Venice/Biennale 56: A conversation in situ Part 2: The Swiss Pavilion (Pamela Rosenkranz)

Markus Klammer, Stefan Neuner, Niels Olsen, Pathmini Ukwattage
56th Venice Biennale, 29.09.2015

Pamela RosenkranzFig. 1

Upon the invitation of Salon Suisse 2015, which is accompanying the 56th Venice Art Biennale with the program S.O.S. DADA – The World Is A Mess, the editors of Terpentin and Markus Klammer traveled to the city of lagoons. The exhibition was discussed in the frame of a panel that took place on 06/04/2015 at Palazzo Trevisan. The following conversation was held on the next day during a tour of the Giardini in front of the works.

Markus Klammer: We are now in the Swiss Pavilion featuring the work by Pamela Rosenkranz. Stefan will give us an introduction to it. The motto of this year’s Biennale is All the World’s Futures—what picture of the future does this work draw?

Schweizer PavillonFig. 2

Stefan Neuner: I don’t know. I would first like to give a description and ignore the conceptual premises, which I was not aware of when entering. For someone without prior information, Pamela Rosenkranz’s coloristic intervention can already be distinctly seen from afar. Certain elements of the pavilion were painted in mint colors, for example, the wall one approaches when entering and the supporting elements around the ceiling. One then enters an atrium with a tall tree, then an open room painted in the same color—all walls and the ceiling, but not the floor.  Green LED lamps installed in the atrium illuminate the inside. Then comes a tunnel-like corridor leading to the main room of the pavilion, creating a perspectival effect. At the end, one sees a different color tone that I would define as something between pink, orange and salmon. One then approaches a chest-high barrier behind which lies a room-size basin filled with water dyed the color I just mentioned. The walls of this room are lined with textiles that reflect the light. If I continue to disregard the allegorical references, I gain the impression of a piece that quite deliberately latches on to a structure reminding of post-Minimalism. It is a pavilion showing us no “figure” at all, just a “ground.” The colors selected by Rosenkranz are suggestive in this context. Green is used in the areas open to the atrium with its trees and let’s one think of nature and also of landscape backgrounds in traditional European painting. The other color hue—again seen from the perspective of painting—has to do with flesh color. But we do not encounter a body here either, nothing that has to do with the phenomenological value of a “figure.” The tree in the atrium, towering high above the architecture, does not impose itself as a figure (like the trees in Zobernig’s work). All we have in both spatial compartments is a coloristic ground. To me, this appears as a fundamental decision. Rosenkranz seems to return to certain visions of the avant-gardes associated with monochromy and the elimination of the figure. An artistic step to which emancipatory potentials were once attributed. She seems to evoke this art-historical complex. I’ll leave it at that for now.

Pamela RosenkranzFig. 3

MK: I would like to point out a difference to the historical situation you just mentioned, Stefan. You spoke of the utopian potential of dissolving the figure in monochrome painting and later in monochrome and polychrome color spaces. It appears to me, however, that Rosenkranz’s work is not only conceived as visual process, but simultaneously as a corporeal, almost biological process. In regard to the Austrian Pavilion, you spoke in metaphorical terms of “spatial milieus.” What we have here, in my view, is the literal attempt to create a milieu, an ambience, a socio-biotope, that functions on different levels of affection simultaneously: on the level of colors and visual perception, as you explained, but also on the level of smelling and hearing. An immersive space is thus created engulfing us and penetrating us in a certain respect. We cannot maintain the same ironic distance as with Zobernig, because we are constantly affected, whether we like it or not. For me, the work relates to the concept of the “molecular” developed by Gilles Deleuze und Félix Guattari in “A Thousand Plateaus.” The molecular designates an organization of feeling, sensible bodies that cannot be grasped according to the Aristotelian pattern of genus and species and therefore does not follow any anthropomorphic scheme of specialized organs. Such bodies are permeated by a chaos of overlapping intensities undergoing constant change: warmth, juices, smells, colors. I believe that the installation celebrates this Deleuzian corporeality, albeit in a formally very disciplined, very convincing manner.

Pathmini Ukwattage: Corporeality always also has to do with inside/outside relations, articulated in this work in spatial terms, but also in a sensory respect, through colors, smells, voices. For example, the work offers various stages of spatial closure that in very different ways allow an outside to penetrate. This occurs on a purely visual level in the last room which is filled with liquid that remains protected from the visitors and from nature, but that allows gazes and vistas. The corridor, in contrast, is a very hermetic zone, while the atrium functions as a transitional space intertwining inside and outside. On the other hand, one is confronted with smells, tones of light and a voice addressing limits of the inside and outside in the area of corporeality. A smell is something quite intimate, especially since it requires closeness in order to be sensed. For me, the (im)permeability of bodies, their different levels of intimacy, appear as an aspect of the work that materializes itself in something like surfaces, inner spaces, and body-related qualities of expression, such as voice and smell.

Niels Olsen: The corporeality also comes from the fact that the exhibition space of the pavilion is “occupied” by a body and the visitors can no longer enter it. The work is corporeal, but at the same time it is elusive, due to this inaccessibility, and functions as a framed picture. The viewers see the actual work only through the small doorway.

SN: One more remark on monochromy: Of course, I am aware that Rosenkranz chose colors that would have been out of the question for monochrome painting in the 1950s and 60s—well, there has always been kitsch in the avant-garde, especially in the Italian variant—at any rate, these colors do not appear in the paintings that the artist is perhaps referencing. In her contribution to the last Biennale, she dealt with Yves Klein to a certain extent. But the colors here are pretty, they make reference to the cosmetics industry and similar things. That is evident and marks a clear break. I also see something ironic in it. In Rosenkranz’s “monochromy,” if I may call it that, entirely different and new signs and references come into play, or should I say: get in the way? Here, monochromy does not mean reverting to the objectivity and neutrality of primary colors. Rosenkranz’s colors are already situated in a completely cultural sphere. We are not faced with the “pure” colors that modernism sought to “set free,” but with colors that in different respects are already contaminated.

Pamela RosenkranzFig. 4

MK: They are also colors of the neon spectrum one is familiar with from the works of Dan Flavin, for instance—pink, green. Rosenkranz, of course, creates the colors with radically different means than those of the neon tube. But I am not sure whether their “contamination” represents an ironic or critical potential, as you seem to suggest. Rosenkranz obviously invents an entire range of fictive chemical substances, whose names are recited by a female voice coming from a hidden loudspeaker at the entrance of the pavilion. Names that are reminiscent of molecules from the cosmetics, health or anti-aging industry. They can also be found in the brochure accompanying the installation. Yet it seems to me that the artist does not simply denounce these substances; she simultaneously lends them a transformational, utopian potential. So I don’t see where exactly you would discern an ironic component in this work.

SN: Well, I would say simply on the coloristic level. Look at the atrium and the adjacent room. The green color hue is situated in the context of a reference to nature. However, it is not a lush green that would confirm this reference, but a tone reminiscent of industrial products or the image world of their marketing, which seeks to create effects of naturalness. Therefore, I see a break possessing an ironic potential. At least I believe one could see it that way.

PU: A break also effected by the glaring green LED spotlights that resemble the green wall color and thus actually emphasize the artificiality of this hue on the wall. But is that ironic? I don’t know.

NO: What surprises me most is that the pavilion’s atrium was not mopped and tidied up. Leaves and twigs are negligently lying on the floor... At first I wasn’t really sure whether this was intentional, but then I realized that it is an essential part of the work. The real “dirt” of nature contrasting the artificial conception of nature.

Pamela RosenkranzFig. 5

PU: But precisely this component stands in stark contrast to the cool LED spotlights and their function of clearly illuminating spaces; one associates the cool sterility of laboratory rooms or operating theaters, and not withered leafs or dirty floors. There is a strong difference or a moment of tension in connection with the chemical substances that also “float” through the room.

SN: Yes, that’s exactly what I mean. It makes this color so powerful and an artificiality or a mediated relation to nature is emphasized.

MK: But can we really speak of mediation here, because mediation presupposes the notion of two clearly separated areas? So there would be a realm of nature and a realm of culture, with the installation itself as a mediator. Instead, I have the feeling that mixtures or mixture ratios are at issue here, in which different states can no longer be explicitly distinguished. In this respect, the open area where we are standing right now is somewhat exemplary—the green rays of the LED spotlights illuminating the actual—mint-green—color of the wall and mixing with it. In my opinion, the work is about intensities, not mediation. It is about states of mixture and superimposition that cannot be clearly named. What is embarrassing to our noses, like the smell of the pink- or sludge-colored water, may be wonderful to future beings, and what we find fragrant may be disgusting for future beings. That’s what I mean by “utopian.” I think we are dealing ultimately with a vision of the “posthuman.”

PU: And is that articulated as a positive vision?

MK: Yes! I believe it is affirmed.

NO: Positive in what sense?

MK: In the realm of the molecular, according to Deleuze and Guattari, there are no class differences, for example. We no longer have to worry about sex as we know it... And these are indeed promises made by the advertising and cosmetics industry as well. [Laughs.]

SN: Okay, but you might have to explain that. To what extent is there an allusion to the classless society here?

NO: In regard to class difference: The third line of the press text already states that the monochrome liquid simulates north-western, European skin color. She addresses a geographical potential.

PU: That would then be more of a utopia that is based on Western identity patterns.

MK: And what does the green stand for?

PU: But if one reads this politically as Eurocentrism, the work would no longer be purely affirmative, it would attain a critical connotation. The polarity of dead nature, earth, and dirt on the one hand and clinical lab technology on the other would then be a dichotomous one, and at issue would no longer be mixture ratios, as Markus described them, but the critique of a Western utopia of the perfect human.

NO: That is certainly also meant politically, otherwise it wouldn’t be expressed so explicitly. “The Western skin color”—it’s so charged... The work is called Our Product!

PU: And that’s a global product—advertising functions globally via European skin.

SN: But I wouldn’t go as far as developing an allegorical interpretation starting from the opposition of dirt in the atrium and the atmosphere of clinical purity in the rooms—I don’t think the work formulates something like that.

PU: Apart from the press text, the question is: Where and how does the work speak of the “West” as an historical and ideological construction.

SN: At this point, I would like to address the allegorical level inherent to the work. Without reading the accompanying text, it certainly doesn’t reveal itself. At issue is the reference to a canvas by Gentile Bellini, the Miracle of the Cross at the Bridge of S. Lorenzo (1500). The painting is part of a cycle that used to be located in the Albergo of the Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista and is today on display in the Gallerie dell’Accademia. It is an amusing episode in which the reliquary of the Cross possessed by the brotherhood falls into the water during a procession to S. Lorenzo and is miraculously retrieved again. The reliquary wanted to be salvaged by only one person, the Guardian Grande of the Scuola, Andrea Vendramin. Be that as it may, what can be seen on the painting is a large water surface, the Rio di S. Lorenzo, whose turquoise color reminds one of the mint green here. And there are many swimmers in the canal. So there’s the contrast between the incarnate of these figures and the greenish water, and also between the brick walls, also present in the Swiss Pavilion, and the color of the water, in short: a color combination resembling the one we see here. As far as I understand, that was a starting point of the concept of Rosenkranz’s work, in which an inversion took place: The walls have the hue of the water, which, in turn, contains the flesh tone. Figure and ground are transferred to each other, they “mix” and dissolve in each other. Gentile’s canvas itself is already an example of an instable relationship between figure and ground. Instead of soil or pavement that could lend the figures of the painting firm ground, we have the canal into which objects and bodies fall or jump and in which they threaten to go under. And the contours of Gentile’s curious swimmers become blurred with the water. Rosenkranz’s work therefore has a “site-specific” motivation, it references—as can be expected in Venice—an art history of color. Fine. But I don’t know if that really helps us interpret the work. We have to keep in mind that an intertextual reference played a role in its conception, which can be used to explain its “Eurocentrism.”. Hence, the “West” would not necessarily be the theme, but merely an historical-geographical context provided in Venice. But can one stop with this finding? For the flesh color of the Venetians in Gentile’s painting is juxtaposed with that of a black African slave who, as a good Christian, is about to jump into the canal to take part in the rescue mission...

MK: The question would then be: Does the work devise an alternative to the Western narrative in the first place? I don’t think so. I do understand what you mean by “critique,” but the work strongly partakes in everything it seems to criticize. Let’s take the perfume emitted in the installation. The artist engaged a well-known perfumer to assist in creating the essence. I for one interpret this engagement as a sign of approval. So if the heteronormative cosmetics industry operating according to Western standards is to be criticized, the installation is suffering from the Stockholm syndrome.

SN: No, I don’t see a critical potential in regard to the Eurocentric norms of these industries, which are certainly addressed here, either. The crucial point instead lies in the reference to the context of the Biennale, this global art exhibition, and more specifically to the context of the 56th edition curated by Okwui Enwezor. This means that, in this context, the allusion to skin color and the cosmetics industry cannot only be regarded from an art-historical perspective or in terms of an arbitrary aspect of commodity aesthetics. It would be entirely different if the work had been realized in a museum somewhere in Switzerland. Especially since Enwezor is displaying several works in the main exhibition in the adjacent Italian Pavilion that address the problem of racism—including the paintings by Glenn Ligon (Come Out #12– 15, 2015) which are essentially based on the main point that these black monochromes shift the formal problem of color field painting to a political context. But Rosenkranz probably couldn’t have known that such works would be present…

NO: Not necessarily. Pamela Rosenkranz has been working with skin colors for years, and this piece is an expansion of her oeuvre to date. She has hardly operated on such a large scale, but she has been delving into the theme of “skin” for a longer period of time in her practice. Pamela always says that she’s not a painter, and by taking the mineral water brand “Evian” as a starting point, for instance, she applies the “corporate” colors of this brand as a ready-made. That then allows her to use royal blue or a shade of pink as well.

MK: Evian chose pink for a product line for babies, right?

NO: Yes, that’s were it originally comes from. She doesn’t follow a classical painterly strategy... The same is true of the skin color: She uses the entire palette, from dark brown to whitish-beige. One finds the entire spectrum in her work. She follows this strategy and it has nothing to do with...

MK: ...discrediting the West.

NO: It may not be about the political potential, but still about the power of images as such—about the conception of skin color or strategies of such notions of images. Precisely because she is not a painter she is more interested in pictures on the conceptual level, in the way they function and in what apparently constitutes skin color. And it is a well-known trick in advertising that showing skin is attractive and catches attention. I assume she is interested in precisely this moment.

PU: If you keep that in mind and once again recall the art-historical reference of the monochrome mentioned earlier, universalistic notions closely tied to modernism are involuntarily evoked. Hygiene fetishism, purism and so forth. Advertising is still based on this essentialist conception of “purity,” especially in the way language and images are used to advertise for mineral water brands.

MK: Yet, in my view, purism is professed by the the work only superficially, for it is quite to the contrary about the production of mixtures and gradients, of superimpositions, as with the green artificial LED light, the natural light of the sun, and the mint-colored walls, or the exquisite perfume odor and the foul smell of the fermentation processes in the water basin that mingle and trigger “mixed emotions.” Niels, you described this earlier in regard to the problem of skin color: That there is a gradient from wherever to I-don’t-know-where. This installation features gradients in the most various registers.

SN: We have hardly spoken about the spectacular aspect of this huge water basin. Just to mention it: The idea of flooding an entire room apparently once again owes to the principle of inversion and a reference to the site: not a building at or in the water, but a room under water, an inversion of inside and outside. Moreover, the room appears at the end of a visual canal, it is framed, strongly staged, and also lent a slight aura. Even if this visual field, as which the water surface appears, stinks a bit… It is not dissimilar to Richard Wilson’s Site Specific Oil Installation (1987) in the Saatchi Collection.

MK: To once more take sides with affection: The barrier of the basin reaches up to the chest of most visitors. It is presumably a bit higher than in Wilson’s piece. One feels the pressure that the water exerts on the barrier as pressure on one’s own body.

NO: I find this “complicity” you described earlier crucial. On the one hand, it is to be understood as a critique of these affections caused images, but on the other, she makes use of these affections herself in the work. I find precisely this balancing act between criticizing affection and employing affection quite exciting.

PU: Exactly, the work doesn’t really have a dichotomous structure. Markus described it quite well, it’s about gradients that also imply processes.

NO: Back to the bodily experience you mentioned. It already starts when entering the pavilion, because all senses are stimulated by sounds, smells, and visual perceptions.

MK: Now a scholarly art-historical reference comes to my mind as well, namely, Situationism, or to be more precise, the Dutch architect Constant. His utopian city of the future, “New Babylon,” on whose plans and models he worked for decades, was designed to totally guide the sensory impressions and affects of its residents. Different spaces were to have different climatic conditions, temperatures were to be suddenly altered and adapted to the moods of the residents, it was supposed to rain, there were to be various sounds and smells and spectacular immersive color effects. I would like to regard “New Babylon” as the totalitarian horizon of Rosenkranz’s immersive formalism. Then there is the Situationist painter Giuseppe Pinot-Gallizio, whose pittura industriale was shown in April 1959 at the gallery Drouin in Paris under the title “Caverne de l’antimatière.” Prescious perfumes were sprayed in the gallery spaces meant to connect Pinot-Gallizio’s semi-industrial all-over painting with the audience on the level of smell, too. Debord immediately excluded him from the Situationist International. [Laughs.]

SN: Did you want to hint at something with that remark? [Laughs.] Smell is indeed a critical question! In the neo-avant-garde in the United States it appears at the same time, of course, in the 18 Happenings in 6 Parts (1959), for example, in which Allan Kaprow had oranges juiced to disperse a certain flagrance... The issue at the time was to transcend the space of modernism deemed sterile and formalistic and to bring the body into play, to create closeness, to reduce the distance inherent to “disinterested pleasure,” to attack all sorts of “purisms” that were attributed to abstraction… What was conceived as incompatible in the neo-avant-garde appears to be brought together again here: corporeality and abstraction, which is marked as “purist” qua the connotation to cosmetics. That really is paradoxical! And it is not the case that everything fits together seamlessly. There may be something immersive in the combination of smells, sounds, visual impressions. But this combinatorics is no longer connected to a witching illusionary effect as is the case with true spectacle artists such as Anish Kapoor or James Turrell. As opposed to that kind of art, the Rosenkranz’s installation appears pieced together in a sympathetic way. The walls do not become intangible on account of the illumination; the perfume can hardly be smelled at first, many visitors will likely “oversmell” it, but the water basin really stinks—and we don’t even know if that was intended…

MK: One last remark on utopia. A recurring topos of the utopian is the invention of languages, words, or grammars. Late 19th- and early 20th-century literature is full of neologisms. Just think of James Joyce. Or think of the lunatic in Elias Canetti’s “Auto da Fé” who lives in a gorilla costume and speaks his own, expressive language that can only name gestures but not objects. It seems to me as if the ficticious names of imaginary chemical substances in Rosenkranz’s work stand in this tradition. They represent the lexicon of a utopian chemistry.

PU: We already talked about the “new human”—the faceless, post-ethnic, de-individualized human gained from the cross total of all differences.

MK: Yes, or from the plethora of affirmations! [Laughs.] And that takes us on to Hito Steyerl.

56th Venice Art Biennale
9 May - 22 November 2015


Fig. 1, 3-4
Pamela Rosenkranz, Our Product, Installation View
Photo: Marc Asekhame
© Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia

Fig. 2
Schweizer Pavillon, view from outside
Photo: Stefan Neuner

Fig. 5
Pamela Rosenkranz, Our Product, Installation View
Photo: Stefan Neuner

Translation: Karl Hoffmann