Who we are and why should it matter in the 21st century, New Art Exchange, January-February 2015)
What do we know and what do we believe, Surface Gallery, 22-28 March 2015
I first came across Chiara Dellerba’s work in the New Art Exchange Gallery, where it was sandwiched in the spaces between the two main galleries, respectively presenting the installations by Mahtab Hussain and Sunil Shah. As evident from its title, Who we are and why should it matter in the 21st century, Dellerba’s work is engaging with Gary Younge’s bestseller of the same name, translating it into an interactive symbolic journey involving visual representation and spatial movement. Each of those artists offered their tribute to the transformation effected by migration - Shah’s Uganda Stories focusing on the life anticipating expatriation, and Hussain’s The Commonality of Strangers portraying the individuals in the aftermath of their immigration. In this context, Dellerba’s work seemed to represent the event of transformation itself: as a sort of contained explosion, a series of progressive, expansive movements emanating from a blur which on a closer inspection reveals itself to be a human fingerprint.
On the stark white blank of a wall, the blurry fingerprints seem to grow out of proportion, vibrating or floating in a manner suggesting the wave dynamic. The waves encompass both sides of the corridor with a staircase leading to and from the exhibitions by Shah and Hussain. In effect, Dellerba presents herself as a hierophant, a facilitator of a certain symbolic journey involving a climb and a descent, as if in a dream. Our engagement with her art correlates with our progressive movement in space, up and down the stairs. In Younge’s work, humanity, our “strong” unifying identity, simultaneously asserts and dissolves the concept of a constructed, political identity that is much weaker than the former concept, and which can change and multiply rapidly.
Dellerba’s work seems to symbolize this duality by relying on the contrasts between black and white, the soft blurs and the sharp, finely pencilled lines. A corridor and a staircase suggest transition, the interchangeability of progress and regression, a communality of strangers, a collective identity. In addition, I remembered Plato’s Allegory of the Cave (The Republic VII ), where human lives are said to be lived in a dark cave full of shadows unless those humans dare to undertake a mystical journey to self-discovery facilitated by Socrates. Obviously, Dellerba offers Plato’s cave in the negative, substituting its overall black for the stark white, her fingerprint blurs offering a form of enlightenment. How so? On a second look, the pulsating blurs seem to represent circles spreading on the water surface. Seen as such, they negate the material consistency of the wall, melting it away, re-representing it as something else. In effect, they seem to collapse our concepts of reality. Dellerba’s negation of reality brings to mind Plato’s chora, the place where chaos is transformed by being assigned a certain meaning, and its binary opposite, the kalon (the beautiful, the good, the one). Semantically and semiotically, the duality is suggested by Dellerba’s first name, “Chiara”, meaning “the light, the clear, the transparent” yet collapsable into chora, a place that, according to Derrida, “cannot be represented, except negatively... so it is a challenge to anything solid, to architecture as something built”. In Revolution in Poetic Language, Kristeva defines chora as the “place where the subject is both generated and negated”. In layman’s terms, chora is a gap, a break in time and space, the death and a new life of a meaning. The notion of gap is given additional significance in Dellerba’s new project, apparently a sequel to the New Art Exchange exhibition. In the installation What do we know and what do we believe, taking place in the Surface Gallery, our knowledge and belief(s) are reassessed in a form of an airy event involving the interchangeability of five elements, represented by natural and plastic materials, the familiar contrasts of black and white, lines and blurs, a postminimalist mobile installation - and a Martha Graham-style dancer.
On the day of Dellerba’s exhibition launch, the lower gallery hosted a so-called Death Cafe, a reading performance by Dr Peter Day dedicated to his late father, carried out in a manner incongruent with what we commonly “know” and “believe” of the grim reaper. On the upper floor gallery, Dellerba’s installation offered a sophisticated hommage to Eva Hesse (1936-1970), the Sylvia Plath of visual arts who used to be painfully self-conscious of the gap between her identities as a “woman” and as an “artist”, as well as of her essential uprootedness as a Jewish exile who barely survived the Holocaust by escaping to the USA. Hesse’s parents divorced soon after their expatriation, and her mother committed suicide when Hesse was ten. In 1965, Hesse revisited her ex-fatherland and spent a year living and working in Essen. Despite the collapse of her marriage, the sojourn was pivotal to Hesse’s artistic development. According to Arthur C. Danto, Hesse “learned to cope with emotional chaos by reinventing sculpture through aesthetic insubordination, playing with worthless material amid the industrial ruins of a defeated nation that, only two decades earlier, would have murdered her without a second thought”.
On her Facebook page, Dellerba advertises her upcoming event by sharing a quip from Hesse: “I would like my work to be non-work, to find its way beyond my preconceptions, to go beyond what I know and can know. It is something. It is nothing”. On the hint from Hesse, Dellerba employs ludism, repetitiveness and the “immediacy” of inconsistent forms. As with the vibrating fingerprints on the walls of the New Art Exchange - by this time whitewashed - one wanders what will happen to the anti-forms exhibited in the Surface Gallery. According to Dellerba, we can rest assured that they won’t last for long:
I purposely intended to make the installation an inconstant one: I never want it to be the same. It ideally will adapt itself to the place that hosts it. Just like our skin that changes, breathes and moves. And like a liquid body that finds new escape routes, new solutions to emerge from stagnation and gravity.
This resistance to basic material given, the physical mass multiplied with gravity, appears to stand for what we “know”, as opposed to what we “believe”, which might yet be less constant - echoing her previous exhibition in the New Art Exchange as well as Plato, for whom we dwell in the gap between that which always is, being, and that which never really is, becoming (Timaeus, 28 A). Apparently, Dellerba offers “beliefs” represented by a certain set of visual metaphors as a bridge across the gap of chora and the kalon, the given and the ideal. The arrangement of her exhibition in Surface Gallery is dominated by a central installation, a mobile improvised from thin tree branches, A3-paper sheets and nearly invisible fishing wire. The mobile imposes circular, anti-clockwise movement, starting from the staircase ending at the gallery entrance and proceeding sidewise, along the white walls with transparent acetate sheets with cryptic signs painted in bold black lines. Those could be shamanic drawings or a child’s doodlings: the symbols left by a very old or a very young self. On a closer inspection, I could not trace the same sign, nor even the same movement of the brush twice. On the other hand, I was aware of the repetitiveness imposed by the circular movement of the whole installation, suggesting we go on and on around its axis, the mobile which looks like a high-tech version of a dream-catcher, or a hint of a tree growing a sort of Sibillyne leaves. Each of the A3 sheets contained a double-sided riddle, consisting in shapes drawn in soft, archaic lines and accompanied by blurs suggesting mismatched shadows beckoning from the mysterious “other side”. When I crossed the room to take a look at the suggested other side, I was surprised to discover that the sheets were NOT transparent: the other side of each sheet contained a separate drawing, again a primordial soft shape accompanied by an incongruent blur!
Who, or what, is this blur, this hint of a shape, of an entity?
The dilemma was mirrored by the talented Jessica Murray, whose ritualistic, circular dancing seemed to echo Chiara / chora in her creative process. This time, the semiotic of Chiara / chora leads to the ancient archetype of Kore / Demeter, involving the duality of a grown woman and her inner child, responsible for the creativity and playfulness of the adult. In Aspects of the Feminine, Jung states that Kore “often appears in woman as an unknown young girl ... the dancer ... the corybant, maenad, or nymph”. The ancient Greek associations were highlighted by a rite performed by Jessica Murray at the beginning of her performance. Dressed in an anti-form black tunic, the dancer solemnly marked her space by pouring sand from a clay jug on the ground in form of a circle. Then, she began to spin around in a form of a self-involved ritual, a true child at play, her eyes half closed as if looking within. She stomped her feet, kicking and shifting the sand, creating and undoing her own footprints, swirling around, her black tunic suddenly assuming a perfect, circular form, suddenly evocative of Dellerba’s garb (again, evocative of Armani’s classics).
The perpetuum mobile presenting (and presented by) Chiara Dellerba did justice to the “we” used in the titles of both exhibitions. Her two respective installations seem to represent a collective mystery rite on the hint from vastly popular Eleusinian Mysteries, the only true religion of ancient Greece literally pivoting on the political identity of a woman (albeit a goddess). In Dellerba’s ritual, art and its endless sources conveniently replace ideologies and god(s) in a contemporary and very metropolitan way, asserting the supra-political, human identity promoted by Gary Younge. In this view, she credits many of her fellow-artists (i.e. Laura Rossi, Antonio Stone Guerrieri, Imma O. Incandenza, Maria Rosaria Digregorio, Thomas Chamberlain, Primi Tivo, Jez Kirby, Mik Underwood, Kamila Gavlowska, Chris Barrow) for helping her with her installation. And we, - here I mean us from the other side, the audience - thank Chiara Dellerba for having included us in her play, which we enjoyed and learned from. Serie ludo.