On the Artist

Katrin von Maltzahn Galerie Puttkamer

Jörg Heiser: Katrin von Maltzahn Galerie Puttkamer, Berlin. In: frieze 1 (1998). P. 80

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If Katrin von Maltzahn were asked what she would take with her to a desert island, she might answer: the Plain ASCII code (the 94 graphic characters you just read or probably skipped at the beginning of this text). And, in fact, that's what she has done: during a fellowship last summer at the Nordic Institute For Contemporary Art, Helsinki (located on the island of Suomenlinna in the Baltic Sea), the Berlin-based artist left her usual tool - the computer - at home, while keeping it's basic text code in mind.

At the sculptors' studios in the Institute she discovered a big barrel filled with clay that is used as a reusable resource to create three-dimensional objects from which objects can then be cast in other materials. Von Maltzahn decided to create the characters that comprise the ASCII code from the clay, but rather than casting them, she photographed her hands holding them up against a wall. Imagine an @ made of clay, and you'll realize there's already an ironic aspect to this: the contemplative leisure-occupation of pottery, which allows modern office workers to experience the old-fashioned fulfillment of handmade work, is used to produce the key symbol of the digital age. And instead of being made permanent as objects that can be touched, the characters return back into the dark, amorphous, anonymity of the barrel of sculptor's clay after being photographed.

The resulting 94 photo album-sized pictures, ranged according to their numeric order in the ASCII code and affixed to identical white boxes, filled the right-hand wall of the main gallery, while the opposite wall remained empty. Perhaps the most common reaction when facing a giant keyboard would be to start composing words or names in your mind. But as you moved closer, the hands in the pictures started to get more important, awkwardly holding up the middle bar of an E, for example. Rather than causing you to dwell on the obvious parallels between sculptor's clay and letters as reusable 'resources', the materiality of the signifier itself is signified again.

Remember Sesame-Street and it's hand puppet dealers in letters? 'Shhh, don't talk too loud, what I have here under my trench coat, that's an A' The materialization of letters, as cookies or soup-noodles or a secret black-market commodity, is meant to keep children interested. With von Maltzahn's photographs, the reference of the Plain ASCII code to the' plain', amorphous materiality of clay, broken through the looking-glass of the camera, forces you back into a state in which you feel you must learn the alphabet again. And isn't that how you feel sometimes anyway, as the multi-faceted failures of modern communication color your everyday life-answering-machine ping pong, unreadable faxes, flame-e-mails? The series of 27 aquatints entitled 'trial & failure' shown in the second room of the gallery seemed to hint at this sensation of being thrown back to aquestioning of the basic conditions of communication. On display were simple, smooth, delicate black and white representations of cables in various states of entanglement or isolation, as bent singular lines, loopedor plaited. You can imagine yourself looking at the cable spaghetti in the corner of your room, composed of modem, fax and telephone lines, and asking yourself with incredulous awe 'did that absurdly unproductive argument, that unsatisfyingly stiff conversation I just had really pass through this loop, this twist of wire?'

How simple and easy it seems, in comparison, to learn a foreign language: you just have to adjust to a simple set of references. This was indicated by the third piece in von Maltzahn's show, the silk-screen curly (1995) - an excerpt from a West German English textbook popular in the 70s and 80s. The word 'curly', the sentence 'she has curly hair', and a picture depicting Brigitte Bardot's rich, curly hairdo from the early 70s are juxtaposed. But, as we know, a pipe is not a pipe: the picture is part of the series 'how do you do', which is also the title of the West German English course it is extracted from. This textbook utilized frequent references to media and pop imagery, but in another series of prints, 'english for you' (derived from an East German English textbook, also from the 70s), the references are all to young Socialist workers in England, it`s chapters bearing titles such as 'Preparing for a Demonstration' or 'Karl Marx in London'. In the context of von Maltzahn's current show, the Bardot picture serves to remind us of the fact that learning is not an innocent act.