On entering Anna Virnich’s solo exhibition, ‘Sticky Note’, I was struck by the smell of something both floral and musky. I inhaled deeply because, although it was strange, the scent was familiar, almost comforting, like the odour of a loved one lingering on cast-off clothes. As I moved further into the gallery, towards a display of skyward-reaching black leather gloves on iron stands, subtle whispers and rustling sounds reached my ears, prompting me to look around for an unseen companion. In the main space, the smell intensified and its sources became evident: an untreated hanging calf skin to the left; an array of rubicund beeswax slabs to the right, strewn on the floor and doused with essential oils. What was missing in this melange of sounds, scents and skins was the one thing that usually brings them all together: a body.
It’s appropriate that Virnich probes the power of absence in her first solo exhibition in Vienna – the birthplace of psychoanalysis. According to Sigmund Freud, the fetish is a phenomenon of substitution. A male child, innately concerned that his mother’s lack of penis may herald his own castration, displaces his desire onto objects, which become fixation points of both involuntary longing and disgust. ‘Sticky Note’ confronts this ambivalent, visceral response head on, the works becoming stand-ins for that which was originally feared by the fetishist: flesh. Consider Object (all works 2017), a wall-mounted wax sculpture underpinned by fine wire and laced with oil. The title pointedly gestures towards the objectification of that which is fetishized, while the wire becomes a skeleton across which the pink-and-red-tinted wax is stretched, like skin. Although the form doesn’t congeal into a recognizable human figure, like the waxworks at Madame Tussauds, it seems to memorialize someone.
If Object is a representation of flesh on skeleton, then the pairing of Squeezed and the series ‘Lover’s Bone’ is a body deconstructed. The former comprises the aforementioned slabs of wax, haphazardly tossed across the width of the room, which range in hue from crimson to cream and are drizzled with essential oils like jojoba, jasmine and tonka bean. The ‘Lover’s Bone’ series, suspended directly above and fashioned out of silver, leather and chain, resembles the hanging hand-grips often found on public transport, except here the surface metal isn’t smooth and polished like that of its quotidian counterpart. Instead, it bears the imprint of the artist’s hand, ridged where the mould has seeped between her tightly clenched fingers. Piled up on the ground below, it is as if the excessively scented paraffin wax has been shorn from the silver stabilizers – a body skinned from the bone.
This idea of flaying imbues the leather gloves that stand in the adjacent room with additional significance. (The gloves, of course, are also made from skin that once dressed bone). Although shaped like, shaped for, hands, which can evoke tenderness and pleasure in others and ourselves, here the forms are inert and ornamental. Caress, however, a sound installation inspired by autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) videos, proves that pleasure is not necessarily tethered to touch. Largely catalogued on YouTube and often featuring people whispering, crinkling paper or scratching skin, ASMR sounds have the ability to trigger an involuntary tingling sensation that starts in the head, can run the length of the spine, and is sometimes referred to as a ‘head orgasm’. That Virnich’s own exploration of these subtle sounds can elicit similar shivers of pleasure (as her calf skin and beeswax musk can arouse a sensation of comfort) calls into disrepute Freud’s proposition that the physical penis (or lack thereof) is the very font of desire. All you need is a note – aural, olfactory, otherwise – that can really stick it to you.
Main image: Anna Virnich, ‘Sticky Note’, 2017, installation view, Galerie Nathalie Halgand, Vienna. Courtesy; the artist and Galerie Nathalie Halgand, Vienna