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What do you actually do? - Hannah Rath


Hannah Rath’s I SAW I WAS I consists of two rectangular canvases, one white and one black, each screen-printed with the work’s title. Repeated over and over again across the rectangular surfaces, the words blur into each other in the viewer’s mind eye, bringing out previously unnoticed similarities. These often-simple observations—“was” is simply “saw” backwards and visa versa—gain currency through Rath’s inventive use of typography, printmaking, and more recently, colour. “They’re very often banal,” she says of her word choices, “but the excitement comes from finding an interesting form or a composition that allows the audience to spot the connections between them.”

We’re in Rath’s studio, a top-floor room in a two-story building that she shares with four other artists, near Berlin’s Grenzallee subway station. The artist has only been in the space since last winter, but it’s already close to bursting, with stacks of text-filled canvases leaning against all available wall space and spools of brightly coloured thread hanging from sections of the ceiling. Based for many years in Hamburg, Rath’s move to Berlin came after she did a residency in Istanbul and got a taste for living in a bigger city. “I was supposed to stay for six months, but I ended up going back and forth between the two cities for a year and a half,” she explains. “After being in Istanbul, which is so international, it was really strange to think about going back to Hamburg full time. I realized pretty quickly that if I wanted to keep moving forward in my work I had to go somewhere else."

In many ways, going to Istanbul was a leap of faith for Rath, who had to quit the steady job she’d had since graduation to be able to take part in the residency (former and current HFBK students might recognize the artist from her previous role as an assistant in the university’s bookbinding workshop.) It was a financially risky decision for the artist, but one that she saw as vital step in her career. “It’s important to always stay fluid and trust yourself,” she says, “because good things happen when you open up to change.” For now at least, it’s a decision that appears to be working out. Rath may not, in her own words, be “getting super rich,” but apart from working a few hours a week at an art handling firm she can now sustain herself through a mix of sales and scholarships.

Living in the Turkish capital also had a positive affect on Rath’s artistic practice, giving her the confidence to add more colour to her work—for many years the artist she mostly stuck to black and white—and allowing her the freedom to pursue a series of wall-based “net” works made from weaving together lengths of chain and nylon thread, started shortly before undertaking the residency. Also new are works that saw Rath print her language-based observations on loose fabric and chainmail. When shown in her latest solo exhibition, which opened at Künstlerhaus Hamburg Frise at the beginning of this year, these pieces allowed the artist to be more responsive to the exhibition space. “I like this way of working because it has no set form,” she explains. “These pieces have different dimensions depending on how they lay, which also affects if the text is readable or not. That’s something you don’t have with a canvas. In an exhibition context it always is what it is, the only difference is if it’s lit better or worse or the room size is bigger or smaller.”

Unfortunately, this might be the last exhibition that Rath has for the foreseeable future. As is the case for many artists, Rath’s show schedule has been turned upside down due to the spread of Coronavirus. “It’s kind of hard to exhibit anything at the moment,” she says. “All my appointments and dates got cancelled—even shows in fall.” Instead, the is using the time to develop her screen-printing skills and work on her first major catalogue, STRESSED DESSERTS, which will cover the last three years of her practice. This is a familiar process for Rath, who, alongside her experience as a bookbinder, has produced many artist books throughout her career.

The publication will also be the first release in the artist-run publishing house that she recently founded with fellow HFBK graduates Rebekka Seubert, Matthias Meyer, Alexander Rischer, and Almut Hilf. All working with books in some capacity, the group decided to start the imprint, which they’ve called THE BOOKS THE BOOKS, after staging multiple exhibitions together since 2016. Although Rath admits that artist-run publishing houses are “nothing new,” she hopes that the group’s combined experience in the field will give artists—both in-and outside their circle—the chance to produce more experimental publications than might be possible elsewhere. It might be a risky time to start a new venture, but as Rath’s own journey has shown her, sometimes taking risks is its own reward.

Hannah Rath studied at HFBK Hamburg from 2003 to 2010. She passed her diploma with Prof. Pia Stadtbäumer and Prof. Dr. Hanne Loreck. More information: www.hannah-rath.com

HFBK graduate Chloe Stead, together with the photographer and also HFBK graduate Jens Franke, regularly meets former HFBK students to talk about work, life and art.

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