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Issue 147

Human Capsules

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BY Raphael Gygax in Reviews | 01 MAY 12

Human Capsules, installation view, 2012

‘Human Capsules: Eight Female Artists from the Ursula Hauser Collection’ at the Lokremise (a converted railway roundhouse now billed as a trans-disciplinary ‘cultural laboratory’ and regularly used for projects by curators from Kunstmuseum St. Gallen) features works from the collection of Ursula Hauser, who has close familial and programmatic ties to Hauser & Wirth (more than half of the artists in the show are also represented by the gallery). This signals a problematic issue, namely, the fading boundaries between what many consider a troublesome trinity: public institution, gallery and private collection. These tensions aside, the exhibition brings together these eight artists – Phyllida Barlow, Louise Bourgeois, Berlinde De Bruyckere, Rachel Khedoori, Maria Lassnig, Carol Rama, Loredana Sperini and Alina Szapocznikow – for the first time, and each is represented by a large group of works. Reflecting the art-historical revisionism that began at the start of the new millennium, many of these artists have recently earned attention in an international context through several retrospectives – the latest example being Szapocznikow, whose retrospective (including works from the Ursula Hauser Collection) will, after Brussels and Los Angeles, travel to the Museum of Modern Art in New York in October.

‘Human Capsules’ opens with a kind of proscenium arch featuring a group of drawings, collages and a sculpture by Rama dating from the 1950s through to the early 2000s. Like two nearby sculptures by Bourgeois, these pieces are characterized by an erotico-poetic vocabulary. Bourgeois’ Spiral Woman (2003) – a textile, hybrid figure with human legs and a spiral upper body, suspended from the ceiling at the gallery’s entrance – was, for curator Konrad Bitterli, a prime example of the exhibition’s main theme, which he describes as ‘the decisive moment of gaining independence’ from ‘being imprisoned in one’s own body and in the world’. Lokremise’s main hall, with its seven-metre-high ceiling and 500 square metres of floor space, provides an expansive theatre stage for this theme, presenting an abundance of sculptures and objects. (Lassnig’s paintings, which hang on a large wall at the end of the space, are the exception). This sprawling installation, however, raised the question of whether less might have been more, or whether this sculptural battlefield, with its unmercifulness to individual works, was precisely the right approach.

One of the show’s main motifs is that of the fragmented body – either that of the human form or of purely abstract figures. In the tradition of artistic responses to the physical traumas of the 20th century, these artists view the body or its volume not in terms of unity but of plurality. They freely combine its components, as a fragile shell that can be hollowed out or forced to take on almost any form – be it Sperini’s delicate porcelain sculptures (Untitled, 2007–2011), grotesque bodies assembled out of fragments partly retrieved from the rubble of World War II, or Barlow’s monumental sculpture RINK (2011) made of grey ring-like slabs separated and held in balance by salmon-pink wedges.

The exhibition’s best quality (apart from bringing together these 45 extraordinary works) lays in the way that – over and again – it confounds clear attributions, allowing the works to retain their unruliness within a shared context. Though the works did not appear to be positioned specifically to create dialogues among them, this curatorial strategy does create a productive, almost friendly coexistence. Nevertheless, ‘Human Capsules’ might best be described as a generational portrait painted apart from a historical or feminist one (one need only think of Bourgeois’ response when asked if she was a feminist: ‘I am a woman, so I don’t need to be a feminist’). It was a meeting that was long overdue.

Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Raphael Gygax is an art historian and critic. He lives in Zurich, where he has worked at the Migros Museum of Contemporary Art since 2003.

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