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Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Tove Storch. Illusion and Reaction

Here, reproduced for your interest, is my paper discussing Tove Storch - one of the artists exhibiting at the recent Auckland Triennial (2010).

Fig 1 Untitled Unknown Object #7 (dark)

Although she is young, Danish artist Tove Storch (1981) brings a maturity and depth to her art that belies her years.  In interviews, she speaks softly, yet her work is powerful and engaging, and the concepts that it explores are by no means ‘soft’ in their emotional impact.
Before entering Shed 6, I had only viewed one image of one of Storch’s sculptures, and read nothing about her.  I was totally unprepared for such a visceral reaction to her work when viewed ‘in the flesh’.  I felt afraid of her sculptures.  My fear response seemed almost primal.  Yet there was a great curiosity, too. I was drawn to and simultaneously repelled by her work. “Untitled: Unknown Object #7” and “Untitled: Unknown Object #8” are two large rectangular blocks, not unlike shower cubicles.  In each is a shape: one black, the other white.  These shapes are vague forms, difficult to see through the semi-translucency of the walls.  They look somewhat like draped tall, living entities, but it is impossible to see them properly.  The walls on closer inspection prove to be as insubstantial as the wraith-like figures inside, due to the thin, distorting plastic of which they are made (see figs 1 & 2).
The formality of the structures is surprising, given their emotive-inducing response.  They are large – about 2.5 metres high, and Torch has constructed each beginning with a metal rectangular framework.  Over this frame she has stretched thin plastic sheeting on which she has brushed a coating of liquid plastic.  She has continued adding layers of this coating, drying between coats, to build up patchy thicknesses and directional brush strokes until the final skin’s random thickness creates partial translucency and directional patterns, scattering the light and partially obscuring the object within (see fig 3).  The cubicles have an almost architectural appearance, like miniature tall blocks of homogenous flats or office towers.  Storch gives them no title in order to maintain the ephemeral, uncertain, nature of the work.“… [It] has no title, so it’s really worrying.” -Storch,  interview 1*.
The lighting in Shed 6 did not dramatically highlight the two works.  Yet they elicited a powerful response in me. They emitted an aura of menace, as they stood, still and seemingly innocuous, solid and ordinary, like common shower cubicles, but with a draped or cloaked figure enclosed.  There is a great tension between the ordinariness of the cubicles, and the half-seen, unresolved figures.  For it is very difficult, given our ancient primal need to identify threat, to not be perturbed or scared by the very ‘unidentifiability’ of these figures, except to realise, almost repeatedly, that they are tall, human-like, and, being cloaked and half-seen, appear to be obviously trying to not reveal their identity, or they seem to want to disguise themselves.  At the same time there was a sense that the objects were not solid.  The combination of a ghost-like spirit portrayal plus the still, waiting danger was very powerful. The seeing of something alive yet hidden, lurking, and a sense of threat, is linked in humans to a fear response.  I certainly experienced agitation, apprehension and an elevated breathing rate on first encountering these works.  I felt a need to look away from them, to turn my back, then to have another peek and then rest again from them by averting my eyes.  Yet my intellect, overriding this flight-or-fight response, was powerfully aroused and excited, as I strove to understand what it was about such seemingly simple sculptures that I found so profoundly affecting.  I felt a restless need to move around the boxes to try and see the objects inside more clearly, but this was unproductive.  The appearance of the contents changed but they still could not be identified.  I found out later that this was exactly what Storch intended, and more, besides. “ … so they are very big and black and  then there is something inside that [sic] you will never know what it is …” - Storch, interview 1*.

Fig 2 Untitled Unknown object #8 (light)

When moving between and around the structures, the viewer modifies the light that passes through the work, and, combined with the rippling effect through the plastic membrane, the objects within seem to transform and move; sometimes becoming clearer, sometimes more ghost-like, but never ever fully resolving themselves.  This theme of the illusion of space and motion is one that Storch explores in her other works.  She projects a 3-dimensional image onto another, different 3D form, or induces illusions of three  dimensions through folding and painting paper sheets.  However, unlike her other works where the illusion is able to be determined, these sculptures are not resolved.  And this, she says, is what it is all about.
“It’s not about the mystery, it’s about the aura that they have.  They are mystical, and they are, maybe, a little bit scary … it’s about being, their sense, their poetry around them.”   - Storch Interview 1*
Storch invites viewers to reflect upon their reaction to these pieces.  Specifically to the state of confusion and flux as they try yet fail to determine the contents. In a move further away from the illusionary natures of her previous works, here Storch is pushing not the illusion, but the state of confusion that comes from not knowing, and moreover, not being able to know.
“ … there is an object that you cannot really see, like an unrelieved secret that will not be told.  So you’re in a kind of state of mind where you … there’s something, you tries [sic] to figure out what it is but you will not know and you kind-of stay in this state of not knowing. (my italics)” - Storch. Interview 2*.

fig 3.   Untitled Unknown object #7 (dark) Detail.

Viewer involvement is obviously crucial to the artwork.  For it is the state of the viewer rather than the work itself, that she regards as the work, that is the focus:  “I relate to poetic questions about knowing something, or recognising [something] … in this specific work you stay just—it’s like you see something and you try to focus on it but you’ll never, your eyes will never focus.  [But] it’s not interesting to know what it is, [the] interesting thing is not knowing and just trying to see – and then you’re in a certain state of perception I think.” (my italics). - Storch interview 1.*
 As mentioned, this is a move away from Storch’s earlier works that played on illusion and space.  In a review of Storch’s previous work, Helle Brøns, (Brøns Tove Storch. Moiré and Illusion.) Danish art historian compares aspects of the earlier work to mirage, trickery and trompe-l’oeil. She suggests the point is to raise questions about the nature of representation and three-dimensional space.
In these latest works, Storch takes the journey from illusion and perception several steps further and invites direct reflection on the nature of the states of perception – in the case of these untitled ‘cubicles’ – the nature of recognition and identification of the unknown.  It opens up a whole new area in which a sculpture is simply the vehicle for the artwork.
Although the writer of this following press release from the Kirkoff Gallery was referencing an earlier Storch work, it could equally well apply to this work on show at Shed 6, the Auckland Triennial.  “Tove Storch investigates the process of creating shapes … her sculptures lie in a new area between the physical and the imaginary … The discrepancy between what you think you see and what’s actually present … it is the creative process and way of thinking about the sculpture that is fascinating.“ Kirkhoff Gallery, Copenhagen.
My own work, the Godwit Series is more conservative in some ways.  There are strong elements of intended communication in my work.  However on my agenda is the hope to raise questions and promote later reflection on certain issues as a direct result of viewing my work.  Both Storch and I are similar in this way and also in that we wish for an initial disjoint and reaction.  I wish to evoke an initial disorientation by means of my use of seemingly inappropriate visual styles. Each style, based on its previous use, carries with it an embedded predisposition in the viewer,  For example, I will depict a Godwit with an avian predator but in the style of a Hammer Horror movie poster.  Or I will present a “Christmas Godwit” recipe as if from the pages of a glossy magazine. I hope that my re-use of generally familiar visual messages in an unfamiliar new context, will serve to initially confuse viewers, the tension thereby engaging the viewers’ attention and promote questions and reflection.  My work is still however, basically a form of conversation between the viewer and me as an artist.
Storch of course takes the viewer response so much further.  She realises that she is onto something different from most other forms of contemporary conceptual art.  Unlike my work, hers does not tap into learned or conditioned reactions, for example familiarity with the look of movie posters, but taps into a ‘gut reaction’; the adrenaline surge induced by fear of the unknown.  And although the reactions elicited by her sculptures have commonalities, they are unique for each viewer. And the viewer’s responses to his or her own feelings are likely to be even more unique and complex. In this way, her work is not a communication from artist to viewer, nor is it about a conversation between the work and viewer.  It’s more a conversation within the viewer, and is actually a viewer’s personal response to his or her personal reaction.  Storch finds it easier to define what it is not:
“ I wouldn’t, in general, tell (say?) that [my] art is something … you cannot use [my] art in this normal way of having a conversation, because it’s on another level.  You cannot have it like a political concrete conversation about things that the other person knows what you’re talking about.  But you can have it in like, you can maybe establish another level with something is happening.  But it’s not so easy.  Like if people really want opinions from [my] art pieces, it’s turning into a problem.” - Storch Interview 1*
I will be very interested to follow where Storch takes this concept in the future.

1356 Words.


*Interview 1:  “Rethink 09” Interviewer unknown.  6.11.2009. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t5cYrljfUFM

*Interview 2:   Interviewer unknown.  Galleria LEME, Sao Paulo, Brazil, 21.01.2010.  Part of  YouTube clip “Entrevista com Natalia and Tove”

Press Release, writer unknown  Kirkoff Gallery, Copenhagen http://kirkhoff.dk/art/archive/tove_storch/NULL/660/

Tove Storch. Moiré and Illusion.  Helle Brons http://www.krabbesholm.dk/kbh/exhibitions/storch/ToveStorchUK.pdf

Images: The author, Auckland Triennial, Shed 6.  7.4.2010


  1. I hope that Tove Storch gets to read your erudite and appreciative review. I was impressed and now want to see her work myself. Although you have touched upon your Godwit Series before in this blog, I hope you will reveal more - perhaps by showing us some of the unexpected "locations" in which you have placed your subject. A very impressive review Katherine.

  2. This is a great paper on a subject about which I know very little. I learned something today from you.

    I must be more like Dr. Spooner than I realized; I first read the artist's name as "Stove Torch"...

    The objects appeared solid to me initially, but then they took on the appearance of columns of smoke, and I thought, oddly, of how Roman Catholic cardinals in Vatican City announce the election a new pope.

  3. Thank you YP. The Godwit Series is a work in (slow) progress) and I will probably have an exhibition so will keep it under wraps at present.

    Robert - Thank you. Stove and torch are English words. Because of that, her name somehow seemed familiar to me from the outset...

    Smoke is a great analogy. They are very ghost-like. I never thought of the papal announcement - and a further analogy - it's apparently important that white smoke (not black) is produced ...
    So today I learned something too.

  4. As is often the case with your posts I have learned something - more than usual on this occasion. Having read it twice my biggest problem is that your words have raised more questions in my mind than answers.

    Studying the works as best one can in the circumstances I can feel the same sort of lack of comprehension that I often feel when studying Dali. I had The Metamorphosis of Narcissus on my office wall for many years and in moments of stress or when looking for inspiration when trying to write a speech or work up a case I could get particularly lost in my quest for understanding.

    I think my problem is that I am essentially a very simple soul.


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