Some traces of loss are invisible. Others are deeply physical. As three female sculptors explore their entanglements, let’s not forget our own positionality.
Surfacing, while taking the plunge. That is what it feels like. Descending into Gianni Manhattan’s souterrain gallery space on a muggy day of May 2020 has a dreamlike quality. After months of isolation, this is a state in-between fresh excitement and lingering drowsiness – induced by long-lasting silence as well as humid air beneath an overcast sky.
In the gallery, the overhead light enforced by neon tubes almost blinds. Senses heighten; vision sharpens. All but alienating in its brightness, the small group exhibition To the River resembles the flawless, hard insides of a seashell. Like deep amber flesh at its core, Anu Põder’s large-scale »Honeycomb« is suspended from the ceiling, centering yet dividing the space. A faint fragrance of beeswax wafts through the air.
Titled for Olivia Laing’s eponymous book, the show explores notions of tracing and inscribing. How can such abstract concepts as loss and grief be translated into the physical realm? How is memory retrieved through and expressed in materiality? These are just two of the questions »To the River« asks in juxtaposing the sculptural works of three female artists. Laing’s original iteration is in itself a re-tracing: of the river Ouse, by foot, spurred on by a personal loss. That river, into which Virginia Woolf threw herself, pockets filled with stones. A river that is a site of female loss and trauma.
As a substance, water is not capable of material memory. Water’s surface smooths and evens itself out, holes open and close by themselves, it cannot retain a trace. The River »Lethe« from Greek mythology has thus become the central metaphor of forgetfulness in the Western canon. Moreover, in most languages, countless metaphors, similes and figures of speech draw on the impact of all things aquatic, water, and seafaring. Writing without one seems almost impossible.
Sif Itona Westerberg’s five-part wall relief »Lethe« picks up on this idea. Out of small sheets of light grey porous concrete, she meticulously chisels a fragmented female figure surrounded by simple subsea shapes – treating the cheap material with a precision like precious marble. A coral here, a tentacle there. Who is she, diving into oblivion? Kira Freije, too, uses supposedly worthless material in her practice. Metal scraps that she, instead of letting go to waste, turns into sculptures reminiscent of childhood bricolage: a necklace made of uncooked pasta; machinery fashioned from plastic straws – but rendered in shiny steel. Hard and cold to the touch. Like a prosthesis, one of the objects traces an absent body. A single leg, a familiar form. But the void remains.
Vis-à-vis the newly produced works of Westerberg and Freije (both b. 1985), it seems surprising that Estonian sculptor Anu Põder (1947–2013) should have belonged to a generation not once, but twice removed. While the historically contingent experience of these artists may differ vastly, their works share similar interests. Like so many female artists of her generation, Põder only embraced her artistic practice in late age, often using wax as a tool to cast shapes of lacunae, thus materializing absence.
Here, the encounter with the wax sheets of her »Honeycomb« inevitably evokes Sigmund Freud’s concept of the Wunderblock – this is Vienna after all. The toy he used as an image for memory can perpetually be inscribed and erased, retaining just the faintest trace in a layer of wax underneath. In compassing the fragile sculpture, its grotesque counterparts are revealed: the »Lickers«, two silver mesh heads, one dangling from the ceiling, both cheekily poking out their oversized pink fabric tongues.
What this show offers are decidedly female, western perspectives on how memory can be materialized. They can also be read as tacit gestures of a challenging of and insertion into a male-dominated art history – especially the field of sculpture. However, as in examining the image of the river as a critical framing, it is of utmost importance to remember that a poetics of memory cannot exist without the politics of forgetting. The topos of the river, of waters, of the sea is inherently tied to oppression, to exclusion, to marginalization. To the transatlantic slave trade that continuously structures the conditions of Black living, not only in America. To the Mediterranean, where – in the 21st century – Europe still exercises its colonial powers.
Living through loss is devastating. Nevertheless, being able to use the motif of the river as a screen onto which to project one’s personal trauma, to refer to it in a vaguely poetic and metaphoric way, still means to be utterly privileged. As I leave the exhibition, I climb up the rusty ramp to street level. Turning left, I face the Danube canal. I walk to the river. I know, there is no walking away from grief. Loss permeates every crack and crevice of being. It washes over me. And yet, these are shallow waters. Coming up for air is possible.