"It's like semiotics meets phenomenology," I enthusiastically told a friend as I was trying to explain why I was looking forward to catching artist, Mira Schendal's work at Tate Modern a few weeks ago. Retrospectively, I would still agree with that except I'd probably throw Dada and typography into the mix as well, making Mira Schendel at the Tate Modern, "semiotics meets phenomenology meets typography meets Dada".
"Just who is Mira Schendal?" You ask.
Well, who was she, as apparently if you haven't heard of Mira Schendel by now then where have you been for the last fifty years (obviously not South America, where she is huge)? Zurich born (but grew up in Italy), Mira Schendel (1919 -1988) was largely self taught and fled to Brazil in the 50's to avoid the Fascist regime where she found her place within the Brazilian Modernist scene in the 50's-60's. In fact, not many people this side of the pond (least of all me) have heard of her which is why Tate Modern decided to change that and show a retrospective of the artist's work from September to January 19th 2014.
Schendel, described (like most artists I know) as an eccentric, complicated, passionate yet prickly character does present in her work a sense of playing with dualities, opposites and someone battling with some sort of internal conflict or 'trying to figure something out' which also, and I quote,
'...constitutes an experimental investigation into profound philosophical questions relating to human existence and belief, often addressing the distinction between faith and certainty, and examining ideas of being, existence and the void.' (We shall see!)
Looking around the opening rooms to Schendel's exhibition at the very minimalist, flat paintings (which also have a very neutral colour palette) it occurs to me, as though am incredibly out-of-place, as if to say, 'why on earth have I paid to see this?' These kind of works are aesthetically the type of work I'd personally, normally run a mile from, "This is not a 'Natalie' sort of exhibition! There are no tools, or 'things', puns or lashings of colour." Should any of that matter? But change is in the air. Emerging from their chrysalises for the first time I feel new butterflies fluttering in my stomach and I am sensing an uneasy shift in my preference of my art tastes that was once filled only with a love for the representational. Strange, it seems I am beginning to find myself more patient and at ease with looking at seemingly flat surfaces, noticing their tiny details in the paint texture and brushstrokes. They are paintings that look as though they were trying to be perfectly flat whilst accepting that to achieve such a thing with the hand and brush is almost futile. I wouldn't go as far to say I could spend hours looking at them, but find myself blissfully at ease with the order and 'clean' simplicity of Schendel's early abstract paintings. Their muted browns, ochres, creams and blacks arranged in varying grid formations are very much more earthy versions of Piet Mondrian.
Alarmed that I am beginning to enjoy all this nothingness a bit too much I move further into the depths of the exhibition in search of some tangible, substance...perhaps I've come to the wrong exhibition...?
Turns out, that Schendel was one prolific artist and there's a healthy amount of it on show in this exhibition that really demonstrates not only her commitment (obsession) with art but also demonstrates the breadth of how her practice developed. In one room there are several large watercolour collages of bottles and glasses in a very cubist (overlapping) style. What is interesting about these works is that whilst they aren't wholly 'original' (in the sense they were made during the 60's and are likely to have been influenced by the Cubists) they show processes of thinking, of layering, fragmenting, revealing and concealing that are to extremely relevant in her later work.
Rooms of book jacket designs and sketchbooks follow and their influence is beginning to make manifest in layered collages where Schendel has made her own rice paper and used transferred letraset type onto the paper's surface (Images 1 & 3). You can almost see Schendel's thought process as layering becomes pattern, becomes tone, becomes form, becomes composition. She combines different languages blurring the way in which we literally read the letters and how we read the overall image. I cannot help but think of phenomenology whenever I am faced with a transparent or permeable surface, it seems the perfect medium (perhaps other than air itself) to suggest the concept of phenomena, 'there and not there' and consciousness. Why is that exactly? For me, there is something kind-of 'breath-like' about the delicateness of the rice paper and the way the light hits it that makes me increasingly self conscious of my own breathing all of which is a bit too profound for my liking but then maybe that is exactly the desired affect (and does in its own way have a linking to the subjective experience phenomenology explores). I am far more comfortable with the semiotics, and these works are a graphic designers dream, letters become constellations, swirling vortexes and maps strewn across the paper. They are not too dissimilar to the early Dada or Futurist Manifestos for their experimental and playful/deconstructive use of language, but they are far softer and less direct and angry than the more politically charged Futurist typography of 'Zang Tumb Tumb'. In my view they begin to resemble palimpsests or ancient maps or mathematical equations that have all the intensity and franticness of somebody trying to work through something (Schendel was interested in Mandalas, precise geometric arrangements and the Catholicism she was brought up with conflicted with Western Philosophy and Eastern thought that she was interested in). With Schendel what that 'something' is exactly is never really revealed unless of course the searching for something is the 'something' she is looking for.....(raises one eyebrow).
Aptly for this blog post that idea is presented again and to greater affect in one of the final rooms of the exhibition in the installation, 'Still waves of probability' (Image 2).
Thousands of transparent fibres hang from the ceiling creating a permeable curtain or veil that both disguises and blurs whilst being fine and transparent enough to still see through. Simple, but like her text based works the threads are a physical manifestation that creates an awareness of the visible and invisible, certain and uncertain. It feels like it ought to be an illusion in the way it tricks your brain, however the physicality of being able to see (and sneakily touch) the threads ground it very much in reality. It is a funny sensation. Alongside on the wall is an accompanying text from the Old Testament 'Book of Kings' which echoes the sensation of uncertainty present in the fibres hanging from the ceiling but ties the notion of uncertainty within the idea of faith, knowledge and doubt. The resulting reading of the installation is not necessarily a spiritual one or one of physics and unknown forces but is more of an experience that makes one question the nature of both of those things leaving it ultimately up to the individual which opinion they walk away with.
'Through this work she sought to express the aim of humankind to be , faithfully OF THIS world. And yet not be of this world. With all its love and joy and also the inevitable suffering, with devotion and without illusions.'
Personally, I always think a little illusion is always a good thing, it helps us distinguish what is real and what is fake, to dream, to have nightmares and to daydream. Don't get me wrong, I'm not done with representation in art yet, far from it, I just think it important that I'm becoming increasingly open to non-representational ways of working to compare it to. Not to go into all that now, but what was the overriding theme of this exhibition was one of quiet contemplation. As I continued to undergo my own personal journey into doubt within the exhibition so was the nature of the exhibition itself questioning the nature of faith and doubt. My only criticism is that Schendel explores these ideas in a fairly 'safe' way, that is always fairly controlled and thoughtful, never really giving-in to the darker, intense and unpredictable side of doubt and human existence that is perhaps more raw or more 'real' than what she presented (you cannot do everything, but I would have liked to have seen some opposition). A slow burner, that I have sat and pondered and is rewarding in that it continues to reveal more ideas long after having actually seen/experienced the work.
Images from: 1 http://www.tate.org.uk