Sculptural exposures or from skin to skin

Petra Schröck on the sculptures of Simone Zewnik

Media in vita in morte sumus / in the midst of life we are surrounded by death
(Gregorian chant, Notker I. von St. Gallen, 840-912)

The presence of Simone Zewnik’s life-size sculptures settles a blanket of oppressive silence over the space. A certain solemnity surrounds the human-like creatures crafted from pig skin. The haunting ensemble, a dystopian-like scene, charges the room. Although each individual being is apparently only interested in itself, they invariably interact with the space they fill. There, the mother and infant, her head held high head (Mater cum Lactenti), there, a suited guy, leaning casually in the corner (Fumans), and there, a small child supported by little crutches (Baculina) and there, a man in a contemplative pose, hunkered down on the stairs, smoking (Obstinatus). [1] Zewnik’s figures are neither flawless nor life-like pseudo-sculptures, they are raw, realistic, frozen and patiently waiting to be aroused by human encounter. Not naked, but scantily clothed and in ordinary poses, they are all mutely self-sufficient. Now, abandoned to a tête-à-tête with viewers crowding up to the figures skin-tight, talking intimately with them, repulsed, or compelled to touch them. Some visitors are baffled, some are shocked. The surfaces of real pig skin slam against their psychological boundaries; they are sickened. Others are fascinated and make selfies, identifying with one figure or another, showing compassion. And yet others are merely speechless. Herein lies the full mystery of these works of art – at the initial encounter from skin to skin. Confusion and irritation, alienation and discomfiture, but also contact and affinity. "The body is the overt", Jean-Luc Nancy writes in Corpus [2], but the body is also the vessel for soul and spirit, which depart after death. Prior to dying, we schlep our bodies around with us, burdened by everyday life. In Zewnik’s works, the skin is more than the boundary of the underlying flesh - it is her matrix. Is there depth at all? Or is there nothing but surface, the potency of the material itself?

The power of classical sculpture lies in its three-dimensional, encapsulated reality, which seduces us - as opposed to paintings - into perceiving them as tangible bodies. [3] Since antiquity, sculptures have been, for the most part, limited to depicting the human body. It all began with the famous, lavishly adored Kritios boy (480 BC), painted in bright colors, complete with artificial eyes for a natural, most life-like presence. Almost 300 years later, the marble sleeping Barberin Faun (now in the Munich Glyptothek), is a supreme example of lasciviously provocative Hellenistic statuary art. Sculptures can be incendiary in their attraction. They incite pilgrimages and political or religious demonstrations; inflame a human’s adulation, explosive, destroying wrath or righteous envy. Pygmalion – the ultimate sculptor-myth of occidental art – tells of a sculpture’s miraculous transformation; of the Cypriot king who carved his ideal woman from the noblest ivory, and fell in love with her. In the end, by the grace of the gods, she came to life. [4]

At first glance, the idiosyncratic nature of Zewnik's protagonists is largely determined by their singular surface - preserved pigskin. An organic material, its haptics, structure and color are twin to human skin. The figures’ real-life dimensions imply human flesh and carnality. Using animal skin as a material, sewn together with needle and thread, leaving coarsely and delicately joined seams blatantly disclosed, is provoking. The discarded skins remain recognizable as such, still bearing the red veterinary’s stamp of approval (as Corpus Delicti). Their texture is waxy, more robust than the human epidermis, and the coloring varies from white to pink to red. Occasionally, even the body beneath shimmers through. An awkward and intentionally imperfect execution evokes memories of pain, reinforcing the impression of artificiality, but also of familiar doll-making artistry: real eyebrows, glass eyes, the visible cut of "tailor-made" skin dresses and exposed loose threads. Truly, it is the prepared animal skin that conveys the fascination for reality; that constitutes a large part of the figures’ authenticity. Apart from scientific interest, it is voyeuristic fascination that drives people to visit exhibitions of human anatomical samples preserved in alcohol or of full body plastinates by the anatomist Gunther von Hagens. Since the 1960s, when the concept of sculpture was redefined, artists have worked with vegetable, animal and human materials, including sperm and blood, work methods that have often triggered public controversy. [5] Everything that previously characterized the conventional concept of sculpture, was ploughed under: the preciousness of the material, the pedestal, the figure, the narrative. [6]

With her homunculi (Latin: little humans), the artist confronts us with our existential dilemmas, with our being at the world’s mercy. She obstructs our ideals of perfect beauty. The sculptures’ everyday poses convey universal emotions and experiences: childhood, birth, parenthood and death. Not only their titles, the figures themselves vividly represent various creation models in occidental tradition that influenced popular culture and art. The artist’s figures are first and foremost, homunculi, a widespread alchemical vision of artificially created beings arising in the late Middle Ages: Rabbi Löw molded the Golem from clay to protect the Jews from evil; an obsessed Doctor Frankenstein built his larger- than-life monster out of body parts; in the Sci-Fi classic Blade Runner, the Tyrell Corporation created replicants – genetically engineered beings barely distinguishable from humans. The reality is, human-machine-beings (cyborgs), humanoid robots as servants and cloned animals already exist. Since the Age of Romanticism, artificial creatures have been generally regarded with ambivalence at least, and considered threatening. In 1982, Ridley Scott had already raised the question of whether machines could feel and love. The new Blade Runner 2049, goes even further to ask: If machines can also procreate, then what sets humanity apart? A question aimed directly at the core of human existence. [7] In Simone Zewnik's installation Spiro ex Machina (2017), a newborn is attached to a massive, fully functional respiratory machine, hence, the tiny chest rises and falls visibly. Here, the dualities of man / machine, life / death are radically and vividly enacted.

Simone Zewnik’s earlier three-dimensional works were surreal, playfully humorous creations, incorporating natural, found objects as well as anatomical preparations as in Animal Fertility, with small mouse embryos in jars. Her preference for pigskin was already manifest in the sewn object, The gift of the second skin. All in all, the figures’ iconography (figure = doll) makes evident an affinity with the circle of (male) surrealists; men who were primarily driven by their fetishistic characters and sexual obsessions, self-cloned Pygmalions in the face of their "silent shamelessness." [8] Take Hans Bellmer, who designed and built life-size "artificial girls", dismembering, reassembling and photographing them for years on end. Simone Zewnik redefines this doll concept. She does not completely desexualize it, but she neutralizes it, building archetypal figures that resemble normal people (father, mother, children), as in her suspense-filled sculptural group Familia. In contrast to the surreal fetish dolls, Zewnik’s characters seem self-satisfied, almost chaste, in their ephemeral melancholy, completely devoid of rebellious impulses.

A man in a green hat grills a sausage (Ede Mecum); a young girl (Natatrix Sedens) in bathing suit, bathing cap and flip-flops enjoys the beach; a kneeling woman wearing sunglasses, high heels and a red miniskirt (Edamus in Natura). Zewnik's most recent sculptural works break away from the monochrome uniformity of skin, they are lightly-clad figures on colored pedestals, cheerfully indulging in summer pleasures. We are happy to join them, but here, too, there is an air of Western Man-of-Sorrows melancholy, which makes them so vulnerable. [9] Their modern attributes zoom them into the present, whereas the figures with uncolored skin express an abstract timelessness. While there is a powerful contrast between material (corpse material / death) and mood (summer, sun, beach / life), Zewnik’s 2017 group Silvatici Nobiles (Nobles of the Forest) refers to archaic body paintings in primitive black populations such as the Nuba of Kau in South Sudan. Obviously, the artist is playing with exotic savage stereotypes, whose skin language – white paintings and scarification – narrates rites of life. [10] Zewnik places these black, partially masked, unclothed men and women in upright boxes or has them crawling on the floor, thus translating far-off nature people into on-the-spot art people that are within our grasp. The figures are both inherently threatening and magically supernatural.

With her sculptures, Simone Zewnik uniquely transforms basic painful and existential experiences without speculating on cheap effects. She weds the terrible-harmless to Baroque vanitas ideas, which occludes short-lived glitter and the exhibitionist character of our highly technological society. Zewnik visualizes the legacy of skin in the presence of death, leaving room for transcendence, and eluding language of any kind. She invests her artistic freedom in dealing with questions; sculpting the mercilessness of extinction into her living creations.

[1]: Exhibition of Simone Zewnik’s sculptures in the BrotfabrikGalerie: Homo: Imagines et Sculpturae, Berlin 2016.
[2]: Jean-Luc Nancy, Corpus, Berlin/Zürich 2003, p.105.
[3]: Constanze von Marlin: Neue Formen. Der erweiterte Skulpturbegriff in den 1960er-Jahren, in: Die Macht des Dinglichen. Skulptur heute, Wiegand Verlag, Köln, 2007, p. 18.
[4]: In Ovid’s "Metamorphoses”, the statue was showered with gifts and dressed in garments, after her transformation they lived happily married with their children. This myth influenced many artists, e.g. the loss of Alma Mahler caused the Austrian painter Oskar Kokoschka to make a life-sized doll that did not lack any female attribute, with a surface of flesh-colored leather and real human hair. Daidalos, the mythical ancestor of Greek art, allegedly created sculptures that have left their pedestals.
[5]: In 1969, for example, Jannis Kounellis presented a work of twelve live horses at the gallery L'Attico in Rome. In the early 90s, Marc Quinn wreaked havoc with a sculpture made of his own blood, a self-portrait made of the artist's blood. Artists like Berlinde de Bruyckeres address the carnal body. The fragmented bodies of her wax sculptures display an eerie realism – a constant process of transformation between becoming and decaying.
[6]: Modeling, carving, chiseling became cutting, laying, stacking, gluing, etc. Minimal Art and Arte Povera and Joseph Beuys with his "social plasticity" used "poor", anti-art and changeable everyday materials, such as felt, coal, light, cement and food.
[7]: The film versions are based on Philip K. Dick’s novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”?
[8]: "Looking at these slender beauties, with their shimmering hair, their eyes framed by long silk eyelashes, their small and shapely breasts, their narrow hips - in the face of the silent shamelessness, the surrealist artists who idealized them to materialize their desire, all felt like Pygmalion." George Hugnet, cited in: Exposition Internationale de Surrealisme, Paris, 1938, in: The Art of Exhibition, p. 97.
[9]: A Man of Sorrows is also an iconic devotional image of Christ, arising in the 13th century, usually naked above the waist, with the wounds of his Passion prominently displayed on his hands and sides, yet living and not on the Cross. In this context, it the author’s indirect association with all of the artist’s figures, transferred onto the vulnerability of humanity today.
[10]: See: Kleine Kulturgeschichte der Haut/ Small Cultural Chronicles of the Skin, Ed.: Ernst G. Jung, Springer Science & Business Media, 2007, p.182 ff. Leni Riefenstahl created a complete photographic record of the Nuba with her illustrated books (1966 –1977).