Exhibition by Larita Engelbrecht in partial fulfillment of the degree MA in Visual Art at the University of Stellenbosch
US Gallery, 3 February 2012
The artworks in this exhibition explore representations of excess in relation to the body. Saturated Spectacle (After Hieronymus Bosch) functions as a contemporary reference to the central panel of Hieronymus Bosch’s sixteenth century triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights. In imitation of Bosch’s panel, the collage depicts a fantasy world where naked men and woman cavort among various plants, animals and oversized fruit. Excess is signalled in the way that the actions performed by the figures imply hedonism and carnality. I entitled the work Saturated Spectacle precisely because I see it as a spectacle staged with various bodies that has the visual power and ability to hold the gaze of the spectator. Bosch’s painting has been described as “an exotic derangement that turns us all into voyeurs, as a place filled with the intoxicating air of perfect liberty” (Hans Belting 2005). In my view Bosch’s world is a painted utopia that depicts his vision of humankind in a paradise unaffected by the Fall, and, accordingly, this is the scene I intended to (re)create with my collage. By appropriating Bosch’s eccentric view of ‘utopia’ by means of found images, I hope to facilitate critical reflection on the excess prevalent in contemporary culture.
The ouroboros is an ancient symbol depicting a serpent or dragon eating its own tail. It represents the perpetual cyclic renewal of life and represents the cycle of life, death and rebirth. I filled the insides of the felt serpent with everyday household items – objects that are often accumulated even though they are disposable. The artwork Ouroboros therefore comments on the cyclical nature of material accumulation.
With Rotating Glut the frame can be turned, allowing the cut-out jewellery pictures to fall and move as the wheel is rotated.
The series of hand-felted woollen sculptures communicate notions of the grotesque body. Robert Morris was one of the first artists working with felt to point out one of the most prominent qualities inherent in the medium. “Felt has anatomical associations;” says Morris, “it relates to the body – it’s skin-like.” (Morris 1983). The sculpted wool fibres represent the human body in all its vulnerability and fragility, and this is why I am drawn to the medium. The rhythmic and repetitive process of felting – of vigorously rubbing the separate wool fibres until they compact together – in itself constitutes excess in terms of time and labour.
The notion that the grotesque body is a body in the process of becoming – a body that references the cycle of life-death-birth – is a pivotal point of reference for these sculptures. It is for this reason that some of the sculptures, in particular Womb/Wound, represent the female pregnant body, as this kind of body is the best form to depict the “unfinished becoming” (Bakhtin 1984) of the body represented in the tradition of grotesque realism. The felt sculptures are mostly depictions of female bodies because of the association of felt with femininity, maternity and protection.
Viewers are encouraged to place their arms inside the sculpture Reclining Woman, thereby feeling silicone breast implants in an unexpected place. This action places the viewer in an uncomfortable position as the gesture of ‘feeling up’ a sculpture seems somewhat inappropriate in a public space.
The association felt has with the body as vulnerable or fragile relates to the tradition of vanitas or memento mori. The texture, colour and organic quality of the Karakul felt, together with its sturdiness despite its malleability, makes it seem both skin-like and bone-like. In representing a skull in the malleable medium of wool, I emphasise its fragility, thereby making my own memento mori reference to evoke the transient nature of material life. Accordingly, the felt skull is entitled Memento Mori I, and it is the first work in a small sub-series of felt sculptures that are collectively entitled Memento Mori. The works in the series function as reminders of the vulnerability of the human body and the precarious nature of material life.
All photographs by Niel Vosloo and myself