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Going from Germany to India and later to Pakistan, Susanne Kessler was looking for the universal in art. She had already confronted the cultural variations in Europe from Denmark in the north to Italy in the south, but this was all western culture. London and Paris, where Kessler has also worked, might differ, but they appear strangely similar compared to New Delhi or Lahore. Moving from the Old World to the much older world of the Indian subcontinent with all its divisions and conflicts was something new, the search for a broader basis of understanding that perhaps could surmount cultural differences by getting under them, by tapping the aesthetic roots of mankind.

This was not meant to be a one-way street. Kessler wanted not only to be understood, but also to understand as well. She did assimilate some aspects of the regional culture. The very materials of the objects created during the stay came out of the region. Local textiles and bamboo replaced the sailcloth and timbers of objects made in Europe. Indeed an installation like “The Universe Moves” takes up the theme of a wheel, one of the oldest symbols of the subcontinent and a symbol used today by the present Indian state. These are, however, only matters of the surface. Using local materials allowed local craftsmen and artists to help build the objects and thereby to understand them better, but bamboo can be bought in Germany or Italy, where Kessler lives. The wheel is an Indian symbol, but much more than that, it is universal.

That is the key to the quality of the objects that Kessler made in India and Pakistan. They do take on the flavor of the subcontinent and they bring this flavor back to Europe, but the objects Kessler created in Asia, as well as those made in Europe, contain a universal tenor, which goes beyond transitory cultural differences.

The huge, ephemeral installation that Kessler built in Denmark is a ship that can be understood by all peoples, not only as a ship, but also as a symbol of searching, finding, and losing — the human quest for meaning and eternity in a senseless and mortal world. Similarly the barrier presented in the work “Obstruction at the Ravi River” in Lahore underlines the futility of human efforts to contain a River, but underscores the desire of humans to live — with or against nature. More than that, the object shows that people not only have the need to build that which is necessary for survival, but also the drive to build it in a way that pleases them, that appeals to their aesthetic needs. Kessler’s work on the subcontinent reveals these basic needs and desires of people everywhere. She has not transported an overlay of European culture to India and Pakistan, nor has she brought back a pastiche of oriental life to Europe. She has found something common to all peoples, who are willing to search deep enough into themselves to reach the roots of culture.

 

Text from Benny Priddy, Director of the Abtei Museum Liesborn, in the catalogue “Susanne Kessler in India e Pakistan”, 1996