Plaster, used both for protective and decorative purposes in walls and ceilings, meets contemporary art on the intersection of the aesthetic and pragmatic, mostly due to its soft white aesthetic characteristic and fragile kinetic effects. In this short reflection, I will take a look at two artistic practices that both use the mentioned building material in order to explore various layers of destructive, even self-destructive, principles and phenomena of contemporary society. From death drive to the autonomisation of capital, the practices brush over multiple sides of what it means to fail at being ‘human’.
The practices at hand are namely that of Lenka’s Đorojević and Matej’s Stupica, I will focus particularly on the works ‘Neur-o-matic’ (2014) and ‘Mon-o-matic’ (2015), and that of Evelyn’s Loschy, concretely, the kinetic sculptures (2012-2016).
What I will try to reflect is the role and contribution of plaster in confronting the issues of the surface and its corresponding mechanisms, that are beginning to hold an ever more prominent position in contemporary art, as part of a wider inquiry into the figure of the surface accessible via future posts and publications.
To begin, I would like to present a basic outline of the two covered practices, beginning with that of Lenka Đorojević and Matej Stupica.
The artistic duo may soon be presenting their collaborative work process as part of a group exhibition at the Alkatraz Gallery, however what tends to be most relevant for my present reflection are the two installation projects dated back to 2014, one of which was also presented at the OHO Prize exhibition at the P74 Gallery (2015) and later on at the exhibition Crisis and New Beginnings: Art in Slovenia 2005-2015 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova (2015).
‘Neur-o-mat’ (2014) is an ambitious installation project consisting of several workstations made mostly from steel and plaster, which gives the office-like setting a specific artefactual appearance. I am not sure whether it is the soft white surface that resembles the whiteness of sculptural reproductions that gives the installation its anachronistic character or whether that is achieved by the implemented action-mechanisms (the plaster worksurfaces are bound to simple kinetic mechanisms, which torque the fragile surfaces inscribing them with dull marks and pushing them along the path of breakage). Whatever it is, the installation is marked by a disjointed temporality, where the action-effect relationality fails and space gets permeated with countless partial actions and spectral effects, freed from any undifferentiated corporeality.
This temporality serves as the common ground between ‘Neur-o-mat’ and ‘Mon-o-mat’. The latter being a conceptual analogue, different mostly on the structural level. That is, whereas ‘Neur-o-mat’ functions as a series of units (workstations) in direct relation with the space of their placement, ‘Mon-o-mat’ (2015) functions in an isolated environment, a fragment of the former, consisting only of a singular workstation encapsulated in a glass cube.
They both point towards the vestiges of work environments past or fleeting – to the office as a desk- or cubicle-filled room that is starting to give way to the technologic spatiality of the automated workforce of AI, as well as to the private quarters of the precarious self-employed, awarded the ‘privilege’ of using their own resources (space and equipment) for the profits of their ‘clients’.
However, beyond the mere referring, the works engage the structural lingering of gestures and partial actions that stand the tests of time or, better yet, becoming – the actions that survive the becoming space-time qualities of a state called functional. They bring forward a spectrality of capital, even if only on the surface level of its disappearing corporeality. And with it, dare I say, the beauty that oscillates between the effectiveness of its movement and the uselessness of its end result.
The works of Evelyn Loschy approach the surface (and plaster as its localisation) from a different direction. The Austrian artist, who has been recently featured in a group exhibition ‘Emotional Journey’ (2018) at the Bildraum Bodensee in Bregenz, finds plaster as a handy component of her kinetic and (self)-destructive sculptures. Her sculptures deal with the human form or its absence, sometimes in its general outline, most often as a conglomerate of a particular set of body parts, arranged around a single gesture or action.
‘Untitled’, or ‘kinetic sculpture number 4’ (2012), is in this regard constructed from two objects made from plaster, one in the shape of a head and the other of a hand. The two are interconnected with an iron mechanism that propels the hand against the plaster’s cheek, consequently forming a dull expanding denture. Whereas ‘nothing is for free’ (2013), a kinetic auto-destructive sculpture, approaches the body from the perspective of its absence, abstracted with an iron swing-like object that is mechanised with a repetitive action, propelling the bottom iron plate into the adjacent wall, thus forming a sharp horizontal denture.
What defines the two artworks is the element of (auto)destruction, introduced in relation to a certain subjectivity. In the first case quite literally, as destruction gets embedded in the very representative elements of the human subject interacting with the world, the hand and the head. The short-circuited intentionality leads to a re-orientation of the hand towards the head itself, reducing the whole drama of the human existence from the self-referential ability to think, from Descartes’ formula of ‘I think, therefore, I am’, to a certain glitch, a strictly repetitive gesture, that re-approaches the very question of subjectivity from the sole element of repetition. Whereas in the second case, the reduction of the literal imagery to a simple iron construction condenses the focus on the mechanism, not necessarily the motor powering the movement, but the subjective mechanisms making the movement eerily palpable. The thin denture shifts the focus from the figure of the subject whole, yet simultaneously disjointed, to a simple element of rigid fragility that tends to articulate the perils of the contemporary human condition.
As it has thus become clear there is a certain similarity between the two presented artistic practices. The element of destruction tied to a particular building material, plaster, that does not hold a marginal role, but guarantees instead the most needed combination of simplicity, a semblance of a clear surface, and the fragility or the inability of inscription. As such it guarantees a surface that is at the same time a surface ideal for the placement of marks, be it already implicitly present or newly introduced, and unable to bear their weight, at all.
This combination ascribes the material the status of an impossible abstraction, or better yet the paradox of abstraction itself. It drives the applied shapes, imagery and things into a fragile void, where the semiotic field reinstates itself, momentarily.
And here is where things become interesting. Not only that the plaster material is tied to the similarities of the two practices, but it also moves and rearranges their differences. Focused on the material the two practices are not only familiar, but become utilised by the very surface they inscribe, mushing their conceptual cores into a larger conceptual entity.
This means, that even though they both address the element of destruction through autonomous partial actions and gestures in order to access a certain level of contemporary social phenomena, their primary objects of inquiry differ radically. The practice of Lenka Đorojević and Matej Stupica is defined by their structural approach, where subjectivities are at best fragmented into ‘subjectives’ – effects still dependent on the agency of the subject of a more classical account (most apparent with the piano, serving as the causal trigger for the movement of ‘Neur-o-mat’, engaged by a human stroke of the piano keys), yet form an autonomous level with its own spatial-temporal qualities. Whereas Evelyn Loschy, inversely, creates figures that are in their basic constitution completely autonomous, yet in the produced effects still dedicated to the existentialist expression of the disjointed contemporary subject.
To make it simple, even though they pose different questions using similar artistic strategies, their works put forward a diametrically opposite, inverse treatment of the contemporary subject in relation to its own contemporaneity. Perhaps pointing towards some sociopolitical differences between two similar, yet distant, art scenes in which the artists are most present and active. Although such conclusion would be difficult, if not impossible, to make at this point.
What is more pertinent is that the momentarily reinstated semiotic field of the plaster not only makes possible, but also itself shapes the positions of the ones giving it form. Even though automatisation and arbitrariness are constitutive for the actual surface shapes of the installations or sculptures, they end up being tied to two inverse designs. The surface, therefore, crumbles, reinstates itself, and then splits into a false dialectics of contemporary social anxiety, graspable by the schematic binary of structure-existence. The material does indeed help the projects achieve consistency and palpability in their conceptual design, but for the most part, by its crumbling character mirrors the shifting of the sense-making apparatus giving it form.
The schemata, as that of structure-existence, cannot pose a problem concerning art, but can moreover be thought only on the level, where the complex of sensory effects take place. That is, on the level of the aesthetic figure of the surface. This gives plaster as much agency as the two interesting art practices utilising it. It makes it an artistic force in itself. An absurd notion, whose absurdity itself speaks on the complexities of the sense and meaning dynamics constitutive for the contemporary state of art. Yet if schematism of theoretic thought engages only its phantasmagorical potential, what tools are at our disposal to deal and potentially unravel its complexity?
Access to visual material and project descriptions:
Lenka Đorojević – https://djlenka.wordpress.com
Matej Stupica – http://www.matejstupica.net
Evelyn Loschy – http://www.galerie-stock.net/en/el-evelyn-loschy