Miriam Cahn was born in 1949 in Basel, Switzerland. They now live and work between Basel and Maloja. Many solo exhibitions have been devoted to them in Switzerland and Germany. In 2003, they exhibited at the Fundación La Caixa in Madrid then, in 2014, at the Centre Culturel Suisse in Paris, with “körperlich /corporel”, the artist’s first major retrospective in France. They have received a number of prestigious prizes, such as the 1998 Käthe Kollwitz Prize in Berlin, the Prix Meret Oppenheim in 2005, and in 2013 the Baseler Kunstpreis in Switzerland.
In much of Swiss artist Miriam Cahn’s work exists a constant negotiation between distance and proximity. This spatial phenomenology occurs both within the drawings and paintings but also in the relationship between subject and viewer. Bodies, faces, plants, animals and undefined hybrids assert an agency to their presence on a surface within a room. In their rendered painterly stillness they move and they touch; and when being looked at they stand assertively looking back. Simultaneously, the subjects exercise their distance by refusing categorisation, that is to say, they remain other and strange in content and form –– one cannot possess, grasp or know them fully. It is in their position as other, as stranger, that they establish a sensory and visceral erotic experience that is at once compelling and jarring.
Cahn’s series of work Schlafen (Sleeping) (1997), shown at the Baltic Triennial 13 as an installation of 13 paintings of various small sizes, depicts bodies in different positions of sleep. Devoid of context, the figures are cropped to show heads and upper torsos propped against empty yet pronounced backgrounds. The dark settings contrast with the figures’ hazy, ghost-like outlines. In their un-specificity, the edges render physically hidden surfaces acting to support the bodily weight in the absence of mattresses, tables, ground, or perhaps even states of levitation. Though one may speculate on the male and female characteristics that may or may not gender the portrayed subjects, the figures resist such admission and equally complicate any attempt of defining their identity profiles. This is important at the level in which Cahn queers representation through the making of an uncertain image; one in which the figurative is in tension with the abstract as a way of troubling the consumption of difference – a process which would ultimately erase the site of otherness through its legible ownership.
As is the case with many of Cahn’s works, Schlafen remains in this ambiguity of interpretation. The subjects in these paintings appear dead and, or, in various phases of rest. Cahn thwarts any attempt for resolution by entitling the work ‘sleep’, bringing attention to the body and mind, the process of contemplation and action, and the states of inner and outer reality. The figures carry this unease in their bodies. Their limbs are both stiff and lively and their bare chests concurrently contracted and radiant. The softly hued, and at times bright, powder-like strokes give the figures an eerie state of being in which the liminal spaces between life and death, reality and dream are unable to be clearly demarcated. Their flesh is heightened by the intensity of the tones and colours, which also ascribe the subjects with complex emotional dispositions. Through these formal processes, Cahn problematises the familiar image of the lying body in the act of representation, asking the viewer to look again, and to look closely. In the flatness and horizontality of their portrayal, the figures acknowledge their vulnerability by asking for intimacy. It is in the site of oscillation between near and far, recognised and unknown that Cahn’s subjects reconfigure their ability to be seen and sensed, renewing the possibility for connection and facilitating encounters of affection.