Miriam Cahn

Miriam Cahn, burkazorn (2010), oil on canvas, 78 × 46 cm, photo: Etienne Frossard

Miriam Cahn, installation view, Benaki Museum—Pireos Street Annexe, Athens, documenta 14, photo: Stathis Mamalakis

Miriam Cahn, KOENNTEICHSEIN, 2015–2017, installation view, documenta Halle, Kassel, documenta 14, photo: Roman März

Niggling questions

Is Miriam Cahn, born in Basel in 1949, a realist artist? What can be seen in her drawings, performances, films, and paintings—and what cannot? Where does the difference lie between how the world manifests itself, how we experience it, and how we perceive it? Is it possible—and if so, where—to draw a clear division between the subjective and the objective image of the reality around us? What is the significance of the framing, and is abstraction not the only means to realistically render the process of looking and the work of memory? What does Miriam Cahn look at, and what does she see?

Formats / techniques /means / stakes

a) Violent, quivering, unstable charcoal drawings: a means of rendering, and commenting upon, the reality rolling in front of our eyes; a chain of images, a flurry of thoughts, the cacophony of time experienced; a jungle of perceptions, recollections, dreams, and fears.

b) Creating on the floor, working with eyes closed, drawing with the whole body, the work dictated by biological rhythms: a device for suspending interpretation, relinquishing control and safe distancing; a real (feminine) presence.

c) Filming that in its frames includes—besides the “object”—the breathing, trembling, and tiredness of the filmmaker.

d) Disturbing, oneiric paintings sparkling with color, showing figures with blurred contours, crude features, and grotesquely exaggerated sexual organs (and many “unclear beings”). Despite their strong presence in the frame, they seem absent, distant, and empty, reminiscent of abandoned shadows. Sporadic detail marks points of tension or identity: the (usually erect) genitals, hole-like vacant eyes, clenched fists. Installed so that the eyes of the protagonists and the viewer are at the same level, Cahn’s paintings act as sinister mirrors (apart from seeing oneself in their terror, is this not also a device for representing the randomness of history?).

e) The works’ titles contain no, or only, capital letters: to suspend the specific is to generalize. sarajevo, beirut, hände hoch!, MARE NOSTRUM could be anytime, anywhere; they can be/are everywhere, at all times.[*]

What does Miriam Cahn look at, and what does she see? What kind of representation does her reporting of contemporary tragedies and conflicts provide? Is this oscillation—borderline realistic and abstract—not the only way to render catastrophe, to penetrate fear, to accompany those in pain? Is it not precisely this oscillation that is crucial to understand and to rise to the challenge of the conflicts around us? How does Miriam Cahn complicate, stretch, and set in motion the definition and functions of realism (in art)?

—Marta Dziewańska

[*] a, b, c, d, e take place simultaneously, nonhierarchically.

Posted in Public Exhibition
Excerpted from the documenta 14: Daybook