Our intestinal system has become the subject of quite a major international trend. These days we are not only interested in how our guts affect our mental and physical wellbeing; we also believe they can explain processes that were previously believed to be the exclusive domain of our brains and hearts. While speculative realism in philosophy criticises the notion about the superiority of human consciousness, biology is challenging the 20th century’s most widespread form of therapy: psychology. The book Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ by the German scientist Gulia Enders (b. 1990!) was an international bestseller last year, and the art world, too, has suddenly developed modes of thinking that are closely associated with the human metabolism. These new developments were brought to mind as I saw Rolf Nowotny’s new, repulsive and heavily symbolic sculptures at Tranen in Hellerup.
Five green containers stand in separate locations in the corner room at Tranen. For this exhibition, the room has been screened off by plastic, making it eerily reminiscent of a crime scene – and bringing to mind the heaps of corpses that have been stowed away in exactly this kind of container in countless crime stories. Normally, such containers are, of course, used for accumulated waste and spoiling food.
Here, the containers act as “bodies” for heads attached onto the end of a steel rod inserted in each container body. At first glance the heads look to be made out of ceramics, their “glazes” glistening with a sweat-like sheen as they run down the zombie-like, partially decomposed faces. However, closer inspection reveals that the heads are in fact made out of entirely dead industrial materials: polyurethane and epoxy. Phalluses poke out of eyes, gaping holes replace noses. An ear has slipped down onto a cheek, and elsewhere a huge plant growth emerges from a skull. The stuck-on hair heightens the macabre effect.
These heads are truly disturbing, reminiscent of some of Paul McCarthy’s extreme clay works where phalluses also poke out instead of noses (Untitled (Jack), 2002). But whereas McCarthy engages with the language of psychoanalysis and its heavily charged, taboo-laden repertoire of sexuality and abjection, Nowotny seems to slide into other modes of thought. In fact you could say that he launches a confrontational exchange between life-giving forces and the inevitability of death, and between two opposing philosophies: vitalism and materialism.
Many may think that these new works constitute a radical change in Rolf Nowotny’s practice and idiom. I would rather say that they signify an evolution where the body is no longer simply present as a sign in the titles of the works, but appears directly – in the (peeling) flesh. For his solo exhibition Full Frontal Nudity (2011) at Overgaden he shaped the clay into beautiful jars; here they have been replaced by waste containers – but containers they remain. The yellow colour is also a recurring Nowotny signature. For this exhibition it has been smeared onto six large canvases that were subsequently combined to form a single, vast painting, creating a luminously yellow background – a strong contrast to the crime scene atmosphere that permeates the rest of the room. A clear distinction is established between the life-giving strong light of the sun, and putrefying death.
Sur Pollen is the second exhibition in Tranen’s conceptual series Domain, which explores the relationship between mankind and our material surroundings – whether imbued with consciousness or not. The series thus has strong links to speculative realism and object-oriented philosophy with its intense focus on the chemical and material connections between all things. Viewed from this perspective, mankind is nothing but a gathering of biological processes, just like all other life and non-life on Earth. At this exhibition, that life is rotting, its decomposing remains hermetically shut inside the containers.
Here the smells of decay and rottenness are only present as olfactory memories of the kind immediately summoned up by the mere sight of a waste container. Containers are symbols of decay, but so too are zombies, so the kind of “container zombies” created by Nowotny here can almost be described as tautological in nature. A zombie is dead, rotting, yet still alive. Dumb, dull and cold, its survival instinct is linked to the hunger for living flesh. This is what makes the zombie figure so interesting in this context: a living dead creature, devoid of consciousness, yet full of urges and desire – is this not an excellent metaphor for speculative realism taken to its furthest extreme?
Here, Nowotny makes strong nod to speculative realism. At the same time the exhibition paves the way for a far more neo-vitalistic position by virtue of the contrast between the zombie-like figures and the large yellow canvas: from here light flows ceaselessly right into the heads of the poor “unconscious” creatures. Thus, the exhibition also addresses the pain and beauty of having consciousness, being animated, having a soul.
The official opening included a so-called Butoh dance; an intensely physical dance that explores the darkest aspects of human nature. The dancer ended up in front of the yellow painting, fluttering her eyes, trembling with fear, poking out her tongue like the terrifying goddess Kali (who sucks evil forces out of people), ending her dance in a prolonged, mute scream of pain.
During her dance she placed all five containers so that the rotting faces faced the brilliantly luminous walls. If we regard the container zombies as representatives of speculative realism (as life without any emphasis on consciousness), the large yellow canvas can be regarded as a confrontational mirror held up to that realism: a life-giving force expressive of a more neo-vitalistic perspective. This is to say that vitalism – which essentially states that we cannot fully and exhaustively explain organic life based on physical and biological processes – takes a highly antagonistic position in relation to speculative realism. I perceive this rupture to be the fundamental driving force behind Nowotny’s show, which can even be said to be almost Biblical in scope. As it says: “For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting.”