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VIENNA — Hannah Black, a British artist in residence in Berlin, set off a furor in March when she circulated a letter demanding that “Open Casket” (2016), Dana Schutz’s partially abstracted painting of the Civil Rights martyr Emmett Till, be removed from the Whitney Museum’s 2017 Biennial and destroyed.
Few artists have introduced themselves to the wider art world in a more polarizing way, and when they do, it’s through their art, not their politics. The museum did not remove the painting, but the controversy did raise some important questions about identity, ownership, censorship, and freedom, despite its indefensible premise.
But what of Black’s own art? At the time of the letter, a solo show at Bodega on the Lower East Side had recently closed after receiving a favorable notice in the Village Voice, and she presented a performance piece commissioned by PS1 MoMA’s Sunday Sessions series in April.
My first encounter with Black’s work was on the second sub-level of Vienna’s Mumok (Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien), where she is presenting Small Room, an elegant installation of projected videos and latex sculptures. The “small room” of the exhibition title is the biological cell, the basic unit of a living body, through which Black attempts to extrapolate a definition of life.
A wall text describes the three-screen video projection, titled Beginning, End, None (2017), as taking “the apparent neutrality of contemporary biology for a loose meditation on the incommensurability of experience and its descriptors, of life in the abstract and the everyday practice of living.”
This is already something of a mouthful, a hazy metaphysics of the essential and the experiential. But then the text goes on to explain:
Utilizing the common educational metaphor of the cell as a factory, Black compares the biological cell to the history of real prisons and factories — symbols of mass production that stand for the victory of capitalism, social control, and the construction of the individual.
Such sweeping pronouncements always lead to trouble, and “symbols of mass production that stand for the victory of capitalism, social control, and the construction of the individual,” if anything, lack subtlety in their imaginings of a hegemonic, lockstep corporate culture — a picture that a close reading of the news, for better or worse, belies every day.
Black presents her tropes handsomely and wittily, however, and the three-screen format, filled with images of stars and prisons, train rides and factories, is often a pleasure to look at, if a little too in keeping with the conventions of biennale art. At the rear of the room, almost hidden by the screens, a stanchion-like, stand-alone monitor, featuring a computer graphic of a rotating wireframe box, completes the video-based setup.
But if you turn around, the four latex sculptures are standing behind you with disarming simplicity. Three are hung like sheets on a clothesline in an inverse arrangement to the video screens, with the two flanking sculptures in front and the central one behind, while the screens are installed so that the center is forward and the sides hang back. A fourth latex sheet, off to the right, is draped from an armature like a robe on a towel rack.
These works carry forward the idea of the cell — the horizontal sheets are titled “Membrane” (numbered one through three) and the fourth is called “Live” (all 2017) — which, according to the wall text, springs from “an observation from a biology textbook — ‘No life without a membrane of some kind is known.’” The text goes on to mention the artist’s self-awareness that “this show itself is just one example” of “the commodification of life and the life sciences.”
The beauty of “Membrane” and “Live,” however, is that you can leave the buzzwords on the wall and gaze at their otherworldly translucency, their ghostly lines, and their enfolded light and shadow, and read whatever you like — or nothing at all — into them.
* * *
Tucked into a side street far from the neon bars and Late-Baroque temples of the Museum District, Galerie Eboran is presenting a small but moving exhibition of sculpture, photography, and video by Petra Buchegger, an Austrian artist born in Graz in 1970. Like Black’s installation, it appears to be bifurcated between media, with three-dimensional objects that would seem unrelated to their accompanying photos and video if not for an underlying vision of the body, the earth, work, and fate that stitches everything together.
The photographs are collectively called “Aprons Knots” (2017), and each consists, as the title suggests, of a soiled strip of plaid fabric torn from an apron and tied into a knot. These quietly dignified objects, stiffened by exposure to the elements, are laid against a white backdrop, not unlike Richard Avedon’s fashion shots of crushed cigarette butts, that highlights every stray thread and every speck of dirt.
As beautiful as these photographs are on an abstract plane, there’s something about their directness and humility that dissuades you from believing they’re operating on a purely formal level. There has to be some kind of connection to the lived-in world, a context that is supplied in an adjacent room, where the video Falisa Invernadero (2016) depicts farmers amid an abundance of tomato plants, with apron knots tying the vines together.
Buchegger lives part of the year in the Galician region of Spain, where the video was shot. The women of the region typically wear an amulet around their necks as a good luck charm, which they make out of baked dough in the shape of a hand, a boat, a ladder, or a sardine. The artist has taken the amulets’ varied forms and enlarged them enormously in relation to the original, but the resulting sculptures, made from styrofoam covered in rock-hard papier mâché, remain very much on a human scale, with most of them the size of a three-year-old child.
For the most part, the upper portion of the sculpture is painted white, and the lower section is crisply demarcated by a clean, dark color: maroon, black, or blue. The surfaces are scored, crimped, stubbled, and gouged with navel-like divots, as if the artist were trying to retain the idiosyncratic features of the amulet’s hand-molded dough.
The enlargement of everyday objects has been a mainstay of Pop Art and neo-Pop, from Claes Oldenberg to Jeff Koons. And the practice has long been associated with a sense of gentle satire, as with Oldenberg, if not outright condescension, which many observers, myself included, have attributed to Koons, though he would deny it.
Buchegger’s objects, on the other hand, are genuinely playful, light, and buoyant — due in part to her assertively hand-hewn finish (as opposed to Koons’s suprahuman sheen). There is nothing Pop about them, despite the demotic sources of their imagery, because there is nothing ironic about them. They simply hang on the wall, sit on the floor, lean against a column, or lie heaped in a corner, their expansive, spongy forms taking over the room, as if bulging with the good luck that superstition ascribes to the amulets.
Each sculpture seems to contain a dissimilar or opposite entity: the sardines bear a kinship with the hand; the boat could mutate into Jonah’s whale; a green, white, and violet ladder evokes both a garden trellis and a slice of DNA; and a multi-pronged floor piece might be interpreted as a bit of coral, a calcite crystal, or a life-bearing spore. The vitality of the sculptures stand in counterpoint to the forlorn strips of fabric in the photographs, their textures as antithetical as goose down and sandpaper.
But the beauty of the show is its acceptance of the binary, in which contrasting mediums and conflicting styles are reconciled by the artist’s faith in her subject: life defined by the work needed to sustain it. For the Galicians, who live in the northwestern corner of Spain, sustenance springs from the soil and the sea. For Buchegger, these perpetual cycles have led her to marking seasonal rhythms with amulets and apron strips, staking her claim to the sacredness of time.
Petra Buchegger: An Aesthetic of Existence continues at Galerie Eboran (Stumpergasse 7, Vienna) through May 27.
Hannah Black: Small Room continues at Mumok (Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien, Museumsplatz 1, Vienna) through June 18.
Travel to Vienna and hotel accommodations were provided by Mumok in connection to the opening and symposium of WOMAN: FEMINIST AVANT-GARDE of the 1970s, which will be discussed next week.
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