Navigating the Maze – a discourse by Melanie Sarantou PhD (Visual Arts), University of South Australia

Navigating the Maze – a discourse by Melanie Sarantou PhD (Visual Arts), University of South Australia

Award winning artist Kirsten Wechslberger’s fifth solo exhibition, titled ‘Navigating the Maze’, enticed Namibian audiences during March and April this year at the Franco Namibian Cultural Centre in Windhoek. The installation and performance artist was recently the winner of the South Australian Arid Land Sculptural Festival’s art prize. Her work titled ‘$Edge’ earned her prize money to the value of N$22,000, including a follow-up artist residency at Nexus Arts in Adelaide, South Australia, during April and May this year.

In Namibia this leading video installation artist also received the runner-up award at the Bank Windhoek Triennial in the category ‘New Media’. After completing her single major in two dimensional studies at the University of Namibia, Kirsten was a highly regarded arts administrator at the Namibian Craft Centre and The John Muafangejo Arts centre before she devoted her energies full time towards artistic endeavours. Since 2012 she has produced numerous solo and group exhibitions, performance art installations and artist workshops in public spaces and renowned galleries both in Namibia and internationally.

‘Navigating the Maze’ included installation, visual and performance art, showing Kirsten’s six major works ‘The Tunnel’, a participatory art installation; ‘Hope’, participatory mixed media art; ‘Navigating Fifty shades of Black’ and ‘Mania’, both assemblage; ‘Navigating the Energy Points’, mixed media installation; and ‘Shaping Identity’, mixed media performance art that included a video installation. Several works are participatory as the artist aims to connect, communicate and share emotions with her audience, while giving them opportunities to experience her art at several levels.

In her work ‘Hope’, for example, Kirsten includes her audience in her work by inviting them to communicate with her through written messages that include their reflections on memorable experiences. These written messages are rolled and pinned into key holes, allowing participants to transform their thoughts into words and expressing their personal stories visually. The artist hopes that positive thoughts and energies will be exchanged, making it an ‘experiment and experience of a collective subconscious’ that allows the sharing of optimistic stories or messages.

‘Navigating the Maze’ is also a collection of work that explores the artist’s mental states and emotional growth. The essential role of art in delving into and coping with conscious and unconscious states is widely acknowledged in mental health practices worldwide, as underpinned in the early twentieth century by Carl Jung’s studies on symbolic types and mandala analysis. While Kirsten explores and expresses her journeys and experiences with depression, separation, optimism and personal growth in this work her previous exhibitions, such as ‘The Road Lesser Travelled’, often served as platforms for navigating her personal maze. In this exhibition ‘Navigating the Energy Points’ is and installation of several primary coloured discs with maze symbolism that are aligned on a vertical string, symbolising the artist’s awareness of internal becoming, her focus on stability amidst many emotional disruptions, or ‘becoming undone’ as theorised by American gender philosopher Judith Butler.

The assemblage ‘Navigating Fifty shades of Black’ is a visual expression of the artist’s experiences with depression. The various shades of black, contrasting surfaces and dimensions guide the viewers eyes on a journey through a maze of paths that often lead to dead ends, while it also allow the discovery of new elements. ‘This is what depression is … it feels like you are trapped in this void of blackness and absence of emotion and it feels never ending … unfinished … I had to stop myself from not working on it more as it would have lost that quality’, explains Kirsten. In comparison, ‘Mania’ is inspired by the contrasting balances of bipolar disorder and the ecstatic highs that often end in frustration. The artist experienced this disorder as ‘having too much energy, too many thoughts in need of expression’, resulting in tensions that is depicted in the use of reds and delicate, breakable strings.

During the opening and critical feedback events of this exhibition audiences were able to view ‘Shaping Identity’, performed by the artist. In this work Kirsten’s nude body is partly enfolded in packaging materials and a wooden coffin while a video installation is projected onto her. The projections, visible on her skin, consist of paper cut-outs that symbolise her past relationships, connections and disconnections with people. She appears exposed and vulnerable. The strong symbolisms connected to the coffin contrasts with the delicate colours and shapes of the projections, her subtle and calm voice as she recites some of her stable and fluxing identities. This performance suggests how some identities, perhaps those that are more stable, are often unconsciously projected onto people, continuing until a person’s demise, while the more fluxing identities that shape people’s individuality come about by choice, in the same way Kirsten chose to share her identities with her audience. This moving performance that evokes emotions, feelings and thoughts, in combination with the rest of the artist’s work, gives her audience much to think and feel about in their own lives and experiences, including how their identity ‘labels’ came about.

In ‘The Tunnel’ Kirsten’s audience participated in a journey through a dark tunnel in which they were confronted with textures, smells, sounds and other stimuli that provoked subjective experiences, thoughts and actions. ‘The walk through the tunnel is what is important – being in a dark space, surrounded by nothing but sound, smell and different textures is not easy – it is not easy to let things in and reflect on the effect at a deep level, having to navigate your own maze within mine’, explains the artist. For this reason she focused her attention to detail on the interior of the space as she feels that the exterior of people are not as important as their interior. The exterior of ‘The Tunnel’ conveys this particular focus of the artist as at first glance the viewer is confronted with the ‘ugliness’ of cardboard boxes, wooden and recycled bits and pieces that outwardly seem to lack detail and finesse, giving the installation a feeling of a make-shift dwelling or a shack.

Recycled and biodegradable materials featured repeatedly in Kirsten’s installation and performance art, allowing the intensity and power of her affective themes, such as loss, displacement and connectedness, as well as her critical views on capitalism, poverty and the hardship experienced in peripheral societies, to materialise in her visual expressions. ‘Some participants had beautiful reactions in “The Tunnel” – they became aware of all the elements and inputs within the space, triggering their own feelings and thoughts -they were ready to look inside, while the ugliness of the installation deterred others’, says Kirsten.

The artist is very aware that some individuals from her audience are not able to relate to all of her work. In ‘Navigating the Maze’ she provokes subjective reaction and she invites people, perhaps on an unconscious level, to look internally and become aware of their personal feelings when participating through viewing her art. Kirsten concludes: ‘the experience of my art is subjective, any art for that matter, and since it is about people’s paths and choices the interpretation can never be wrong or right – it just is.’

'Shaping Identity' - Performance Art, Franco Namibian Cultural Centre, Windhoek, Namibia, 2015
‘Shaping Identity’ – Performance Art, Franco Namibian Cultural Centre, Windhoek, Namibia, 2015