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Within Without: Elisabeth Weissensteiner
Chapman & Bailey Gallery
by Khadija Z Carroll
Egg , 2003. Transparent paper, packing tape, and pins. 25 cm.
are a glimpse of the obscure. *
sculpture describes the bodys seemingly parallel universes of inside
and outside. The very act of viewing her sculpted skins is a process that
describes the forms' oscillation between fragile beauty and something
more sinister. A hermeneutic of suspicion may assist us to glimpse the
obscure, and we may find that these beings, which embody both beauty and
ugliness, shed new light on our aesthetic codes.
Giant Skin has a
burnished surface that draws viewer in, like children attracted to an
insect whose back is reflecting the sunlight. Weissensteiners recent
exhibition was inhabited solely by these hybrids of possible and actual
elements. Their forms are part of this world (pig, husk, tortoise, maggot)
and also part of another. Disconcerting, their ambiguity also makes them
strangely attractive, especially in a society where purity is both impossible
The skin-like surfaces
of Weissensteiner's works act as an interface on which our perceptions
play themselves out. We are seduced and rebuked, allured by delicate craft
and horrified by serrated (barbed and rusted) edges. Initially drawn in
by an organic strength, we begin to see life; yet, on second glance, the
museumofmedicinelike exhibits aestheticize death and
scientifically enhanced life. The closer we observe the actual materiality
of the object, the more unsure we are of the Gestalt, of the body as a
coherent signifier. The detail in Weissensteiners works reveals
a set of ambiguities that unnerve reality and imagined possibilities.
with which Weissensteiner manipulates her machinemade materials
highlights the polysemy of her worksshe doesnt envisage artificial
and natural as a dichotomy; rather, she sees them as symbiotic aspects
of contemporary life. When we consider the fact that an individual mind
has constructed these life forms, we realize that the artist is taking
the same liberties as genetic science. While Weissensteiner refers to
the controversy surrounding cloning and genetic engineering, her focus
is on an aesthetic crisis of meaning. We can no longer draw a boundary
between real and unreal on the level of synthetic and organic, beautiful
and ugly, actual and virtual formations of self. This potential artificiality
and power to construct selves presents a dilemma: If I am a product of
both nature and nurture, then who am I? With a PhD in philosophy and a
background in fiber art, Weissensteiner is conceptually and technically
equipped to have her fictive characters voice these questions. She does
this by designing only their raiment, which allows us to imagine how they
inhabit these indistinguishable boundaries.
2003. Handmade paper, tape, nails, and pins. 450 cm. high.
Round pin heads line
the interior of Spiked Egg like eyes or larva; piercing the skin, they
become an army of legs, carrying the arthropod along. Spiked Egg is suspended
in the tension between exterior and interior. It represents the interplay
between stereotypical notions of the smooth cornucopia and the harshness
of nature. This recurs in Giant Leaf, a contortion of delicate means.
It supermagnifies the space left by a spider that conceals itself from
prey by wrapping up foliage. The careful intervention in the organic state
of a leaf recalls the metamorphic extent of manmade designs, from the
seaweed around sushi to the tobacco leaf of "beadies." While
each of these have the distinct aesthetic of Japanese and Indian craft,
respectively, Weissensteiners style is reminiscent of the animist
Secession, postmodernized with the mixed media of our everyday. It takes
the enchantment of an outsider, on residency in Melbourne from Vienna,
to subtract the hardness from the Australian bush and reduce it to the
whispering Tendril. Weissensteiners semi-transparent layers of handmade
paper are taped and exposed to a blow drier. The tape shrinks, leaving
the effect of certain Australian seedpods that will only explode and germinate
in extreme heat.
of beings, Weissensteiners sculptures fossilize the skin, the organ
that guides our feeling for density, thickness, smoothness, softness,
hardness. She intimates that the surface is a metaphor: the wall of a
building is its skin, an image the renegade modern architect Otto Wagner
explored in his Viennese projects. Yet skin can also be the membrane of
an insect wing, the very flesh in practice of a simultaneous inside and
outside. If the skin can be defined as vulnerability, then it is Weissensteiners
departure point in provoking a redefinition of the outside as mutually
exclusive from the inside, which is always weak while the outside is strong.
Tortoise Skin dwells on the experience of outer layers being softened
and pulled to the realm of the inner, reflecting that the surface we present
the world does not always have to be protective of a fragile interior.
When we speak of
such boundaries we may use figures of speech that refer back to the experience
of our own bodies. A suspicion of this inside that we are so conditioned
to express turned the body into a site of re-zoning in recent thought.
Art such as Weissensteiners belongs to those who have begun exploring
the delicious ambiguity in the modern self, and not the disembodied aesthetic
of the Cartesian mindbody split. When Paul Valéry wrote that
there is nothing deeper than skin, he was reacting to Descartes
with a similar vision: without and within can be the same and central
part of a self we are permanently sculpting.
cited in Wilhelm Capelle (trans.), Die Vorsokratiker (Stuttgart: Alfred
Kröner Verlag, 1968), p. 280. Anaxagoras was possibly the first to
perceive a figures inner and outer as a duality.
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