Text: Aziza Harmel, 2023
“I do remember when it occurred to me the first time, when I got the idea of painting the way I feel at a given moment. I was sitting in a chair and felt it pressing against me. I still have the drawings where I depicted the sensation of sitting.”
I could not discover when Maria Lassnig wrote this, but I thought it was such a beautiful way to articulate both, the tracking of a physical sensation and the emotional sensation of a physical experience. This idea to express the way the body and the world are intertwined is what this show is about. Through the work of Florine Imo, Maria Lassnig, Selma Selman and Barbara Hammer, we explore female memory, metamorphosis and self-depiction as tools to evoke the relationship between embodied histories and gender.
In one of Florine Imo’s paintings, we see two young women in a club, standing at the bar. Illuminating the scene, their bodies radiate a pink glow that is matched by both, the fluorescent pink fur that frames the painting and the thong seductively peeking out of one of their skirts. The thong-clad woman holds her palm her atop her drink, shielding it from potential spikers. The depiction of a women protecting herself from imminent danger dynamically collides with the vibrant, festive atmosphere of the painting. This tension is familiar to many women, forced to juggle anxiety and merriment in the midst of late-night revelry. Subtlety crafted, it is the means by which the Vienna-based artist draws our thoughts to an increase in the “date-rape drug” phenomenon in the city, driven by sexual abusers’ attempts to circumvent rigorous drug controls by using substances as yet unrestricted by international drug conventions. The scene, the tension, and the woman’s all-too-recognisable gesture are all shared memories. By reflecting to the viewer what has become an ordinary dread for many women, these memories unite us with people we will never meet.
In the other painting by the artist in this show, we encounter a fiendish looking woman, blue and goddess like, emerging from water under a full moon’s light. She confronts the viewer with a defiant, intimidating glare. We get the feeling we have disrupted her, this divine feminine creature, in the process of some terrible arcane ritual. She is not the object of our gaze: she is sensually watching us. In defying any potential objectification, she claims the viewers’ power for herself and for the natural world that she embodies and represents.
The work of Maria Lassnig centres more directly on the body, more precisely on her body. Lassnig devoted her life to developing what she called “body awareness painting”. She has portrayed suffering, contemplation, and life force, striving to grasp and examine them as tangible entities. Each of her works seeks to demonstrate the veracity of feelings generated within the physical shell of the body.
In her sensual video Shapes, we are treated to mysterious human forms dancing to Bach’s beautiful melodies and harmonies. The animated bodies seem to metamorphose back and forth between male and female. As the music quickens, their movements become increasingly voluptuous. In her self-portrait, titled Selbstportrait mit Sperber, the body is distorted, abstracted in pale muted colours. It is flanked by a curious sparrowhawk, rendered more recognisable than the body which seems to retreat from it. The raptorial bird appears to embody Lassnig’s emotions, desires, and memories, which are simultaneously her companions and her challenges. In her video Kantate, she revisits and confronts her memories and history in a self-ironic reflection on key episodes of her life. Appearing before her animated drawings, the artist recounts her life story in a fourteen-stanza recitative chant reminiscent of popular Austrian folk songs. Again, we face her pain, her vulnerability. But by imbuing the work with lightness and humour, we are charmed, disarmed, and opened up to experiencing her journeys. By weaving the personal with broader societal events and historical moments, the work moves beyond self-exploration to provide a potent commentary on collective memory and the scars that history can leave on the souls and identities of individuals.
A Bosnian Roma artist, Selma Selman’s expressionistic approach to self-portraiture is similar to that of Lassnig’s. This likeness is not so much in the form of their work as it is in the way they both radicalize the representation of their bodies, transforming them in order to transcend their identities, and in doing so, protecting them from intangible forces that seek to pin them down.
In the exhibited series, Selman is a multitude. She is a bird, a woman with a vagina in the middle of her face, staring at us like an open wound. She is a muscled, naked woman with tightened fists, a cat with long dark curly hair. The metamorphosis that she repeatedly undergoes is a continuous process of becoming that results in indeterminant and novel forms of being. There is in this work a constant modification and reconstitution of reality. She reassembles her body, creating things that escape the categorization and instrumentalization that Roma women are often subjected to. She reminds us that “Becoming Animal” is a way to travel beyond oneself, that constantly altering one’s being is a means to experience freedom from stereotypes. But Selman’s drawings are not an expression of vulnerability. They are weapons wielded by “the most dangerous woman in the world,” a phrase through which she has defined herself. Her transformations are not acts of retreat. They are not ways to hide. They are acts of defiance. They are claims to power.
The themes of bodies, categorisation, and transformation are found again in the work of American artist Barbara Hammer. In the abstract video No No Nooky T.V, Hammer explores human desire while cryptically describing a body that cannot be defined. Speaking on the work in an interview, the artist said “That is a film I did using the Amiga computer. It is fun. It is a really clear construction of the lesbian body and sexuality. I say the Lesbian body is holes and gaps and innuendoes and fringes and areas that are not defined. To me, we can’t be defined or won’t be defined as much as we try.” This focus on the impossibility of neatly defining gender identity is echoed in another of her video works, titled I was/I am. Quoting Maya Deren, an avant-garde filmmaker who she deeply admires, the work tells us how a “[w]oman is not committed to the natural chronology of her experience. On the contrary, she has access to all her experiences.” For me, this is a way of saying that the sections which seem to delineate the self we gradually become are not in fact linearly separated but rather coexist within our past, present, and future selves. While the video is explicitly divided into the two sections “I was” and “I am”, it nevertheless insists that her two selves coexist. It shows how she is a being of constant becomings with access to all her experiences. It reminds us that while we are often represented and treated as simple, singularly definitive creatures, we are in fact each hordes of selves that grow and communicate on a journey of infinite becoming.
Transformation and metamorphosis are key elements in the stories and histories of the oppressed. The body, as Judith Butler has so eloquently demonstrated, is a site in which history is inscribed. It is a form of embodied knowledge, moulded by discourses and apparatuses of power and domination. But it is also a vehicle of change, a mode of acting back upon the forces that work to define and thereby contain us. Art, like all utterances, can be a means for our bodies to defy the categorisations and structures of thought that limit our potential to become.
On our paths to becoming, we are always faced with the challenges presented by our perceptions of time and history – our memories. While our material bodies are in a sense crafted from memories, and the histories we inherit, they nevertheless continue to transform. They do not forget the different beings that we simultaneously are.
The artists in this exhibition explore existential questions about embodied knowledge, questions posed by the interaction between our body and the world. The stories and fragments of personal histories assembled by the artists reveal how histories, narratives, classifications, and categorisations work to contain us, to simplify us, to limit, control, and reduce us. But they also remind us how our bodies cannot help but resist this premature closure. They reassure us that we are sites of constant metamorphosis and in being such, that we can be the means to create many different worlds.