Eva Schwab | Text

Wolf Singer


The title of one of Eva’s exhibitions was Wie es ist, wenn es war (As It Is When It Was*), which summed up in the briefest possible way the questions that have preoccupied her and shaped her work for many years: What is the relationship between the present and autobiographical memory? To what extent are we able to detach our self-perception and our view of the world from the stuff of the past that has formed us? And is this even pivotal to identity and self-presence, or is it rather the case that history and the present are woven together into a fabric that can be constantly augmented with new patterns – until it is handed down to the next generation, who in turn will never complete it?

When Eva paints on photographs and imprints her current perspective onto these seemingly objective testimonials of the past, she engages in a process that each of us unconsciously goes through every time we remember. The memory traces of anything we recall are destabilised by each act of remembering, and subsequently have to be carved anew. This process takes hours, and is undertaken in the context of our current experience. The recalled traces are embedded in new contexts and then stored away again – until the next time. Accordingly, we are constantly rewriting our autobiographies and adapting them to our current point of view. This is how we shape our own history and hence our self-image. And this is exactly what Eva is expressing with her encaustic images, which tell us how it is when it was. It is no coincidence that she has chosen wax as the medium for her paintings: this is, after all, the material that is ‘lost’ when a sculptural form is cast in bronze, solidified for all eternity.

In recent years, however, a profound shift has occurred in Eva’s work. The overpainted images of the past now only appear occasionally. Her new paintings emerge without templates and contain no prescribed elements, although their subjects do not deny what has gone before. It appears to me that in the overpainted memory images, Eva has managed to reconcile the past – her personal past – with the present; she has discarded the baggage in order to weave the historical fabric into the future. The focus now is not only on what has been, but on what lies ahead, what is to come: traces of aging, decay, people marked by life. Sharpened by studying the contingency of its own history, the gaze is now turned outwards and sees the chasms and faults that lie beyond itself. The Hysterikerinnen (Hysterics) series and the portraits of old women offer striking evidence of this leap out of personal history into the projected future of others.

And after this excursion into the antithesis of looking backwards, Eva returns to the place where what she is showing us now comes into being – the place where the past and the future meet, and where actuality resides, which can only be the way it is because so much has gone before. Eva has arrived in the present and connected with herself, and what she observes and combines here can be compared to visionary cabinets of curiosities. Yet these are not cabinets filled with random objects, curiosities from other cultures that have been gathered together to be marvelled at; here, symbols – our ubiquitous symbols of what is and what was – are interwoven and create a relational fabric that defies rational description, a fabric that demands to be explored and felt. Incredible textures that are perhaps best compared to the permanently reforming and always unique patterns of ocean waves. We encounter the myths of rebirth, the recurrence of something that has been before – somewhere deep inside, the subconscious is aware of this legacy that connects us all. In the creation myths we find the concept of the primordial mother; today we talk about collective consciousness, morphogenetic fields and esoteric panpsychisms – what all of these refer to are our common, shared roots.

The new images are increasingly complex. They hold up a mirror to our unstructured world and form associations between things that only appear to be unconnected; to the world we know, they add a new, other world, one whose reality eludes photographic documentation. Now, old myths appear next to metaphors for abstract scientific concepts, mysterious forces and the euphoric belief in progress of a technologised civilisation. Injuries and loneliness are rendered visible.

Translation by Birgit Nielsen, reworked by Jacqueline Todd

Introductory speech for the exhibition Hippokamp,
Oberfinanzdirektion Frankfurt am Main, 2014

* Title of a song by New Order