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Dorothee Sauter:

Geology, Cooking Heart, Curious and other stories


Angelika Li 

Basel, Spring 2021

Geology is a constant topic for Swiss artist Dorothee Sauter. Growing up surrounded by forests in Aarau, Switzerland, she is the eldest of four daughters whose father was a chemist and mother was a teacher. At an early age, Sauter developed a curiosity about nature and the evolution of life, thinking of the oscillation between the prehistoric and the contemporary.


“What is the origin of life?” is Sauter’s question. Intrinsically scientific and humanistic, her thinking processes imagine the times before human existence. The primal living substance – earth – has become Sauter’s main source and medium in her quest. Sauter describes her working method as ‘thinking with the hands’. For her, the working process with clay is a balancing act between control and letting go, giving freedom to the material to work with, sculpting her emotions. Throughout the act of morphing, her hands leave marks on the material that constitute memories, both tangible and intangible; sealed and irreversible.


During her formative years in the 1970s, Sauter was exposed to diverse cultures and practices of ceramics: from the distinctive regional techniques in Switzerland, to the well-preserved ancient wood-firing heritage in Sifnos, Greece, to the Asian aesthetics, philosophy and practice inspired by traditional Japanese porcelain-making in Henrichemont, France. She studied under professor Setsuko Nagasawa from Kyoto at the Ecole des Arts Décoratifs (section céramiques) in Geneva, a school open to new influences and international exchanges at the time.


Sauter’s quest did not just stop there. Instead, she embarked on multiple journeys to the United States from the 1980s which marked pivotal points in her artistic development. She advanced her study on sculpture at the San Francisco Art Institute; explored cutting-edge techniques in Sun Valley, Idaho; and was exposed to the freedom of expression and experimentation of the Californian ceramicist community. In the American Southwest a new horizon on prehistoric cultural resources led her into an archaeological investigation on the Mimbres pottery culture and Anasazi cliff dwelling architecture, providing a prelude to her pursuit of landscape architecture starting in 2000.


Along Sauter’s journey are the inspirational lives and work of feminist revolutionaries including Iris von Roten, Simone de Beauvoir, Eva Hesse, Lynda Benglis and Donna Haraway. Fresh from her graduation, Sauter worked at the first woman-led pottery workshop in Switzerland founded by Margrit Linck where she engaged in utilitarian ceramics in the Bauhaus style.


While running her own studio in Bern, Switzerland, Sauter was also sporadically teaching and working on public works commissioned by the City of Bern. Her work began addressing the social structures and norms she encounters: gender identity, woman’s role and domesticity. She reengineered everyday utilitarian objects associated with gender stereotypes in the domestic realm, for instance in ‘Leibesrolle’ (1989) and ‘Pfeifenwunsch’ (1990), into large-than-life-size sculptures with mutated bends, edges, and twists against their functionality. Rounded parts become piercing angles, acting as a rebellious statement, if not a forceful protest. These feminist narratives were demonstrated in her exhibition at Kunsthalle Bern and two-person exhibition with Silvia Bächli in Burgdorf in the early 1990s. 


As a young mother, Sauter was eager to find out more about human biology – again: “What is the origin of life?” – and this directed her to the medical archive at the University of Bern where she found research materials on the phenomenon of sperm deformity and its relation to sickness, inflammation, damage and death. This extends to the curiosity about what constitutes a ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ life form in morphology. The research was instrumental to the ‘Spermien’ series (1992) and shed light on the ‘Einzelstück (Hand) aus Verhinderung’ series (1994), a connection between the hands and the cerebellum (the “little brain”) that controls our muscles, movements and balance.


Eva Hesse’s influence on the pursuit of new material is evident. In Sauter’s “Red Vinyl” series, she revisits her childhood and the recurring subject of gender identity. Casts from domestic objects of deceased women and her sons’ toy cars, representations of body parts and human organs oscillate between death and birth, beauty and vulgarity, pop up conspicuously in her solo exhibitions at Galerie Francesca Pia, Bern in 1996 and the University of Illinois in 2001. Sauter experiments with non-traditional materials such as a bold red plastic which is challenging to handle and provocative to the senses, especially to the olfactory. The radical colour and texture resonate flesh and blood, a rebirth of forgotten domestic objects.


In 2000, together with her family, Sauter moved to the United States, and it was also when her cultivated passion for landscape architecture brought her into a master’s programme at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Particularly significant for Sauter’s artistic transformation were the practicum at Champaner-Pavagadh Archaeological Park in Gujarat, India in 2003 and her involvement in the renovation in 2005 of Houston's Emancipation Park, one of the oldest public parks in the city, before she started practicing in a landscape architecture office in Houston. She returned to Switzerland in 2016, living in Basel with a studio in Rheinfelden.


Sauter’s solo exhibition “Geology, Cooking Heart, Curious and other stories” (Basel, 2021) offers an extraordinary landscape populated by ambiguous free life forms. One may wonder if the scene is terrestrial or underwater? A myriad of mind games. The enigmatic sculptures stand as a cluster with their own wills: breathing, yelling, grasping; mouths, eyes, ears; protuberances, limbs, phalli; outward, inward, gesturing an urgency of energy discharge, if not explosion. Our eyes drift along these tentacular movements which suggest a potent life force with immense resilience and willpower.  The colours are unmanipulated raw pigments from different continents, disarming in their utmost honesty. Placed together they create an almost-palpable fluctuation in atmosphere and temperature.


Are they vessels carrying distant ancestral memories, dwellings inhabited by organisms beforetime, rhizomes in evolution, symbols of fertility or a group of quasi-objects extending from Bruno Latour’s concept of a ‘parliament of things’? Sauter wittily muddles our sense of time, shifting prehistory and future.


Staying curious, Sauter’s technical interest is geared towards the properties and transformation of clay minerals, metal oxides and the vitreous state of rocks, with aspirations to bring together testimonies from completely different geological time periods into her work. To Sauter, her sculptures are films for the mind’s eye: fragments of memory whether conscious or subconscious, moments in a lecture, images in the newspaper, something she has seen but cannot fully understand, stimulation by science and literature. Her goal is not only the finished sculptures and vessels, it is also her developing process: the peculiar poetry of becoming, the dance between intent and chance.

Dorothee Sauter

Kunsthalle Bern, 1993

Ulrich Loock and Yvonne Volkart

The Art of Shaping


Yvonne Volkart

The original essay in German was published in the Kunsthalle Bern catalogue

accompanying the exhibition: Dorothee Sauter (1993)

Claude Levi-Strauss speaks of "models on a reduced scale" in terms of art activity as "handicraft". If, for example, an everyday object is depicted on a reduced scale, the whole instead of its individual parts, the functioning instead of the object per se can be depicted:


"The peculiar value of the model on a reduced scale lies in the fact that it compensates for the renunciation of sensible dimensions by the acquisition of intelligent dimensions." [1]


The reduction means a loss of the sensual, but promises a gain in intellectual knowledge. Dorothee Sauter's objects, on the other hand - if we relate them to their mimetic models and regard them as mimetic products (of tools, mechanical machines, everyday and household articles, medical representations of body parts and organs) - are, with very few exceptions, scaled-down versions: of sperm, drills, chamfers, screws, grain tips, tailstocks, lathe hearts, spindle ends, bones of the brain, bow skeletons, cartilage and other such names. In a reversal of Claude Levi-Strauss's "model on a reduced scale", the loss of discursive analytical activity goes hand in hand with the gain of tactile and visual knowledge - the categories that have always, even today, been valued in the history of our culture as second-rate, inferior and have therefore always been identified with the realms of the natural, the physical, the feminine, the ethnic, the childlike and the regressive. Taking Dorothee Sauter's works as an example, I would like to argue for a revaluation of the supposedly low, dirty, objectionable and primitive, since this theme seems to me to be concretised in its abstract forms. The visualisation of what lies under the skin, the enlargement and deformation of everyday objects, brings out at once the horrors of what has been repressed in our society - the aggressiveness of many of these objects is obvious - and consists in the fact that these objects are not only a means of expression. It confronts us with what is ultimately all too familiar. It is no wonder that Sauter's abstractions can be linked to Surrealism, which made particular use of the consciousness-diminished states of delusion, sleep and dream, as well as to Art Brut and non-European art. It is this affinity that will concern me in the following, and not the art immanent, which I take for granted as visible and contextual.


What these other practices have in common is that they lack the mimetic. Nevertheless, they establish - symbolically - similarities, e.g. with inner states such as emotions, desires, fears, projections, in short, with unconscious and conscious psychic energy. In a sense, they are the materialisation of immaterial things, of individual and collective layers, formed masses. When Sauter says that what she can do today has always been there, somehow accumulated in her, and only today, in the moments of the utmost concentration and complete self-forgetfulness, passes over into sound, paves its way as if by itself, then she anticipates what I think, namely that I too somehow know these formations; they are known and unknown in one, archetypal, but not only. What originates from one's own ego is assumed to be foreign and threatening. "Je est un autre," says Arthur Rimbaud. And Jacques Lacan recognises that even in the early childhood mirror stage, a primary identification is imprinted that structures the subject as being in rivalry with itself. Yes, the ego is not only split into one other, but into many others. And it has many genders. According to C. G. Jung, every woman has her male animus, every man his female anima.


The danger and dispersion of the one self need not mean only loss, however, but it can also bring gain here: oneness with the other, an act of love. Sauter's objects also bear witness to this act of love: innumerable mergers, transitions, and linkages of the individual parts show directly the symbiosis with the artist from which these works originate. They bear the artist's traces and yet are independent works in their own right.


"The products of the human head" are "self-reliant creatures endowed with their own life and in relationship with one another and with human beings". [2]


Object. Is it still correct to call these works, which are "animated", "objects"? Certainly not, if I see them as subordinate to the subject of production, to be controlled and clearly separated from it. It certainly is if I look at it from the point of view of its production character, from its economic and psycho-analytical side. I am interested in both: it is important that the artist produces the objects herself, and it is important how she produces these objects.


She often has a very precise plan, minute, mathematical construction instructions, like a mechanical engineer. But the clay is not a piece of metal or wood. No matter how precisely she proceeds and sticks to the plan, something always goes "wrong", even if it is only during drying or firing. The clay retains its idiosyncrasy, its tendency to be imprecise, and yet it seems so supple, so limp, so completely without resistance. Its principle is that of gliding, slow-motion, unbroken transformation. Here - as in sculpture - the form does not have to be sought out laboriously. It arises as if by itself. With indescribable ease, almost by touch alone, the hand forms a vessel on the circling potter's wheel; a slight change in the position of the hand and the vessel becomes completely different. Of course, it takes practice for the clay to be so "willing" that its softness does not prevent the shape. As soon as the clay is touched, something starts to glide, something starts to vibrate that is beyond a master-servant relationship. Dorothee Sauter's works deal with such subject-object transitions without explicitly speaking of them. Any linguistic quality is missing. What pays is the form and the material, and these are always part of the production process. There are not first the feelings that are then worked into the sound. Precisely not this subjectivist introspection! The hand-work is the feeling-work and thus autonomous.


"According to this, everything is production: productions of productions, of actions and productions, productions of consumptions, of lust, fear and pain." [3]


What Deleuze/Guattari say with reference to the energy and function fliisse of the (schizophrenic) human being can be applied to the art world. In particular, Sauter's multipart serial work, mounted on frames, in which one thing follows another, each the variation of the other, could be directly about this production machinery programmed for output. Its code, however, is not purpose-rationalistic, but rather libidinously structured, thus subverting all functionality - except for the artistic itself. The work of art is product and production in one. According to Deleuze/Guattari, "there is no reason to separate production from product. At least the produced object carries its presence in a new producing. [...] The non-completion is the imperative of production." [4]


Sauter's works are fragments and segments of a great flow of work in which the artist intervenes and by which she herself is carried along. Above all, her source material for new forms, all the rotating motors, machines and tools ("multi-cutting lathe", "production lathe", "copy lathe", "fluidised bed lathe") suggest such a Deleuze/Guattarian machine universe. It is the top disk, to which the artist attaches herself for the purpose of production, that makes the choice fall on such symmetrically constructed mechanics; it is also this that - by the hand of the artist - imposes the same circular structure on each product, so that each piece "tells" of this rotary movement. This supposed surface pattern means nothing other than its emergence from the resonating hand.


The schizophrenic experiences everything as a gigantic production process:


"Neither man nor nature exist any more, but only processes that produce the one in the other and couple the machines to each other. Everywhere production or desire machines, the schizophrenic machines, the comprehensive generic life: I and non-I, inside and outside no longer want to say anything." [5]


Since Deleuze/Guattari assume the (schizophrenic) human being to be the movement flow of the constant production of desires, they see him as a complex of a drive machinery of individual organ machines. In order to achieve satisfaction, the human being wants to or rather to the breast is a machine for the production of milk, and the mouth machine is coupled with it."[6] For Deleuze/Guattari, every organ, or let us say every body tool, is a machine.


Digressing a little from the Deleuze/Guattarian "machine alarm" for the moment, I would like to come back to the objectivity and corporeality of Sauter's styles. Not only is working with clay a very physical process that directly affects the viewer (one always wants to touch the things), but also the technique of enlargement results in abstract entities becoming tangible. For the viewer, however, these objects are still (too) small: one is constantly bending, twisting and turning to look at the things; a kind of groping, physical seeing, a seeing of depth and not of distance. Approaching these sculptures always means having bodily engagement with them, thwarting the calculated voyeuristic or pornographic gaze. The going along may turn into co-suffering with these at the same time so fragile creations. And yet a sexualisation takes place: The desire to which they owe their origin has a further effect, makes itself known to the viewer ... They are the opposite, whose monstrous, rounded, wedge-shaped forms promise androgyny: vaginal-uterine forms on the one hand, phallic forms on the other, neither clearly one nor the other.


This ambiguous sexuality, with all its emphasis on the gendered, which has found its mythological and motivational expression in various hermaphrodite and androgynous figures, has a utopian character, since it contributes to the overcoming of monotonous gender antagonisms. Psychoanalytically speaking, this mixing has regressive features: it brings together again what was separated in the sense of progress for better recognition. In principle, androgynisation is the reverse of progress, which presupposes unambiguity, differentiation and namability; what happens is a mishmash, the piercing of the separate, the amorphisation of the technical. This is precisely what happens with Sauter's objects: already shaped things are bent and angled, clear structures become soft, here a point protrudes, there the round is pierced. The parts are not cast in one piece, but are often grown into each other, piled up and into each other, multi-part, fragmentary. If we relate the work to the so-called "normal", it seeks the "abnormal" (the multi-part series work was inspired by sperm deformities), the "ribbed", the "deformed", not merely to destroy the so-called "normal", but rather to expand it by the "umpteen" other possibilities that are also there. Such a work of the additional is also a subversive one, especially if we understand it in social terms: Where the other is excluded in favour of the one, an integration of this other seems like an affront. Where femininity still has to occupy the place of this Other, the shaping of female desire becomes a danger. Not for the sake of anecdote, I would like to point out that many of these bosom-like, sharp (everyday) objects such as "Saurer Stern" (1989), "Verscharfter Zustand" (1990) or "Leibesrolle" (1989) also emerged from this confrontation of an expectant mother with societal and social conditions.


Sauter's objects are not only the result of a socially centred role as mother and housewife, but also indicate the place from which a woman can work today. In this respect, Sauter's objects are critical of society and reproduction: they not only reveal "sharpened conditions", but are themselves them. They are utopian in that they go forward to a forward-looking "wish": the wish for an unseparated closeness to the body and a loving intimacy with the other.

If I now refer to these sculptures as deformations, it is to approximate Freud's vocabulary. Freud only speaks of such negative, "distorting" modes of production in the context of "dream work": "compression" and "displacement" are the structural focal factors that play a role in dream formation. These are mechanisms that are also common to delusion and regression. For Freud, the dream is the "disguised realisation of a repressed wish", i.e. the "manifest dream", as it presents itself to the dreamer, is a realisation of "latent dream thoughts" on a symbolic level. The same can now be said of the work of art: it is the manifestation of a latent desire that, in order to satisfy the aim is to escape the control of reason and intellect by producing a different libidinous vocabulary of forms, which we can compare (not equate!) with dreamlike and delusional forms, surrealist, primitive or infantile production, depending on the weighting.


In Dorothee Sauter's sculptures, the copying and transformations, the confrontations of heterogeneous parts on the level of the dream image correspond to the superimposition of two or more images, the flowing transitions of persons and objects, the drawing together of several objects and persons into one; procedures that we can summarise under the term "montage". Dorothee Sauter uses such montage procedures - partly for very practical reasons. Often, an object can only be created if it is built on the "trimmer" of one or more others.


Such principles of montage also exist on the linguistic level. Freud made them fruitful for his analyses and pointed out that they resemble a kind of "primal language". As mentioned, this is the "condensing" of two or more, often polar, units into a vague, indifferent state. The principle of unity, which I have called the basic principle of sound, can thus be understood as a common principle of unconscious states on a pictorial, verbal and sculptural level, and consequently as a libidinous principle. His desire-eoconomy was a free-floating, unrestricted drive principle whose desire was directed not only towards the genital object, but towards all parts of the body sensitive to pleasure. This variety of erogenous sweat arises from the production of desire, especially in the early childhood phase of infantile sexuality, in which the oral and anal "partial drives" predominate. In surrealism, for example, this pre-genital form of "polymorphous perversion" was elevated to the guiding principle of "convulsive gentleness". The infant, still bound to its mother, experiences her body as reduced only to the individual functions that give it pleasure.


"a piece of skin straightens up in front of me, it dances in front of my nose, it smells like milk. that's nina's hand hanging on her arm, now it's going around the corner and there's also the chest and the neck and it's really nina. but i'm glad."[7]


Konrad Bayer's narrator slips directly into the role of such a sucker at this point in the novel "der sechste sinn" (The Sixth Sense), by eloquentising its perception. Is it not obvious to compare Dorothee Sauter's objects in enlarged scale, their parcelling and fragmentation with such partial objects? Doesn't the contemplation of her sculptures awaken completely unfamiliar, even physical modes of perception? And don't we still remain too big, never again becoming a bitterly embraced toddler?


But this brings us back to the desire machines of Deleuze/Guattari, in which every partial organ is described as such a desire machine:


"It works everywhere, sometimes restlessly, then again with interruptions. It breathes, warms, eats. It shits, it fucks, The It... Everywhere it is a machine in the truest sense of the word."[8]


Like man as a desire factory, the work of art can also be conceived as such. If we look at Sauter's objects as such libidinous machines, we notice that their machine character disappears in favour of bio- and amorphous forms, but also that they are stylised and abstract despite their concreteness. The whole physical concretion always slides into the level of the imaginary and the fantasy. Have I "merely" dreamed it all? And if so. Wasn't this deformation? Work of the additional?


[1]Claude Levi-Strauss: Das wilde Denken, Frankfurt am Main 1989

[2]Karl Marx/Friedrich Engels, 24.86. In: Worterbuch der Philosophie I, Berlin 1972, "Fetisch".

[3]Gilles Deleuze/Felix Guattari: Anti-Oedipus. Capitalism and Schizophrenie. Frankfurt am Main 1974




[7]Konrad Bayer, der sechste sinn. In: Sämtliche Werke, Volume 2, Stuttgart 1985


Copyright Kunsthalle Bern & the authors

The Art of Shaping
Kunsthalle Bern
Ulrich Loock
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