During her time as Artist in Residence at the Art Museum of the West Coast, Alkersum/Föhr, artist Susanne Kessler of Rome and Berlin has been working intensely with Föhr, especially with the special geographic, historical and cultural elements of the island. She has delved into the life stories of many North Frisians – whalers or sailors at sea, families who emigrated to America, among them many who kept up and nurtured their connection to their homeland. In the process, she became very close to the stories of many Frisians who had to leave their homes either forever, or for some time, in search of new occupations and personal challenges. Strength, courage and a spirit of adventure have accompanied every one of these breakups.
In the Föhr-Lexikon, Kessler came upon an entry about a captain Christian Simon Jürgens (1875–1959), born in the little village of Dunsum on the Frisian island, accompanied by an inconspicuous drawing of tangled curvy lines. Kessler’s artistic interest was immediately aroused by these purely aesthetic visual lines. She discovered behind them an almost unbelievable Odyssey-like story about storms and hurricanes that the stalwart „Susanna“ endured in its until now unique journey around Cape Horn. In the winter of 1905 Captain Jürgens sailed his ship southward, on his way from Port Talbot, England, to Saltpetre Port in Iquique, Chile, through a storm around the southern tip of America. For 99 (of a total 189) days, in an all together miraculous and unbelievable struggle, the courageous crew sailed south of the 50th latitude and around Cape Horn to reach the Chilean coast. The complete crew had survived after enormous strain, and thanks to the outstanding efforts of their captain.
This trip – represented by the tangled lines – figures today as the hardest, most brutal and longest Cape Horn circumnavigation in international maritime history. Even after arriving in north Chile the voyage was not complete – and after two and a half years of absence, the „Susanna“ finally came back to Hamburg, and Captain Jürgens to Föhr to his wife and his barely four year old son. The meteorological diary of the „Susanna“ is the only surviving authentic material source from which the trip’s course can be reconstructed. Every four hours the gydripgraphic and metereologic position of the ”Susanna“ was registered during the course of the ship’s journey. By tracing the tangled lines, disorientation, tumbling and spinning of the ship’s constant movement forward, sideways and back, the viewer is required to follow a geographically East – West line – in contrast to the habitual reading direction – in order to grasp the physical and psychological challenge of the voyage.
These tangled lines and the history of this epic journey were the starting point for Susanne Kessler’s intensive two-year work. She wanted to follow the course of the lines in order to understand them, measure the surface of their spread and scan, and internalize them. Usually her method is to construct a drawing of the origin of an artistic work so as to first establish her idea of the beginning of a project and then follow it to its conclusion. In this particular case, however, in her initial drawing she was able to build upon a predetermined linear pattern which then began to reveal diverse meanings and could be read in different semantic fields.
Captain Jürgens, coming from an old-established mariner family, represents the determination of many Frisians to direct their attention outward upon the world. He and his team suffered great hardships: affected by scurvy, typhus and severe injuries, they feared death and the loss of their comrades. Their thoughts often went towards those at home, to family and friends. In the Winter 1907/08 – after a two and a half year absence – Captain Jürgens upon returning to Föhr ended his career of 32 years and began the management of a small farmstead in Oldsum.
The historical journey becomes at times an overarching metaphor for life. One that reminds one of the classical Greek Odyssey in its heights and depths, and in the challenging, exhausting roiling of the sea – an epic that, for centuries, has shaped writers and inspired artists. It took 20 whole years for Odysseus and his companions to return home. Broken up by unforeseeable risks and the relentless uncertainty of where Odysseus would end up, the abiding concern was for the family left behind; and, conversely, the families feared for the fate of their men and fathers. Such painful experiences are still a reality today in the unprecedented global refugee movement of people who, because of war and hunger, have to leave their homeland to suffer endless exertions, not knowing exactly whether they will ever reach their goal.
In a larger sense, this journey of many false starts also functions as a metaphor for the modern artistic experience, which is so often a permanent exploration and questioning of one’s very meaning and activity, creative work, threats to one´s existence. Often, models, drawings, objects and films, are exhibited as parallel elements. Susanne Kessler makes the viewer a participant in the work’s process. She allows the observer insights into the genesis of her art by means of the total ensemble of the “Odissea‘s” floor installation, which also leads to the accompanying wall installation Föhr and Southamerica. Even though individual objects seem to have a preparatory character, each work is meant to be seen as autonomous and independent.
The result of Kessler’s first consideration was the creation of an animated film about the ‚travel‘ line. Using black cables Kessler drew on a wooden board the day trips of the „Susanna“, photographing each course and mounting the individual shots onto film. On a surface of 2.80 x 5.80 meters stretched into a large wall installation, the Odyssey, has its place on the end wall of the Museum’s Gallery. A powerful black line approximately three centimetres in diameter and constructed from different kinds of wrapped wire stands out from the wall. Over this wire drawing of the historical route, the artist developed a free sculptural composition, a system of signs. These lines materialise the aesthetic concept and constitute the substratum of its significance and symbolism. According to Kessler „Because the line has a real story behind it, and therefore is not arbitrary, one feels this difference” – this statement by the artists is precisely what the viewer feels when observing an impressive surface tension that communicates the feeling of the work having naturally grown out of the wall.
In Segments of a Meandering Line (Kat. 3) the original line of Jürgens’ journey—the “Urlinie”—was transferred to plastic objects in the same way as it would have been if the intended installation (literally in the sea) had been realized. Each of 17 linear segments is attached to an individually cut black grid that reaches out into the space in a play of light and shadow on the wall. These segments are the outgrowth of 17 previously created drawings on paper which refer to the various planes of the installation structure. As individual drawings mounted in separate frames (Kat. 4), they are autonomous and freestanding and add to a captivating overall picture. Their „dissection“ as well as the enclosure of each drawing should be seen as a deliberate disruption of the viewer’s reading of the work.
But it is not only the three dimensional line in which that Kessler has engaged in prior incarnations predecessors of her art project of Föhr. She also has developed amphibian shapes and sculptures and engaged and created interspaces and unstable, not static and ephemeral situations. The logical plan was to make the Odyssey into a ‘monolithic mobile’: to develop it into a monumental, moving, swimming sculpture on the sea and exposed to the tides. As such, Kessler’s intended creation was a large 40 x 60 meters installation “swimming” on the surface of a sea rocked by wind and waves, then inevitably stranded again like Sisyphus at low tide.
In the sea-installation’s initial model, different lengths of bamboo cane were connected within a system that would not, at first sight, have been recognizable or comprehendible. The bamboo construction would have supported the linear drawing, supplying its basis, allowing for its expansion, and ensuring its structural integrity and scale. The model also opens up another semantic reference point. The bamboo construction recalls the so-called stick charts which only a few knowledgeable sailors of the Marshall islands in Micronesia used in traditional navigation. They served before their journeys as reminders and orientation guides regarding wave formations among the atolls, as well as expected winds and water currents. With reference to the bamboo substructure of the Föhr project, such stick charts touched upon a very important and integral aspect of climate change. Because of the rising sea levels, the Micronesian isles are in danger of disappearing. In turn, this aspect refers to the meteorological diary of the „Susanna“. Thus the period from the Maritime Data Center of the German Weather Service in Hamburg is re-evaluated and becomes an important source for climate change research. A comparison with the collected 1905 climate data with today’s meteorological data reveal unmistakable changes in the global climate. Kessler’s bamboo construction also serves as a substructure for tubes which mimic the course of the wandering line. The tubes remain connected to the plane and, for observers, it creates varied associations. By the same token, it remains am autonomous structure.
In Model III and IV Kessler engages with the already existing 17 individual drawings on a geometric grid that functions as the basis for a true -to- scale approach to the meandering course of the ship „Susanna“. In Modell III a plywood board, on which rests a sheet of paper, carries a grid of twines. Downward hammered nails serve as „posts“, on which the bamboo construction and small twined tubes that mimic the course of the Odyssey are tied to the grid. Together with the erect „posts“ the Model takes up the motif of another tradition: it makes reference to the so-called fish gardens of Föhr. Until a few decades ago, in the spring at low tides, the islanders set up fish fences near the tidal creeks. At high tide the fish swim over the fences, the disappearing water pushing them to the middle and the fences became fish traps. But at every low tide, whether by day or night, by storm or lull, they had to be emptied. In autumn, these fish gardens got dismantled, like a temporary installation done by an artist, right at the amphibian interface of land and sea.
In Model II with the title “low and high tide”, the cover of a small old drawing book serves as the stage for an installation. The inside of the vertically positioned half of the book became the image carrier for a brown ink drawing that Kessler produced during her first stay on the isle of Föhr. Despite its abstraction and formal reduction, the viewer is able to perceive a real landscape: Under a light-colored strip of sky, the Wadden Sea stretches out into the distance. The running water seems to have left grooves in the ground, and the vitality of the amphibious space is palpable despite the almost monochromatic color scale.
On the other flat laying part of the book, Kessler applied dried sludge and on an irregular bed of nails which raises a meandering line that is painted on paper and fixed to a net. The line gets linked and positioned a new: its history connects in a direct way with the north German Costal Zone. It puts two geographically widely distant places—Cape Horn and North Frisian Wadden Sea, in relationship to one another. This aspect foreshadows the indoor installation “Odissea”.
During her second stay as Artist in Residence on the isle of Föhr, Kessler realized a four-day long test run for a section (approximately 4 x 7 meters) of the planned marine installation (60 x 40 meters). Together with Uwe Jensen, the museums technician, Kessler brought in at low tide three chestnut logs about 70 centimetres in length and ten centimetres in diameter at about 100 meters from the hem of the flood and, at a distance of five to seven meters from each other in the mudflats. Long hemp cords connect bamboo rods of up to five meters in length and a cork hose with a loop of about seven meters. At low tide the construction is streamlined by running water so that it extends four meters into the sea. At high tide it rises onto the beach, and by poor weather conditions, is perceived as barely a small line in a rather stormy sea, shaped like a question or identification mark. Kessler experienced how at low tide while the construction was resting on the mudflats, it was found by curious beach combers. Some people thought it was a sailing boat even though there is nothing like a ship to be seen. They believed that something inexplicable had happened on the sea. Many a viewer could not help conjuring up images that were strong and stored in their memory, not unlike the sad recent media images of fleeing refugees at sea, many of them children, exposed to the unknown, risking danger and struggling to survive. Often only stranded small boats, dinghies and life jackets were to be found. Kessler answered many questions and took the part of the viewer. For her this was a kind of “baptism” of her idea, a trial run in every way.
As a parallel, she developed the idea of a computer simulation (Kat. 12), taking the technical question into view. Against all odds the unpredictable sea, subject to the steadiness of tides – at times agitated, at times calm – served as a projection for the visualization of Jürgens’ 99 day Odyssey. In the tides, the abstract line structure was like a moving sculpture, always awakening to a new life. At low tide it must always „strand“ again. In the film, a vision of the marine installation materializes for a few seconds and, likewise, always “strands” again.
Susanne Kessler has been living in Rome for many years. Her home near the Mediterranean and its ancient heritage have had a great influence on her work. She deals with Classical themes and often treats them in unusual ways that connect with the North. For example, in 2006 she transferred the ground plan of the temple of Athena in Paestum, by reifying it as a Flying Temple in the form of a true-to-scale planar installation. At the North Frisian West Coast, close to the city of Büsum, the ancient temple rises anew.
Her 1994 solo exhibition in the Von-der-Heydt Museum in Wuppertal bore the title: One would have to build temples again. Besides such classical topics, the artist went to the north with a more mundane theme. she travelled with the Bilancia Installation. In the context of the exhibition project Fredsskulptur – Peacesculpture initiated by the Ludwig Forum for International Art in Aachen 50 years after the liberation of Denmark from German National-Socialism, she mounted on a half sunken bunker in the sand a typical Italian fishermen construction. On an iron outrigger on which in former times hung nets which could be lowered, she tied two nets of two of her drawings that echoed the structure of the human inner ear. For Kessler these ear labyrinths symbolize the evolution of mankind, fragility and understanding. Transience represents yet another continuum of her artistic work. These ephemeral installations were always planned for a specific limited time frame and then taken down or abandoned to nature. Bilancia was taken by the wind.
This is why Kesslers’s Life Library (Kat. 13) has such enhanced meaning. For years she has recorded her artistic processes in writings and drawings permanently in books – kept according to their importance in light coloured leather cases so as to safeguard her ideas, considerations, and thematic considerations. The special leather cases are of Ethiopian origin – Christian Copts keep their bibles in such cases. Kessler’s Life Library has grown to more than 30 books in various formats. Every art project is mirrored in a volume. Some thoughts might find artistic expression only years later when they have the strength to become large scale linear sculptures.
During her third stay on the isle of Föhr, Kessler wrote with ink and pen selected text passages from Homer’s Odyssey into an old, blank account book. The quotations are juxtaposed to drawings and collages which “quote,” again and again, the odyssey of both journeys — that of the “Susanna” and of Ulysses. These elements are abstractly condensed and recomposed to create something akin to a musical Fugue. Kessler’s creative process, which is otherwise hidden, becomes here revealed. One can follow her thinking page by page. The viewer can see and read the moving text passages and the multitude of the collages simultaneously. These image-and-text configurations, designed in 68 double pages, allude to the timeless and ongoing reality of threats, posed by nature and by man, to human existence.
The text of Homer’s Odyssey describes the experience of everyone who has had to leave home and head into the unknown, and who, in the midst of the storm, has felt the uncertainty of not knowing to which coasts his ‘life-ship’ will be driven, and who desires to return home or find a place of peace. Just as, in the daily weather report of the crew of the „Susanna“, the historical data of the 1905 circumnavigation of Cape Horn is thoroughly documented, the Kessler account-book, nearly in an identical format to the log book of the ship, offers a very artistic and personal expression.
A body of work, which seems at first sight independent, yet in content closely related to these stories, be it those of Captain Jürgens, or of Homer‘s Ulysses, is the so-called mappa mundi. Continents connected with each other over the oceans stand for big universal themes: at the same time the mapped spaces are similar to an abstract system of signs. They bespeak countries and places of longing for people whose own world has become increasingly inhospitable and dangerous, and who long to begin a new and better life.
Kessler purposely utilizes female handcraft techniques in her cotton gauze embroidered continents, a work of 14-pieces, the mappa mundi (Kat. 15.) Kessler’s installation both recalls the sails of the ship and reminds us of the women who stayed behind in the home, often for years left not knowing their husbands’ fates, whether it be the wife of Captain Jürgens, or the Penelope of Homer’s epic, who during the night would undo the crafted work she produced by day. Thus freeing herself from the fate of having to marry one of her suitors. In the process of stitching their thoughts flow towards their men who are in pursuit of the world’s oceans. In this way the women mentally follow their husbands’ paths. Far and wide versus near and home are not opposites, but stand in close relationship to each other. The absent one misses his home; and those who stay behind, design the imagined paths of the absent.
The embroidered Track-Map of the Odyssey of the ship “Susanna” around the Cape of Horn (Kat. 16) introduces the indoor installation “Odissea”. Bamboo sticks act as guides to hold up the stitched cotton representation of the raw coast of south Patagonia including the meandering line around Cape Horn. From the upper gallery you can look into the more than five meters high exhibition hall with a ground surface of about 9 x 6,5 meters and stairs that lead down to it. The installation on the floor “Odissea”, (Kat. 17) enters into dialogue with the wall installation of South America (Kat. 18) as well as the isle of Föhr (Kat. 19).
The wall installation of South America is dominated by rich deep black hue and is the starting point for the ‘room ensemble’. The South American continent, the goal of Captain Jürgens‘ journey, with its bizarre coastline, its various climate zones and high mountains was always difficult to grasp as one geographical space. It represents from the European perspective of earlier centuries all that was alien and unknown. The entire coastline is multifaceted, more off-putting than inviting. The rivers in the installation are abstractly alluded to by blue cords, and offer only limited help to the viewer to feel closer to the inhospitable landscape which is configured here with a substantive overlay of mesh and netting, and condensed by thick recycled material. In the distance it unfolds its power. Close up, the viewer’s sight gets lost in an inextricable labyrinth. Like a palimpsest, the layers build up on each other.
The materialized course of line of the epic voyage, the odyssey of the „Susanna“ around Cape Horn, has now grown into an installation. On a frame of 4 x 3 meters wire and chords are stretched into different sized geometric grids. It supports a black aviary netting to which a blue plastic tube of 64 meters is attached and directed by a true-to-scale wandering line which Kessler translates into a sculpture. Seen in three dimensions, the „drawing“ gives the impression of rearing itself up in order to become many lines that whip up like waves. The lines seem to swirl around each other as if in an effort to defy their borders and first construct, then posses their own place within the space. The viewer feels called upon to follow the course of the line, which is extremely difficult since one’s sight becomes entangled, stops and continues to search. One follows with one’s own eyes but experiences at the same time an inextricable labyrinth. In this way one can feel the odyssey the Susanna has gone through. Direction and destination are lost.
The work “Föhr” is dominated by green colored accents and creates on the wall a much more condensed image than “Odissea”, as the wall installation opens and lunges within the confines of its space. At the same time, the superimposed materials turn inward, as a metaphor for homeland and security. By these means Kessler creates a new aesthetic space, a sculptural ensemble that makes reference, on the one hand, to widely separated places and, on the other, unites them into one spatially specific body. Nonetheless, Kessler‘s Installation Föhr is not to be understood as complete or perfect just like the island, which is in a process of change, developing and shaping constantly anew.
After an absence of two and a half years, Captain Jürgens returned to his green island of Föhr in the winter of 1907/08 and finished his seafaring career. Acknowledging the importance of what family and home landscapes—“Heimat”—meant to him, is vital to any understanding of this exemplary tale.
Kessler’s installation “Föhr” makes reference to another important aspect of the artist‘s work: which is that of a cyclical becoming and going. Her art regenerates itself by creating something new out of existing materials. Existing elements are transformed as they are brought into a new context. „The partial and incomplete becomes the ever-evolving. Substrata and stratifications repeat and vary, but are often not recognizable in their repetitions because the context changes the Spirit”, says Kessler.
The multitude and multishapes of Susanne Kessler’s work, which within the overall project consists of objects, models, films, drawings and installations, is extremely impressive. In addition, it is fascinating to see how all works exhibit autonomy while also connecting with each other, and referring to the line that began at the origin of all creation—the line that interconnects everything. In a quasi-organic growth process the line develops continuously – at times very abstractly, at times by way of linking and condensing. A more variegated artistic vision, like a musical fugue, is hardly imaginable.
Text for the catalog “Susanne Kessler – Odissea” of Prof. Dr. Ulrike Wolff- Thomsen, Director of the Museum of the West Coast, Alkersum/Föhr, Germany