In medieval Europe, knighting ceremonies could end with a sovereign slapping a new knight in the face. Impudence sometimes finds a place within decorum. For Maria Loboda, benign artefacts like flower arrangements or wall designs hide bad manners, military pursuits and slow-working poisons – the secret lives of power.
At dOCUMENTA (13), Loboda launched a slow ambush on the Orangerie by showing 20 cypress trees, which were moved at night through Karlsaue Park. The trees – staples of baroque gardens and labyrinths yet planted in orange pots – seemed to inch their way across the park in formations reminiscent of chess moves, dance steps or bird flights. In fact, This Work is Dedicated To An Emperor (2012) is based on principles in the writer Vegetius’s 4th-century De Re Militari_(Concerning Military Matters), the only complete extant account of strategy from the late Roman Empire. Loboda used this text – with some help from a contemporary military strategist and from Shakespeare’s _Macbeth (c. 1606) – to devise her attack-by-dissemblance. The emperor to whom her work and Vegetius’s treatise are dedicated is unknown (lost to history), as is the target of the trees.
Operating by deception, Loboda’s sculptures first appear mannerly, even quaint: she cops designs from nature (sticks, garlands) and chooses objects with a certain propriety (napkin rings, a thin metal chain) or even ones that are jejune (potted plants). The result is cool and stony, devoid of ornament. But there’s something baroque in the biting backstories behind many of her works. Ah, Wilderness (2010) features trees that would naturally edge each other out in a forest; the abstract Wiener Werkstätte design in Walldrawing (Arsenic, Cyanide, Mercury, Lead) (2010) makes use of poisons once found in naive-seeming colors like Prussian blue and vermilion. A phrase from Ivan Turgenev takes the form of a pearl-like flask in Curious And Cold Epicurean Young Ladies (2011). This piece alludes to catalysts: not only as fictional figures who precipitate conflict but also as chemicals. The platinum-coated flask, tightly shut and dangling from the ceiling, contains helium. Since platinum is a catalyst for explosive reactions between helium and oxygen, the piece is a silent bomb in the form of an accessory.
Even after these stories are teased out, the works don’t really invite viewers in but seem to elbow them out. A Guide To Insults and Misanthropy (2006) rewards contemplation with vindictiveness. Loboda used the Victorian language of flowers to choose the plants for a ho-hum vase; according to floriography, each plant stands for a word, including insults and undesirables (marigold means vulgar-minded, iris is horror). An innocent-looking bouquet becomes a pot of Shakespearean epithets. Aesthetic feeling – connection or empathy – is best supplanted by irony and effrontery. Meaning, despite appearances, is not always so pretty.
Any closed system – secret codes, early scripts, flower-language, the philosophy of William Morris’s Arts and Crafts movement – seems up for grabs. Her installation That’s How Every Empire Falls (2011) relies upon a system – similar to binary code – which was developed by the scholastic philosopher and statesman Francis Bacon (1561–1626). Loboda used his rudimentary code to translate the piece’s title into heaps of silverware on a set table. (Hint: each heap stands for one word from the title while the colour combinations of the napkin rings spell out individual letters.) Here, the fall of empire is transmuted through a philosopher-statesman’s cipher, which represents the language of both espionage and empiricism, both subterfuge and clarity.
The content of Loboda’s pieces is often deliberately opposed to their mode of presentation. She describes this approach as one of antagonism – the opposition of form and content is not foreign, say, to the symbolic language of medieval allegories or fables (alchemy is also cited as a source). Such tactics are neither a nostalgic mining of history, nor a thoughtless piling-on of references. Rather, Loboda is attuned to how fungible our disciplines are. In outmoded fields – alchemy or Roman military strategy – one can catch a glimpse of the regimes of truth we accept today (like chemistry or Darwinism).
Loboda says that growing up in Poland around the remains of Communism allowed her to witness the movability of iconic forms: how the ideology and aesthetics of a regime can be taken down overnight. Superstition and certainty commingle; we live in both an era of neo-Enlightenment and the pagan Dark Ages. Each of the two digital prints that make up Peril and the Absence of Peril (2011) show the same cartoon figure in 18th-century dress cowering in a classical temple which seems to be floating, dangerously, in space. In one version, the word ‘Peril’ hovers next to the man; in the other, the warning is missing – a lacuna that somehow makes the situation all the more precarious.