Alchemical Expeditions

 It all begins with a map, or perhaps a playing card. The one gives the wildernesses and expanses of the world a pictorial order and brings within easy reach distant, impassable terrain, making it accessible. The other lends the imponderables of fortune symbolic shape, letting ephemeral chance appear fleetingly graspable, formable. Both, map and playing card, are metaphors of the human will to mould and to master place and destiny, to succeed in the game of life as a winner. The deeper dimensions inherent in these and other everyday systems of imagery and meaning are precisely what Hamburg artist Sabine Mohr focuses upon in her work. As an ethnographer addressing her own and other environments (she visited France, for example, a number of times to work on projects, journeyed to Indonesia, Egypt, Japan, India, China, Sicily, and the United States) and proceeding with a poetic eye, she recognizes in marginal phenomena the signs that refer to the larger picture, the underlying, more extensive layers, the transcultural and transhistorical interconnections. In her conceptual aesthetic method she unites the associative logic of dreams and the deductive combinatorial rules of science, the immediate proximity to life of the field researcher and the magical, at times surreal transformative power of the alchemist.

In her paradox procedure, oscillating between concretization, on the one hand, and abstraction, on the other, the extraction and dislocation of the subjects which she is pursuing plays an equally decisive role as their transposition into materials, which in turn enter a relationship to the given spatial context and function as vehicles for conveying content and mood. Comparable to a grain of sand which viewed through an electron microscope mutates into a crystalline, non-recognizable alien element, while at the same time revealing its actual, otherwise invisible composition, Sabine Mohr’s de- and recontextualized sujets derived from the current of everyday life open up surprising perspectives: in this case it is the lens of the artistic transformation/shift which discloses the unfamiliar in the familiar, the concealed, overlooked nature of things.

The field in which the artist performs cannot be reduced to simple thematic specifications. Yet still in a broader sense a tendency is noticeable to stylizations which manifest themselves in the form of ornamental patterns (for example the reverse side of playing cards, the camouflage design on a Russian cigarette pack), topographical or other methods of measurement and surveying (in maps, for instance) and further systematic/schematic representations. They create the syntactic raw material, so to speak, for a semantic extension and sophistication, which releases the sub-structural, historical potential of the objects of examination and simultaneously offers a prospect of their possible – utopian – scope.

In Sabine Mohr’s more recent works a map from the 19th century, which the artist found in an antiquarian French encyclopedia, reoccurs as a leitmotif. This map is already a symbolic representation, more precisely, a piece of fiction, as it displays an imaginary world landscape – a constructed, synthetic composition comprised of all the geographical phenomena on earth: ocean, island, dune, coast, plain, valley, riverbed, desert, oasis, mountain range, plateau, and other lexically manifestations of nature. This world landscape, free of territorial and national boundaries (the respective forms of landscape are supplied with the according terms, like names of countries) served the artist as a source for various projects, among those an extensive work in the context of the Hamburg program for art in public spaces, whichwas installed in June, 2003, under the title Wo?-Ou?-Where? on an arched wall of the city railroad station Sternschanze. The title focuses the free-floating placelessness of this specific map which induces the viewers to create imaginary localizations. Sabine Mohr has converted it from a small-format depiction into a large ensemble of ceramic tiles, fitting it into the already existing arch of the station wall, which enframes the familiar/exotic landscape rendered in indigo painting. While the train rushes towards its scheduled goals on the adjacent overpass, in the face of the pictorial juxtaposition of “Désert,“ “Montagne,““Pleine,“ or “Ville“ (the map also registers a “city,” but it is also a nameless, virtual entity within the nowhere region of the landscape) a journey in the mind is triggered, which may lead anywhere – to any shore, onto every mountain top, into any city that is anchored in the imagination of the passersby. The artist achieves a further extension of the picture from the public to the private space and back again through an integrated Web address under which thoughts, texts, and images relating to the different topographical phenomena are collected.

A similarly abstract and at the same time implicitly poetic mapping of a place-without-a-place is the basis of the work How to climb the mountains (2004), which Sabine Mohr realized for the Imagine Gallery in Beijing. Again the source motif is a French map from the 19th century on which in this case the famous mountains and mountain ranges of the world are condensed into a fantasy panorama. The landscape ranging from the comparatively low, smoke-spewing Vesuvius up to Mount Everest soaring up to the sky is supplied – apart form the names and heights of the depicted mountains – with a comparison diagram of prominent architectural monuments (the Great Pyramid of Cheops in Egypt, Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Cologne Cathedral, the Washington Monument, and others). As a further element, the map gives information on the heights achieved by the early protagonists of flight with various types of aircraft. The sublime greatness of nature in form of the mountains is countered by the human achievements in the area of building and (flying) technology – the late Romantic “alpine myth”(1) is countered by the “myth of progress” of beginning modernism.

This constitutes the prefigured backdrop to Sabine Mohr’s intercultural, transtemporal intertwining of images, stylistic methods, and meanings. For artistically rendering the map, she drew upon the traditional cutout technique that is firmly rooted in Chinese folk art. The artist in turn sketched the enchanted, fairy-tale conglomerate of mountains and buildings represented on the historical map with a knife into semitransparent plastic foil, which extended from the ceiling to the floor of the gallery as an enormous, almost immaterial scroll painting. The delicate mountain landscape permeated the space like a giant veil. On a pictorial level, by way of the contextual shift of the map, associations to Chinese tradition and present-day culture were activated. Through the graduated mountain reliefs and the buildings in the pictorial representation the mega-cities, which in China are currently springing up with breathtaking speed, as well as the natural appearance of the local mountain ranges were evoked, which over centuries have been a central motif in Chinese painting. The artist’s installation took the viewers on an adventurous journey proceeding on many interlacing paths.

The installation Camouflage (2002) at the Hamburg Artagents Gallery was applied directly on the wall. Here Sabine Mohr, in the course of a multi-part group project together with the artists Juro Grau (Berlin) and Sylvie Réno (Marseille), had transposed the already mentioned pattern found on a Russian cigarette pack into a painterly design on wallpaper engulfing the space and reminiscent of Matisse works. Already then she was working with the cutout technique, which she also made use of in her series of playing card Damen (Queens) simultaneously presented at the gallery. The sky-blue material from which the work Camouflage was produced and in whose amorphous apertures the white gallery wall shone through, consisted of plastic trash bags which the artist had placed on the wall in precise strips.

Apart from the notion that plastic per se, as Roland Barthes pithily put it in his famous Mythologies (1957), represents “essentially an alchemical substance,”(2) in the artistic transformation process the magic of alchemy goes still further: Sabine Mohr’s reinterpretation of a profane cigarette pack design and a no less profane material through artistic appropriation and metamorphosis not only ennobles the banal everyday phenomenon, but also gives it a totally new aesthetic form. Here the gulf between Matisse and trash bags – “high” and “low” – is overcome in a playfully light manner, and the secret beauty of the “banal” is dis-covered. Or, to speak with Paul Virilio’s concluding remarks on Magritte’s approach: “Regarding what one would not regard, hearing what one would not hear, paying attention to the banal, to the ordinary, to the infra-ordinary. To deny the ideal hierarchy between what is decisive and what is anecdotal, as there is no such thing as the anecdotal; there are only ruling cultures exiling us from ourselves and from the others...“(3)

The dis-covery, in the sense of both a disclosure of hidden or unrecognized aspects of an object and in the sense of finding and investigating undiscovered terrain – and the specific contemplation of and attention to what would otherwise not necessarily be regarded or would elude the attention as “banal” - is a consistent cognitive principle of the artist. In an almost literal manner she pursued this principle in the series mentioned above, where she simultaneously placed a focus upon the eloquent front illustrations and on the usually ignored, concealing reverse sides of playing cards, in this case of the four queens. The particular appeal of the deck of cards consists for Sabine Mohr in the fact that this is a common property of everyday life with hidden aesthetic layers, which she reveals through her transformative alchemical methods. In her playing cards enlarged to wall pictures, partially realized in the shape of filigree cutouts, partially sprayed on the surface via (cutout) stencils, she emphasizes the dialectics or duality which in multiple ways is contained in the object. The viewers are sensitized for the mysterious, dichotomic elements of playing cards: the mirror images of the figures on the front of the cards, die interdependency of “positive” and “negative”, “dayside” and “nightside“, “matrix” and “imprint.” The graceful beauty of the Queens is countered by the arabesques on the back of the cards with their stylized tendrils, leaves, and other ornamental interlacings. In enhancing the presence of the concealing – and usually concealed, because unnoticed – reverse sides of the cards the artist lends their elaborate ornamental composition a significance of its own. As also in other works, Sabine Mohr points here to the open frame of reference extending over cultures and epochs, in which her art freely roams and develops its fine-spun dynamic: the historical impact of Islamic art that influenced Europe from the Orient reverberates in the arabesques of playing cards and has inscribed itself into our everyday culture, a concealed connection which the artist makes the viewers aware of anew.

The mental journeys between present, past and future, to which her works as launching pads for the imagination stimulate the viewer, lead up to the distant expanses of outer space. In her installation MONDFahrt (Journey to the Moon) for the Munich Hotel Olympic in 2003, for example, a moon globe split into two parts became the pivotal three-dimensional axis of a random interlinking of free-floating topographical sites on the moon equipped with poetic designations such as “Mare tranquillitatis.“ Not all of the terms she found on the globe were incorporated in the fictive map of the moon encompassing the room, comparable, as Sabine Mohr states, to a novel in which the author unites historical truth and invention. Much more important to the artist than factual unequivocalness is the creation of surprising, evocative, mind-expanding constellations, which are generated from the interconnections between times, images and places found, discovered and investigated by the artist.

Belinda Grace Gardner



  1. Cf. Roland Barthes, “Der ‘blaue Führer’,” in: Mythen des Alltags (original edition: Mythologies, Paris, 1957), translated from French into German by Helmut Scheffel, Frankfurt/Main, 1964, p. 59.
  2. Cf. Roland Barthes, “Plastik,” in: ibid., p. 79.
  3. Cf. Paul Virilio: Ästhetik des Verschwindens (original edition: Esthétique de la disparition, Paris, 1980), translated from French into German by Marianne Karbe and Gustav Roßler, Berlin, 1986, p. 41.