BY Jan Verwoert in Features | 01 MAR 10
Featured in
Issue 129

Mouth to Mouth

Working through abjection and attraction, the sculptures of the late Alina Szapocznikow engender the politics of emotion

BY Jan Verwoert in Features | 01 MAR 10

Yay, to have a mouth! To have lips to pout, open, suck and kiss; a tongue to taste, travel and explore the world; teeth to expose in a smile and dig into stuff. The delicious joys of the mouth! But also, alas, the curse of having a mouth! Filled with the bitter taste of memories one chokes on; a melancholy mouth that neither swallows nor spits things out but continues chewing, dismembering the remembered, in a ceaseless grinding motion of the teeth. Imagine a mouth that was both one of infinite joys and of endless mourning. I say this is the mouth of Alina Szapocznikow. Cast in bronze, cement, polyester or polyurethane, her mouth is many mouths. Like autonomous, disembodied, strangely alive beings, these mouths populate the world of her sculptures; with their sensuous, often luminescent lips, they present ports of entry to a body of work that speaks of sweetest ecstasy as much as of terrifying pain. To look at Szapocznikow’s work is to think of sculpture in oral terms. She writes:

‘Last Saturday, the sun was shining. Weary with polishing my Rolls-Royce made of pink marble from Portugal, I sat down and began to dream, chewing mechanically on my chewing-gum. While I was pulling astonishing and bizarre forms out of my mouth, I suddenly realized what an extraordinary collection of abstract sculptures was passing through my teeth. It suffices to photograph and enlarge my masticatory discoveries to create the event of a sculptural presence. Chew well and look around! The creation lies between dream and everyday work.’

Fotorzezba - Photo Sculpture 2, From the series 'Fotorzezby - Photo Sculptures', 1971/2007. Silver gelatin print, 30 x 24cm. Courtesy: Estate Alina Szapcoznikow, and Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne. 

Accompanying the text is a series of black and white photographs, ‘Fotorzez´by - Photo Sculptures’ (1971). In close-up, each image shows a piece of thoroughly chewed gum sitting on, sticking to or drooping from the ledge of what may be a marble plinth, cockily asserting its formless shape as a truly sculptural manifestation. The limousine Szapocznikow mentions exists, too. Hewn from marble, but meticulously polished so as to seem as soft to the touch as the most delicate skin, the medium-scale sculpture Rolls-Royce (1970) turns the luxury car into a love object one wants to take home and caress. This work is Pop: funny, gutsy, sexy and spot on in its delivery. It delivers itself and shares itself out most generously. Quite a number of Szapocznikow’s works, in fact, seem made to be multiplied. Rzez´ba-lampa VII (Lamp sculpture VII, 1970), for instance – a cast of a mouth with a light-bulb inside it, on a slender arm – is a fully functioning desk lamp. Szapocznikow made a series of these lights, and one could easily imagine them being mass-manufactured to illuminate bohemian homes everywhere with their glowing smiles. Then there are the ‘Fetysze’ (Fetishes, 1970): numerous small casts of lips in translucent coloured plastic, a whole shower of kissers as give-aways. These mouths look as if they themselves are for eating, like super-fruity gumdrops. Just imagine! Mouth eats mouth: a high of sheer oral pleasure.

Yet, there is also always another side to Szapocznikow’s work. Drooping gum also appears in a relief sculpture with the devastatingly laconic title Pogrzeb Aliny (Alina’s Funeral, 1970). Covered in gooey layers of molten polyester, portrait photos of unnamed individuals are stuck to a black panel, on the bottom edge of which another gum blob hangs, containing a photo of the artist half-wrapped in the striped fabric of a concentration-camp prisoner’s uniform. This funeral is of one, but also of many. Each face seems sealed within its own mortal cocoon, yet enmeshed in the tissue – in the living flesh of the world that binds them, us, together – every death is also shared. With her, and them, we keep dying. Death is not dead: the work keeps it alive. Hauntingly, Ekshumowany (Exhumed, 1955) does just this: a cement sculpture of a truncated body, its torso jerking forward and its mouth a gaping hole in an erased face, the work evokes the silent horror of seeing corpses unearthed from a mass grave. In rising forth, the depersonalized figure cries out for its humanity to be restored. Unappeasable, his call remains a permanent appeal for the avowal of the immeasurable suffering inflicted during the events of the Holocaust.

That which would seem hard to consolidate effectively co-exists in Szapocznikow’s work: an exuberant, life-affirming spirit and the insistent presence of inconsolable pain. The story of her life resonates equally with both. Born in 1926 to a Jewish family in Kalisz, Poland, Szapocznikow was sent at the age of 16 to the camps of Bergen-Belsen and Teresienstadt, via Auschwitz. Surviving, she left in 1947 for Prague, later moving to Paris, to study art. The onset of tuberculosis prompted her return to Poland in 1951, where, unable to conceive due to her sufferings in the camps, she adopted her son Piotr. Having represented her country at the 31st Venice Biennale in 1962, she moved back to Paris in 1963. She stayed in France until her death from cancer in 1973. To separate her life from her work seems hardly possible. (Not least because of the tragic circumstance that – as with Eva Hesse – melding plastics without protection from their toxic fumes most likely caused her cancer.) Nonetheless, to treat Szapocznikow’s work as though it were a mere symptom of the hardships she had to endure would be wrong. The strength of her work and her position as a woman artist may only ever be fully understood and celebrated if one recognizes Szapocznikow’s power to create through her art a space in which suffering is no longer an individual stigma but an experience that is shared collectively, as freely as a joy that exceeds all conventions.

In the male-dominated society and art world of the 1950s and ’60s, Szapocznikow’s career was marked not only by her traumatic past and poor health, but also by her gender. That she dared to charge her art with such strong affect is significant in this regard. Classified as woman’s work, affective labour – bearing the sorrows (of others) and giving the joys of sex – is traditionally relegated to the privacy of family life and thus veiled from the public eye. Not only did Szapocznikow lift this veil by openly performing the work of affect through her art; by claiming the politics of emotion as a subject for sculpture, she also freed it up to transform it into something that she, as an artist, was at liberty to shape. Neither the traumatic nor the ecstatic forces in her work must therefore be reduced to mere factors in an individual clinical record. They constitute affective charges that may have formed her as a person yet, by cumulating them in her works, Szapocznikow put them out there as emotional realities, socially establishing the possibility of sharing sorrow and pleasure in a different way. Defying the disciplinary logic of clinical diagnosis and social decorum alike, she freely and fearlessly avowed the labour of affect as a historical, social and sculptural principle. What a powerful woman! What a courageous artist!

Portret wielokrotny (dwukrotny) (Multiplied Portraid [double]), 1967. Coloured polyester resin, 29 x 44 x 37 cm. 

To grasp how Szapocznikow shapes emotional realities through her work thus requires taking a closer look at how she both confronts and creates these realities; how her courage to acknowledge their gravity goes hand-in-hand with a readiness to project other states of being and feeling. Take Portret wielokrotny (Multiplied Portrait, 1965), for example: a big lump of partially polished black marble forms its base, a torso of sorts, on which four polyester casts of the lower part of a woman’s face are stacked, each in a different colour, rising from muddy grey to fair skin tone. The scrap chunks of liquid plastic congealed in the ducts on either side of the casts are not cut off, so that they jut out from their jaws like muscles without limbs. It would be false to say that the lightness of the casts’ upward motion simply ‘overcomes’ the gravity of the base. It doesn’t. Rather, weightlessness and weight play off one another in the most peculiar way. The contrast between the stone’s unpolished and polished surfaces both emphasizes and suspends its mass. Similarly, the muscly protrusions add extra weight and drama to the half faces, while, at the same time, the act of sticking a couple of casts straight from the mould on top of each other has an exuberant, almost carefree quality. Affirming the presence of the burden to be wielded in the exposed weight of the stone and in the muscle work of casting does not, therefore, weigh the work down. On the contrary, the open process of becoming – celebrated in the multiplication of the half faces – receives its momentum precisely from this affirmation of gravity; it propels it.

A similar case could be made for the distinctive way in which Szapocznikow develops the tension between the affective forces of abjection and attraction in works such as La Couronne de la Mariée (Bride’s Wreath, 1968). Bulging out of a round opening in a big black polyurethane blob, a lump of grass-covered soil is punctured by a wild array of small cast mouths on stems. The blob opens to the side, like a toppled planter, or a huge muscle stretching around an orifice that disgorges grass and stick mouths. The sculpture amalgamates allusions to the faecal and the oral, to the body and to nature, so as to erase the distinction between defecation and growth, between something considered repulsive and something venerated as beautiful, between the excretion of dead waste and the blossoming of a flower – the kiss of life. In so doing, Szapocznikow intervenes in the politics of emotion that constitute social value. She messes with the internalized norms that determine what we recognize as desirable or repulsive, as worthy or unworthy (of love), as a precious good or mere reject. Jacques Lacan described the traumatic moment when all one is, lives for and wants to share is invalidated through rejection as being the reduction of one’s ability to give love to a ‘gift of shit’. Szapocznikow undoes this curse. Her anus–mouth sculpture shits forth love, life and kisses. This inversion of the order of desire is Pop politics. Pop can make a Funk of the stench. In her sculptures, Szapocznikow does just this: she makes the abject truly funky.

In this sense, Rzez´ba-lampa VI (Lamp sculpture VI, 1970) is as funky as they come. This small-scale work consists of the pink polyester cast of a slender erect penis, on the tip of which sits the cast of a split banana with a bright-red nipple and a red-lipped mouth affixed to it. It looks as tasty as a fresh-fruit sorbet. Suck and eat all you can. You can – everything is allowed. There are no prohibitions. Penises can be bananas can be nipples can be lips. Anytime. This is a revolt against the Oedipal order that makes only the forbidden seem desirable. How petty to need a law to violate in order to feel love! There’s no law against bananapenisnipplelips. Having them breaks no taboo. Through her sculpture, Szapocznikow opens a door to a world where the actuality of ecstasy exceeds the calculus of transgression. In union with the banananipplelips, the erection is even freed from its representative function as a phallic symbol to reveal, jubilantly, how, when put to good use, a penis can be fun for everyone.

Jumbling its parts, Szapocznikow dismembers the body, to re-member it in new couplings. Disintegration is transformed into a form of exultation that testifies to the presence of something unassimilable, even in the process of physical re-assembly. As memorials to dismemberment, her sculptures are equally odes to a different kind of joy. Wielkie brzuchy (Big Bellies, 1968) is such a monument, celebrating bodies in pieces that are all curves. The tall outdoor sculpture is carved from white marble to resemble two women’s bellies, one on top of the other, slightly askew. In fact, it’s the same belly doubled, and all the better for there being twice the amount of sensuous, soft, tubby rolls. Szapocznikow’s work triumphantly manifests the sensual intelligence of loving bodies for how they are. At the same time, she takes the liberty of dismembering them into previously unknown shapes, creating the first and only freestanding, single-double, extra-tubby superbelly.

The incredible force of Szapocznikow’s art comes from the artist bringing the work of affective labour out into the open through sculpture, thus actualizing the transformative powers that this labour can put into play. Play, in her work, has nothing to do with the swift catharsis achieved through acting out. Instead, it involves the courageous avowal of unassimilable pains and joys that fracture any image of readily reinstated self-identity. Her fragmented bodies remain foreign to the idea of wholeness. Yet there is freedom, reached precisely through this avowal and realized in exuberant moments of body parts connecting in ways that evoke feelings and forms of symbiosis beyond all laws. Coming undone is growing together. One face disperses into multiple mouths, the singer splits into her many songs, clearing the stage for a choir of disembodied lips to assemble and – with low and high, coarse and exquisite, profane and heavenly voices – sing in memory and praise of an artist and woman who dared to be so unapologetically affective, so seriously silly and so happily sad: Alina, Alina, Alina.

Jan Verwoert is a writer and contributing editor of frieze. He is based in Oslo, Norway. Cookie! (2014), a selection of his writings, is published by Sternberg Press.