Sometimes – a great name


Some people have great names; their names just work; but why, I don’t know. It’s a mystery.

Here’s a name: it’s Anika Propst.

That’s a great name. It reminds me of characters from those difficult places, from out of Kafka or Gunter Grass.

I met Anika Propst the other day. I didn’t know that she was called Anika Propst until the end of a long conversation that I had with her. And the conversation took place in a certain kind of space – a particular and rather special psycho-geography. What sort of space? It was her exhibition in the most recent Fine Art Degree show in the University for the Creative Arts.

As usual the final degree shows were remarkable; always fascinating, often challenging, subversive, confronting, inquiring and always ‘out there,’ ‘on the edge’ – somewhere beyond … The work is terrific because it dislocates and surprises – and mixes tragedy with comedy.

In the Fine Art show I was first struck by some music (a song) that I had heard ages ago in 1967. I was a teenager. The song was ‘Je t’aime moi non plus’ by Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin. (Of course, in 1967 I was captivated by the song, by Birkin’s ‘look’ and Gainsbourg’s insouciance.) I always associated the song with desire.

So, I heard Anika Propst’s show before I actually saw it. It was she who had chosen the song to accompany some of her work. And I had the luck to be accompanied by her as I entered her exhibition.

In fact, she’d arranged doormats on the floor with rather unexpected slogans on them. Her work was, among other things, about the difficulties women face in being a flaneur or strictly speaking une flaneuse. I had only partly thought about this but there – inscribed on her doormats – were assertions about how woman are so much the object of another’s gaze that when they are walking around they get caught up in a perpetual dynamic of being an object/subject.

BUT I was particularly taken by what I saw on a television screen. The screen was large and featured a beautiful woman – walking and walking and walking – through a number of different scenes. Here she was, with her back to us, walking through a desert landscape. And now, she is walking through what may be the city of Bangkok; now she is following a pride of lions; And now she is on the moon. She has a dignified classical beauty. She’s a Greek goddess – Aphrodite – life-giving, proud, and seductive.

There’s no doubt that she is beautiful. I’m happy to look at her. In fact, I’d love to paint a figure study of her.

But seeing a beautiful woman walking naked through a number of different scenes is inevitably really challenging because I could no other but see her as an object of desire. The song ‘Je t’aime moi non plus’ only served to accentuate this. Yet she had placed those doormats on the floor adjacent to the screen – and their sheer presence resonated with the idea of how, year after year after year, women have been treated as ‘doormats’. And the propositions on the doormats had an absolutist quality about them. They challenged the idea that a woman – in virtue of being the object of the gaze – can fully appreciate the aesthetic. (I don’t think that’s true but I do think that it must be an awful strain being forever gawped at.)

Anika Propst told me about her fascination with psycho-geography and her interest in le flaneur and la flaneuse. And when I discovered her name – which is a great name – I tried to guess her origins, from where she had come. After three guesses (East Germany? Hungary? Slovakia?) she told me. And we both laughed because it turned out that my grandmother may even have been a very distant relation of hers.

I think her work was – and is – a great success. Then later it strikes me: Is this a work about ‘sleepwalking’ through life?

Postscript: I was not lucky enough to photograph Ms. Propst’s work but there’s a strange allusion to it in the photograph at the top.

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