The ephemeral sneeze

Sculptor Heide Fasnacht reveals the beauty of the unseen

Heide Fasnacht presents photos of her own work, as well as the work of others whom inspired her along the way.

This past Thursday, the Center for the Arts saw its Recital Hall graced by the presence of enrapturing artistry and engaging cognitive discussion with internationally recognized sculptor, painter and print artist Heide Fasnacht. 

A woman of many trades and skill sets, Fasnacht is primarily a sculptor, and has existing exhibitions on campus, one on each level of the CA building. Outside of the confines of the campus, her creative background has earned her a great deal of success in the cutthroat New York art world. Fasnacht has also presented exhibitions in Greece and Spain.

Fasnacht began the discussion with the group of attendees, a mixture of students and visual arts faculty, by asking engaging questions to the group. These included, “How many of you are visual arts majors?” and “How many of you have studied art in museums?” From that point on, the Recital Hall’s rows were lined with a sensen fascination, as she began to introduce a series of scientifically and psychologically revolutionary pieces of artistic genius.

Starting from the beginning, Fasnacht began carefully weaving the story of her visionary journey. First, she explained that she has always done a lot of drawing and that this helped to define her identity during her beginnings as a budding artist. Her story began with an original piece known as “The Sneeze”, a two-dimensional representation of a person sneezing using only hole-punches to represent the particles. It was at this point that her fascination with creating a diagrammatic visual scope using exclusively pre-digital scientific materials began to emerge.

What especially captured Fasnacht’s attention during this endeavor was Sigmund Freud’s relationship with the work of Wilhelm Fliess, a young German otolaryngologist and close friend. In their collaborative work together, the two discovered that a sneeze is one of only a few human phenomena that are non-visual yet completely ephemeral. This word is what sparked Fasnacht to continue her projects delving into capturing the feeling behind the sneeze, which led her to illustrate the phenomenon using only an eraser. Using this technique, she transformed the concept of the sneeze into a larger-scale image of a public geyser. Through this design, she was interested in dissecting the ways in which regular people would react to an external ephemeral phenomenon such as a geyser, and took the project as an opportunity to explore even more deeply the relationship between the tangible and the intangible.

From the sneeze and the geyser, Fasnacht’s projects began to transform into detailed depictions of disastrous implosions, in order to answer branched-out forms of the same initial questions that her sneeze and geyser research sought to address. One of her notable works, known as “Demo,” showed the implosion of an Ohio building. Of course, Fasnacht clarified to the audience that “these implosions are not acts of violence, which are easily confused with explosions, but rather … tools to look at a large solid object that no longer exists, and how this change in physical matter came to be … a look into the ephemeral nature of this drastic shift.”

Her work studying and anatomizing the nature of implosions continued with a sculpture of an exploding plane based on the Hollywood film Air Force One. However, her progress came to a grinding halt due to the events of 9/11, where she stopped working with implosions due to her sympathy and understanding for those like her living around the World Trade Center who were left in utter shock by the events of that fateful day. She had experienced firsthand how dangerous terrorism had become, and knew that for the sake of her artistic integrity that she would need to shift her attention elsewhere.

Keeping with the same theme of industrial buildings, Fasnacht visited Las Vegas, and decided to focus on post-demolition rubble. Specifically, she placed a great deal of emphasis on the personal items included in the debris, which included a small plastic Christmas tree topper in the shape of a star. Her reasoning for including this was because “buried in the remains of a broken building, you can still find stars. They’re not just where you’d expect them to be, they’re everywhere. That’s when I realized how much the phenomena I’ve studied are more human than I knew.”

Fasnacht then became enraptured by a Martin Kippenberger painting in which a man is seen studying a contraption that makes no sense logically, yet is purported to make complete sense. She explained that, in art history, there is a background of mechanical contraptions being metaphors for sexuality and how we learn to understand what that means to different people.

A newer leap in Fasnacht career began with a story about the man who invented monkey bars, a mathematician and professor in Tokyo who taught his students about XY coordinates. The students would then climb through his apparatus and learn to feel space, experience thrill and understand vertigo, even without fully recognizing it. Fasnacht took this concept of XY coordinates and symmetry being the gateways to understanding space and equated it to that of the mechanisms of a rollercoaster. 

From then on, she created works such as “Desperado,” “Alpengeist,” “Mystic Timbers” and “Psychlone,” which not only depicted the phenomena of vertigo and physically included rollercoaster tracks in the design, but also took inspiration for their names from unique rollercoasters in theme parks worldwide. 

At the same time, Fasnacht conducted a series based on damaged negatives and was interested in resurrecting them and using them to access the phenomena of vertigo in the context of a playground swing.

“My work is very process-oriented,” Fasnacht explained to the group, “It’s like breaking down stomach acids. It takes concepts that are large and difficult to absorb and makes them easily digestible.”

We are very lucky to have a campus that is graced work of such a gifted and experienced artist. Her story and the  intellectually-stimulating quality of her pieces are representative of the kind of innovation students at Muhlenberg are consistently striving for, and hopefully she will return very soon to have another invigorating and thought-provoking conversation with members of the community.


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