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Exploring 'The Roundel' and more: The uncanny back figures of Simon Schubert

German visual artist Simon Schubert explores his strange figures, their preoccupation with human loss, and the shared world they inhabit.

by Manu SharmaPublished on : Mar 06, 2022

A group of children play ring-around-the-rosie, and their disposition is rather macabre: one may walk around the small group of girls; expecting to see happy faces, except whichever direction they walk in, they are greeted by nothing save the backs of the girls, with not a single face in sight. The children are garbed in clothes that evoke funerals, and they stand in a solitary huddle, inviting the viewer into their strange and uncanny world. This piece is titled ‘The Roundel’, and its visual artist Simon Schubert discusses it, telling STIR, “The roundel is a group of seven child-like figures made of hard foam, plaster, cloth, artificial hair, and some other things, and is part of a large series of "back" figures. These figures are composed of two backsides, and when you move around them, you don`t see a front side like you would expect. This has a strangely illusionary effect, and the observer sometimes thinks that the figure they are currently looking at has turned or moved.”

Installation view at Museum Morsbroich, 2020, Simon Schubert | STIRworld
Installation view at Museum Morsbroich, 2020 Image: Nadine Preiß, Courtesy of Simon Schubert

Schubert’s back figures are heavily informed by a dream that the artist once had. He dreamed of someone he knew, and in the dream, he moved near the person from behind them. He explains, “As I moved around to face them, I was still staring at their back. This was pretty scary in the dream, and I think it has a lot do with loss and the absence of a person. When you think about it, the sense of presence of another human being is defined to a great extent through the face, and through the contact made between the viewer and the person; through their eyes.” The mixed-media artist focuses himself on this forlorn sense of loss, and creates his figures in an effort to frame human absence, or to be more nuanced, the strange situation created when a person is perfectly present in our minds and hearts, yet, is unreachable in the tangible realm. Schubert tells STIR, “This is an example of how our perception works, always combining memories, expectation, and visual sense.”

The Forbidden Reprobation (Innenansicht), 2007, mixed media, Simon Schubert | STIRworld
The Forbidden Reprobation (Innenansicht), 2007, mixed media Image: Andrej Glusgold, Courtesy of Simon Schubert

Schubert is also fascinated by the surrealist artist René Magritte, and references the painting ‘La Reproduction Interdite’ in his works. Magritte’s painting shows a man from the back, in front of a mirror, within which, the viewer also sees his back. The artist reflects on the Belgian master, saying, “Magritte was a fascinating painter I think, who was able to transfer philosophical ideas into paintings.” Another piece Schubert connects to Magritte is ‘The Forbidden Reprobation’, which is also a part of his series of back figures. The artist classifies it as a sculptural installation, and explains, “From the outside, this is a sculptural art form made of a dark red curtain, and the observer can enter through the curtain on two sides. Inside the curtain room, there are two female backside figures, which stand in front of what looks like a mirror, but instead of a mirror, the whole situation is mirrored and the observer looks over the shoulder of the figure into a doubled space. In the first moment, most people perceive this as one figure standing in front of a mirror, and recognize only after a while that their own mirror image is missing.” Additionally, Schubert also mentions that the colour of the cloth and the strangely disturbing feeling inside the curtained room are homages to the David Lynch films Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway. Returning to The Roundel, what Schubert himself finds most unnerving about the piece is the moment when one registers the absence of the figures. He believes that this triggers a primal fear of sorts within the viewer’s mind: the fear of loss and death. This is particularly pronounced as they are looking at children. Here, once again, the artist’s love for film shows through: the costumes of the children are inspired by the 1960 horror film ‘Village of the Damned’. He used the plain, sombre dresses in order to create a contrast between the childlike sense of play evoked by ring-around-the-rosie, and the strict impression of black-and-white clothing. Schubert’s entire piece comes together to create the impression of some macabre blend of a recess game and funeral.

Installation view at Museum Morsbroich, 2020, Simon Schubert | STIRworld
Installation view at Museum Morsbroich, 2020 Image: Nadine Preiß, Courtesy of Simon Schubert

The German artist tells STIR that he has exhibited quite extensively in art galleries, and that he enjoys the quiet, clean environments they usually provide, which serves to enhance the powerfully uncanny aura of his pieces. Along with the art and film he consumes, he is also keenly interested in philosophy. He explains, saying, “Leibniz, Bergson, Deleuze, and some other philosophers were very important during my studies”. In fact, Schubert is far more interested in philosophy, film, and even literature than other artists. Magritte of course, is the exception. He continues, saying, “My work emerges from a collision of basic philosophical thoughts and surreal, subconscious impressions.”

Untitled (mirrored hallways),2020, folded paper, Simon Schubert | STIRworld
Untitled (mirrored hallways), 2020, folded paper Image: Courtesy of Simon Schubert

There is a fascinating and highly ambitious shared universe of sorts that Schubert is constructing through his work. He expands on this, telling STIR, “Nearly every part of my oeuvre is connected, and all of these pieces are combined within the concept of a shared and constantly growing fictional house or building. The architectural drawings I have done present views of this building, and the walk-in installations act as temporarily manifested rooms and parts of it.” The artist’s sculptures then, become both, the interior of their shared home, as well as its strange and eerie inhabitants. With every exhibition, Schubert’s building grows and mutates in a chaotic way – it absorbs the spaces wherein he presents his work, channelling them into the world he is building. He mentions feeling a great sense of excitement at the thought of what could potentially come next with his longstanding project. He is particularly interested in the possibility of erecting certain parts of this building as a permanent installation. A moment's meditation upon the individual elements of his oeuvre is all it takes to inspire a lurch of discomfort at the prospect of seeing all of the artist’s pieces together under one roof. This could be a fascinating, if not frightening experience for viewers, but certainly not one to be missed out on.

Portrait of the artist | STIRworld
Portrait of the artist Image: Lilith Hawemann, Courtesy of Simon Schubert
02 mins watch Exhibition walkthrough at Museum Morsbroich| STIRworld
Exhibition walkthrough at Museum Morsbroich Video: Courtesy of Simon Schubert

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