Kathrin Sonntag: I see you seeing me see you

PublicationThe Times.  
March 2014  

German artist Kathrin Sonntag’s first show in Scotland is perplexing, mischievous, clever ¾ and, ultimately, intensely rewarding.  Sonntag’s philosophical conundrums, aesthetic investigations and visual conjuring take as their starting point the history of the prosthetic glass eye in relation to the German town of Lauscha. It was here, in 1832, that the glass-blower Ludwig Müller-Uri developed the prosthesis in the town’s glass-factory, already well-known for producing dolls’ eyes.

Sonntag’s fascination stems from the idea, inherent in the show’s title, of the human eye looking at its simulacrum.  Tellingly, she refers to Ridley Scott’s film, Bladerunner, in which eyes are a leitmotif, where the ‘replicant’ Roy Batty meets one of his genetic engineers, an eye specialist, and tells him: “If only you could see what I’ve seen with your eyes…”

Prosthetic eyes are created individually using a variety of established techniques, including blowing, which employs glass rods. In one part of Sonntag’s installation, which occupies the entire gallery space, a large, framed colour transparency, taken in a Lauscha workshop, includes a group of glass eyes, on rods, protruding from a glass jar.  Sonntag sets up an uneasy visual echo with the careful juxtaposition of a vase of yellow tulips. A large area  of green placed on a nearby wall sets up a further visual parallel. By such means, Sonntag’s work also explores the nature and meaning of composition. 

Elsewhere in the installation, another framed transparency shows a transparent figurine, filled with more ocular prostheses, resembling a mildly gruesome version of a sweet-jar. To the right, in another of Sonntag’s disquieting juxtapositions, is the small, partially obscured figure of a doll, or perhaps even a child. However, the fact that majority of the glass eyes here are dolls’ leads one to the former conclusion. (The glass works in Lauscha, founded in the 16th century,  were famous for making toys’ eyes, long before Muller-Uri’s work.) A vivid pumpkin-orange scarf on the figurine is echoed by an equally bold rectangle of a similar colour on adjacent wall. A broom leans askew against the same wall. Has it been left here inadvertently by the cleaners? A similar form in Sonntag’s photograph confirms its intentional status, as well as her playful sense of humour.

Walking around this this show is an immersive experience and it quickly becomes apparent that it is a large, continuous gesamkunstwerk, which can be viewed from an almost infinite number of literal perspectives.

To underline the theme of sight and vision, as well as the anatomical fascination with the eye as an organ and extension of the brain, Sonntag has included numerous references to lenses, such as a slide projector and a book about photographic optics, Das Auge Meiner Kamera (The Eye of my Camera). The identification and classification of colour is a major trope in Sonntag’s work.

Sonntag questions the nature of perception and, remarkably,  succeeds in providing some convincing alternative answers.