Sad With Satie

Lisi Raskin
Text in conjunction with exhibition at Kuenstlerhaus Bethanien, "Sad With Satie"

For the past several years, Erla Haraldsdottir has traveled to select locations in Europe, the United States, and Scandinavia generating disruptions that radically alter perceptions of the mundane. Such pieces have sought to challenge the existing dynamics between place and population through the lenses of globalization, gentrification, and racism. In dealing with these themes, Haraldsdottir has built an aesthetic language that presents the possibility of another, stranger world nested within the quotidian.  In Haraldsdottir’s most recent work, Sad With Satie, the artist uses this finely honed aesthetic language to unpack a vastly different, decidedly autobiographical landscape. Sad With Satie is a patchwork of animated, hallucinatory events woven through hand-held video footage of the main character’s circadian routine. The juxtaposition of these two worlds punctuates and amplifies the sardonic tenor of what is recognizably a suspended state of lost love.

The video begins with a double confession. As the main character scribbles her feelings onto screen sized Post-It Notes, a breathy voice-over forcibly admits that she has lost her concentration, is entirely heartbroken, and has no idea what to do about it. The tone of these opening sequences is reminiscent of an after school television special and thus calls the function of melodrama into question. Haraldsdottir also crosses emotional wires by setting the entire video to Erik Satie’s (1866 -1925) Gnossiennes No.1. This melancholic piece of piano music is well known for the codified sadness that it expresses, the ethos of which has already been dragged over the coals of large-budget feature films. Haraldsdottir exploits these established emotional coordinates in order to fully imagine the bleak and bizarre fantasy world into which she posits the main character. However, Haraldsdottir’s motives are not entirely scornful or sarcastic. In these opening sequences, the narrator’s plea for compassion also reveals the vulnerability and erasure that can occur when one’s object of desire no longer gazes back. In an act of resistance to this sense of helplessness, Haraldsdottir self-consciously embraces cliché, as though the act of adhering to well-known forms of cultural representation could somehow render her sense of isolation less powerful.

For Haraldsdottir, hand-held video equals quotidian reality, the likes of which we experience in three distinct locations.  These sites include the underground pedestrian walkway at Kottbussertor, Paul-Lincke Ufer, and Haraldsdottir’s own studio in Kreutzberg. The studio scene, like all others is shot in a laconic, first person perspective.  Here the camera’s eye lazily focuses on details like the brushy outline of the artist’s shadow as she approaches her studio building and the dimly lit, mechanical act of placing a key into a lock. Haraldsdottir is resolute in her choice not to remove the accidental quirks of the camera. Therefore when the aperture is stunned by a sudden shift in light while approaching a window, this gesture suggests the way crying eyes might react to the same stimulus.

It is within the studio that the main character’s drawings become a developed site or narrative portal through which the viewer and the main character momentarily escape the mundane. Haraldsdottir achieves these functions in a variety of ways. First, the narrative direction that was formerly relegated to hand written Post-It Notes, takes on the larger and more obsessive format of bubble lettering on drawing paper. In these directional postings, aggressive pencil lines become a visual manifestation of the main character’s frustration. Next, Haraldsdottir shifts the scene to a hand drawn and animated sequence of a heart being pierced by three daggers. It is in this move that Harlasdottir’s formal and aesthetic intentions broaden to their fullest articulation, as animation brings together the language of real time and drawing time. This duality is particularly poignant not only because it blurs the line between the animated world and the real world but also because once we are situated within this visual language, it is easy to slide into the erratic and hallucinatory climate of the main character’s brain.

Our next stop in the video is Paul-Linke Ufer, a landscape scene made manifest through a black and white drawing of itself. Fittingly, this chromatic shift interrupts our sense of filmic language, which is soon overwhelmed by the visual buzzing and clicking of animated frames. Within this hallucination, energetic splashes of color move in and out of the picture, trees change from graphite pencil strokes to clumps of green, and a runner in a blue track suit exits the scene by way of the vanishing point at the top of the page. Although Sad With Satie uses the language of animation in an effort to provide a way for the main character to escape her mundane reality into the hallucinatory world of colorful details, these respites are only momentary. By the time the artist walks through the pedestrian tunnel at Kottbussertor, the once surprising, animated escapes become perversely mundane. Each time the main character is cast back out into her deadened routine, it becomes more obvious that there is hardly any distinction between the melancholia of each location. Fittingly, Haraldsdottir chooses to end the video with a question – “What if I had waited?”

What makes Haraldsdottir’s approach to fiction so compelling is the clumsiness of her timing and tightfisted irony. While her drawing skills nimbly take the viewer down the rabbit hole of fantasy, her pacing relentlessly and repeatedly presses the main character up against the windshield of quotidian reality.  Paradoxically, Haraldsdottir’s vividly rendered, animated vignettes simultaneously reinforce and cast doubt on the romantic notion that suffering is indeed the ideal state for creative insight. Sad With Satie is a comical, self-deprecating, and destabilizing artwork that questions the desire to represent authentic, emotional experience at all.