By Laura Henseler for Sofie Bird Møller

In her works, Sofie Bird Møller deals with pictures that already exist and liberates them from
their originally intended narration and function. The pictures the artist selects are genuine
steel engravings, advertisements and galleries of fashion photos. Just as the pictorial material
is so different, so differentiated are the methods which lead to the rephrasing of the depicted
information that finally results in groups of works that are aesthetically and stylistically independent
of each other: As in the process of retouching, individual elements are removed in
the works in the Edited Etchings series. The magazine pages that form the basis for Møller’s
Interferences are characterized by overpainting with thick streaks of paint applied with
highly-concentrated brushstrokes. In the Interventions and Interactions series, the principle
of overpainting is not only intensified by the size of the models (billboards and city-light
posters) and the increased physical exertion necessary for the artist to paint them, but also
within the modi of the transformation of the original illustrations. And still, all of these
series deal with incidents on the surface of the picture. The displacements, reformulations,
and even the eradication of the initial information that result from the artist’s intervention
remove the original from its context and make it possible to create a picture au lieu.
The classical engravings show portraits or social situations, architectural masterworks and
urban scenes. Initially, individual aspects of the picture (a door, a piece of furniture, etc) or
even its actual content (the portrayed person, the main attraction of the building, etc) are
completely painted over with Tipp-Ex. In a second step, the artist uses delicate pencil lines
to transfer the background to the overpainted section – or even add to it. The shadowy
outlines of what has almost disappeared can only be detected by the minimal differences
in colour or a light shimmer on the changed surface of the picture. By consciously only
removing individual elements (the person or the object), but not the shadows they cast,
the traces of eradication achieve their ghostly presence. The distinct absence becomes a
returning – an eternal – presence.
The stipulations of Barthes’ punctum 1, especially that of time – the recognition that “it has
been” 2 – materialize in the “phantomization” of the steel engravings. Similar to early photographs
where the long exposure times unintentionally also illustrated the course of time,
Bird Møller’s Edited Etchings conserve the process of eradication and illustrate the moment
of a past presence: The shadow on the ground remains, although the person or object casting
it can only be seen as a spectre.3 This creates historicity and chronology: The person is present,
he or she dies, the site remains (the portrayed persons disappear, their surrounding are
preserved unchanged).
“I read at the same time: this will be and this has been, I observe an anterior future of
which death is the stake. […] I shudder, like Winnicott’s psychotic patient, over a
catastrophe which has already occurred.” 4
And, at the same time, the recognizable retouching – with its strangely ambivalent disappearance
and materialization – means a trauma in the sense of a missed encounter with reality
as Lacan formulated it. Just as discovering retouching hits us like a shot and interrupts the
projection of the depicted, we experience a loss that is unfathomable and unimaginable at
the same time. The return of what has been hits us like a fetish: We fail in our attempt to
reproduce this in our inner eye and are forced to repeat its absence.5
If, as has been the case with the edited etchings in recent times, the engravings are expanded
to become collages – e.g. through the addition of women’s arms cut out of magazines – the
spark of poetry leaps over, as Max Ernst once prophesized6, at the moment when our reality
encounters that of the picture. The women’s arms touch what we are unable to touch (but
want to every time we see a picture). Because the actions shown in the engraving have been
completed (including the treatment by the artist); because pictures only allude to spaces
but can never be accessible spaces; because pictures are foreign realities.
But this contact remains fantasy and fetish because we are not the ones who touch the
space of the picture. Bird Møller interrupts the projection of the depiction only to directly
add a new imagined reality or illusion to it. Instead of the picture.
The coloured overpainting of advertisements and galleries of fashion photos from magazines
are also bearers of changed information. However, different from the retouched engravings,
the eradications in the Interferences (as well as in the Interventions) do not form the basis
for something new but become the object and content of the picture themselves. Where
previously a product, along with its feelings it was intended to evoke, had been advertised,
all of the tones of colour in the picture galvanize and amalgamate to knots, streaks and
ergonomic abstractions. (Retouching is rarely used except to cover up company logos, etc).
Each piece of information on the product that has previously been promoted is substituted
by way of the aesthetic forming of the abstraction. One must imagine this as being an extremely
slow, concentrated process similar to Asian ink painting and having less in common
with the spontaneity of abstract expressionism. In this way, a car advertisement showing the
vehicle on the open road (often with a natural environment on both sides) becomes a landscape
in the middle of which the main colours of the illustration come together and swirl
around like a maelstrom.
Medial pictures – for example, from the advertising industry – illustrate ideals and desires
and suggest that these can be fulfilled by consumption. The artist confronts these pictures
with others that interpret and judge this consumers’ world. The abstraction serves as the
aesthetic negation of the depiction: The thick traces of colour are applied directly to the
surface of the picture, as if it was a palette, and mixed there until they take on their form.
Through the removal of its references, the (advertising) picture finally reverts to being a
picture per se.
But still, both sections – the medial picture and its eradication through abstraction – never
become united in spite of the close relationship of their colours but collide with each other
and permanently demonstrate their conflict. Also because, in this case, painting comes into
contact with its previously avoidable annihilator photography or the reproducible picture.
Going even further, Bird Møller transforms the two-dimensional space of the print medium
into a three-dimensional one through the thick coating of paint. What was once a purely
visual experience is expanded to include a haptic quality.
“‘To draw things closer’ – spatially and in human terms – is just as passionate a concern of
today’s masses as their tendency to conquer the uniqueness of every circumstance through
the absorption of its reproduction.”7
The conflict that takes place when the existing picture and application of colour by the artist
come together reaches its maximum level of intensification in the Interactions. Here, Bird
Møller uses her own body to apply the paint. The eradication of the depiction actually takes
place from body to body: within the scale of the works and because the artist confronts
the depicted person in the same pose; she touches, covers and finally replaces this person
through her own impression on the surface of the painting. What remains is a kind of
“scene of the crime”; the traces of what we do day after day when we imagine ourselves in
the pictorial world suggested by the media (by putting ourselves in the position of the model,
for example).
If we understand media pictures as being infinitely reproducible images repeating themselves
– and the same applies to printing and engraving – in Benjamin’s words, they “are
relieved of the most important artistic obligations” 8 and withdraw themselves from the
realm of authenticity “the here and now of a work of art – its unique existence in the place
it finds itself.” 9 In Sofie Bird Møller’s groups of works, the rearrangement of the intended
information through overpainting creates a reversal of the destruction of its aura; it virtually
amounts to its healing. The advertisement and engraving once again become a unique occurrence
– a work of art.