Dismembered, deconstructed, dissolved, constrained, fractured, mechanised, isolated. Does not sound appealing, does it? But THEM, a group show bringing together over dozen works by seven acclaimed female artists, is an affair not to be missed. Curated by Nina Pohl, the exhibition takes on the issues of gender, social positioning as well as anatomical constructions and definitions of identity in relation to female body. Works by four post-digital artists including Alisa Baremboym, Aleksandra Domanovi, Katja Novitskova and Anicka Yi are accompanied by contemporary icons such as Sarah Lucas, and Carolee Schneeman. However, the spotlight is directed onto Alina Szapocznikow’s signature sculptural works which have successfully garnered international attention in recent years.
After getting through hustle and bustle of a construction site in central Berlin, gallery-goers enter Schinkel Pavillon just to find themselves greeted by a human-size photograph of a snail standing in the hallway. It is Katja Novitskova’s Approximation (Snail) (2014) which explores the psychology of flatness through high-definition, larger-than-life depiction of nature. Blurring the boundary between digital and physical pictorial reality, Approximation forms an excellent starting point for the show. A yellow footpath emerges from behind of Novitskova’s work and guides visitors through the exhibition space.
At first glance, the display is striking and surprising at the same time. Architecturally conceived by S.T.I.F.F. (Ganssauge & Steininger), the exhibition space resembles a single cell organism, which as an independent body carries and encloses individual sculptures. The unconventional exhibition design underlines the curves and amoeba-like shapes so present in the works of female artists. Most sculptures are placed below the eye level giving a rare opportunity to view them from each and every angle.
Once inside the room, you face Sarah Lucas’ infamous Bunny Gets Snookered #3 (1997). Representing Great Britain at this year Venice Biennale, Lucas is well known for challenging gender stereotypes through a play on traditions of representation, conceptions of sexual roles, and ambivalence of sociosexual conventions. Through the language and media of popular culture, her works express aspects of morality as well as sexual dominance and submission. The surreal yet associative sculpture resembles a doll made from nylon tights with cotton wadding placed on a desk chair with two phallus-like antennae limply dangling from the back of the chair. Bunny Gets Snookered #3 touches on disempowerment, submissiveness, and passivity. It is an arresting beginning for the journey through the studies of sculptural possibilities of a female body.
Dim light and drawn curtains blocking the sun rays provide intimate atmosphere to dive into compelling selection of Alina Szapocznikow’s works. Surviving concentrations camps in her youth, Szapocznikow divided her mature life between Poland and Paris and became one of the best known Polish artist of the 20th century. In late 1960s she was diagnosed with cancer and for years struggled to overcome it. This was the time when she created her most famous works, in which the female body is addressed as object in the form of furniture. Sculpture-Lamp (1970), for instance, is a lampshade made of a cast of artist’s petite lips lit by a tiny bulb. Deserts is a series of polyester sculptures of chins and breasts nestled on glass plates and porcelain vases. The way her works are arranged on the platform resembling a pedestal from a luxury-goods shop, also highlights their character as fetishised objects of desire, while the dual functionality of the sculptures is a pungent comment on stereotypical gender roles. However, despite association with feminism shared with other western artists, Szapocznikow never intended her work to be directly driven by political feminism or feminism content.
In her oeuvre radical abstraction mingles with gender expression of the body through exploration of various modes of formlessness. Shortly after she was diagnosed with cancer, Szapocznikow began to turn the effects of the illness on her body into sculptures. Bold, original, and performative gesture she took upon brought unusual and haunting results such as Tumours series, in which Szapocznikow tried to embody the sickness by giving form to the unpresentable, or a coffee table with a cast of her face beneath the tabletop, or The Bachelor’s Ashtray I (1972), a two-faced head sliced open, its wound being a repository for matches and cigarette butts. The latter were made especially for her beloved husband as a unique souvenirs and reminiscence she wanted to leave for him before her premature death.
Curving toward the centre of the exhibition space, you stumble across Anicka Yi’s 235,681K of Digital Spit (2010). Known for exploring and challenging the traditions of sculpture, the artist usually uses unconventional and unstable materials. This time, it is a clear plastic Longchamp purse half-way filled with transparent hair gel and chopped up tripe. Consumer aspirations are confronted with the ambiguity of a handbag as a cultural object unveiling repulsive content. Displayed in the middle of the room are Grapeshot (2015), two little towers by Alisa Baremboym who used ceramic, vinyl, and resin to take on modes of confinement and decontextualisation of body sections. Evoking spheral connotations, the sculpture seems strangely human and artificial at once. Whereas Baremboym’s Grapeshot metaphorically deals with fractured visions of self, Carolee Schneeman’s Meat Joy (1964) is much more straightforward. The video presents a documentation of artist’s seminal and orgiastic performance. Schneeman explored the body through live performance in way that is both ritualised and spontaneous. Raw fish, sausages, wet paint, plastic and paper scrap intertwines with corporality, tenderness, and wilderness, altogether resulting in a sensual yet comic and repellent ecstatic rite.
On the way out you are nearly asked to shake a hand. If made possible, it would be an extremely firm handshake as Aleksandra Domanović’s mechanical arms reaching out from the wall are made of carbon fibre 3D prints coated in metal and polyurethane. Premiered at Surround the Audience Triennial at New Museum, New York, SOHO (Substance of Human Origin) (2015) was inspired by the so-called Belgrade hand, a multifunctional, externally powered, cybernetic hand developed by Rajki Tomovic in the early 1960s. This female scientist created the hand as a prosthetic device intended for soldiers who had lost their limbs in the Second World War. Dramatically frozen in action mechanical arms seem to pause on the verge of self-care and self-mutilation. Whereas Szapocznikow’s works evoke the trauma Polish artist experienced in concentration camps and later struggling for physical survival, Domanovi brings attention to the body as a tool, the corporality as an image, the digital avatar as a physical existence.
What forms the most intriguing but easy to overlook part of the exhibition is Szapocznikow’s series Photosculptures (1971). Apparently ordinary black-and-white photographs taken by Roman Cieślewicz, Szapocznikow’s second husband, the images depict the most organic sculptures you can possibly think of. Abstract objects are in fact typical chewing gums which Szapocznikow had taken out of her mouth seconds before the photos were taken. While Cieślewicz, who worked as art director of Elle and Vogue, played with contrast and photographed those plastic bodies, Szapocznikow was in charge of selecting the final images. Literally organic, the series brings sculptural investigations to another level. The ephemeral works were not created by moulding, casting, or forming polyurethane with hands; the artist used her own tongue, one of the strongest yet most sensitive muscles in human body, to develop her idea. Szapocznikow crossed the boundary of the act of creation and turned it into the act of existence which like herself needed to be cherished and preserved from oblivion before physically vanishing.
THEM is a must-see. Nina Pohl perfectly wove threads between art history, feminist narrative, and allegorical potential. The artists not only provide individual perceptions and interpretations of human body, but also seem to complement each other’s visions using innovative materials and aesthetic forms. The exhibition revolves around sensibility towards materiality, objectification and opposition between submission and dominance as well as questions of definition, construction and identification of self in relation to female body. Partaking in a dialogue with recent works by flourishing post-internet artists, Alina Szapocznikow’s sculptures are not only sensuous and perturbing as always but even more up-to-date than ever.
Written by: Marek Wolynski
Edited by: Contemporary Lynx
THEM. Alina Szapocznikow, Alisa Baremboym, Aleksandra Domanovi, Sarah Lucas, Katja Novitskova, Carolee Schneemann, Anicka Yi, curated by Nina Pohl, Schinkel Pavillon, Berlin, 13 June – 26 July 2015.