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Left: ‘Die Entfernung von Carol (II)’, 2007, collage; Right: ‘Die Entfernung von Patti Smith’, 2007, collage

Raphael Danke’s sculptures, collages and photographs appear formed out of the wormholes and suture trails that connect his art-historical, metaphysical and socio-political concerns.

The German artist openly employs surrealist strategies: on the one hand, to contemporise the society of the spectacle, and on the other, to offer numerous routes back through the media hall of mirrors to the self. The reference-heavy metaphorical spaces he creates are lined with humour and contradictions. Danke’s reframing of the past prompts questions about what it means to make something new in an age of endlessly reproducible ideas; describe the surreal or avant-garde as sensibilities free of a particular time or aesthetic; the position and gender of the modern muse; and the perpetual fight between function and form, body and mind. There is an old-world magical quality to the myriad ways he lifts off the absurdist mantle (lightly, but always returned to, the cold shoulders of Breton et al) that muddies the waters around his narrative mission. Danke appears to operate as both pundit and poet: a quixotic boatman equally agitated and enchanted by the global detritus, bobbing.

Born in Aachen, now based in Berlin, Danke describes his relationship to surrealism, in part, as ‘the search for a lost body’. And vestigial traces of the corporeal linger in the apertures, doorways and junctions that characterise his enquiry. While much of what this prolific young artist has produced can be grouped under one extendable surrealist umbrella, his diverse approaches to recontextualising the absurd, touch and cross many other theoretical and disciplinary territories. He has had an image of his aura woven into a sofa cover (a nod to the anthropomorphic sculptures of American surrealist, Dorothea Tanning), re-envisaged Man-Ray’s Kiki and Bellmer’s pubescents through the language of the shop-window display, and destabilised ‘modern’ furniture to the point of repro pathos.

To date, Danke has had high-profile group and solo shows at several significant European galleries: Vilma Gold in London, Sorcha Dallas in Glasgow and Galerie Sandra Buergel in Berlin. Those few critics who have written about his shape-shifting brand of appropriation, eloquently describe the deconstruction and disappearance of the body/muse, whether in two dimensions or three.

Following graduation from Kunsthochschule, Berlin in 1999, Danke began working collaboratively with his brother Tobias. He says it was their trading of ideas across different cities that helped hone his interest in the notion of an absent physical presence. Looking back over his career to date, the most obvious correlation between the collaborative works and his solo projects appears to be the visualisation of entry points between the world of ideas and that of things, and the fact that both strands of investigation continue to be variably tested through the schemes and devices of others, from Darwin and Plato, to minimalism and model-making.

'Loggia of Mind', 2007, wood, varnish
‘Loggia of Mind’, 2007, wood, varnish

Certain works might take the form of test-sites for the viability of materials and modes of making, to delineate psycho-spatial territories such as the brothers’ 2004 installation Endless Cave, an assembly of clay objects and mud-coated modern clutter surrounded by hazard tape, which describes the world as if a phenomenon made to fit Plato’s ancient allegory. Or, monuments to a particular ideal, resurrected, like Danke’s Bauhaus-like interpretation of the Greek philosopher’s notion of the chora, the (feminine) space out of which all forms materialise, ‘Loggia of Mind’, 2007.

With this Russian-doll extension of stripped out black cabinets concerning the journey between the here and now and the ever after, Danke appears to observe the assigning of gender to immaterial things or intangible concepts, as if an antique curio. In each case, the body is invariably acknowledged through the creation of a specific context: pseudomuseological, architectural or theatrical zones that imply the possibility of human passage or activity.

While the mind-body dichotomy has been extensively explored by the duo (as a unit and as individuals) through sculpture and found objects, Danke is also known for his handling of this through collage and photography. These works are comprised, in true surrealist style, of secondhand imagery, in this case culled almost exclusively from fashion magazines. While he rarely exhibits the different elements of his practice separately, these images (if considered as a single two-dimensional group) might be perceived as a veritable storyboard following the strobe-like disappearance of a recognisable subject or narrative component, and its re-emergence as a pictorial territory. Like all other strands of his solo practice, there is an air of cleanliness and precision to these works that implies an analytical distance between the creator and the subject. Yet while they speak the language of a legacy-aware aesthetic culture, one is still afforded the space to marvel at the moments of beauty and unreality each scene conveys.

'Untitled', 2008, cprint
‘Untitled’, 2008, c–print

The ongoing collage series, begun in 2003, describes many characters in various states of visibility. From the vaudevillian reassembly of Margot Fonteyn and her ballet troupe, to the fashion-shoot cut and shut into exoskeletal plates (between which the models appear to be hiding, or have slipped through altogether), one is constantly asked to reconsider gender stereotypes.

The same could be said of a number of photographs from 2008. In these, Danke frames the pop-cultural serendipity of page layout: the front and back sides of a single sheet become one double-image landscape of desire within which the human form is depicted as host for a set of absurdist advertorial strategies. All might be considered evidence of the Debordian spectacle in overdrive yet there is nothing passive inducing about Danke’s visual articulation of it. For one is forced to engage with his hide-and-seek pictorial strategy, self-projecting into the spaces where the muse might have been or actively negotiating the layers of artifice that separate the viewer from their market other.

What or whom is this body or muse? Anonymity is the key to alerting the viewer to their position within the media maze and culpability as voyeur, but this question persists when looking at these works. Danke is open about his source material, using titles that effectively describe those missing, or provide clues as to the new metaphysical contexts he has earmarked for them.

'Untitled', 2008, cprint
‘Untitled’, 2008, c–print

The fractured interiors we are presented with appear compromised by structurally worrisome, yet often rather beautiful imperfections, an art-historical reversal, perhaps, of the processes through which the media distorts the body. While it’s difficult not to discern some kind of message in Danke’s explicit choice and use of materials, the artist will not be drawn on questions regarding the cultural implications of what he makes, preferring to lurk in the shadows of their unreality. The press release for his recent show at Galerie Sandra Buergel in Berlin was comprised of evocative quotes from Éluard and others. However, there is something of the crime scene about his surgical splicing and illumination of space that keeps one on the qui vive, as if needing to place the victim of a potentially macabre set of events.

And there is certainly a sinister filmic edge to several of the collage works, such as ‘o.T (Araki)’, 2006. Having liberated, by completely cutting out, the subject (a trussed Japanese woman, one presumes, given the photographer credited in the title), from a Psycho-white bathroom suite, Danke leaves us to ponder the remaining curvilinear puzzle pieces of a bath. The gap left by the model has been closed up, as if in denial of the image’s origins; soft porn masquerading as art. It’s a truly disquieting image, partly due to the avant-garde sensibility of the design, which takes one back past Hitchcock to the symbolism of early French cinema, but mostly because of the contemporary details that situate the subject between an image, a mode of making, and the present. This conceptual leap along a cultural timeline, by default, exposes the fragile state of authenticity, in the sense of the perceived legitimacy of what one is presented with and the separation of the self from it.

Even when the ‘decarnalised subject’ (as Alexander Kennedy describes it) is partially in attendance, one is not presented with a person as such, but a re-representation of a real being to identify with or emulate. The exception, perhaps, is Patti Smith, who, despite having lost her face courtesy of Danke’s scalpel in 2007, remains rockstar iconic, if a little ‘Cousin Itt’.

Yet the androgyny of the lesser-known ‘…Carol (II )’, 2007, is not an inherent feature of her real-life physiognomy but entirely fabricated by the artist; all blonde-and-brunette wisps cut and pasted into a surreal, tribal visage. The humour of the collages, despite the finality of the actions that might give rise to it, appears unstable, a tacky layer of varnish over the image. The emotional tone is brought perilously close to ludicrousness, desire and fear, but is never actually overcome by any of them.

If there is humour to be found in the ballet series it is at the intersection of grace and calamity. Towers and piles of male and female limbs and fabric appear like mutant props, or folding multipurpose devices. Yet the context for their curious actions is more specific than a light manipulation of surrealist and pop-cultural motifs.

These faceless beings link Artaud’s ‘Theatre of Cruelty’ with the underworld; each combination of dancing parts is titled with the name of a fallen angel. Where the dance is built around the suspension of disbelief, the collage process, by contrast, undermines theatrical modes of deception, cutting through tulle and tights, perhaps, in an attempt to locate the fallible human beneath. The subjects appear at the behest of some oppositional force, pulled between axis, humanity and characterisation, ridicule and admiration. Re-choreographed, and held in stasis, their innate physicality loses its logic, a clumsy articulation of a fine idea.

Danke’s new photographs, first shown at the end of last year in Berlin, feel like an extension of some of the material and ideological concerns that have arisen out of the collages. They are highly saturated, like some of the early fashion shoot interiors, and, similarly to the ballet series incorporate identifiable figurative elements. The gender see-saw continues to waver, as does the picture plane, but there is a palpable sense of desire, that of dreams and marketing material. Having spent several years pushing human issues and emotions out of the image and into the list of works, it initially seems odd that he should have ushered such overt allusions to sex and consumption back in.

'Untitled', 2008, cprint
‘Untitled’, 2008, c–print

The body, as in earlier works, remains an elusive presence, yet in the slip between scalpel and shutter, much has changed. Danke has requisitioned the photographer’s muse, rather than reorder his/ her stylistic habitat, for his own series of ghostly portraits. They appear insubstantial, more temporal site than fleshy subject, able to pass through earthly time zones and matter.

In one image, the prostrate upper section of a breastless female trunk is decked with gravity defying jewels. The odd filter effect of light through paper affords the green folds of fabric around her cuboid chest a painterly religiosity. The apparent coexistence of two images makes it more difficult to discern the exact era of the published pages. There is a distinct whiff of disco in the gloopy brown cosmetic substance dripping off compact portals partially embedded within a faux-pensive subject. But her Photoshop-slick visage gives the contemporary game away, reminding us of the magpie ways of the commercial world and its recycling of subcultural resistance to the mainstream.

'Untitled', 2008, cprint
‘Untitled’, 2008, c–print

One could be forgiven for thinking that these c-prints have been double-exposed. The artist, however, confirms that it’s simply a trick of the light, ‘I develop every photograph just once,’ he says, ‘like seeing it for a moment, against the sun, blinking’. Each one is in fact an unadulterated magazine page, backlit and captured on a mobile phone, then produced, he assures ‘without altering anything, without post-production’. It seems extraordinary that such surreal combinations of body and object might exist by accident and remain undiscovered. Naturally he plays a deft hand in the way one sees things, rifling through and repositioning until subjectivity appears to seep out of the poster people of advanced capitalism.

As with everything Danke produces, the pie in the sky and solid ground at some point materialise together in the one frame. Once aware of his technique, it is impossible not to get carried away with the idea of subliminal messaging, from product placement to political propaganda, and wonder what stage of the solar eclipse might best describe the relationship, today, between the two.

Rebecca Geldard is a writer based in London
Three Exhibitions, Kunsthaus Baselland, Basel, 15 January-22 March The Long Dark, The International 3, Manchester, 25 September-31 October