Katarina Zdjelar “Into the Interior” at SpazioA, Pistoia
“The arcades and interiors, the exhibitions and panoramas are residues of a dream world. the utilization of dream elements in walking is the textbook fexample or dialectical thinking. For this reason the dialectical thinking is the organ of historical awakening. Each epoch not only dreams the next, but also, in dreaming, strives the moment of waking.” (Walter Benjamin)
“Into the Interior” presents a constellation of new and recent works by Katarina Zdjelar. By bringing archival and museological material into an artistic dialogue with remnants of early 20th century popular and promotional media, Zdjelar’s works instigate a space in which the viewer is situated within this interplay between the historical manifestation of power and contemporary residual that remains of this legacy.
The exhibition orbits around The Royal Museum of Central Africa (RMCA) in Belgium, a former royal estate of King Leopold II. During 2013 Zdjelar regularly visited and dug into the guts of the museum, allegedly the last expressly colonial museum in the world, which closed for renovation in December 2013, designating a fracture in time and the running narrative preceding Congo’s independence. Zdjelar registers some of the final moments before the museum’s now ossified historical and cultural narrative draws to a close, thus marking an end to an era and exposing the museum’s attempt of attunement towards the generational inquiry of today.
Through the lens of Zdjelar’s camera, we observe in Into The Interior (Last day of the permanent exhibition), 2014, the traces of a distant era through decomposing forms of preserved animal trophies. As a museum assistant removes wads of fabric from the inside of a tatty leopard’s head fixed into an eternal expression of faux-aggression, the viewer is reminded that decomposition of these animal skins, embody a decaying ideology. The two-channel video mediates footage and dialogue concerning the animal trophies intermingled with shots of the actual building’s deterioration, alongside a gradual survey of a painted landscape of Congo, the colours of which time has reduced to a dull, lifeless, tertiary palette much like the flesh of the animals. The work is thus a meditation on the museum’s ossified history and the closing of the cultural narratives it entails. Using the cinematic technique of colliding the gaze of a hunter with that of a painter, the basement storage space with the exhibition space, the amalgamation of an animal and painted landscape produces an eerie and juxtaposing interstice that is as withered and dated as it is perennial. In this middle ground, the background cannot be dislocated from the dynamics of the foreground.
Hunting and painting were a masculine way of passing time in the colony; these activities were distinct to the upper classes, who thought of themselves as delving into the virgin forests, lands, contours, essentially the very interior of the African continent. This pastime of the white Western men translated into the accumulation of animal trophies and resonates of the surplus and excess of this time. Having neither scientific nor cultural status, the trophies’ status within the collection of the museum is ambiguous, unresolved. They are unpacked just to be packed and stored again. Their decay corresponds to the temporal ideological stretchings and note time passing.
This is echoed in the “Tervuren Dioramas” print series, which presents dioramas of various animals associated with Africa—a lion, rhinos, leopards, and monkeys—as displayed at the RMCA. These dioramas show the empty animals posed as if they were still alive, their limbs manipulated almost awkwardly by taxidermists who have relegated the animals to forever be in a stance of attack or fear, or in an uncanny arrangement—a lion unnaturally close to its prey, or family collectiveness exhibited by animals that possess no such sociological paradigm. With painted backgrounds and trees sourced from the Belgian village of Duisberg rather than Congo, the dioramas are marked by their artificiality and amateurism—the colonialist’s fantasy of the African landscape constructed with European resources and capacities, featuring animals that were stalked and shot for the purposes of exhibit. The medium of the photograph reinforces the aura of being frozen in time.
In the wildness with Carl Hagenbeck 1930/1915 introduces another angle—in this instance through the narrative and materiality of mass-produced collectable miniature images, published in the Netherlands by the Royal Dutch Soap Factory, Duif (now known worldwide as Dove), in collaboration with Universum Film Aktiengesellschaft in 1930. In Germany the images were available as promotional items in cigarette boxes and chocolate wrappers. It seems apt that such products—soap, tobacco and chocolate, which were at that time synonymous with luxury and high culture, but equally dependent on colonial import—served as the vehicle to disseminate Carl Hagenbeck’s adventures in the colonies. Hagenbeck’s name prompts thoughts of zoology, for he created the revolutionary model for the modern zoo, wherein animals are presented in enclosures without bars. Hagenbeck’s interests, however, were not limited to animals—humans were equally an object of fascination; alongside the animals, natives from the colonies were also displayed.
The images produced by Hagenbeck, a German film company and the Dutch Soap Factory promote the colonial dream. The narratives unfold with the suspense and tension of a well-penned action movie, but when one brings the texts into closer reflection it is apparent that the same dynamics are reiterated throughout.
Presented in glass cases—an unorthodox vitrine of sorts—whereby both the front and reverse of the plates are simultaneously viewable, the viewer is able to observe a dual narrative—that of the image and that of the text. The images isolate the sequential stages of the animals’ portraiture, the struggle to evade death or capture in a series of still shots, almost as if a prelude to the displayed carcasses at the RMCA. The theme of reflection acquires a broader significance as the viewer does not actually see the real image but merely a reflection of it—mechanics of the work that call into question the very dubious nature of the narratives’ (both visual and written) bearing on historical reality. The aesthetics of the images are characterised by their likeness to film stills. There are indications that this particular imagery comes from a film that was Germany’s first two colour toned film; thus, it seems that film history and its technological experimentation and development is closely linked to and a dependent of the colonial history and museology.
In the video work In the wildness with Carl Hagenbeck, Zdjelar recontextualises the film stills to their original format: moving image. As the images topple upon one another, we watch a sequence of events unravel. Parallels between the visual register with which the animals and African natives are depicted grow evermore apparent, and as each image comes into view recollections of the RMCA’s chemically coated animals arranged in vicious poses return once more.
until 9 May, 2015
Tervuren Diorama (Leopards), 2015
Tervuren Diorama (Lion), 2015
In the wildness with Carl Hagenbeck #02, 2015
In the wildness with Carl Hagenbeck, 2015
Katarina Zdjelar “Into the Interior” installation views at SpazioA, Pistoia, 2015
Courtesy: SpazioA, Pistoia.