision of his portraits. For example, his pair of paintings of Valdemar Hjartvar Købke hanging on opposite walls, present the seaman as emerging from a mud-brown sludge where skin and background melt into one another in grimy uncertainty. What makes these small but compelling portraits all the more interesting is their history: Købke has been preserved in paint before by his brother, the Danish painter, Christen Købke – a contemporary of Andersen’s. In a portrait dating from 1838, Valdemar is depicted similarly in his naval attire, but with striking clarity and compelling likeness. In comparison, Sasnal’s portraits share none of the original’s luminosity or psychological intensity. Indeed, these portraits veer dramatically from the history of portraiture in that they do not seek to capture any innate ‘essence’ of the sitter’s character or self. Rather, Sasnal’s portraits appear to share more in common with hasty, hollow caricatures rather than the grandiose genre of naturalistic portraiture, whereby the mucky daubs of brown paint, which crudely resemble smears of bodily waste, sneer at the seeming impossibility of reproducing that mode in current conditions.

On the front facing wall, a series of paintings more explicitly engage with the Andersen theme. Among these is a square painting of a shoemaker, naively rendered in broad, sloppy brushstrokes of monochromatic greys and blacks, and a corresponding painting of pixie boots. Cobblers and shoes are common tropes in Andersen’s tales such as ‘The Red Shoes’, recalling his own personal heritage as a shoemaker’s son. Nearby, a purplish-hued painting presents a winged orb hovering listlessly in an airless twilight realm, like a planet in outer space. Titled J. Ch. Andersen 5, the work not only references Andersen in its name, but the image itself is almost directly lifted from an illustration of Andersen’s tale, ‘The Top and Ball’, in a collection of stories published during Sasnal’s childhood in 1970s’ Poland. In its magnified scale (150 x 150 cms), the image assumes a new sinister significance.

Mid-flight, the ball is a bad omen, and with bated breath we wait for it plummet and crash to earth.

Indeed, Take Me To The Other Side operates precisely on these tenuous feelings of fear and trepidation, seizing on our anxieties about what it is that we do not know. A startling untitled landscape of mismatched styles further works to intensify and cement this sense of dread curdling at the base of the exhibition. Here, in a similarly ominous vein to J. Ch. Andersen 5, a black, anthropomorphic object resembling some sort of bird or aviation mechanism (in fact, it is the saddle of the artist’s bike) lingers in low flight against a blue sky and cotton wool clouds – a skyscape that eerily recalls those of René Magritte. This uncanny object is the emblem of the exhibition: a strange achievement of engineering that bears an unsettling likeness to an oversized black crow – a creature symbolically linked to death and sadness. In another work, Autumn Landscape with a Man Gathering Wood, a flock, or rather a ‘murder’ of crows, descends on the frozen grey landscape as the very harbingers of death and destruction.

Soon that destruction becomes much less a fear than a reality. Autumn Landscape with a Man Gathering Wood is a re-working of a painting by Caspar David Friedrich destroyed in a fire in Munich in 1931. Hanging directly opposite this work, is a large scale, ink-on-paper poster depicting a labourer driving a horse-drawn cart with an inked rendition of the Friedrich painting in the background. Aptly titled, Burned Painting, this work anticipates apocalypse. As the brash speech bubbles read: ‘Let the fire burn the sky first the ground and the man. Let it then burn the birds’. We are in no doubt then that doom is upon us, and still Iggy Pop drawls: ‘I don’t care, ‘cause I’m burning inside’.

Somehow, Sasnal has achieved it: he has taken us to the other side, an absurd, dark and frightful place where once-picturesque landscapes are now saturated in toxic, acidic green (as in an untitled work from 2012). In Sasnal’s world, Romanticism has collided with careless rebellion: a smouldering skull, that icon of immortality and of vanitas, floats in a similarly poisonous mist of lurid, unreal green, and menacing hooded-figures are reflected in the eye sockets. It is only then that we can finally concentrate on what is unfolding on the TV screen: close-up shots of Nike running shoes repeatedly stuffed with crusts of white bread and the leaves of a book – The Business Solution to Poverty – squashed with slices of the loaf. The video titled Unreal Hunger (2014) is loosely based on the Andersen story, ‘The Girl Who Trod On The Loaf’, about a vain girl who steps on a loaf of bread in order to keep her shoes clean – an action that ultimately brings about her muddy descent into the underworld. It becomes apparent then that Sasnal is not merely preoccupied with re-creating fairytales and history, but is concerned with our current situation of poverty versus wastefulness, and more generally, what is to become of this world as we know it. Like the girl who trod on the loaf, we will need to be more careful.