The Associative Rifts in Reality: The Works of Tanja Selzer


Text: Tina Sauerländer

Translation: Brian Poole


The classic concentration game “Memory” ruthlessly reveals the limitations of the human mind. Recalling the arrangement of a few duplicate pictures or the precise version of the motifs for only a couple of minutes proves impossible. How, then, should an individual cope with the daily flood of images in television and internet? When processing images, the powers of memory filter the content, allowing other versions of visual information to arise. The details change—they are blurred or lost—growing ever more remote from the originally “seen” image. This manner in which human memory functions is comparable to the way the artist Tanja Selzer works. She alters the photographs and movie stills disseminated through the media, translating them into another painterly level and into another context. The original framework of the images is concealed from the observer, thus opening an ambiguous field of associations, which the spectator then attempts to fill with his or her own cultural memory.


In Tanja Selzer’s paintings, the real world of existing images appears transformed into an often only fragmentarily existing space. The larger dimensions are displaced, and the scenes seem faded, unclear and enigmatic. In the series Mohn (Poppy, 2011), soldiers march under a pink sky across a green meadow or through glistening fields of poppies. In Horses (2011), images of dynamically moving, tempestuous horses from various sources appear. And in Unconditional Love (2011), prostitutes await customers along the roadside at night, or they loll across a narrow bed in sexy negligées. In No Tears for the Creatures of the Night, Tanja Selzer seems to have delved into a world of darkness, equipped with a night-vision camera; here, in the pale light, tigers and raging bulls romp about, and vultures prey upon a cadaver. The eyes of a stag glow, as if blinded by a car’s headlights, and mysterious women wear elegant masks and fox furs on their shoulders. In Cadavre Exquis (2013), mystic places are inhabited with human figures, moths, owls, and parrots. The Trash Tronies (2013) seem to be allegorical portraits of a leopard and ostensibly wounded women in uniform, their eyes bound.


Tanja Selzer’s scenarios lead us into an obscure world beyond known society, whose inhabitants prefer to remain amongst themselves. The observer often feels like a voyeur while regarding Tanja Selzer’s artworks. This also applies to the series Meet me in the Trees (2013), although here a far more hospitable and brighter scenery awaits us. In a natural setting, scantily clad women and naked couples are engaging in amorous pleasures. The erotic scenes and sensual-sexual acts taking place appear blurry and schematic. The originals hail from internet pornos, from which the artist has filtered out moments where, “in the depths of human existence, for a fraction of a second, something beautiful and human finds expression.” The series Nice Demons (2015) likewise deals with distilling a particular moment in time. Here Tanja Selzer increasingly makes use of self-staged photographs and film material as models. The dark worlds have yielded to a clearer and more realistic depiction, although they are still based upon a decontextualized original, so nothing of their mysteriousness is lost. The observer thus wonders whether someone is sitting in the burning Lamborghini. Where is the spectral woman on the beach off to in her white dress? Why is the young man wearing a glistening white mask of feathers? The atmosphere here is akin to a David Lynch movie, where one senses something hidden below the visible surface in an everyday scenario. The title of the series alludes to the “everyday demon we all have inside us,” according to the artist. Ironically, the demon appears to be beautiful because we recognise him and are familiar with him. We are dealing here with negatively connoted and repressed emotions such as fear, guilt, and shame, which, as unconscious and thus barely controllable powers, determine the patterns of our actions.


In the series Soul Mate Crash (begun in 2015) an uncontrollable external world is added to the inner world of the human psyche. Here, the ‘soul’ stands for the psyche and for the individual human being, the ‘mate’ stands for the relationship to another human, and ‘crash’ refers to a collision in the sense of a coincidence of events in which two or several people are participating. The crash describes a brief moment when something special happens. With the series Nice Demons, Tanja Selzer is no longer working with the pictorial material she has found, but rather with the pictures she has herself staged. She arranges the set and gives her models basic directions, such that they leave the ‘controllable’ space and put something in motion that develops of its own accord. The concrete interaction is impossible to predict; it depends upon the behaviour of the individuals involved. In the work Lake, which belongs to the series Soul Mate Crash, an androgynous figure can be seen swimming in the water; and in Black Jump (of the same series) a man runs around an artificial pond. By comparison with the series No Tears for the Creatures of the Night, Cadavre Exquis, and Trash Tronies, these pictorial worlds seem more light-hearted and insouciant, and yet they remain mysterious. In Catching the Cheetah, the female performers, dressed lightly in undergarments, move in an unspecified white room, interacting with each other or alone. They remind us of the erotic scenes in Meet Me in the Trees. Their often swift movements appear blurry in the film stills used by the artist. Images from YouTube videos—selected from the hits for the search-words ‘cheetah,’ ‘fight’ and ‘running’—are projected at the performers. In addition to black lace lingerie and glossy red bodice, the women are dressed in bizarre leopard underpants with matching fur jacket. These exuberantly dancing figures enter into a symbiosis with the animal, much like Dionysius, the god of festive ecstasy, who, in antique Greece, was depicted with a leopard or with a leopard’s fur. This connection between human and animal, already intimated in the earlier series, is intensified here and symbolises the natural animal instincts of humans. Such instincts, like the unconscious inner life of Nice Demons, may be considered dark because they reflect a scarcely comprehensible side of our being. In the individual works of the series Soul Mate Crash, for the first time the artist prints the selected film stills, after they have been digitally processed, onto various types of paper, instead of transposing them onto a canvas. Depending on the motif, they are either left as they are or painted over so that the printing ink dissolves and spreads across the surface of the picture like a aquarelle. The result of this process is then also scanned and printed. Through these stages in their development, Tanja Selzer arrives at new pictorial effects, creating several overlapping layers as well as hazy, veil-like, disintegrating structures, which tend toward abstraction in works like Catching the Cheetah 8 or Perchte.


The picture Crash marks the point of departure in the series Soul Mate Crash. It depicts a blurry red sports car with its hood slightly raised. The title alludes to a previous accident, whose consequences the artist has already touched upon in Burning Lamborghini from the series Nice Demons. A car accident illustrates rather drastically how little influence an individual has upon the external conditions of his existence. In a fraction of a second, various strands in a plot coincide, giving rise to a particular event. Tracking down and depicting such fateful moments, which are beyond our control, are among the artist’s central interests. And since parts of our inner psyche remain hidden and evade the influence of our consciousness, it is impossible to deduce a continuous causal chain in everyday events. Instead, the abstract levels overlap, like the layers in the works of Soul Mate Crash. Coherent narration is an illusion. The fragments of reality lie hidden before us, like the “Memory” cards on the table. For a short particular moment, the pictures enter into the light of consciousness, but they disappear again, leaving room for free associations.


“Meet me in the trees.” — Tanja Selzer in the Thicket of Abstractions


Text: Harald Krämer

Translation: Brian Poole


Ticklish motifs await us in Tanja Selzer’s current series “Meet me in the trees”. Following on the heels of “Sabotage,” “No Tears for the Creatures of the Night,” “Mind Candy” and “Cadavre Exquis,” here we find half-naked and nude figures in the bushes. This is actually a classical motif in art history, and an extensively exhibited sujet with prominent progenitors such as Botticelli and Rubens and Manet and Cézanne and Picasso—and many many more. To be fair, we ought to mention Paul Modersohn-Becker as well: the very artist who, in 1906, painted the first nude self-portrait. These days we believe we’ve seen everything. But Tanja Selzer would not be Tanja Selzer, had she not succeeded in breathing new and vibrant life into this otherwise hackneyed theme. In view of her new works, it appears as if Tanja Selzer conceives of the term “nude” (in German Akt) in its original sense as something derived from the concepts of “actus”—thus gesticulation—and of “agere”—which means “to set in motion”.


Her motifs are screenshots from the internet’s worldwide photo album. Outdoor moments that could have taken place anywhere. Scarcely compromising, when you see them on your computer screen. On the other hand, these paintings are not only of considerable size; they also show the bodies in a field of colour that appears frightening and irrational, yet simultaneously pleasurable thanks to the way it’s been ecstatically painted. There is something absurd about the manner in which these skin-toned forms have strayed into this ineffable world of colourful abstractions. And it is precisely this contradiction that piques our curiosity and challenges us. At close glance the ecstasy is even more visible and palpable. Thus the forms in the back- and foreground—the shadows of the people and of the bushes, the colours of clothing and plants—all blend together in a floral-vegetable act of love. The love-play is an immediate and an intimate one, befitting the moment depicted and the detail chosen by the artist from the plenitude of materials available to her. Tanja Selzer’s subtle painting techniques have been adapted to suit the theme portrayed here. Powerful, richly contrastive strokes alternate with gentle rhythmic glazing. With exceptional dramaturgical skill the artist guides the gaze of the spectator across the diversity of skilfully and picturesquely staged scenes towards a putative highpoint. The highpoint itself remains vague. As is often the case, it is up to us to imagine more fully in our fantasy the scene depicted, and to enjoy it for what it is—a painted canvas, but painted in an exceedingly pleasurable manner.


With her new series, Tanja Selzer alludes back to the early history of the nude—a age when the nude had yet to be rarefied religiously and morally, but instead paid homage, first and foremost, to the cult of fertility. Thus, in the works of her current series “Meet me in the trees,” Tanja Selzer not only probes the depths of the laws of painting in an exceptionally adept fashion, but also plays with the strange attitudes of a society that is apparently forced to withdraw back into the bushes, wearied by the sheer surfeit of virtual pornography.