Site-specific installations, mixed media, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne (DE), 2013–14, room-filling set-up
Selected works by Sarah Westphal are presented in the Wallraf's Medieval Department parallel to the exhibition Secrets of the Painters (2013/14) about the techniques and materials used by the late medieval Cologne painters. Instead of filling the gaps left by the works that were moved to Secrets of the Painters with pieces from the museum’s collection, Westphal inserted works that thematize the temporary absence of these major works from the permanent collection.
The title of Westphal’s presentation Timpano refers to a little-known historical genre of stretched textiles; these were used to cover precious paintings and fitted with dowels that were attached to the frames of the paintings. Though around 1520 such painted coverings were known under the term timpano (‘drumhead’) in the Venetian cultural area, there are indications that timpani existed in the context of religious pictorial use about a hundred years earlier and north of the Alps, namely in Cologne.
As if the contemporary works by Sarah Westphal call upon a 'fasting of the eye' by dealing with the motifs of the veil and curtain, they explore themes such as transparency and projection, veiling and unveiling, concealing and revealing, repression and recollection. With the huge digital availability of images also of historical paintings on the internet, the question of the significance of the original and the irreplaceable materiality of works as addressed in Timpano and in Secrets of the Painters has become ever more pressing. The curtain as a real or painted covering as well as a pictorial motif with theological underpinnings – for example referring to the Jerusalem Temple or the Veil of Veronica (a sweat cloth) – has enjoyed the special attention of art historical researchers for some time. On the one hand, the veil protects the hidden image like a protective cover from the wear and tear of profane gazes. On the other hand, it protects the eye of the mortal observer.
Dispersed through the rooms of the medieval gallery, Westphal’s works unfold like a memory palace that reminds of a technique used in mnemonics for mental storage since antiquity. A virtual building was furnished with objects that should be remembered; viewers were made to wander through the rooms in their mind in order to retrieve them again at the desired moment. In the context of the medieval gallery, Westphal's works draw attention to the central function of the museum as a medium of memory like a real existing memory palace. As a prime example the museum tells about 'otherness' and the Foucaultian concept of 'heterotopia', to which the work Des Espaces Autres – Of Other Spaces refers. Other works like Gehirn, Gestirn, Gestein in which the motif of the fold as a drapery is staged like in old masters, reminds also of storage. Folds are materialized memory; spreading out the material means unfolding what has been stored.