Karen Irmer, Don‘t come back: Wave

‘In me too the wave rises. It swells; it arches its back. I am aware once more of new desire, something rising beneath me like a proud horse whose rider first spurs and then pulls him back’.

The engagement with the poetic language of Karen Irmer’s photograph of the North Atlantic from the Irish island Inisheer brings Virginia Woolf’s observations about waves in St. Ives to mind for me. The waves of Woolf and Irmer strike a chord in both, liquid and abstract terms. In Don’t come back: Wave, we see a salient foam-crested wave turning its own immaterial mass over, while continuously animating the sea before it silently blends in again with the ocean, waiting for a new momentum to rise again.

Fortunately waves re-appear almost as fast, and sometimes even more temperamentally, than they have disappeared before. Irmer’s deep artistic involvement with this natural phenomenon enables us not only to look into a small part of it, but it also warmly invites us to observe the re-occurring movements of the open ocean with our own eyes from an isolated viewpoint in time.

The sea, however, is not the only agent in Irmer’s photo: four open-winged seagulls fly through it too. As they move just above the surface of the water it becomes clearer that their life cycle, as that of many other beings, depends on the water cycle. On that note, Irmer’s work has the ability to animate us to question several aspects at once – such as what kind of motion causes a thing to move, and why?

Being aware that daring questions to such an inquiry depend on the point of view from which one looks at it, she has chosen to display her opaque image on a metallic photographic paper, a year after she had taken it. Through the silver coating that she attached to the print, the dancing sea appears dark from one angle, while it gently shimmers in silver-tones from the other.

But probably it is the effortlessness dance of the natural forces with the waves of the sea that Irmer’s photograph shows, and not her photographic technique, which moves us out of our heads and opens our eyes and hearts, even if it is just for one fleeting moment.


This motionless picture of the North Atlantic is one of the earliest episodes Irmer has captured of the ocean during her first solitary séjour on the Irish island Inisheer in 2012. Before this, she had visited it with her art professor Sean Scully, when she was one of his students at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich.

The photo is currently on show at the exhibition ORTEN at Neue Galerie, Höhmannhaus in the German town of Augsburg. The exhibition came about as the accompanying field trip INSELN to the seminar Gratwanderung – Grenzen und Übergänge (Balancing Act – Borders and Transitions), which Irmer taught in from 2015 to 2017 as the recipient of the Dorothea-Erxleben-programme at the HBK (Hochschule für Bildende Künste Braunschweig).


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