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An exhibition about practising the art of sitting on your ass might seem apt for the times.
But when German-speaking people talk about sitzfleisch – literally “sitting flesh” – or sitting on your backside, they don’t mean throwing your feet up and sticking on the telly.
More like sitting hunched over your desk for 16 hours working furiously to make your deadlines.
Sitzfleisch is a commonly used compound word meaning perseverance or “stamina to sit something out, to endure and keep going at something”, says artist Susanne Wawra.
In a new exhibition in the Olivier Cornet Gallery, launched virtually last Monday, Wawra explores the idea of sitzfleisch and how it relates to “the life of an artist, the commitment that you make”, she says.
Trying to make it as an artist is as much a test of stamina as it is of talent, she says. “It is not an easy career path.”
She planned the exhibition long before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, but her own sitzfleisch has been tested by this crisis.
Her work also examines her family life and the influence that growing up in the German Democratic Republic until she was 10 years old had on her.
Becoming an Artist
Wawra came to Ireland in 2007 to work in advertising for Google, she says.
But “it didn’t suit my psychology, I didn’t have the staying power for that”, she says.
“I put in a lot of energy but it was detrimental to my physical and mental health.”
She ended up in hospital. “It really affected me so deeply that I had to build myself up from zero,” she says.
“The only thing that kept me going or gave me any energy was making art,” she says.
Once out of hospital, Wawra started evening classes at the National College of Art and Design (NCAD) on Thomas Street.
Attending art college was always an ambition. But after being rejected when she was young from the Bauhaus-Universität Weimar, she thought she wasn’t good enough to be an artist. She went on to study media and English instead, she says.
Those fears proved unfounded, though, when a tutor at NCAD suggested that she should start a full-time degree in fine art, she says.
At the time, she was 30 years old. Too old to reinvent herself, she says she thought. But she quickly acclimatised.
“They were the best years, it was amazing, studying art was so cool,”, says Wawra.
The course was practical, a perfect fit. Now, she is a full-time multimedia artist, with a couple of teaching gigs on the side, she says.
Dreams and Memories
The Sitzfleisch exhibition also explores Wawra’s early youth growing up in East Germany under the confines of the political system of the German Democratic Republic (GDR).
“My parents were the generation, they grew up in the GDR in that system, it was quite ingrained in your everyday life,” she says.
She was 10 when the system changed. But looking back it has influenced her psychology, she says.
School was strict, she says. “I had a teacher that really lived and breathed it. The school books were just propaganda.”
Childcare and medical care were free. Prices were regulated. But your life was regulated too – even free time was regimented, she says.
Looking back, she can see that the children were being trained to think in a certain way. “It’s very hard to explain,” she says.
Some of her works are mixed-media pieces. She calls them “praintings”, a meld of prints and paintings.
She uses “discarded fabrics, bedsheets” for the prints and then digs into her archive of family photos for inspiration.
In one “prainting”, In der Blüte (In Bloom), her mother shows a bit of flesh, as a young woman sunbathing in a bikini in the garden.
To create it, Wawra took the negative of the photo and made a black and white image of her mum, surrounded by bright tropical flowers, deep reds, royal blues and yellows.
She imagined her mother as a young woman in her 20s, that she would have been daydreaming about the future. At that age, “the future is open, you have dreams for your future”, she says.
The exotic flowers symbolise the freedom to travel, to experience different ways of life and exploring different cultures.
But in reality her mother is restricted, she says. “She is sitting in a system that doesn’t allow her to travel until she is 60 years old.”
Often only old-age pensioners were allowed to travel from East Germany to Western Europe.
In Blasenjörg (Bubble Joe RG), Wawra explores her own feelings about flesh in a literal sense.
She took a photo of her uncle Vladimir, who appears in the painting to be holding a balloon. In fact, he’s holding a sausage, says Wawra.
“I do have a weird relationship with meat,” she says. “I’m working with different elements around flesh or meat and what it evokes for me.”
Her grandparents were farmers and when she was very young there was a room in the house in which they hung sausages.
She doesn’t eat meat now. But the smell of sausages invokes an early childhood memory, she says. It “deeply connects me with home”.
When she runs out of stories and images from her own family, she buys photos on eBay from specialist sellers of other families who lived the GDR.
Snapshots of parties or social functions, she says. Sometimes she gets an album. Other times, just a bag full of photos.
That allows her to imagine what life was like for those people. “It is really interesting to get a plastic bag full of photos,” says Wawra. “So you can make up stories around them.”
Up until now Wawra says she mainly showcased those bright-coloured “praintings” but now she is expanding to use other forms.
“The things I’ve shown before now are the poppy, retro, GDR things,” she says. “In that print and paint look.”
But those are the top of the iceberg, the part you can see above the water, she says. You will see other works in this exhibition.
“Below the iceberg … is the ceramics and the charcoal drawings,” she says.
The Realities of an Artist
Wawra is fully committed to her new path as an artist. “I really mean it,” she says.
Yet it does come with challenges, she says. It requires a bit of sitzfleisch.
Lots of people “have a romantic image of being an artist”, but the reality is different, says Wawra.
It’s harder, with fewer social safety nets like sick pay. “You have to live like a student,” she says,
You spend much of your time bubble-wrapping your pieces, organising shipping, and trying to promote yourself, she says. “You have to do every single thing yourself, you won’t be able to pay people.”
Wawra spent three weeks working tirelessly to get ready for an exhibition in Germany in March, she says. “There was lots and lots of effort and money involved to get that show on the road.”
But the exhibition had to close after a week when social-distancing rules came in.
She was disappointed, thinking that her show Sitzfleisch would be cancelled too. When Olivier Cornet Gallery decided to go ahead with the exhibition online, she was delighted, she says.
The gallery has set up an online guided tour, taking viewers around the virtual space, letting them stop where they like to take in the art.
The current plan is also that, once restrictions are eased, those interested in seeing the works in person may do so by appointment to Denmark Street from 8 to 12 June, too.