FOREIGN BODIES Adam Zoltowski exhibition review

 

There is a silent drama in the space between the objects, the Foreign Bodies that is familiar yet out of time. The qualities of the objects themselves that are most readily available – anachronism inherent in the hand-crafted, monolithic-ness and a studied exotic – feed a trail of familiarity that leads inevitably to the Age of Enlightenment of the late 18th century where the Romantic artists, poets and writers held sway as the main opposition. Perhaps the most familiar of that group (at least for us now), was William Blake who received his angelic visions on Peckham Rye common in South East London. Lord Byron meanwhile, surely demanded silent reverence at sunset on the Grand Tour, crumbling ruin silhouetted against the sky. Visionary recalcitrant or dilettante beau, the movement’s motif across the spectrum was silent fertile tension brought about by the interplay between the exotic and the familiar. 200 years later and this interplay has perhaps come to define romance in the everyday sense of the word.

In bed or over a candlelit dinner for example, there’s the desire to join in harmony but there remains a foreignness to each other, and rather than candles or roses, this foreignness itself is the true place of romantic tension, the presence of which is almost tangible as if a third party were present.

In Foreign Bodies the third party is Anubis, an Egyptian deity, guardian of the afterlife and god of embalming. Anubis seems an explicit reference to the historical Romanticists and their pre-occupation with Egypt and the classical era, but therein lies a problem with the movement as a label for the show: Margaret Thatcher, expert at the re- modeling of identity tells us ‘Power is like being a lady… if you have to tell people you are,

you aren’t’. Anubis therefore, as an explicit historical reference, seems to be a pointer to more of a documentarian approach: An invested concern in the spirit of romanticism as a protest against the limitations of enlightened thought, which, effectively can take any form, or none at all. Documentarian as a better fitting co-ordinate is consolidated by the fabrication of Anubis which, in contrast with the two heads on crates, is constructed of angular planes and as such is on a sliding scale of corporealness between two- dimensional and three-dimensional. The authors of ancient hieroglyphs who represented figures in a ‘flattened’ way understood the singular visibility of one plane at one time, and even Giacometti says that it is as if other views cease to exist, and only in memory does the illusion of volume exist. So by dint of being the least volumetric, this reasoning leaves the collaborative painting on the wall to be an agent for the primacy or genesis of the show and is also perhaps fittingly the most lighthearted piece in the room.

Just as the elevation of walls surmount floors (and objects thereon), so heads preside over bodies. The mask-like heads on crates; Portrait of Monica and Blackbeard present a heaviness that again returns us to the Grand Tour whereby removing an ancient marble as memento of ones travels was commonplace and led to the great collections. Consider that fragments – an arm or a belly – were often all that remained of the statue, so discovery of the head would be cause for excitement as a superior trophy. Conversely, perhaps a complete marble was made available to the selfsame tourist but the volume of cargo he could bring back on the ship was limited and so the body deliberately hacked off and only the head taken.

This has a bearing on Foreign Bodies in that the crates – likewise born out of the necessity of safely transporting the head fragments, (which like follies are of a whole that never was) – have re-vitalised conviction as both physical support and inclusion in an aggregate narrative.

What is on display out of its crate can just as easily be put away in its crate; buried under a mound, in a pyramid tomb or in a warehouse or garage. It’s inviting to relate the head/crate with legacy. Museums tell us that the reason sarcophagi resemble the features of the dead person is so that the Ba or ‘personality’ recognizes itself and returns to reside there, to live after the body dies. So we could speculate that the heads are self-portrait masks with an express intent.

This hubris however, belies a crucial aspect of the Romantic gesture and one that Foreign Bodies shares with its ostensible subject matter, that of an elastically playful/melancholic disposition towards belief. Friedrich Schlegel, literary critic of the Romantic era wrote that poetry ‘should forever be becoming, and never be perfected’ and is characterized by an oscillation between ‘enthusiasm and irony’.
In Foreign Bodies enthusiasm and zealousness of each object, their delight at being made, their existence in the world and their relationship to each other is plainly evident. Irony weaves through the work as the knowing refuge of failure, the knowingness of the vulnerability of hand-made objects and their present-day solecism.

Joseph Lichy February 2017