Deborah Sengl’s hybrids are in a comical way unsettling. She stages the phenomenon of disguise, delusion, conceiling and cheating. She began with costumes for her own pet cats that she did not fit on the living animals but on handmade dummies like wireframe or rubberfoam cats until she discovered taxidermic animals as support material for her costumes.
The series of sculptures I want to talk about today was inspired by a biological example. Camouflage or mimicry as strategy to survive by means of deceit is a common thing in nature. In ecology, camouflage refers to the ability of a species to appear similiar to its surroundings in order to avoid detection by a predator. Mimicry on the other hand comes in different modes. There is only one example in which a predator really disguises itself as prey: the ant-mimicing jumping spider that crawls into anthills to hunt. This is the lesson-teaching model Deborah Sengl turns to with her works.
Most of her sculptures involve the topic of eating or being eaten, feeding or being fed upon. The hen disguises itself as worm, the snake as mouse, the wolf as a sheep and so on.
In her early works the dominant motif was dressing up, masquerading and travesty. Masks that were clearly identifiable as such covered the true faces of the animals and thereby paradoxically revealed more than they disguised. In her more recent work it has become almost impossible to distinguish enemy from friend. The symbiosis and metamorphosis is so perfect that the hybrid animals look very natural. In a confusing role play the positions of aggressor and victim are inverted and woven together. The engagement with inside and outside, form and context, volume and density reflect genuinely sculptural questions.
The irritation of Sengl’s objects lies in the transparent camouflage that somehow feels dangerous and it also lies in the fact that the boundaries of two ontologies are blurred in a hybrid way. Sengl makes the beholder accessory to both offender and offended, predator and prey. The roles of perpetrator and victim remain unclear, both are mingled together in a constant becoming.
In order to bring out the discrepancy between the seeming and the real or between appearance and reality, taxidermy that may be seen as a rather old fashioned and outdated technique is appropriated in an ideal way. Taxidermy produces an absolutely clear and obvious surface with an absolutely obscure interior.
Taxidermic hybrids turn on the classical understanding of art as an imitation of nature. Immanuel Kant’s claim that artworks should not look constructed but should rather be perceived as having grown like nature combines with the concept of the artist as alter deus, as a second creator God. Even though Sengl’s works contain natural material they are not nature at all but rather simulcra.
Roland Barthes defines all stucturalist activity as reconstruction of an ‘object’ involving two operations: dissection and articulation in order to fabricate meaning. He calls this reconstruction ‘simulacrum’. ‘The simulacrum is intellect added to object.’
In his explanation of the simulacrum, Baudrillard on the other hand dinstinguishes four steps of reproduction ‘1) basic reflection of reality, (2) perversion of reality, (3) pretence of reality, and (4) simulacrum, which is not a copy of the real, but becomes truth in its own right. One sign of the modern simulacrum is that it has become impossible to tell original from copy, reality from imagination.’ I would argue that Sengl performs all four steps in creating her artwork and in doing so also takes Barthes’ concepts of dissection and articulation literally. First she analyses reality, forms an opinion about what she sees and distorts reality accordingly by dissection and articulation of the mobile fragments and by thus faking a rather real-looking surface that becomes a simulacrum in the end which does not have any connection to the real appearance from which she started.