…in which your host is hooked on the silver screen.
Years and years ago, not too long after the movie Independence Day came out, I wrote a satirical screenplay called Mother’s Day. In the script, solar flares have knocked out the global electric grid for three months. When the electrics are finally back on line, it sheds light on a whole new world: all the women of Earth are suddenly motivated and mobilized – they’re quitting their jobs, forming armies, and threatening to take over the world. Nobody can figure out why they’re all so mad… until a couple of maxipad designers put two and two together and realize that, during the three months Earth was offline, all the women in the world menstrually synched up and are now experiencing global PMS. I wrote it as a comedy, but I think for some people it’d be more like a horror film. Kind of like the world we’re living in right now.
The press release for Austrian artist Marianne Vlaschits’s exhibit “a disturbance traveling through a medium” starts like this: “if you type the phrase “woman on mars” into Google image search, a ghostlike figure appears across the first dozen hits, dated 2015.” This is true, I tried it. Row after row of photos appear, most of them with a red circle where the woman is supposed to be, some of them blown up times a zillion to let us see this woman, dressed like a cosmic gypsy, long hair and barefoot it seems, wandering through the Borealis basin on Mars.
Vlasitsch has constructed an entire universe around this mysterious woman, complete with a history, a mythology, and it’s own technology and science. In this universe, females hold the primary power, in political leadership, moral authority, social privilege, and travel. Specifically, space travel. Because in space, no one can hear you scream.
Before you enter the exhibit at Duve Gallery, you are requested to remove your shoes, or wear protective booties. The gallery provides them for you — sterile white plastic covers with elastic bands, like the kind you see in Sci-fi films. I don’t like taking off my shoes (because they’re a part of the outfit!), but I like this, because it already resets your brain and readies you for a new kind of experience, just by this simple act.
Of course, the real reason to remove your shoes, or at least wear the protective booties, is that the floor is part of the exhibition too. It’s covered with vinyl with a digital print of cartoonish white painters palettes and colorful paintbrushes. The entire thing is a dusky Bazooka pink — the color of bubblegum when it gets a little stale.
On the walls are paintings — not very many, actually – of various sizes and subjects. The middle of the room is dominated by a single file of four life-size portraits, also digital prints on vinyl. And that’s… it. There is a lot of empty space in this gallery, on the walls around the paintings, on the floor around the portraits. It feels… strange and out of proportion, actually. Like the curators didn’t know what they were doing. But I think they did…
Vlaschits has transformed the gallery into a prototype for an interstellar spaceship… as imagined in her future universe where women rule the world. When you step foot into the gallery, you are actually stepping foot into the art gallery space on the vessel itself, and accompanying the captain as she begins her day.
So some of the paintings are “art” and some of the paintings are actually portholes looking onto outer space. The airiness of the gallery is how I would imagine gallery on a spaceship too — you can’t have too much stuff or you’ll knock into in case of sudden loss of inter-ship gravity… or something like that. In other words, you need room to float around, if that’s your thing. The pink of it all… it’s also the dusky pink of ladyparts, of the organs and interior of the human body, the deep warm pink of the womb… perhaps not lit by overhead florescent lighting, but… maybe. I mean, who actually remembers?
The whole room is a little bit kitschy – I sort of feel like I’m on the cartoon set of the Jetsons, the futuristic space version of The Flintstones, with the same baby toy color palettes, Googie curves and swooping lines – a 1960s cartoon interpretation of a Zaha Hadid building. And of course, in a universe run by women, everything would be designed by Zaha Hadid – who wouldn’t want that? But overall, it is kitschy bordering on the naive, and there has always been so much pink innocence and my little pony blue with anything surrounding women, that it keeps my enthusiasm in check, at least until I can figure out the joke. If there is one.
That said, there is a lot of kitsch and gimmicry passing itself off as art these days, but sometimes, when it’s done well, the gimmick can elevate to art itself.
In the center of the gallery are portraits of the four first female astronauts to step on Mars, key figures in Vlaschits’s future history of women. They are pictured in their uniforms, bodysuits rendered as a futuristic, semi-reflective fabric that looks to be somewhere between latex and spandex with a stretch of stars. The portraits are full body digital prints on a white vinyl sheet, thick vinyl like the kind used for window shades. They are supported by a copper frame, and they stand in a row in the center of the gallery space, impossible to ignore or miss.
Each of the four astronauts has a humanoid body. They are in relatively good shape, but one is maybe a little heavy in the thighs, another has less than perfect breasts. They are not perfect, Barbie bodies… which makes them nicely humanoid, believably human. They are standing strong and able and ready, and you don’t doubt their ability to travel through space at all.
While the bodies are humanoid, the heads are alien, and delightfully inventive. I don’t know about you, but I get tired of the egg-shaped, sad eyed littel green man creature. Luckily, that guy is nowhere to be found here. None of these alien heads even have eyes or noses or mouths, communicating with each other, I guess, purely by women’s intuition. They are closest to sea creatures – one head consists of folds and flaps, almost like flower petals or coral, but that also gives it a vaginal quality. The next one has feathery uh… gills? I guess? sprouting of her head, the rest of it marked by a fissure lined with cilia. Another’s head looks almost like a barnacle, and the last one’s head is a vaguely formed cranial structure that looks like a product of Elephantitis. But they don’t look ugly — there is something quite beautiful in these weird creatures, in their strange visages and defiant stance. They’re so commanding, you meet them on their terms. You have no choice.
What a utopia that would be!
They are full body portraits, but their feet are 3D. Each of the portrait’s legs disappear into real boots – Virgin Mary blue to match their bodysuits, filled with sand — which makes sense, of course, if you’re in space. You want something to anchor you to the planet instead of floating off in zero gravity in a spaceball ricochet.
So the boots are bit gimmicky, but they work with the portraits, also reminding us these women who, even in the future, even spinning through space, have their feet planted firmly on the ground. But my favorite part of these portraits is actually the embroidered names on the suits. The names themselves are of no known human language, although one of them, when you sound it out, is kind of close to Michelle Yeoh, the Chinese actress who’s badder than any John Woo bad guy. It’s not the invention of the names that gets me though. It’s the font: the names are written onto the uniforms in Walt Disney font — using the looping, semi-comic, fantastical curves of the w’s and the e’s and even the dots on the i’s. It’s brilliant, this one little touch of gimmicry that, in a nutshell, puts the entire exhibition into a very certain perspective, sincerely wondrous and childlike but at the same time mocking the inventor and lineage of all those damaging Disney princesses… the ones that keep us tethered to middle Earth.
The paintings on the walls are, in some way, props to the larger gimmick of the spaceship itself. They are more mid-century kitsch of cartoony space creatures, amorphic, soft shapes that could be anything from dildoes to amoebas, I mean… who knows? Quite a few of the paintings are jokes or puns, but you really have to dig or already know your science to get it. There is a painting of three cartoonish arms – one a deep pink, one brown, one a light pink — rendered with folded skin accordioned horizontally along the length of the arm, with hands on either hand. At the top of the painting, the hands are grasping a pink arrow that, at first, to me looked like a subway strap. In the middle of each, a red-lipped mouth bares white teeth. The painting is called “Gamma Rays”. Gamma rays, if you don’t know, have the smallest wavelengths but the most energy of any wave in the electromagnetic spectrum, and they are produced by the hottest and most energetic objects in the universe.
Talk about a disturbance traveling through a medium.
There is one painting of a bag containing groceries that disappointed me – why, in a universe dominated by women, are we still doing the shopping? But maybe it’s a reference to a past that’s been left behind, I don’t really know.
Speaking of the past and the history of women in space, a portrait of Ellen Ripley hangs just inside the gallery door. That’s Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley to you, sole survivor of the spacecraft Nostromo. An expert in alien exploration, reproduction and extermination, and the first woman to be the main character in a sci fi film since the 1960s’ Barbarella. You’ve come a long way, baby. And by that I mean: light years!
I love the totality of this exhibit. I’m still not sure of the color palette — Vlaschits’ sense of humour is both playful and sarcastic, and I can’t tell if all the pinks and pastels are really a sardonic comment on the shade of femininity, or if she’s making fun of patriarchal convention, of herself, or if she just really likes the color pink. On the other hand, the fact taht I can’t really tell is one of the things that makes me appreciate Vlaschits’s installation — it makes me a little lost in space. And I like it.
The guiding force, the deity, of Vlaschits’s universe is that woman on Mars, that gamma ray that disturbed the photos of the Mars Curiosity rover. I missed this space news when it came out in 2015. I don’t know how — I love this kind of stuff. Is she really a woman? Is she just a traveling wave of spacematter? Is she the girl with the mousy hair David Bowie sings about in Life On Mars, finally escaped her inescapable, hopeless existence, out of the medium of her normal world, where she’s asked to focus on sailors fighting in the dance hall, lawman beating up the wrong guy, workers striking for fame?
Boy, if that was my medium, my norm, I’d want to go live on Mars too. Oh wait…
So what if the woman, on Mars, in the future, with the mousy hair, is actually the most normal thing of all?
Marianne Vlaschits’s “A disturbance traveling through a medium” is on view until October 29th at Duve Berlin, located at Gitschiner Strasse 94/94a (Entrance D, Floor 2) in Berlin.
Brought to you by Susie Kahlich from Artipoeus