Sidsel Meineche Hansen
Focusing on the notion of corporeal memory, the group exhibition Late Barbarians explores how shifting social codes and cultural values have been embodied in canonical Western European art and architecture.
The exhibition takes its title from an expression by German sociologist Norbert Elias, which suggests that our future descendants may eventually consider us to have lived during an extended medieval period, implying that we share far greater affinities with our Barbarian forefathers than we might like to think (1). Similarly, the works on show question linear interpretations of history, invoking a present that is haunted by the gestures of our ancestors.
Paying particular attention to art historical representations of the body, photographs by Matts Leiderstam propose a queer re-reading of the gestures depicted in Renaissance paintings, whereas Lili Dujourie’s abstract, single-take “dances to camera” attempt to divorce particular habits of the body from their entrenched social connotations. In contrast, a new commission by Sidsel Meineche Hansen entitled HIS HEAD (2013-) comprises a clay sculpture and symposium that together examine the male human head, separate from the body, as a symbol of patriarchy and power.
Other video works in the exhibition explore reflections of the self in historical art and architecture. Juan Downey’s The Looking Glass (1981) decodes the iconography of the mirror in paintings housed in famous European museums and heritage sites, considering them as tokens of an adopted culture. Sharing Downey’s incisive humour, Chris Marker’s Pictures at an Exhibition (2008) presents a virtual exhibition tour in the online world of Second Life that weaves together personal and collective histories in an ad-hoc museum for the digital age.
Each photograph in Matts Leiderstam’s After Image series (2010–12) shows open pages of different art books or exhibition catalogues, with magnifying glasses or the artist’s own hands directing our attention towards particular details in their reproductions of classical paintings, underlining hidden erotic, camp or queer connotations. By prompting a re-reading both of these historical artworks and the gestures they depict, Leiderstam reveals the parallels between the hidden codes of the body – which either express or conceal gender, class or sexual orientation – and the hidden meanings of the paintings themselves.
In Lili Dujourie’s video works Madrigaal (1975), Speigel and Enjambement (both 1976), it is the artist herself who embodies a litany of gestures inherited from the Western pictorial tradition. We see her experimenting with everyday movements and poses in domestic environments, from lying on the floor to leaning against a mantelpiece. Only ever framed by single, long takes, her gestures are constantly repeated, and poses re-struck. With an insistent simplicity and repetitiveness these videos slowly turn seemingly unremarkable habits of movement into a series of abstract “dances to camera”. With the artist often appearing naked, they also critically appropriate the art historical female nude, implicating the viewer in a feminist critique of the representation of women on camera.
Dujourie’s sculpture Sela (1990) also makes reference to art history through its use of marble – a highly loaded material often associated with the excesses of the Baroque, but here employed with subtle scale and form. Like her videos, this work also mutes the grandeur, drama and implicit maleness that are synonymous with this art historical period and the artistic canon more generally.
Shifting the focus from femininity to maleness, a new commission by Sidsel Meineche Hansen entitled HIS HEAD (2014) examines the male human head – separate from the body – as a symbol of patriarchy and power. The work comprises a clay sculpture and symposium exploring how the head has been differently figured in projects as diverse as Asger Jorn’s (1914–1973) radical archaeology and the political anthropology of Pierre Clastres (1934–77).
Looking at the role of the museum in determining our experience of canonical art and cultural history, Chris Marker’s video Pictures at an Exhibition (2008) takes the form of a virtual exhibition tour. The work takes its title from the 1874 piano suite that Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky wrote in response to Viktor Hartmann’s exhibition at the Academy of Fine Arts in Saint Petersburg that year, following Hartmann’s sudden death at the age of 39.
Riffing on this historical account, Marker’s video guides us through the bright, pinkish walls of a virtual museum or “XPlugs gallery” in Second Life – an online world that captured Marker’s attention in the latter part of his life. The slow panning camera first enters this space through a short corridor, at the end of which we arrive in a small room in which two images are displayed, each with captions beneath. Settling for a few seconds at first on the image in front, the camera then pans left, eventually resting on the second image for the same length of time. Twisting clockwise 180 degrees, the camera then leaves this room and enters another just like it through a corridor also just like the first. In this way, Marker imprisons us in a repetitive museum-cum-maze, with only his Photoshopped images and their corresponding captions changing as the video progresses.
With characteristic humour, these iconoclastic combinations of image and text conflate art historical, socio-political and everyday references. At one point, for example, we pause on a bastardised version of Jacques-Louis David’s La Mort de Marat (The Death of Marat, 1793) in which the protagonist looks as though he was leaning over, somewhat irked, having just answered the telephone to an accidental phone call. The caption below reads “SORRY WRONG NUMBER”. Elsewhere an old-fashioned CRT computer screen is inserted into Édouard Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe (The Luncheon on the Grass, 1862-63), obscuring the women on the left-hand side of the painting, with the caption transforming the painting’s title to “THE LUNCH ON THE WEB”. Other scenes incorporate images of historical events, such as the Vietnam War, thus weaving together art and social history via Marker’s highly idiosyncratic imaginary.
Finally, Chilean artist Juan Downey’s video essay The Looking Glass (1981) explores the meaning of mirrors and reflections in Western art and culture. Playing the role of a TV presenter, the artist visits a number of European and North American museums and heritage sites, from the Sir John Soane Museum in London to the palace of Versailles on the outskirts of Paris, occasionally interviewing directors or staff.
At each location he, or one of several guides, draw our attention to particular architectural features, such as Versailles’ hall of mirrors or El Escorial’s reflecting pool, and sometimes recount the habits and vices of the historical figures that once inhabited them, such as Louis XIV or Marie Antoinette. With the aid of early computer graphics, Downey then embarks on an analysis of the rich iconography of the mirror in the modern and classical paintings held in their collections, from Hans Holbein’s Ambassadors (1533) to Pablo Picasso’s Jeune fille devant un miroir (Girl Before a Mirror, 1932) and, most significantly, Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas (Maids of Honour, c. 1656).
Having lived and worked in New York for most of his life, Downey quite literally reflects on these landmarks of European and American cultural heritage from the perspective of a non-Westerner who has adopted Western culture, with the recurring motif of the mirror signifying, above all, his changing sense of self.
Late Barbarians is the second exhibition of The Civilising Process, a yearlong programme of exhibitions and events at Gasworks inspired by Norbert Elias’s eponymous 1939 book, which looks at the development of the tastes, manners and sensibilities of Western Europeans since the Middle Ages. Between October 2013 and November 2014 Gasworks is working with invited artists to tackle a wide range of issues raised by this book in an attempt to understand their relevance for contemporary debates and practices.
(1) 'In reality, we are all late barbarians' (1989) Interview with Helmut Hetzel. First published as ‘Norbert Elias: im Grunde sind wir alle späte Barbaren’, Die Welt, 11 December 1989. Translated from the German by Edmund Jephcott.
HIS HEAD Symposium
Saturday 8 February, 3 – 6pm
Convened by artist Sidsel Meineche Hansen with contributions from Niels Henriksen, a PhD candidate at Princeton University, and Thomas Boutoux, a founding member of castillo/corrales in Paris, this symposium will address the divergent connotations of the male human head. Currently developing his thesis on the radical archaeology of Danish artist Asger Jorn (1914-1973), Niels Henriksen’s presentation will focus on the medieval stone carving of “the double head” from Jorn’s personal image archive. Thomas Boutoux, on the other hand, will apply his interests in French political anthropologist Pierre Clastres (1934-1977) and the theory of the “headless leader” to questions surrounding the role of the state in the current production of art in France.
The Thinking Eye Screening & Presentation
Wednesday 26 February, 6.30 – 9pm
A rare screening of videos from Juan Downey’s The Thinking Eye series, including: Information Withheld (1983, 34 min, colour, sound) and Shifters (1984, 28:10 min, colour, sound). Originally made for public television, these remarkably ambitious and tacitly autobiographical videos show Downey drawing on linguistic, psychoanalytic, art historical and semiotic theory to unravel some of the foundational concepts of Western culture, such as the idea of “the self”.
This work will be introduced and placed in context by writer and curator Julieta González, adjunct curator at the Bronx Museum in New York and senior curator at the Museo Rufino Tamayo, Mexico City, where she curated Juan Downey: A Communications Utopia in 2013.
Thanks to Marilys Belt de Downey and Ellen Wettmark
Sidsel Meineche Hansen's project HIS HEAD is presented in collaboration with South London Gallery, with support from the Danish Arts Council. The second part of the project, THIS IS NOT A SYMPTOM, will take place at South London Gallery in autumn 2014.