Pamela Rosenkranz (born 1979) is representing Switzerland at the 56th International Art Exhibition – Venice Biennale. Between virus and placebo, her work opens new ways of considering the materiality of art and the contamination of reality. For L’Officiel Art, she talks with art critic and curator Nicolas Bourriaud who has been reflecting on the question of speculative realism for several years.
“The way my referentiality operates might seem tricky, as it ignores a certain formality. I am obviously involved in the heritage of appropriation art but in a more open way, which is questioning immaterial property.”
“The purity of the product or the supposed transcendence of the artwork gets contaminated by the messiness of materiality. Be it paint, water bottles, the colour blue – there is no escape from reality.” PR
NICOLAS BOURRIAUD / Pamela, your work tries to build links between the human sphere and the world of objects, and life at its biological level. The forms you give to those links are very diverse, from an analysis of sexual attraction to skin colour, from atmosphere to medicine. So, as an introduction, I would like to ask you: how does your daily life interfere with your artistic activity, and vice-versa? How do you personally connect with biology and objects?
PAMELA ROSENKRANZ / I read a lot, mostly online. Around the year 2000 I realized that my obsession of reading literature in the form of books – mostly fiction – had secretly diminished. I somehow did not find the same concentration to read books from A to Z anymore and realized that I had started “reading” the Internet. I see it like a secondary literature to reality. Information that builds up into the content of human experience, which itself is fed by a lot of – often conflicting – information. The Internet – this has apparently been shown in neurological research – alters the brain and interferes with linear concentration. My practice as an artist is accelerating this phenomena, of course, as I have the freedom to do whatever interests me most. This freedom comes with a price: for example, medically-oriented escapades can develop into rather scary hypochondriac speculations. But then again such interests turn into something more fruitful, like when I started to pick subjects from art history instead. I followed threads that revealed how the early death of Yves Klein could have been caused by his practice, not in his own esoteric sense but in a medical, material way to understand what led to his cardiac arrest. This research process resulted in a work called Death of Yves Klein, a poem made of pre-emptive statements that were like warnings about his way of live and work to avoid a heart attack. So I am fond of new findings to challenge the way I see the world. I believe that everything is so much more than we think and can think of. We are part of very complex intertwined systems and we can only grasp aspects of this complexity through the means we have to perceive – although enormously extended by technological and scientific progress. What do our senses tell us, and how do we combine this information? The idea that we are more rational than other species because of the evolution of our brain is common sense, but the idea that, for example, the gut is very closely intertwined with our brain, and that a very complicated community of microbes, parasites and viruses influences the way we feel – and think! – is only just finding acceptance. The term “microbiome” – an ecological community of commensal, symbiotic, and pathogenic microorganisms that literally share our body space – dates back to the 90s. This topic is very tricky and challenges our understanding of ourselves. Certain microbes, for example the parasite toxoplasmosis, are neuro-active and alter not only our behaviour but our most existential feelings, like, for example, sexual attraction.
When I first encountered your work in 2011, through your series Express Nothing – paintings on emergency blankets – what struck me at first was the strategy consisting in using alreadyexisting forms: I thought about Yves Klein, or abstract expressionism, although it was clear that you manipulated those signs in order to convey a totally different meaning. In fact, as an artist, you behave like the viruses you often mention, using a specific body to invade another one… Is art a viral activity?
A virus is an interesting analogy: the virus – an agent that attaches itself to the cells within a host where it can reproduce – as a way to look at an idea invading a system via the senses. New art would come into the place of art history as a challenge to the immune system of the discourse. Generation after generation, art history would continue to alter the perception and vice versa. But what is a virus exactly? Viruses are ancient and there are trillions of viruses living in each of us right now. They have a bad reputation: virus means Ebola, HIV and probably rabies to us. Scary, potent, fast viruses to which the human system responds badly. But most viruses are a rather simple task for our immune system to handle and new research suggests that many viruses may actually be keeping us healthy: similar to the microbiotic constellation of bacteria and other microbes that are so crucial for our immune system, they “teach” us something. The works you mention try to go beyond what’s obvious and open something up that challenges these meanings. For instance skin-colour is a very beautiful but also very complicated material. The skin is the superficial appearance of our genetic and epigenetic history. Make-up is a way of deflecting a thorough interrogation – sunspots, blemishes, inflammation etc. “Incarnato” was the technique that painters – specialized in interpreting the tones of the skin in Renaissance painting originally – handle to indicate the state of emotion, health, heritage, origin, age etc. I originally made these works for a show called “Our Sun” in Venice 2009. It was about Venice as a sort of mausoleum that becomes this analogy for our heliocentric culture, a city or a spot where the Anthropocene becomes very obvious and where the threat of our extinction seems almost like everyday life. Skin-colour was introduced in my work as a liquid you could digest. A synthetic mix where the different ethnic heritages become a product with
a specific property. The way my referentiality operates might seem tricky, as it ignores a certain formality. I am obviously involved in the heritage of appropriation art but in a more open way, which is questioning immaterial property and further immateriality as such more generally, I think. Yves Klein is an element I chose to represent a hypostatic figure of modern art history; now I am interested in the Renaissance. Gentile Bellini and his interpretation of the processions of the relics in Venice in the Miracle of the Cross at the Bridge of San Lorenzo – where a relict of the cross fell into the canal under the bridge during one of the very popular processions – is an important reference at the moment. There were so many people gathering to experience the holiness and cure something, or also to socialize and show their ranks. Relics are elements that exemplify the placebo effect. One has to imagine that around the year 1000 there was an incredible market of all kinds of relics going on. Skulls, wooden parts from the cross, hair from Jesus, breast milk from the Virgin Mary and phials of blood of saints have been ingested to heal serious illnesses and have - apparently – created wonders. I am interested in breaking down immaterial property into material property, you could say. Not just water but also air, health, beauty, access, community, attention or even just optimism are economical goods, embedded in a natural order. At the moment I am very interested in the phenomenon of belief, you can call it a material review of “holy waters”. There are scientific speculations that religions, as cultural movements, might be entangled in a complicated community sharing their microbial structures. And why not think this even further: might the art community also be somehow guided by the secret structures of microbes?! Your work fosters a dialogue with neuroscience, which could be summed up by this important question: how do we connect biologically with art? Actually, it raises a preliminary question. Is an artwork different from any other type of object?
I am always asking myself what art actually does with us, with our view of the world, with our thinking? I believe it has a lot of power to change the way we see things and how we deal with them. Art can develop consciousness for important issues that can not clearly be captured. I imagine that art fabricates very specific and inseparable complexes of intertwined thoughts and feelings. Apparently we register the motives of art neurologically as movement. Even if we look at a monochrome painting our brain activates the same region that it uses to detect a predator or to watch a ballet dancer’s performance or a soccer game. From a biological perspective, art triggers physiological responses and as it changes the brain – consequently it has the ability to change our thinking. Strategies used in advertising – which are based on the analysis of neurological response patterns – triggered my work with skin-colour. We are evolutionarily attracted and calmed down by skin-colour. There are pastel pink cells in prisons that transform aggressive criminals into baby lambs. I haven’t found research for other skin-colours yet, but I am more than convinced that next to pastel pink there are similar physiological effects with black, brown, yellow and certainly red skin. Apparently, this response is triggered by hormones reacting to the colour red – the blood that shines through our skin.
You describe art from the consequences it triggers, from the effects it produces, rather than from the point of view of the individual. Art could be defined, then, as the engineering of our presence within the material world. But can I ask you to reverse the perspective? In other words, how do you describe the impulse that brings you to make art? That is difficult to do as I cannot clearly see behind my motivations myself! I like the engineering analogy; probably it is mostly a reversal of that takes places in my motives though. I am looking at what kind of affects can be produced and how; what underlies our experience and understanding of, let us say, the beautiful or the disturbing and take elements out of these complexes, isolating them to create something I like to see as conscious “blocks.” In this sense I would also say that art is building a space for a specific presence, yes. It can develop a new consciousness, feelings and thoughts that become clear but inseparable at the same time. How does a commercial product get engineered, produced, and advertised? How does our identity get formed through a world of these engineered materials? As an artist, I can spend my time trying to look through these materials and surfaces and combine the sensory complexes as a language to capture and influence reality. Also classical painting is a construct in this sense. The purity of the product – such as water bottles, to take an example from my practice – or the supposed transcendence of the painted artwork gets opened up to show the mess of its materiality. Be it paint, water bottles, the colour blue – there is no escape from reality. I see the artwork as the specific combination of such elements that work through their meanings to become complex in a way that they cannot appear as anything other than art.
“Art can develop consciousness for important issues that have to be thought over more thoroughly. I imagine that art fabricates very specific and inseparable complexes of intertwined thoughts and feelings.” PR
Pamela Rosenkranz is represented by Miguel Abreu Gallery, New York City and Karma International, Zurich. MUST-SEE Switzerland Pavilion Pamela Rosenkranz: Our Product Curator: Suzanne Pfeffer Pavilion at Giardini 9 May - 22 November.