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Wreckage upon Wreckage: Elana Herzog’s ‘Angel of History’

Elana Herzog, “SHIFT; The Angel Of History” (2015), installation view (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

SHIFT; The Angel of History, an installation by Elana Herzog at Studio 10 in Bushwick, is a witheringly beautiful meditation on the murderous elegance of fate.

Its implied violence is simultaneously random and precise: perfectly vertical gouges puncturing the gallery walls; torn-apart clothing dangling, abject and limp; and amputated tree limbs arranged on rugs across the floor.

Herzog staples strips of heavy fabric to the wall along floor-to-ceiling pencil lines, leaving some attached while ripping others away. This action leaves the staples stuck to the plaster in places, ribboned with clinging threads and wisps, but elsewhere the sheetrock is pulled away along with the rags, leaving the wall pierced with short, horizontal incisions or deep, vertical gashes.

Elana Herzog, “SHIFT; The Angel Of History” (2015), detail of tree limbs

The tree limbs, placed on tattered, earth-toned Persian carpets — a small one, close to the gallery’s south wall, holds several short pieces, while a runner, covered in long branches, diagonally bisects the floor — are also stapled, sometimes with snips of frayed fabric and sometimes not, the silvery bands spreading across gaps in the bark like robotic mold.

During a visit to the work in progress last week, Herzog told me that the second half of the title, The Angel of History, is a reference to Walter Benjamin’s last major work, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (1940). In the ninth of his numbered paragraphs, Benjamin discusses Paul Klee’s “Angelus Novus” (1920), a drawing in India ink, colored chalk, and brown wash on paper, which he purchased in 1921. He describes the angel this way:

His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.

A “single catastrophe” piling “wreckage upon wreckage” matches my immediate impression upon stepping into the gallery last week, before I learned of the title or the Benjamin reference. The ripped hanks of fabric, hanging in half a dozen spots on three of the gallery’s walls, looked well-worn and generations-old, its nubby texture carrying a subcutaneous Eastern European feel that summoned distant echoes of the Holocaust.

That Herzog chose to cite Benjamin offers an indication of her worldview, but even without that detail, the installation’s structure of precisely arranged shreds of viscera and lopped-off limbs envisions history as a cycle of resurrection and collapse, of rational systems of civilization spiraling into entropy, barbarism and disaster.

The precision of the work also accentuates, paradoxically, the chance effects of modern violence: the holes punctuating the straight, stapled spines of the shredded jacket bring to mind the strafe lines of mechanized warfare, where a millimeter makes the difference between who lives and who dies, and no distinction is made between combatant and civilian.

Elana Herzog, “SHIFT; The Angel Of History” (2015), installation view

The tree limbs were initially conceived as part of an outdoor installation, with a nod toward the walks in the woods taken by the Swiss writer Robert Walser when he was confined to a sanitarium, but they slip seamlessly into the context of the wall sculptures, with the long runner carving up the space into a densely charged area near the entrance and a vacuum in the far corner. The staples and tufts of fabric stippling the surfaces of the limbs — alien bodies that somehow feel of a piece with the natural forms — evoke both disease and technological transformation. The longer branches lining the runner are inescapable reminders of stacked corpses awaiting mass burial, or cremation.

Formally, the installation hinges on expansion and contraction, with the fully exposed tree limbs in the middle of the floor playing against the skeins of fabric surrounding them, which seem to simultaneously emerge from and disappear into the narrow channels in the wall.

The gravity-bound strength of the wood anchors the verticality of the rags, which appear to ascend despite the material’s downward pull, while the diagonal thrust of the runner points toward, and provides exquisite counterpoint to, the starkly ethereal lines of scraps, threads, holes and splashes of pink bonding emulsion that travel up the adjacent walls of the gallery’s southwest corner.

The installation, hugging the walls and floor, trades the brawn of freestanding objects for a fullness of space, an emptiness that carries all the more meaning precisely for what it lacks. The material/immaterial ethos of the piece stealthily conflates gesture, form and imagery into an irreducibly incongruent whole. The two parts of the artwork, the fabric and the wood, don’t fit together despite the abundant use of staples in both, but their disjuncture makes for a much broader statement than stylistic harmony can supply.

Elana Herzog, “SHIFT; The Angel Of History” (2015), detail of fabric on the wall

The staples’ purpose differs between the limbs and the rags: in the former they are integrated into the object, with a purposeful placement by the artist, while in the latter they are primarily functional, and their appearance on the strips of shredded jacket is entirely accidental. Nevertheless they signify a kind of life-in-death, taking over the fallen limbs like a fungus and fastening the fabric to the walls, enabling its rise from the floor to the ceiling.

I’m not suggesting that Herzog is reaching for sense of uplift, an escape route from fatalism; rather, the power of the piece is found in the tension between opposites — horizontal and vertical, weight and weightlessness, presence and absence — and in their improbable reconciliation; it is an aesthetic stance that recognizes the complexity of historical cycles, discerning the seeds of enlightenment in destruction, and the seeds of destruction in enlightenment.

There is nothing facile or ingratiating about this show. It is understated, brooding and tough, and it dares you to be exhilarated.

Elana Herzog: SHIFT; The Angel of History continues at Studio 10 (56 Bogart Street, Bushwick, Brooklyn) through October 25.

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