A Goodbye to Former Selves: Uncategorizing Sonja Ahlers

Sonja Ahlers, "Diana," 2022. Courtesy of the artist.

My favorite page in Rabbit-Hole, the latest bookwork by Sonja Ahlers, contains only one image and one line of text. The image is a scan of a slightly stained photograph of the artist in a lacy white dress, lounging on her side in a grass field, with one arm propping up her head and the other draped over her waist. Her gaze confronts the camera. A small sea of purple Canadian ten-dollar bills, strewn in front of her, match with the lilac Converse beside her bare feet. Etched below this image in handwritten chicken-scratch capitals is the phrase “IT’S ALL WORK.”

This juxtaposition reads like permission from the artist to validate both your public artistic output and your personal private life as work. Yet the statement’s irony collapses personal and public criteria for evaluation. To gain visibility in an artistic scene and access opportunities in official systems of funding, exhibition, and circulation, an artist’s output requires more than just a simple demarcation of itself as “work.” It requires classification within established aesthetic and market categories, and to be situated in a recognized artistic milieu. While validation does not come solely from these external structures, artists are pressured to reconcile with them. How, then, might an artist who eludes these structures of categorization find artistic validation?

Sonja Ahlers, Ferret, 2017. Courtesy of the artist.

“Classification crisis,” Ahlers has said, is a term archivists use “when they don’t know what to do with something, if they’re sorting and they’re just like, ‘What is this?’” Her retrospective at Richmond Art Gallery in British Columbia, curated by Godfre Leung, addresses Ahlers’s conundrum of eluding an art scene’s classification system, all while desiring its validation and rejecting its toxic power imbalances. When she emerged as an artist in Victoria in the early 1990s, Ahlers used feminist-punk DIY aesthetics to address personal topics like sexual violence against women and the crude underbelly of depression spirals. But as she moved from Victoria to Vancouver to Whitehorse and back to Victoria, the sexist hierarchies ingrained in those art scenes, coupled with a local tendency toward the photographic medium—a remnant of 1980s Vancouver School photo-conceptualism—often locked her out of opportunities to show her multimedia work publicly. Writing in the exhibition’s eponymous catalogue, Leung notes how “Ahlers’s work has had a willfully difficult relationship to genre, format, medium, and art form, and as a result has never had its rightful access to the supports that sustain more neatly categorizable artworks.” This tenuous relationship to the West Coast art scene and its effect on Ahlers’s ability to situate herself within the Canadian artistic landscape is an undercurrent that surfaces throughout her maximalist multimedia collage, book, and installation work. She developed those works from her ongoing compilation of her personal archive—consisting of epistolary exchanges, zines, photographs, and pop-culture ephemera—as her desire to engage professionally with the art world wavered.

In the ’90s, Ahlers sought community through the creation and distribution of zines, an accessible medium free of the contextual constraints imposed by the white cube. She packed her early black-and-white photocopied zines with collages and hand-drawn characters, and paired them with snippets of typed or written text. Many threads from her zines later carried through to her bookworks. Soft, typically innocence-related imagery like bunnies and baby dolls brush up against horror-film stills or sketches of knives dripping with blood. She also populated her pages with repeating imagery citing personal traumas. For example, her obsession with rabbits traces to witnessing her pet bunnies slain by a dog in her childhood.

Sonja Ahlers, Rabbit Queen, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.

Much of Ahlers’s work flourished in local subcultural spaces before reaching wider audiences. She circulated her zines through an exchange-based economy, via mail, among networks of women and folks on the fringes who often felt excluded from male-dominated music and art scenes. Her series Fierce Bunnies (1994–2022), comprising plush creatures made of salvaged angora sweaters into which Ahlers channeled her anger and frustration, became an underground sensation in the aughts before they featured in hit music videos like M83’s “Teen Angst” and films like The Twilight Saga: New Moon. Ahlers’s hyper-fragmented pop-culture visual aesthetic also reached wider audiences through books like Temper Temper (1998), a curated compilation of her zines, and The Selves (2010), the antecedent to her influential collaborations with Rookie Mag.

In Classification Crisis, Leung’s curatorial approach opts out of the chronological timeline typical of retrospectives to instead lay bare Ahlers’s expansive creative process, which she hadn’t previously shared. At every turn, collections of binders and shoeboxes are displayed like precious vessels for previously unseen ephemera. One installation, titled The Archive (2014–23), is a sculptural recreation of the Bankers Boxes that Ahlers uses to store her personal archive in her bedroom in Victoria. Another example of this unveiling is Swan Song (2021), a bookwork Ahlers started in 2008 and published in 2021. In addition to the finished publication, the exhibition presents a reproduction of her workspace, where viewers may flip through a series of well-organized binders of scans and photocopies; together, they offer a sense of Ahlers’s analogue book-production process of amassing, sorting, and cut-and-paste editing. Ahlers initially conceived of Swan Song as a breakup book, but by the time she published it, it had become what she calls “a goodbye to former selves,” as the exhibition text explains, marking her conscious distancing from “abusive relationships, including my relationship to the art world … whatever that is.”

Sonja Ahlers, Pink Pearl/Mad Love Binder, 2013-ongoing. Courtesy of the artist.

The exhibition’s accompanying publication highlights Ahlers’s community networks through testimonies from people who have engaged with her archive. The singer and instrumentalist Kathleen Hanna writes of Ahlers’s overflowing style of work: it “had nothing to do with anything, and everything to do with everything … She had conjured the secret visual alphabet I’d been longing for.” This new syntax influenced Hanna’s development as a punk musician and pioneer of the riot-grrrl movement. Writer Doretta Lau notes the importance of “understand[ing] the cost of producing work in this climate. To celebrate the tenacity required to keep going.” Actor, writer, and former magazine editor Tavi Gevinson speaks to how The Selves—a book that acknowledges that the world is chaotic but that its chaos is also material to be worked with—helped inspire her creation of Rookie Mag, and how “[Ahlers] was not only essential to creating Rookie’s visual identity but also helped shape our voice.” These activations of Ahlers’s archive highlight the impact her work had on her audience and shift the focus from the gatekeeping art scene toward the community that helped her persist. The self-labeled “former artist” and bodyworker Lisa Prentice notes that she thinks of Ahlers’s audience as “PEOPLE WHO LIKE AND CARE ABOUT YOU” rather than a specific artistic sector. However, despite having this support network, Ahlers’s practice has functioned largely in survival mode, like a rabbit living underground: “That’s actually how I think I’ve survived as an artist, by being on the fringes and keeping to myself,” Ahlers said in a recent interview.

For Ahlers, divulging her archive reveals both her unseen work and the emotional turmoil provoked by its exclusion. Her work often hinges on the idea of the container; as Leung writes, “The book, the exhibition, the letter, the care package, and ultimately the archive are all ‘containers’ through which Ahlers, in her creative process, conceptualizes her work.” As the archive becomes the container for Ahlers’s work in all its forms and contradictions, a space opens up for its totality to be valued as a work in itself, rendering the tension between personal and public realms of evaluation irrelevant. When an artist places both the public and private facets of their output on the same plane and vulnerably shares them with an audience, they open a portal of relatability. They also give us a reassuring reminder that in the face of art-world exclusion—and perhaps because of it—carving out space for your work, in all its forms, is possible when validation emerges through networks of care rather than systems of classification.

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