Walking out of Sadler’s Wells last month, having watched Pina Bausch’s Nelken, I sensed that something had changed. The performance came to a close with the entire cast of dancers instructing the audience into a hug, an embrace I felt long after the curtain came down. Moments, patterns, costumes, and arrangements of bodies left an irrevocable imprint. I think about the people who go home and perform this gesture. I also think about all of the moments I hoarded away. Something bizarre begins to take place as the audience becomes performers too.

Pina Bausch’s ‘Nelken’. Photo: Ulli Weiss

In the days that followed I became captivated by the idea of treating theatre as a symbolic space that can be applied across different media. In Nelken, the theatre became a space for considering the authenticity of self-driven desire and how it interrelates in controlled environments. It enabled a mutual feeling of chaotic oscillation between the self and the subject.

I read about the German painter Monika Baer and how she explicitly states that her work is guided by an understanding of the painting as a stage. She says that early in her career she had delayed the question of surface, thinking primarily about images. This highlights the staging of objects within the rectangle of the frame as a “site of staging or performance.” She remarked, “It was only much later that I became able to abandon these constructions and take my chosen medium for granted.” I immediately think of Caragh Thuring. She once likened her approach to painting to Ronnie O’Sullivan’s approach to snooker: “There are all these boundaries but there are also things outside the boundaries: outside influences and things projecting influence from within.” Snooker tables and theatre stages, in their rectangularness are ready to be transformed with sheer rapidity and intensity. I understand these comparisons to inform the two painters’ acute awareness of what is going on around them, the pursuit of a choreography of seeing in these speculative environments. In situating the audience not as consumer but as an active reader, it draws attention to a certain tactile pull inherent to painting and the circuit of desire it generates. A kind of desire that is a tactile optic blend of seduction and attraction.

Monika Baer, ‘Jäger im Regen’, 2003. Courtesy of the artist and Kunsthalle Bern and Galerie Barbara Weiss. Photo: Gunnar Meier

I think again of Bausch’s stage. The carnations which were carefully avoided, then crushed by bunny-hopping dancers in ill-fitting dresses. The performance escalates to deeply theatrical and panicked pacing, where hounds bark at every pause. Around half an hour in, the dancers themselves begin to ask the audience what exactly we wanted to see–demonstrating an arabesque, a pirouette, an entrechat–admitting to their previous interpretations of ballet and theatre, and dissolving any of my interpretations about the performance.

I can connect Nelken’s humorous and daring repertoires to Baer’s painterly attitude: the more you try to make sense of the natural order of things, the more you come to find a falseness concealed behind them. Seemingly irrelevant moments and random speeches or gestures interrupted the dance in the way that realistic motifs in Baer’s work punctuate washy surfaces. They hit the middle of the conflict that occurs in the process interpretation. I start to think that by placing something into a genre frequently leads artists to fall back on an emaciated repertoire of aesthetic and conceptual choices. It would be far more productive to seek an example of transcendence from supernatural law within nonsense making.

Monika Baer, ‘Untitled’, 2018. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Barbara Weiss

I sit and stare at Baer’s work and start to think that the painfulness of the clichéd plot, the superficiality of theatrical scripts and performances, is exactly in what she is indulging. She explains her work attempts to “not exclude but to transform the old, the worn and the dead.” I wonder if the old, the worn and the dead to which she is referring might be painting itself: manifestation of artworks as painterly desires, brush strokes as identity crisis, combined with an audience which has come to embody a space where viewing is, in fact, labour. Valérie Knoll writes the press at Baer’s show Am Rhein: “I think I can make out a delirious haiku. And then I ask myself, is this perhaps the work of a poetic conceptual artist, who has become ever more skilled in hiding her true face behind a series of masks?” Knoll doesn’t think so, and I agree.

The pale-coloured, almost translucent marks demonstrate an elementary starting point. As Ralf Christofori points out, Baer’s ease into thematic motivations is only “natural for the artist.” Baer’s skill set is one that is as diverse as we can imagine, from lightly washed large-scale paintings in which small objects are depicted in a realistic manner, to her alcohol series which incorporates glass bottles, nipples painted on denim-like surfaces, and solid yellow paintings with metal attachments that are screwed to both the canvas and the wall. First impressions radiate clarity, asserting dominance over our attention. There is little in her paintings that confuse me as to what they are.

Untitled (2005) is an abstract depiction of green/grey and soil-coloured almost-empty space. The fog of paint is an element and motif that often defines Baer’s vocabulary and the abstract image takes on an altogether calculated character through a library of acquired painterly tactics. Here, she demonstrates a constant fluidity of painterly registers. It is not an escapism but a sharp consciousness of its own preconceptions. The emptiness of the vast amounts of paint is reminiscent of a romantic abyss, within it there are slices of sausages or what could be read as coins. They are falling, as if underwater, both magical and artificial. The slow and static movement is an anti-climax to an increasing drama.

Monika Baer, ‘Untitled’, 2005. Courtesy of the artist and The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, gift of Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zürich

One reviewer writes about Nelken that you must be prepared to surrender to the seemingly chaotic. In a similar manner, Baer’s surfaces become a field of hazy veils until the objects that she paints so specifically break the constructed pictorial narrative. I continue to imagine a set-up of a haiku, somewhere I could learn the rules. I remember that there seemed to be a shared attunement to rules in Nelken. Childhood games and random dictatorial commands to see individual’s passports that ended in humiliation. The equation is then simply answered. We can comfortably assume that the coins have been picked as signs or symbols. But it is the contrary. The work is fundamentally hostile; they venture to revise the conditioned readability. In the end the coins avoid falling into generalities, not allowing for it to be made banal by a predominant narrative reading.

Throughout Baer’s oeuvre I find there is a close observation to how pictures and language sometimes exclude one another. Instead of moving back and forth between language and picture, the objects like the coins settle for another kind of communication. One that is not faulty or failing but preverbal, they hiccup our experience of them, making each viewing a catalyst for the next. The literalness in which the objects are depicted flirts with reality yet leaves us to fantasise about a future that might play out if we kept on looking. But it takes so long. We finally reach the end and come to find that the specific motif, like the coins, matches, nipples, tree trunks, the one realistic thing, is ultimately not what the painting is about. Uneasy and full of doubt we are slowly drawn closer to a fulfilment of desire that is painfully always out of reach, making the movement there all the sweeter.

Baer’s work in its anarchy calls into question the authority of artistic decisions. Her technique of orchestrating work does not necessarily intend to yield a subjective response from its viewers, but what it achieves is a pause or delay in her ability to make objects register as images–the process by which images make contact. Yet I can’t help but assume that the painting points beyond the matter of exactly what, or who, is identified; it anticipates us to fall in the safety net of clichéd narrative. My thoughts allude back to Nelken, where amongst the carnations one dancer performed Gershwin’s The Man I Love through sign language, spoken word, and finally by gesturing to the original music. This moment of transition plays out again and again between all the exaggerations and acceleration of images, but these are the most beautiful scenes: those in which performers are not playing, but simply present.

Monika Baer, ‘Am Rhein’, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Kunsthalle Bern and Galerie Barbara Weiss. Photo: Gunnar Meier