Amanda Elena Conrad’s solo exhibition You Should have Seen the Mess, currently running at the Goethe Institute, is a beautiful exercise in restraint: totalling three small projected works, alongside a delicate sculptural intervention, its modest scale is paradoxically at odds with the mood it sets out to study. That is, ‘Sturm und Drang,’ a kind of elevated state or mood, seemingly appearing out of nowhere, and just as abruptly collapsing back towards a state of normality. Most typically used to denote the literature and music of early German romanticism (Goethe being an important proponent), it has also been adopted in everyday German colloquial speech as a way of describing the helter-skelter tumult of hormonal teenagers, for example. In its loosest sense, though, it describes an emotional response that has no place within a larger narrative; it simply surfaces and retreats back into obscurity. There is a hint of the sublime here, as its often-violent expression appears at odds with a quotidian understanding of the self, and of self-hood more generally. It appears as uncanny, a kind of internal strangeness. It is this strangeness that Conrad seems to want to interrogate – that surreptitious intensity of feeling felt in the gut and, more importantly, the everyday incidents that bait it.
‘Sturm und Drang’ is thus for Conrad a state firmly embedded in the everyday: it surfaces after witnessing the act of a stranger spitting on the street, as well as in the tender portrait of a friend’s elderly mother’s white hair. For her, no occasion can be discounted as a catalyst; everything, granted the right light, can enact this vertiginous state. This is clear by her mode of working; the subject matter being dictated by the restless YouTube trawl alongside an observational openness to everyday moments of sublimity. The three strands of the installation reiterate this tendency, through a combination of observational film work, and edited footage discovered on the internet. In each incidence the artist advances a democratic form of ‘Sturm und Drang’, one not predicated on elevation, but rather of imminence.
The exhibition comprises three video works, perfectly pitched within the Goethe’s diminutive gallery space. On the left there is a projected image of spit on a pavement; on the right, a smaller projection that features Elvis Presley, caught in the loop of an interminable dance move; and finally, towards the back of the space, an initially abstract film of a woman’s hair is projected onto a thin column of glass that divides the space. This image’s larger reflection is also visible at the back wall of the gallery. None of the works have distinct titles, but instead cumulatively form the sum total of the installation. They speak to one another, and the effect is one of subtlety. Abstraction is central to all three of the pieces, and acts to further subdue and bring to imminence the central focus of the exhibition. At first glance, both the spit piece and the female portrait are – at least to me – difficult to identify, and this further estranges the experience of viewing them, as though in tandem with the feeling of estrangement that provoked their making. Even Elvis could be seen as entering into this process of making-strange: through the editing process, Conrad captures this utterly familiar figure and makes him Other, caught forever in the act of a ludicrously elaborate hand gesture. Taken out of the context of the larger routine, this gesture fails to make sense, over and over again. With every viewing Elvis’ identity becomes more and more incommensurable with what he is typically identified to be.
Giorgio Agamben, in his essay Notes on Gesture (1992)[i], perceives in cinema the attempt to counter the vast proliferation of images in favour of the rehabilitation of the gesture. Images, he says, always suggest more images to come, and thus cannot hold sway over the subject. Gestures, on the other hand, do not demand more: means-in-themselves, Agamben perceives in them the possibility of opening up the subject to their own being-in-the-world[ii]. It seems to me that this is the very crux of Conrad’s work. The subject matter in her video works at the Goethe is nothing but the gesture. Not the gesture of something, but simply the gesture itself. Her examinations do not suggest more to come, but rather stop still. By this they offer up a space for reflection, and the possibility of being more open to the world, weird bits and all.
[i] As found in Giorgio Agamben Means Without End: Notes on Politics (2000) Trans. Binetti, V and C. Casarino, Minneapolis & London, University of Minnesota Press pp. 49-63
[ii] Ibid, pg. 56-58