Hello Kitty, cougars and cat ladies
Artipoeus visits Pamela Rosenkranz’s She Has No Mouth, at Sprueth Magers in Berlin.
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My mother was highly allergic to cats. When I was a little girl, when I got really mad at her, I would tell her that when I grow up, I would live in a house with 20 cats so she could never come visit me.
She would laugh and laugh.
I mean, it’s hard to take your kid seriously, when she’s threatening to grow up to be a cat lady.
I have a fear of turning into a cat lady, the same way I have a fear of turning into my mother. It’s a totally irrational fear and at the same time, so real.
It’s the ultimate metamorphosis, isn’t it, to turn into the thing you fear most but suspect that you truly are anyway, and have been all along.
“When Susie Kahlich woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, she found herself changed in her bed into a monstrous cat lady.” Or her mother.
Luckily, my mother was highly allergic to cats, so at least it’s impossible for me to turn into both.
I was hanging out with my friend Chiara during Berlin’s Gallery Weekend at the end of April. We were on a slow wander through the galleries in Berlin’s Mitte, and happened to walk into the Pamela Rosenkranz exhibit She Has No Mouth in the gallery Sprueth Magers.
It was packed with people. But Rosenkranz’s installation is big and bold and hard to miss.
We were herded into a room filled with blue light. A glowing blue disk about the size of a person, hangs low on the wall. There’s nothing else in this room except the disk and the cool blue light it bathes everything in. It’s instantly quieter here, the visitors almost reverent. I feel washed, cleansed, and prepared.
The second gallery is about six times larger, a long room with high ceilings. The walls are lined with large framed works, evenly spaced and hung low on the wall — the top of each frame hitting eye level to the average adult. At the far end of the room is another glowing disk, hung exactly opposite to the one in the ante chamber. It feels like the two are communicating, even though they are separated by a solid wall.
In the center of the room is a large circle of pink sand that reflects the changing patterns of a light fixed to the ceiling overhead. Between the white walls, the pink sand on the floor, and the light colors of the hung works, the entire gallery gives you a sense of pervasive stillness. But there is life pulsing under that stillness at the same time.
I loved it.
I saw eternity, infinity, the sun and universes on the other side of black holes
I loved it because the light installation in the ante-chamber made me think of Nina E Schoenefeld, who had pointed out a couple of months ago that there are no female light artists — and here was one, in the style of James Turrell.
I loved it because the experience takes you on a journey — starts with the blue room and then sends you into the larger gallery, the works hung low on the wall, forcing you to step back but not too much.
I loved it because the low murmur of the visitors, the excitement of gallery weekend and then being plunged into the quiet suspension of this installation was a sensory experience in itself. In the two communicating glowing disks, I saw eternity, infinity, the sun and universes on the other side of black holes. I felt like I had landed on another planet, a rare fragile place somewhere between desert and tundra.
Chiara and I didn’t walk around the larger gallery due to the amount of people, but we took a closer look at the pieces on the wall. Imagery — some sort of pattern — faintly visible through what looked like layers of wax that had been melted over it, giving the work a quality of synthetic skin. What annoyed us, though, was the highly reflective glass the works were framed in. There is a kind of glass that museums and galleries use for framing — in fact, I think it’s even manufactured here in Germany — that doesn’t reflect the light or the surrounding room, allowing you to see the work the glass is protecting.
The gallery didn’t use that kind of glass here, and every single person, the gallery windows, ourselves, and the blue disk were reflected in the glass, making it hard to see the work itself on a sunny day. This was my only frustration with the whole installation. Other than that, Chiara and I were so satisfied, we were done with art for the day. We just didn’t need to see anything after that, so we went in search of coffee, grabbing the press material explaining the show on the way out to read later.
When I got home that evening, I was uploading my photos from the day to Instagram, and when I got to Pamela Rosenkranz’s work, again I was reminded how brilliant the show felt to me. It just fills me with glee, actually, to see a female artist’s work that is so big and precise you can’t deny it, bordering on the science fiction, and that doesn’t apologize for her intelligence or interests by disguising it as pop art.
And the title — She Has No Mouth. What does that mean, in that quiet suspended space? Who has no mouth?
Me? Should I shut up?
The artist? Does she feel muted or stifled in some way and expresses herself through these clean and powerful gestures that suggest a thought, outline a concept, revealing an intelligence that you have to work to match, giving just enough to invite you to figure it out?
Or is it all women who have no mouth, who have been oppressed, who have been shut down shut up denied access, education, community and communication to let the world know, to simply say, I AM HERE?
And then I read the press statement.
Turns out the show is about cats.
Why does it have to be about cats?
Some of my best friends are cats.
The title refers to Hello Kitty who, if you haven’t noticed, has no mouth.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t like cats. Some of my best friends have been cats. But I get frustrated with female artists who retreat back into traditional feminine symbols of perpetual girlhood: pink, flowers, kittens, sex, love and romance.
I feel put off in the same way I feel put off by the color pink, by frilly dresses, by marriage as a grand prize and having babies as a grand function, by the fact that there are still fewer female scientists or mathematicians or presidents. It feels rare to come across a successful female artist who is willing to remove traditional feminine elements from her work entirely, to transcend them and, at least on her end, truly level the playing field.
But Rosenkranz is clearly a very intelligent woman, her approach is sociological and scientific, so does applying her sharp intelligence and depth of praxis to cats demean the quality or even the visual appeal of her work?
If I saw the show again, knowing what it’s about, would that make it different for me?
So I went back.
This time, when I went to Sprueth Magers, it was on a regular workday afternoon. I had the whole place to myself. Which meant I could experience the two elements of the installation I missed when the gallery was full: the sound, and the scent.
It’s a whole room of suspended disbelief
Experiencing the first room, the blue room, alone this time was great — it really is like an isolation chamber, except now, since the room wasn’t full of people, I could really smell the scent being pumped into the air as part of the exhibit. Rosenkranz sets the mood with Civetone, a cat extract — in fact, the musk cats use to mark their territory — that is often used in perfume. I liked it, it also felt calming. The sound portion of the installation could be heard from other room, but I was so focused on the room I was in, I didn’t pay much attention.
One of the things I still loved is that when you enter the space, you have the option to turn right and enter the larger gallery… but you don’t. You’re so drawn to this room filled with blue light, the perfume, the peacefulness of it, the slowing down of time. It’s a whole room of suspended disbelief.
Entering the larger gallery, this was a really different experience now, now that it was empty. Here the sound installation was more prominent, a mix of a cat meowing and a human cooing at it, with some additional layers of swelling sound on the track itself, and the birds chirping loudly in the courtyard of the gallery.
The soundtrack is on a loop and starts out as an interesting interplay between the human and the feline, but after 30 minutes of it, it felt more like a human teasing a cat and I wanted to tell her to just leave the cat alone. But with no people in the space now, it also gave me the opportunity to sit and contemplate that space, the installation overall, and what it would be like without the sound.
The sound element adds a dimension to the entire installation that rounds it out, takes it from a two-dimensional experience to a fully three dimensional one. Without the sound, and the scent in the other room, this installation would simply be some works on the wall and sand on the floor, a clinical statement about… I don’t even know what. The sound is necessary, if aggravating after a while. I marvel at the people who work in the gallery and listen to that all day. I wonder if they’ve gone mad and nobody knows yet.
The large framed works I can see now are fur patterns — tabby, leopard print, calico. The layer of wax dripped over them — or, as I’ve learned, actually acrylic paint — is supposed to look like skin or synthetic skin, sliding over the fur patterns as if through evolution — the cat becomes human. There are two large depictions of cat jaws and teeth as well, displayed like dental illustrations of the human mouth.
The reflective glass on the framed works still bugs me, although this time I do appreciate that the glowing disk is reflected in every piece as you travel around the room. It floats with you like the eye of Sauron or like what I imagine the sun feels like in the desert, when there is no relief from it. But because it kind of silently follows you, it also makes you feel just the slightest touch paranoid. Like you’re being watched… by cats.
The installation in the larger gallery is like a deconstructed cat. I love deconstructed anything, really, and so once again I’m veering back to liking the work, although, oddly, for much more humane reasons than I did the first time. Sometimes it’s good to pull your head out of your own dreams of space. Although I find myself missing the crowd of people in the gallery, actually. The installation is so quiet and mysterious, on gallery weekend it kept the crowd fairly quiet too, silhouetted against the white walls of the gallery and prowling through the space. But that human element also added the dimensions of movement and heat to the work and, dare I say, sexuality? Maybe that’s just spring fever.
Or hay fever.
Because now this strange, cold, alien space — the works hung low on the wall, the glowing disk at the far end, the large circle of pink sand taking up the entire center of the floor — only reminds me of the film Cat People, and the scene where Nastassja Kinski dreams about her ancestors, the black panthers draped over dead trees in the Sub-Saharan desert. And I can’t unsee it.
Cat People is a cool movie, but I don’t want to reduce this work to a movie analogy. I want to go back to being blown away by the science, the enormity of vision, the un-feminine and the boldly intelligent. I don’t want it to be the exploration of the ultimate cat lady.
What does it even mean to be cat lady? Spinster, lonely, someone who can’t or won’t have adult relationships — emotional immaturity. Like, cats are for girls, humans are for adults.
I have a friend who jokes about herself that she’s a cat lady, but I don’t know if she really qualifies because she has a son. On the other hand, I also know about her love life, about how many times she’s been hurt or just… let down. Cat lady implies that the failure to connect with other humans is completely the cat lady’s — ha ha ha, she’s so lonely she has twenty cats — and removes the other side of love and human relations: you know, that it takes two.
To call someone a cat lady implies a certain unwantedness, as well as a certain whiff of just desserts: a sexuality backfired.
The movie Cat People is about sexual power. And a woman so uncomfortable with her own sexual power that she’d prefer to be a cat, because her sexual power is so strong it kills… love. Once again, removing the other side of that equation. Because cats don’t kill everything they love.
As with all people highly allergic to cats, cats really loved my mom. But they didn’t kill her. And had I grown up to be a cat lady — although, to be honest, the jury is still out on that — I think she could have visited me, in my house of 20 cats. And she would have survived.
Rosenkranz’s work looks at the presence of cats in culture — tabby and leopard print as a symbol for wild and powerful sexuality — the leopard print dress of 1950s pin-ups, the leopard print coats of society ladies who want to flaunt their refined but powerful sexuality too, like those people who own tame tigers.
She looks at the way cats mark their territory with Civetone — the same musk that humans have appropriated for use in perfume — and a behavioral pattern that humans mimic through actions and words, establishing territory, ownership and even dominance often through actions that are called “catty”.
She incorporates the cat’s appeal, the meow that can mimic a baby’s cry, and the cooing of a cat’s cat lady, anthropomorphizing the cat from prehistoric human predator to substitute baby to internet sensation meme, the species’ ability to assimilate into human society as a means of its own survival.
Cats are like the cockroaches of mammals.
And Rosenkranz explores the human habit of using the cat as a model for sociological structures — alpha and beta personalities — and, specifically, feminine sexuality.
Kitten, cat, cougar, cat lady. And somewhere in there is Hello Kitty, who has no mouth, the easier to project your own fantasies onto her, to feel for her, to speak for her. Who’s to stop you? She has no mouth.
Come to think of it, Gregor Samsa lost the ability to speak after his metamorphosis, too.
Pamela Rosenkranz’s She Has No Mouth is on view until June 17th at Sprueth Magers, located at Oranienburger Strasse 18 in Berlin.
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Brought to you by Susie Kahlich