Written by: Marretta Jaunkkuri
I first met Meta Isaeus-Berlin’s work in the beginning of the 1990s. The sculptures I saw then were marked off by their skin-like material. The sensation of the material and the organic form of the sculptural object seemed to penetrate my subconscious and brought up physical reminiscences. In a way it was an illustration of the well-known idea that the body is a map of all feelings and experiences one has had – that one can speak of bodily memories.
My next meeting was with her installation at Container 96 in Copenhagen. There she presented the installation “I Am Not at Home,” which displayed a dreamlike image of homesickness and the elements of nostalgia. The installation was constructed as a scene in a container on the second storey in a complex consisting of many containers. The elevation contributed even more to the dreamlike character of the scene. Seen from below this domestic scene with its intimate lighting (a light bulb hanging from the ceiling) seemed to float in mid-air.
In retrospect it seems as if this installation introduced a new phase in Isaeus-Berlin’s work. She started to use scenic structures as a visual framework and motif. The scene as a place for events represents a condensation of time and space. Its time is the specific time that is related to the events or the drama that takes place on the stage. It is a matter of something that has taken or that perhaps will take place.
In their meetings with Isaeus-Berlin’s scenic installations, viewers rarely get the impulse to enter the scene but rather they want to keep their roles as onlookers. The artist does not leave any space for their physical presence in the scene but wants to construct something that they can observe and in this way turn them into witnesses, observers, or contributors at a distance from the fiction that she narrates. But even more important is perhaps the viewers’ – intuitive – awareness of the disquieting dimension of the narrative. We know that we stand in front of a psychological drama that is not primarily meant to comfort but to give us a sense of recognition of something forgotten or hidden in ourselves. It is a matter of the fear, often seemingly unfounded, which we experience when we are not present but think of something absent. It is as if it is the space of absence, the space between the place of events and the place where we find ourselves physically that is represented. This is the space of memories or presentiments. The scene represents physical traces of a past or future drama.
From the picture’s grammatical point of view it is a matter of an iconic usage of indexes. Marks / traces / documents are left from another course of events, and there is a strange ambience in the work. They have deformed the “normal” situation and displaced its meaning beyond what is customary. These traces should be interpreted in relation to an iconic framework that exists in front of our very eyes here and now. The whole world has been diminished for the dwarfs because of Snow White’s wait for the prince and her refusal to see them as men. “The dwarfs were forced to develop in reverse from men to children” as the artist her self expresses the situation.
If one looks at the elements that make up her installations one discovers that the fundamental scene is a middle-class home, often a kitchen or a dining room, a living room or a bathroom, but most often a bedroom. The bedroom is perhaps the most quiet dramatic scene imaginable, but also the most private. It is both the scene of micro-dramas and of dreams, a space in-between or a space apart from the activities and reality of the everyday, a place for reflection and emotions.
Water is a frequent symbol in Meta Iaeus-Berlin’s installations. She says that her installation “Chair Beside Bed,” with a water-soaked bed, which was shown at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm in 1996, was interpreted as a childbirth scene by many. Traditionally water symbolizes birth, purification and regeneration and the feminine principle. Unlike this interpretation she observes that these stagnant water surfaces covering beds represent the fear of disease, lack of faith and death, but also hysteria.
That these scenes seem private is also due to the special lighting. Its effect is recognizable from private situations. A light bulb shining with its peculiar yellow light. The light produces a circle where the intensity darkens towards the edges.
Light is another symbol of femininity. Unlike water, it represents life, truth, enlightenment and the power to disperse evil and the forces of darkness. In these scenes the bulb hangs from a wire and moves with the slightest breeze. Water is said to be the liquid equivalent of light. As symbols they belong together.
Perhaps the internal drama in these scenes is produced by the fact that these feminine symbols refer to something other than the usual. It can be interpreted as an appeal against dominant male symbolic contracts, which constitute what is seen as the normal interpretations – normality. Hysteria is based on a misunderstanding: light and water in unstable coexistence and a staged drama with its stagnant, ominous water and the tottering source of light.
Marretta Jaunkkuri is Chief Curator at Kiasma, Museum of Contemporary Art, Helsinki.