This text was published on the occasion of Karen Knorr’s retrospective solo exhibition at Galerie Les Filles du Calvaire, Paris, France (11 March–29 April 2023)
Karen Knorr has been refusing(1) since the beginning of her career, without ever rejecting, no, she refuses, which permits friction with the multiple political and societal issues she has traversed since the 1970s. Does she know today what she is looking for by lining up this constellation of works that are like so many arguments? Let us understand argument in its original sense, that of debating, so the photographer, through her medium, joyfully employs her analytical mind, without ever taking a break. Alone or accompanied, Karen Knorr descends into punk clubs, becomes familiar with private circles, wanders museums, invites herself into luxury hotels or travels down American roads. Although much has already been said about her work, and that which is presented here is by no means a monolithic whole, it is clear that this renowned counter-relief drawing of which Angamben speaks reveals a committed and militant spirit.
The photographer never immediately reveals her concerns and commitments, yet she doesn’t hide them either. One only has to know how to look to discover the games of intervention offering erudite aestheticism the role of mediator; to see or to listen as is the case for the first installation welcoming us into the exhibition. When Will We Ever Learn? (2001), a question-title that resonates with that of the song by the American folk singer and tireless anti-war activist Pete Seeger: “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” The invisible bird whistles over and over again about the absurdity of war, the loss of life and the despair of those who are left waiting. The delicacy of the glass cage perched on a pedestal table inspired by the Wallace Collection, as well as the softness of Seeger’s voice, offer a well-rounded plunge into the martial abyss. The constant singing and the frail perch, whose infinite pendulum can be imagined, are so many metronomes signalling history sadly measured by our warlike inclinations. For Knorr is a child who grew up in a world divided between East and West, rocked by political struggles and militant commitments. It is in this context that her work taps its source and will never depart from it.
The swing is repeated In the Green Room (2001), in which exotic birds fly in and out of Fragonard’s painting, their superposition interfering with the men’s placing. The woman in The Swing, as if caged, is normally subject to the viewer’s gaze which slips above her garter while she loses her shoe as she swings. Does this arrival of the birds protect her from visual intrusion?
When Knorr began the Academies series in 1994, the animals that haunt the rooms and corridors of the Royal Academy Schools in London, among others, are initially there to question the motivation for maintaining such institutions in contemporary times. But the stuffed animal, once confronted with the paintings that adorn the walls, is also present at a later stage to challenge the realism of certain paintings. Karen Knorr is wily as a fox, managing to steer the paintings into the world of fantasy and culture by using the body of the animal which, apart from its deceptive appearance, no longer possesses any living quality. Finally, she includes her work in an open questioning of the very functions of the academy, the museum or the art school, which are the collection, exhibition and museumization. The wolf, monkey and sheep are ultimately only animal pelts that clothe the artist’s questions. The animal is transformed into an allegorical questioning, allowing contemporary thoughts encompassing postcolonialism as well as notions of gender to be triggered. The beast can finally make the leap between the past and the present without any problem, it is in a way an atemporal marker, given that its appearance seems to have traversed time without ever altering.
Karen Knorr has been an instigator of deception from the outset, playing with the permeability of the boundaries between nature and culture. A proleptic oeuvre, although the animal in art is commonly discussed today, it is important to note that this was barely the case forty years ago. In The Connoisseurs series (1986–88), the artist visits institutions or private places reflecting the luxury, erudition and good taste of 18th century England such as Chiswick House, Osterley Park House, Sir John Soane Museum, Dulwich Picture Gallery and Victoria and Albert Museum. In the middle of one of the photos, Diana appears with a bow in her hand: Shattering an Old Dream of Symmetry (1986–88). Is this the figure of the woman, the powerful hunter who shatters the balance of the patriarchy that holds knowledge and power, is she the one who sets in motion the authority of British heritage? We are then in the position of the voyeur, the one that the goddess will hunt down accompanied by her nymphs. For, if Knorr invites us to browse through her photographs like the oil paintings of Renaissance painters, teeming with significant details, we must also stop at the titles. The artist has mastered the art of titling, encouraging us, in the manner of Daniel Arasse, to reinterpret the image at the dawn of literate information. Written directly on the image in the Gentlemen (1981–83) and Country Life (1983–85) series, they disrupt initial vision. Whether inside a London club where only men from the aristocracy are members, or outside on estates immortalising a certain image of a British arcadia, the cliché-touting text-titles, which are part of the photographs, humorously – but no less acutely – shift from the gestures and customs anchored in patriarchal tradition to a critique of the situation of women as seen by conservatives and who, despite a certain progress in mentalities, still occupy too few decision-making positions.
And the animal reappears in India Song (2008–22) and Monogatari (2012–17), majestic and imposing in these immaculate and graphic interiors. They take the place of the living, human-animal, “beyond nature and culture”,(2) if we are to approach them through the prism of Philippe Descola’s research. They are no longer those unfortunate beings immortalised after the Deyrolle taxidermy shop fire – Fables (2003–22) – on the contrary, they are the parables and dreams shared by living beings as a whole. The image becomes a space of inter-species dialogue where the stories of the ages are played out, mixing exchanges of knowledge, conciliabolas and myths dispensing a certain form of unison.
The exhibition of Karen Knorr’s work proposed by the Galerie Les filles du calvaire highlights the artist’s insatiable search for a mobile position, an eye-camera that never ceases to multiply points of view, without ever becoming fixed, without ever becoming complacent. The artist-researcher that she is, curious about her contemporaries and the world around her, rubs shoulders with political and social bodies through the medium of the image, the codes of which she masters perfectly. Through the application of her localised knowledge, the photographer carries out a permanent and critical decentring in order to always avoid the obvious and to discuss the many beings who make up the margins.
- “When one is young, the hand does not know what it is looking for – it may know what it is refusing, but what it is refusing draws in counter-relief the shape it is looking for, guides it in a certain way towards the unseen good,” Giorgio Agamben, Autoportrait dans l’atelier, p.16.
- A concept taken from the anthropologist Philippe Descola and developed in his book Par-delà nature et culture, (Paris: Gallimard, 2005).