Writing about Irene Hanenbergh’s work often goes over the same ground. She creates mythical landscapes, otherworldly utopias and fantastic geographies. They are visions (Hanenbergh sometimes refers to them as ‘portals’ or ‘doorways’) of sharp alpine peaks, frozen forests, frothing oceans – all rendered in extremely dense layers of fine, fibrous marks. Her sensibility is a little bit romantic, a little bit baroque and a little bit heavy metal. Her work often looks like it could double as the cover of a science fiction paperback or a prog rock album cover. When I put some of these descriptions to Hanenbergh, she doesn’t seem convinced. She shrugs; yes, no, maybe. At the mention of other terms – abstract, figurative, gothic – Hanenbergh positively bristles. “I wouldn’t use those words,” Why? “I think they’re misused. If you pull at the edges of all those terms they fall apart.”
Hanenbergh’s paintings are hard to describe in words and even harder to categorise (not least because Hanenbergh refuses to do so herself). That’s somewhat surprising given how important names, words, etymology and linguistic play are to her approach. Take the title of her latest exhibition of paintings – Dada-Roman (4711) – currently on view at C A V E S gallery in the Nicholas Building (until 23 May). It mixes the classical, the avant-garde, the futuristic, the biblical; it touches on romance and the novel (both from the root word ‘roman’). It evokes some ancient period BC or perhaps many centuries Anno Domini (or both at the same time, as per so much science fiction). Hanenbergh says she simply liked the way the words Dada and Roman sounded together. She sat with the phrase for months, mulling it over, and it became a source of inspiration and contemplation. As is often the case for Hanenbergh, the title was a starting point not an addendum.
“The titles are, in a strange way, equal to the paintings,” says Hanenbergh, “the choice of words and the tone is very important.” She says she would never leave a work untitled, “I think it’s a bit dismissive, a bit disrespectful”. The titles of exhibitions and individual works reference people, places and periods, both real and fictitious, ancient and contemporary. There are famous names and family ones. Miriam-Lena Johnson (1786), Chartreuse Azur, Victor Hugo Smits (Corinth). They offer clues for where or when these imaginary landscapes might be. Reflecting on this aspect of her practice, Hanenbergh says “if you put all the titles together they would also make a book; maybe a bit absurd but it would still make sense.”
Another word, hanging over the show is Sehnsucht. It’s one of those magnificent German compound words so thick with meaning it almost defies translation. Literally it’s the noun for yearning or longing, but as Hanenbergh explains it has an intense, melancholic quality. Sehnsucht describes the soul’s longing for something impossible or unknown; a craving that is therefore inconsolable and insatiable. It is a word to describe an existential yearning for something for which there are no words (so German).
Hanenbergh’s talks about her landscapes as being visions of impossible happiness and perfection. They are, she says, “windows of longing”. They are Sehnsucht. Imagine you are a refugee or an astronaut adrift in space, remembering a motherland you will never see again and that maybe never existed in the first place. There are lots of reasons why Hanenbergh resists attempts to classify and define her work, but I suspect an important one is because she is trying to describe something (or somewhere) for which there are no words, which is always just out or reach, and if perchance you did catch a hold, it would fall apart.
>> Maura Edmond
>> 13 May 2015