The Ungestalt group exhibition is on at Kunsthalle Basel, running May 18 and to August 13.
The show will feature work by a large number of artists, including Olga Balema, Pakui Hardware, Liz Magor and Lucie Stahl among others. The title is defined in the press release as a somewhat untranslatable German term that is “not exactly formless or amorphous, nevertheless describes something that struggles against delineation, against clearly defined form, indeed against the wholeness…”
Bringing together artists from international backgrounds and across generations and mediums, the work will occupy five ground floor galleries and explore this term as it itself ‘escapes capture.’
Who doesn’t end upa cultural cannibal? There is no such thing as a new idea; even this is not a new idea. Everything is recycled, including the cells of our own bodies, and if we squint resolutely enough, we could believe that our creations are not just memory-tinged collages of everything we’ve ever known, that arrant originality is not an absurd event at its very core. Denial is important. But the more we ingest, the more we see and feel and read and love, the more vital flesh we bring to the table; this is important too.
“One eats in conversation with others. One becomes subsumed by one’s context,” writes Tess Edmonson in her introduction to Cannibals, Olga Balema’s recent show at Croy Nielsen. The small, almost improvised gallery is strewn with soft PVC plastic bags filled with murky, copper-coloured waters in which various materials swamp and decompose. From certain angles, they resemble body bags, or bags one’s body would be thrown into if it was already dismembered, the wiry bits already removed. Slumped against the white walls of the gallery, the sculptures are completely devoid of life and yet uncannily human—the paradox survives even in decomposition.
The nine sculptures, all titled either ‘Threat to Civilization’ or ‘Border/Boundary’, are themselves the cannibals; they have ingested the materials of other, former sculptures and lie listless on the floors of the gallery, their clear, plastic skins exposing their gluttony. “The round bellies of some are greedy and full, pregnant from autoerotic absorption,” Edmonson writes, while “[t]he latex skin of others is concave around the scaffolding of sharp and unnatural growths.” The consumption neither begins nor ends with my visit; the cannibalized parts transform their consumers from within, releasing rust and dye from their steel and fabric parts into the clear water, gradually turning it tawny and black throughout the duration of the exhibition.
Alongside Edmonson’s introductory text is a paragraph from Maggie Kilgour’s From Communion to Cannibalism: An Anatomy of Metaphors of Incorporation. Bodily needs betray our vulnerability, she notes, and expose the carefully crafted appearance of autonomy as an illusion:
The need for food exposes the vulnerability of individual identity, enacted at a wider social level in the need for exchanges, communion, and commerce with others, through which the individual is absorbed into a larger corporate body.
Without others, we cease to exist. Better yet: we feed on others to nourish ourselves.
What did Balema feed on to give birth to Cannibals, and was it the same feast as that of Serbian artist Ivana Basic? The similarities are striking—the abstracted, flesh-like shapes, the haunting simplicity of their material loneliness; the frozen moments of “life into matter”, as Basic says, or “economy of fungible volumes”, as Edmonson write. The permeability of the human body is not a unique or even contemporary idea, but its execution in the works of the two artists is almost literally cannibalistic. Who fed on whom, and who was nourished from it?
Later in her introduction, Edmonson states that food scarcity during periods of overpopulation is “really the solution to its own problem”. That those who “obey the tenets of the cannibalism taboo” will be the first to die. Eat or be eaten, she whispers. The statement seems extreme, scandalous, but of course it’s not. They are just the cannibalized words of Jonathan Swift inA Modest Proposal in which he tells us: “I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled.”
On the way to new London gallery Union Pacific, there’s a health and wellness centre called Zen Clinic. It’s a title that’s emblematic of the the all-too-familiar contradiction of late-capitalist desire, where the privileged fallacy of ‘self-actualisation’ comes in the cryo-packed quick fix of commodity spiritualism; of body and soul subsumed by industry. It’s an idea that has occupied the minds of gallery founders Grace Schofield and Nigel Dunkley for a while now, the latter of whom explored the Western business model for Eastern metaphysics as part of the N/V_PROJECTS-curated The Fulfillment Centre at the The Sunday Painter earlier this year.
In bringing together the work of artists represented by Union Pacific, as well as those artists’ friends, and those artists’ friends’ friends, for its inaugural exhibition – aptly titled Union – a thematic thread, birthed from the eighth hexagram symbolising ‘holding together’ in the Ancient Chinese I Ching and borne along the Union Pacific railroad enterprise, emerges. Perdo Wirz‘s ‘Dials’ (2014), a rubber hose meant to be used as a pipe of sorts to be shared at the exhibition opening but turning out to be toxic is chained to the outer front window as a means to be taken, only to have the gallery roller-door down, blocking the potential for artefact and appropriator to come into contact.
Adriano Costa‘s simple sculptural addition, a concrete filled bottle with its plastic promise of ‘Little Miracles’ (2014) weighs down a pillow’s soft center, while Yves Scherer‘s tantalisingly jarring baby blue Tatami mat and perspex in the wall mounted ‘Sirens (Sauereien)’ (2014) glares across and down at Olga Balema‘s ‘Untitled’ (2014) fountain. Steel beams engraved with fragments of cryptic diary entries rust under a stream of water splashing indiscriminately out of its bucket and onto the gallery floor. Companion piece ‘Untitled (shaky blood stone)’ (2014) looks across from a corner; a motorised piece of red and hardened epoxy glue shivering in the chiseled niche of a solid granite block.
This is all a fairly familiar feeling of hybrid cross-cultural and corporate tropes drowning out any sense of individuality. Downstairs and in the dark Julie Born Schwartz‘s subjects in the ‘Love has no reason’ (2014) video literally embody this commonality by becoming transformed by the masks made from images of other people. Jan Kiefer‘s ‘Base: biz fed ecb’ (2014) sculpture nearby features a miniature model of the Bank for International Settlements in Basel, lovingly engraved into copper beech wood and topped with a traditionally made cone-shaped candle by Matthias Huber.
Back upstairs Max Ruf‘s ‘The monuments proved visible in the morning’ (2014) looms in three panels of paintings of corporate logos rendered unrecognisable in its abstract landscape that’s less location and more time and motion. Aude Pariset‘s inner anxiety of being a house guest is externalised in the woozy movement of an inkjet print on dry and cracking rice paper for ‘Bedroom Posters (To Leave)’ (2014). The gallery guestbook suspended beside it evokes Constant Dullaart’s thoughts on the ‘consumer experience’ of 21st-century travel: “hitching a ride is Uber, hospitality is Airbnb, and when you are interested, you are a follower”.
Another Kiefer screens a looping slideshow of brands and popular icons from a macbook. These are handpainted with black acrylic, then digitised and reconfigured into a childish stream of animal cartoons rendered familiar via repetition and reminding its audience: the religion’s in the ritual. **