Dissolution and atonement
Beate Ermacora

Animals are no rarity in the œuvre of Gabriela Oberkofler. Quite the opposite: birds, chickens, insects, as well as a deer, fox, dog, horse, cow and goat, frog and salamander populate her drawings and installations, or are protagonists of her videos. On the one hand they belong  to the reminiscence work of the artist that, together with her South Tyrol homeland, is continually a theme in her work: on the other hand, in order to ask questions about identity and the positioning of self in a globalized, mobile world, she continually places the animal world in diverse relationships with people, their traditions, ideas, behavior and actions.

In the humorous-sarcastic Ahnengalerie (2008) one of a series of eight felt-tip drawings, a stag, doe, goat and cow gaze at us with earnest faces out of medallions, hanging in a rustic bedroom with hunting trophies. In the installation Filomena Egger, geb. Oberkofler (2009) the artist places living hens and a rooster as highly referential set pieces for the identity of the old, already deceased farmer’s wife in the exhibition room, whereas in the video la tourterelle (2010), she hopes that a dove born in captivity will fly out of its cage to freedom and join its fellow species. Although the dove sings for several hours with them, it does not return to its natural habitat, but stays in the cage. Another touching work in this context is Tierfriedhof, the animal cemetery, which Oberkofler created in 2009 in the Stuttgart Hospitalhof. In analogy with Catholic custom, the nine crosses bear enamel plaques with images of the deceased. However, we are not shown the sort of portraits we would normally like to remember our beloved relatives by, but macabre images of their death. The fact that many of them, like the squirrel, frog, fish or bird have died no natural death but as a result of violence, is shown by the outflow of blood. Like a chronicler, Gabriela Oberkofler maintains the animals in their rigid, dislocated, sunken body positions just as she had found them.

While in Tierfriedhof and the accompanying series of drawings Gefunden am … (2009), Oberkofler depicts animals for the last time in their entire, albeit maimed, state with sober, almost scientific precision before they succumb to the process of organic decay, the exact opposite is the case in the most recently produced series of drawings Es fällt (2012). Here it is the stage of decay and dissolution that interests her. In these works we also come across the insects heralded in the title of this catalog and the accompanying exhibition. Not all carry so much appeal as the beautifully patterned swallowtail, which is among the most striking and largest butterflies, albeit already one of the endangered species; or the blue hawker of the Aeshnidae dragonfly family with its elongated, blue-green body that is continually able to adapt so well to difficult environments. From a human perspective, the aptly named burying beetle that feeds on rotting carcasses, the black and yellow striped earth bumblebee that digs its nests deep in the earth, or even the metallic blue, green or lustrous gold blowfly with its preference for intensive smelling organic substances like dung, certainly seem less appealing to us.

As demonstration material for her drawings in small DIN A4 format, Gabriela Oberkofler makes use of insects from her own extensive collection, which contains over a thousand flies, including rarities like the stag beetle. Out of this collection individual creatures keep appearing in installations, as in the exhibition Die Geranie soll eine wichtige Rolle spielen (2011), where a bumble bee, a cockchafer and a carpenter bee are draped on white doilies, or a peacock moth finds itself decorated with blossoms and little worms on a round lace doily. In the series Es fällt, the drawing setting on the white sheet using a special aquarelle felt-tip pen is sparse and reduced, as always with Oberkofler. “Everything shown is taken out of context, nothing distracts from the actual object of interest, everything is focused. The white empty sheet sharpens the view and opens space for associations, reminiscences, dreams and losses.” 1 The anecdotal and narrative therefore only arises when individual works and groups of work are shown together. Her individual, pointillistic additive drawing style comprises juxtaposed small dots of color, dashes and hatching, which impart an ornamental, floating lightness to the subject. Lines and contours then come into play only if it is required to render bodies and solid forms somewhat more precisely.

In the drawings the little winged creatures seem to have been caught by violent suction effects. Like whirlwinds, amorphous, flower-like forms sweep through the room, at the edges of which one repeatedly spots fragments of insects: there a wing, and there a leg, here a feeler – the artist shows just enough for us to be able to identify the creature. However, she does not tell us how this situation came about. In the video animation Es fällt (2012), which is based on a drawing of the same name, a colored cloud gushes down from above, carrying parts of dead insects with it, like the slide of an avalanche, or the eruption of a volcano. Should one or other survivors be underneath, then the question inevitably arises: What now? What happens next?

Oberkofler shows us catastrophic scenarios in the animal world, as she had done before with the Brennenden Ameisenhaufen (2010) destroyed to make way for agricultural use. In parallel with that, if we see a burning home in the œuvre of the artist, then it is at once clear that she is not just working with reminiscences, but also deliberately with analogies between animals and humans. House, home, being home, going away, returning, a new beginning are focal themes for Gabriela Oberkofler on the basis of her own biography. Beside swarms of dragonflies, it is mainly swarms of bees that she depicts in spherical, moving formations as they search for a new home, or perhaps when they have just found one in branch wood. Interestingly, the queen leaves her beehive with her retinue just when the latter is at its most energetic; the artist therefore concludes that humans also look for new opportunities when they are in top form, and want to leave behind their old life. 2

But new beginnings are mostly not so simple. It does not matter whether a change of place or an new inner orientation is involved: psychological processes are always set in train that are associated with all kinds of fears, mostly irrational. But new beginnings are mostly not so simple. The dissolution of what is familiar and usual leads to questions and considerations about what will come afterwards – about living environment and survival strategies. What can one accept, without losing or disowning oneself in the process? Or, at the moment of acceptance is the new life already there? These and similar thoughts seem to be visualized by Oberkofler in the composition Vogelbeerbaum (2012). At first glance, one sees red berries hanging on swaying branches, on which black birds are sitting. Only gradually does one see in the richly detailed scenery that in the midst of the lively activity there are also dead creatures hanging in the tree with their heads down.

Gabriela Oberkofler, who grew up in the country, and is familiar with the harsh treatment of animals by humans, makes this in many of its facets a theme of her art time and again. At the same time, one senses that she herself has an extremely caring approach to nature and its creatures, but without any ecological finger wagging.

Like a dissolving illusion that is still not quite there, or has already half vanished again, in one drawing a horse emerges out of the white background of the paper. Chained to a tree, it is bleeding from the mouth and looks at us through sad eyes. It is precisely such injuries and iniquities inflicted on animals and nature by man that the artist would like to make atonement for. Just as she wanted to release the dove in la tourterelle back into the wild, like she puts symbolic cherries back in a cherry tree, or shows regard and appreciation for dead creatures by arranging a dignified burial, it is of concern to her in her latest project produced for Friedrichshafen to put fish back into Lake Constance. Like some healing symbolic magic, in huge drawings she puts fish back into the water. In the exhibition room she uses pine tree skeletons, which are held together by fishing lines and correspond to the drawing of a pair of spruce firs, to construct a motherand-child center, a sort of breeding ground for fish to spawn. Fish hooks and bait, which are normally used for catching fish, are converted without further ado into feeding sites and food. In addition, a black bucket and fisherman’s boots allude to fishing. After the exhibition, and this is characteristic for the artistic strategy of Gabriela Oberkofler, who continually tries to combine art and living, it is intended to establish a spawning station − one at a secret location.

1 Jörg van den Berg: durch nichts wird mehr. In: Jörg van den Berg, Sylvie Vojik (Eds): Gabriela Oberkofler. geblieben sind die orte die dich sahen. Berlin, 2012, p. 15. Catalog for the exhibitions: Kunsthalle Ravensburg / Columbus Art Foundation; art 3 – art contemporain, Valence; Museum Biedermann, Donaueschingen.

2 Gabriela Oberkofler in conversation with the author on March 1, 2013.