A positive look at negativity
Existentialism isn’t the cheeriest philosophy but an exhibition in Florence shows how uplifting it can be
Existentialism isn’t quite the gloom-fest it’s made out to be. As a strategy for reconciling our inner lives with our experiences of the external world, and the conflict between spirituality and mundanity, it’s as good as many other philosophical propositions. So can you be both nihilistic and optimistic? Is it possible to believe that, ultimately, nothing really matters, and yet continue to get up every day and go about your business in the knowledge that we are all trapped, fall short of perfection, will all sicken, and ultimately die?
At the contemporary space in the basement of the Strozzi Palace in Florence, Barbara Dawson, director of the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin, has co-curated (with Strozzina director, Franziska Nori), an exhibition exploring these questions.
Organised around the work of Francis Bacon, the show brings five further artists into the debate. These are Nathalie Djurberg, Adrian Ghenie, Arcangelo Sassolino, Chiharu Shiota and Annegret Soltau. Discovering their work in the vaulted basements of the 15th century palace adds to the sense that you are here to explore something deep.
Bacon’s work is represented by some large unfinished canvases as well as fragments from his studio archive, which is in the possession of the Hugh Lane. These, while of interest to scholars, and fascinating for the glimpse of the working life of the artist’s mind, are ultimately less satisfying as the borrowed-in works, for example Seated Figure, 1974, in which Bacon has set up and fully realised the tensions that entrap his subjects in their nightmarish worlds of the self.
Haunting your viewing of these are the unsettling sounds emanating from Djurberg’s video Once Removed on My Mother’s Side, 2008, which is a psychotherapist’s dream of a piece, though possibly a source of viewers’ subsequent nightmares. A clay animation sequence shows a morbidly obese mother being tended by, and ultimately suffocating, her daughter.
Elsewhere Djurberg’s Turn into Me, 2008, is less repulsive, not because of its subject matter – here a woman dies in the forest, is subsumed into the soil, and is then re-animated by a racoon and a mole – but because the artist has managed to balance that delicate tension between animal nature, sentient life, death and rebirth more fully.
Other sounds occasionally emanate from Sassolino’s installation – an arrangement of rope, blocks and piston, that pull to just about breaking point. As a reference to Nietzsche’s definition of man, quoted by Dawson in the exhibition catalogue, as “a rope stretched between animal and the overman (superman) – a rope over an abyss”, it’s a little obvious, and easily forgotten.
Romanian-born artist Ghenie almost steals the show, with his room of collage paintings. Easily as compelling as Bacon’s work, they capture ugliness, death, horror and decay, and yet are utterly and mesmerisingly beautiful. Memorable too is Shiota’s stunning room of woven webs of black twine, creating a path through which suspended doors, salvaged from the Strozzi Palace storerooms, are visible.
It’s one of those artworks that make you feel different, simply by being in it, and to which you feel compelled to return again and again just to replicate that experience of altered emotions.
There’s a nice balance between Shiota’s work, and Sassolino’s self-portrait photographs, in which the artist’s face and body are distorted with string. Sometimes this is sewn onto the image, and sometimes wrapped around the figure, pre-photograph. Intriguing and compelling, the series Body – Drawing, 1976, provides a clue as although tied, the figure is smiling with an abandoned delight that suggests a knowledge of captivity might be all we need to mentally break free.
The philosophy of negativity is often misunderstood, and this exhibition demonstrates how ultimately uplifting it can be.
* Francis Bacon and the Existential Condition in Contemporary Art is at the Strozzina, Strozzi Palace, Florence, Italy, until January 27th, strozzina.org