Monika Weiss: Five Rivers Installation, drawing, performance, video and sound
September 6 December 16, 2005
trap shall be your shelter: the hidden desires and public appearances
myself about the most important features of Monika Weiss's art, I understood
that its core is based on finding her own mode to display the performing
body and art as a process, while maintaining a mixture of methods of representation
and documentation. There are several, overlapping and inter-textually
corresponding, layers of how the body is exposed and represented. It is
a very specific going or - according to its features - crawling from the
mobile to the frozen state of the body and back again. Extremely personal,
even intimate, the art of Monika Weiss strikes us by the way it merges
performance, drawing and sculpture as well as sound and media art. Here,
the more traditional artistic forms merge with those that appeared later
and expand the notion of the artist's body, its representation and medialisation.
The way the artist approaches the idea of the performing body in the gallery
space and outside of it and the way she integrates drawing into the performative
art and the media creates strong relationships between all the constituents.
In a conversation with Nathalie Angles, Weiss once said, "My works
consist of elements that come both from past and from present, bringing
evidence of action, bearing traces, visual or virtual, of something that
has happened. In that sense both drawings and installations are performative."
2 It seems to be formative for her practice to maintain different time
paths and systems of recordings to approach the generally unsubstantial
features of ephemeral work.
have no dramaturgical plot; there is no key moment or spectacular finale.
It seems to be a practice for its own sake, gaining and losing its intensity
throughout time. The presence of the viewer is not always required: the
artist refers in her talks to the situation, when the public had already
gone and she was found in a chalice by the gallery employees, no less
astonished by the situation than she herself. She provides herself and
the audience with separated and dissimilar encounters. The one related
to her own experience is based more on sensing through the body and the
tactile, haptic component plays the significant role. The one of the viewer
is more connected with perception through the eyes and ears and the general
relation with the space. Weiss's works, depending on their specificity,
can be understood as the miniatures of social relations and the dramatic
moments of loneliness. The struggle between public appearances and private
rituals reveals here its subtlety and complexity.
are some durable elements that make Monika Weiss's performative practice
recognisable. There is the artist's body, often naked or dressed in a
very modest, minimalist way, crawling or curled-up. Then, there is a space
or its specific limitations, provided either by a simple plane of paper
or fabric or by the sides of a shelter especially built for the body.
So, there is a container: chalice, vessel, sarcophagus, and here is its
filling: liquid paint, water or paper. It is a space of her own, made
from the need for a visibly defined area. Making such a space connects
her art with early feminist practices searching for a suitable arena to
express subjectivity, as in the writings of Virginia Woolf, whose definition
of the workspace for the female creative being lies in the core of the
feminist system of production and representation.
component of Weiss's work is the outline she draws around her body, both
visible and invisible. This activity reminds us of the early conceptual
gestures of Ewa Partum, the Berlin-based Polish artist, whose 1965 works,
such as "Presence", were the first to approach the subject of
the space for the female and feminist artist. As Angelika Stepken puts
it, "Ewa Partum spreads a primed, unpainted, unstretched canvas on
the ground. Then she lies on this surface and traces the contours of her
body." 3 Where is the space for art and for the artist, Partum seemed
to ask. What is left for her presence? The very matter of being there
seems to be a formative constituent part of Weiss's artistic practice:
the here and now of the subject, the momentum of appearance, the long-lost
Benjaminian 'aura' through its contemplative aspect and the immediacy
of its impact on the viewer. This understanding of the spatial features
of artistic practice seems to be internalised by Monika Weiss in a very
conscious way. It accustoms the feminist awareness of the spatial conditions
of artistic production but its core rests in both the conceptual gesture
and the existential understanding of corporeality.
changes when she performs on a prism of books in her installation "Phlegeton/Milczenie"
in Germany. Carving through the layered Logos, through rational, masculine,
language-based cultural experience, Weiss, unlike in any other of her
works, draws a strong link to the locality, to the context of German literature
and to the damage to intellectual discourse done by the Nazis before and
during WW II. The meaning of the title, connected with notions such as
the unexplored, unspoken, unnamed and intuitive, was strengthened by the
accompanying sound consisting of vocal parts and also of the sound of
burning paper. But her understanding of paper, especially old paper, as
a reference to human skin, makes us also think about the internalisation
of culture, about the absorbance of the intellectual through the bodily
works of Monika Weiss might be interpreted - through their relationship
with the given location - as performative installations whereas some others
appear to be "still" performances, suspended or extended in
time, facilitating the very definition of space. Her practice brings back
the once-forgotten notion of "the temple" to the gallery space,
understood as defined by obsessive ritual, a compulsively re-enacted activity,
when at the same time making it very private, intimate and nearly fully
internalised. Some of her works put the viewer into the position of the
passive spectator of a clandestine celebration, whilst others engage the
audience, inviting it into sharing and togetherness.
and given an artistic education in Poland, Weiss seems to have some more
distinguished predecessors - besides Ewa Partum - among the female artists
in her native country. The fragility in seeing the human body as a shell
or vessel seems to be inherited from the oeuvre of Alina Szapocznikow,
who, through her resin-cast sculptures, said more about human existence
than any other female artist before and not many after. The prematurely
deceased, eminent representative of the 1960s, Szapocznikow is now seen
as an ancestress of today's feminist Polish artists, the first to touch
in such a deeply existential way the issues of death and mortality, female
sexuality and the body. Her expression of the feminine form as well as
the idea of the body as a vessel rests in the origin of female subjectivity
in Polish art. The most memorable examples are the "Fetish"
series and "Tumeurs". But the way in which the body is represented
in her art differs from that of Weiss. Szapocznikow always sculpted the
fragmented body, turning its moulded elements into separate objects. Weiss
represents the female body both in her performances and in her drawings
as a rounded, full form exposing its vulnerable openings. But what both
artists have in common is the specific aesthetisation of the body. In
the words of Piotr Piotrowski, writing about Szapocznikow, "Form
[...] allows her to maintain intimacy without falling into vulgarity;
it allows the silence and the subtlety of the message to be maintained
recollecting the female body in works by Polish women artists appear in
the 1970s. In the almost abstract early textile works by Magdalena Abakanowicz,
e.g. "Read Abakan" (around 1970), the soft intersections of
woven objects remain those of female openings. Rebirth and fertility are
addressed in Monika Weiss's drawings, such as "Pandora's Belly"
or "Ennoia (Bird)" (both from 2000). According to the artist,
"The figures presented frontally open themselves to the gaze, sometimes
having their belly open like a flower, with a symbolic representation
of the inner organs, or their legs up with a view of the vagina opening."
The drawing can also be spread out on a table, making the female body
in the picture even more vulnerable. Both the curled-up body within a
chalice and that in her drawings seem to the viewer to resemble submissive
sexual positions. Although the artist quite openly rejects obvious erotic
connotations in an understanding of her art and treats the body rather
as an instrument of an artistic message, the carrier of meaning rather
than as a body with all its fleshy and biological connotations. The sexual
message here appears to be unclear, undefined, its addressee cannot be
discovered, but it is extremely striking in the way it combines submissive
innocence and mature openness.
are ink drawings by the artist in relation to the ink-leaking body in
her performance work. The body opens up, shows itself as vulnerable and
fragile, and risks being the subject of rapturous dominance. The ink pouring
from the body, from even the smallest pore of the skin, not only during
the performance but also for weeks after its effecting, expands this feeling
of weakness, vulnerability and dependence whilst maintaining a profound
physical connection between the body and the world.
body seems to express hidden needs and unspoken desires. It builds an
ambiguous relationship with the viewer. It invites the spectator to voyeurism
and at the same time makes him or her aware that the viewer can also be
watched. It expands the notion of desire so strongly connected with the
history of art, making us think of what desires the object of desire and
where this carefully planned and executed passivity is coming from, reminding
us of the questions raised by the early videos by Lili Dojourie. If during
the performance the artist makes unexpected eye-contact, it is not aggressive
or confrontational, it is inviting, although it might create some kind
of confusion and uncertainty.
of Weiss express feelings both of being hidden and of being captured.
The body is lonely, penetrated by the ritual liquids. The dripping of
these liquids from the female body, leaving her own traces in the gallery
space, reminds us of those that appear in relation to the natural fluids
in such strong performative acts as those by Anna Mendieta or the sculptures
of Kiki Smith. "Fluids have no boundaries and as such they connote
the lack of boundaries between the self, the body and the world,"
5 notes the artist.
ritual and performative components and references to natural elements
link Monika Weiss with Teresa Murak. This Polish artist, whose career
started in the 1970s, realised several works combining naturally grown
shoots, architectural components, public the space and the body. It was
Murak whose performance works consisted of the element of immersion in
water, in her case infused with freshly-grown shoots. Murak used to grow
different kinds of shoots on gowns she later wore and on household towels,
but her rituals of growth and fertility appear to come through the complete
acceptance of the female role and its parallel to the natural processes
in the life of plants and the sequence of seasons. Weiss though seems
more to have focused on an individual experience approach and is more
aware of the impact of the camera image of the body.
are multiple perspectives in looking at the artist's body in her work
- directly, from above or from the side, or the way it is being captured
by the video camera and through the way it is drawn on the paper. Sometimes
in real time, sometimes with a time delay. The medialised image of the
body in Polish female artists' work appeared strongly in the works from
the 1990s by Izabella Gustowska, where the camera and monitor work as
a looking-glass, mirroring the female face and a passive silhouette. Also
in other works, such as "Floating" (1997) or "The Source"
(1995), water is an important constitutive component and has an almost
symbolic and mythic dimension - here we can see some subtle link. Gustowska
though is rather addressing the mind in the state of dreaming whereas
Weiss appears to be more there if not yet awakened. Through her recordings
or the parallel projections accompanying the performances, she creates
corresponding situations, extremely personal, exploring the alter-ego
and its possible representation. The Self seems to be in the very centre
of her practice although here it is connected with anonymity and image
production. Weiss is apt to see herself as a mirrored image of a universal
human being. In strongly addressing the issue of the human condition,
the work of Weiss brings to mind T. S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men":
space created by the artist is marked by the edges of fabric or paper
or vessels, and is defined a second time by the body measure, executed
by a crawling and rolling body as well as in the very act of drawing.
The containers seem to be a replacement or equivalent of something between
a plinth and a deprivation chamber. There is also an act of immersion
in water, liquid body ink, paper or fabric. This practice can be considered
as a public ritual of purification. It is a moment when her practice gets
closer to the public and it becomes in full a public appearance in those
works, like "Drawing the City" or "Leukos", where
the very act of outlining the body and of measuring the space by the body
becomes the shared experience of numerous individuals. The performances
of Monika Weiss can be, by the notion of space, divided into two general
categories - as indoor and outdoor - and by the number of actors - those
she performs herself and those in which she invites the audience, especially
children, to take part in them. The latter appears to be an effort to
break through the estrangement connected to those she does on her own.
of drawing seems to be strongly formative for the way Monika Weiss sees
herself as a woman and artist. Using charcoal or ink, the artist draws
with her eyes often closed, especially when writing the framework of a
performance. When drawing appears as a separate, smaller-scale work, the
body becomes a form of density. When made as a result of performance,
the drawing appears around her body, through numerous lines applied one
by one by the artist's hand. It becomes dispersed, blurred, time-defined
and nearly musical in the way the trace of the body is noted. An accomplished
musician, Weiss is aware of the rhythm and melody in the visual, both
in works that consist of sound components and those without them. The
focused and slowed-down way in which she works with charcoal, ink and
pencil brings different results. There are drawings that seem to be sketches
for the performances and there are performances that turn out to be drawings,
even expanding the notion of drawing to three-dimensionality. It is not
for nothing that in traditional artistic education, and often even outside
it, drawing is still considered an inseparable part of artistic practice,
giving credibility to all other media imposed. In Weiss's work it is a
profoundly extended notion of drawing. It is "Drawing as a form of
choreography" 7 as described by Stephen Vitiello.
of Monika Weiss spans the solitary and the social: it stretches from the
ritual sacrifice in performances when she acts on her own to the joyful
shared experience in those she does with others, especially children.
The vessel makes a form of shelter in which, no matter how much she forces
her body to obey the concept, she protects herself from the external world.
The body is here both captured and protected. Weiss opens up a field for
considering passivity and vulnerability as a form of safety. Isolation
and entrapment provide the feeling of security, the most desired and cherished
is extremely smooth when dealing with the space of her own intimate experience,
rituality and transgression from that of the viewer. From her there flow
suggestions of clandestine unspoken desires and she invites the viewer
to a shared field.
is a shadow of her own.
Weiss: Between Presence and Perfomative Memory, video presentation and
conversation with curator Aneta Szylak, Wyspa Institute of Art, Gdansk,
March 23, 2005