Narrative Backfire: “I SLIPPED INTO MY FIRST METAMORPHOSIS SO QUIETLY THAT NO ONE NOTICED” at Den Frie Centre of Contemporary Art, Copenhagen
by Frida Sandström
In her 2015 book, Claire Colebrook suggested a useful concept for today’s anthropocentric optics of linear dominance: the “climactic eye”1 namely, the modern apparatus of surplus narration. But “how to tell a shattered story”—as Arundhati Roy asks2—without falling into the spectrum of speculation?
A possible way to do this is to engage with several stories at once, as did Danish artist Gitte Villesen when curating the summer exhibition I SLIPPED INTO MY FIRST METAMORPHOSIS SO QUIETLY THAT NO ONE NOTICED, at Den Frie Centre of Contemporary Art in Copenhagen. Part of the gallery’s ongoing series of exhibitions curated by artists, Villesen’s practice is made for the task. Rechoreographing distributive and narrative techniques, she interwove her extensive research on documentary and multidimensional collage practices with fellow artists’ works.
Avoiding a curatorial supernarration, Gitte Villesen gave space for a heterogeneous recuperation and configuration of what Elke Marhöfer calls a “backfire” of human activity.3 In a forthcoming essay written in conjunction with her featured video work Becoming Extinct (Wild Grass) (2018), Marhöfer cites Colebrook: “Can we imagine a mode of reading the world, and its anthropogenic scars, that frees itself from folding the earth’s surface around human survival?”4 Responding to my email asking for the Vimeo link to the video, Marhöfer mentions a wildfire that has just begun in Sicily, where she and her collaborator Mikhail Lylov are currently based. Scrolling Lylov’s Instagram feed, one sees smoke and ashes, Marhöfer’s and Lylov’s cinematic inquiry materialized.
At the core of the exhibition is the double-sided screening of Villesen’s video Deeply immersed in the contents of a learning stone (2017). It departs from the featured artist Emma Haugh’s account of sci-fi author Octavia E. Butler, introduced through the author’s fictive proposals for how we can better relate to one another. Recently, Butler and fellow cosmists and sci-fi writers of the last century have made a return in both popular culture and in theories of decolonization and of posthumanism—a tendency not unrelated to the growing contestation of a linear system of representation. Luckily, Villesen avoids any monumentalization of Butler et al, be it as “authentic” or “seminal.”
Instead, the gallery space is reworked by the social bond of the works. The approach is intrinsically feminist, decolonial, and nonanthropocentric, manifested in the interwoven archival, discursive, and spatial resources—directly confronting the inherent colonial legacy of the distribution of art as such. Most of the artists have also themselves authored their sections in the exhibition brochure—so that the discursive mediation is equally heterogeneous. As in the case of Marhöfer’s and Lylov’s life event, the artworks interweave the narrator with what is depicted, so that no stories remain stable.
In Pia Rönicke’s The work Notes on MB (2014), the archive of Bauhaus designer and artist Marianne Brandt is mediated through a soft voicing and intimate installation of mirrors—referencing Brandt’s photographic practice—which drags the spectator into her Dessau studio in the late 1920s. And in Gitte Villesen’s documentary collaboration with Dendal, Amadou Sarr, and Saidou Ndiaye titled The Play, the Actor, the Improvisation (2008), the labor of storytelling rewrites material circumstances for the living—when enacted as part of the daily work of female Gambian farmers. Through improvisational theater, they negotiate daily challenges such as access to local water resources.
The same narrative struggle is apparent in Claude Cahun’s and Marcel Moore’s queer photographs from the 1940s, right after their flight from the Nazis. On a neighboring wall hangs a photograph of the former mental hospital patient and later victim of Nazi murder Katharina Detzel (1872–1941), who also appears in Villesen’s Deeply immersed in the contents of a learning stone. While the video narrates Detzel’s struggle against oppression, the photograph depicts the life-sized male doll that she made out of the mattress ticking and straw from her bed in the institution. Along with it are selected works by other patients of the psychiatric institution where she once was housed.
In the neighboring room is Emma Haugh’s installation Sex in Public (2018), where flags and props along with documentary photos construct the imagery of a semi-intimate space of indoor nature. Around the corner, Ana Mendieta’s video Butterfly (1975) plays on a loop; in the video, the analogue distortion of the artist’s body underscores the limited material rights of women artists that Mendieta, amongst others, was subjected to. Incorporating the disastrous “disappearance” (i.e. death) of Mendieta in her live performance Poverty of Vision (2017), Haugh opened the exhibition by refusing the imposed absence that so many women, queers, and people of color still are living through.
So how to reverse the ocular dominance of modern times? In her essay, Marhöfer writes that “[m]ost creatures and places of the earth have been measured, consumed, exhausted, infected, eliminated, and otherwise killed”5—while Emma Haugh continues: “Looking into archives is all about looking at what isn’t there.”6 Thus we might find stories on surviving that survive.
Artists: Ana Mendieta, Alex Mawimbi, Berverly Buchanan, Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, Elke Marhöfer and Mikhail Lylov, Emma Haugh, Gitte Villesen with Dendal, Marie Høeg and Bolette Berg, Saidou Ndiaye, Amadou Sarr, Acroma and Chiara Figone, Ingrid Villesen, Laura Horelli, Pia Rönicke, Raphaël Grisey with Bouba Touré, Káddu Yaraax, Sidney Sokhona, and Somankidi Coura Cooperative.
1. Claire Colebrook, Death of the PostHuman–Essays on Extinction, vol. 1 (Ann Arbor, Michigan: Open Humanities Press, 2015): 23.
2. Arundhati Roy, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2017): 299.
3. Elke Marhöfer, forthcoming.
4. Colebrook, Death of the PostHuman, 23.
5. Marhöfer, forthcoming.
6. Emma Haugh, in the exhibition brochure, I SLIPPED INTO MY FIRST METAMORPHOSIS SO QUIETLY THAT NO ONE NOTICED, Den Frie Centre of Contemporary Art, Copenhagen, 2019.