Mousse 74 TIDBITS
House of Fire: Irina Lotarevich
by Philipp Hindahl
Any telling of the story of Irina Lotarevich’s solo show Refinery at SOPHIE TAPPEINER, Vienna, has to start with the evening in December 2019 when the artist drew the Tower card from a tarot deck. The setting: an alchemy-themed café in Prague, where drinks are served by a waiter costumed as a seventeenth-century plague doctor. Indeed, a setup full of premonitions for the strange year that followed.
“The Tower card represents beginning again, a shift in power, and a humbling experience,” writes the artist in her accompanying text for Refinery.1 The featured work’s seemingly minimalist surfaces cannot conceal its complexity. The centerpiece, The Tower (2020), rises in six tiers like a ziggurat, divided horizontally by wooden trays. Its verticality is accentuated by the visible edges of plywood on the hollow structure’s exterior. On top are two shiny, slender figurines in dresses whose surfaces bear ridges and imperfections—artifacts of their casting—modeled after the only females in a set of tin soldiers. The structure looms over the other objects in the show: a dark metal tray resting directly on the floor containing aluminum sheets, a wall panel, a metal chair, and a bench. Some of their surfaces are fashioned from sand casts of the artist’s skin, massively magnified.
In tarot lore, the Tower is one of the Major Arcana and denotes situations collapsing and/or rebuilding from the ground. Its iconography is strange: flames lap out of the building’s crown as it is struck by lightning. In most depictions, the tower bursts open, and the two people who emerge—or fall out, depending on the deck’s particular representation—are unhurt and strangely serene, as if liberated. La Maison Dieu, the French name for this card, is according to some sources a faulty transcription of la maison de feu, “house of fire.”2 Another tower, and the one the show takes its title from, is a refinery close to Vienna, where crude oil is heated to purify it. A house of fire, indeed.
The form of Lotarevich’s tower sculpture is derived from the Western Union Telegraph Building in New York, which upon its completion in 1875 was the tallest building in the world. Lotarevich tells me that once when she was using a VPN, she decided to find out where the server was located, and it turned out to be the site of that tower. It housed the telegraph company until it burned down in 1890, and it was rebuilt in 1892. The complex has stair-like setbacks that allow sunlight to reach the street. After more than a century of use, it is still the hub of a (now-global) communications network. Its form recalls the ziggurat, the towers ancient humans built to communicate with the spiritual realm.
Lotarevich’s previous work explored a different way of sculpting: namely, sectioning and slicing space. Like the dialectical opposite of casts, it creates interiors, it confines. Her 2019 show Galvanic Couple at Center for Contemporary Art FUTURA in Prague did so in an anthropomorphic way: like lovers, two boat-shaped receptacles rested parallel to each other, connected only by three bent claws that touched the components ever so lightly and tenderly, yet potentially brutally. Viewed from above, the boats seemed like conjoined ogives, a shape that recurs in Lotarevich’s practice. It echoes her earlier pieces, for instance the cast fish (Positions of Power ) but especially her large pieces, such as The Confessional I (2017), with its sections of arches that betray an interest in stark medievalism. Her blind windows in the show Pensive State at SOPHIE TAPPEINER (2019), self-made from oiled and burnt wood, draw on tropes of painting as a window to the world, and on romantic tropes of longing.
The boats are mere skeletons, and divided into sections. It is no stretch to interpret them as anthropomorphic, as vessels made not only to host humans, but to represent humans as well. Regarding the “galvanic” part of the title, Lotarevich asserts: “Basically, all metals have different qualities.”3 Galvanic corrosion happens when two dissimilar metals are in electric contact, usually under water. The more reactive substance will dissolve faster, and the more noble metal more slowly. Constant flow is a recurring motif in the artist’s work, be it of data, oil, or human interaction, and it is hard not to think of romantic relationships while looking at the soft, yet corrosive touch of the metals.
What if the connections between towers and communication, oil and data, touch and corrosion, are not coincidental? As we move through our information-driven environments, we need good metaphors, and maybe these are the ones. The philosopher Reza Negarestani identifies oil as the undercurrent of all narrations. His theories are fit more for a novel than for a unified system of thought, but they are seductive, reaching into the guts of the Earth, into legends of telluric forces from ancient times. “To grasp oil as lube is to grasp Earth as a body of different narrations being moved forward by oil. In a nutshell, oil is a lube for the divergent lines of terrestrial narration,” he writes in Cyclonopedia (2008).4 The dark trays on the floor at Sophie Tappeiner are casts of the skin on the artist’s hand, made from scrap metal that Lotarevich sourced from, among other things, her own artworks. “For me, casting runs parallel with thinking about this material as a kind of oil,” the artist affirms, “similar to data that is flowing through this server tower. I’m interested in this triangle of oil, data, and subjectivity.”
 See https://www.sophietappeiner.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/Refinery-lr.pdf.
 Sallie Nichols, Jung and Tarot: An Archetypal Journey (San Francisco: Weiser Books, 1984), 381.
 Unless otherwise specified, all artist quotes are from the author’s conversation with Irina Lotarevich on November 16, 2020.
 Reza Negarestani, Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials (Melbourne: re.press, 2008), 19.
Irina Lotarevich (b. 1991, Rybinsk) lives and works between New York and Vienna. She studied at Cornell University, Hunter College, New York, and the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. Recent solo exhibitions include Refinery, Sophie Tappeiner, Vienna (2020); Galvanic Couple, Center for Contemporary Art FUTURA, Prague (2019); Pensive State, a two-person show with Anna Schachinger, Sophie Tappeiner, Vienna (2019); and Schemas, Kevin Space, Vienna (2017). Her works have also recently been included in group exhibitions at Loggia, Vienna; Am Ende des Tages, Düsseldorf; and Tarsia, Naples, among others. Her work will be included in the upcoming MAK Biennial in Vienna in 2021.
Philipp Hindahl is a writer and editor. He is fascinated by nostalgia for lost futures, art, literature, pop culture, the internet, and the people in it. After attending a Catholic school in the woods of rural Germany, he studied literature and art history in Frankfurt and Paris. He then moved to Berlin, where he writes for magazines and exhibition catalogues.