Riccardo Venturi
physical self  2017


As soon as we enter the gallery and close the door behind us, we experience the sensation of entering a different space and time. We enter physical self, Laura Gozlan’s latest exhibition, and its disconcerting chronotope. The atmosphere made by the sodium lights on the ceiling and the synthetic blue carpeting on the floor contributes to it. This blue is a rare colour in our everyday environment as well as in nature, and thus a non-anthropomorphic colour.

On the double-height platform in the middle of the first room, also covered in blue, we find three sculptures (Breathing Skins, 2017). Made out of the overlay of various templates, the sculptures are hand-lacquered, hence their glaze with no shimmer. Their bony nature strikes us as we get closer. The manual work slags make us think of vertebras, although the anatomy books wouldn’t be of any help when trying to identify more precisely their name and role in the skeleton’s collective economy. In the gap there is between one unit and another, the artists’ manual gesture opened some small crevices that protect – and almost hide – undistinguishable moving images. Sometimes, only a luminous glow filters through the gaps, like a screen’s soul.

Around the screen sculptures, five tubes are hung from the ceiling with a latex tourniquet (Inner chains, 2017). Mounted from the ceiling but not immutable, they can oscillate and rotate around their axis. This ability is only discovered almost accidentally, when during the visit, while trying to walk around the sculptures, we haphazardly brush their end. However, the movement is explicit, in its potentiality, in the tubes’ folds where we identify, in negative, the hand of the artist who twisted them. The twists bring life to the sculptures – Inner Chains is, essentially, a fold becoming matter. This amorphous and vaguely tree-shaped ensemble does not materialize into a specific shape in the gallery’s space. Two tubes clustered together in the centre of the first room are disposed as an obstacle. We walk through the room, with no specific path to follow, avoiding the installation logic.

You have to play the game to find out why you’re playing the game.
Allegra Geller in David Cronenberg, eXistenZ, 1999

Although the colour blue and the first pieces we see articulate an unexpected chronotope, it is not a post-human reality yet. In fact, the body is dispersed everywhere in the exhibition space. If Breathing Skins can make us think of carefully cut granite stones, they are indeed living stones. Acting as both a visual device and a sound box, the screen sculpture broadcasts indecipherable messages. Actually, it is from the inside of the sculptures that arises a pulse or, to quote their title, a breathing, whispers, and, as we’ll soon be told, the artists’ voice reading a Timothy Leary text about the psychedelic experience and the oceanic feeling. As if the American psychologist dismissed from Harvard University due to his research on psychotropic drugs was speaking to us, precisely twenty years after his death, from another galaxy, inaccessible, behind a fence.

Although Breathing Skins looks like a sarcophagus – containing images, voices, and by extension the body itself – it is actually a diaphragm that vibrates, echoes, interferes with the sound we make as we move, and with the sounds coming from the installation in the second room. It is a sound machine that takes us surreptitiously from one room to the other, eschewing the vision’s rational control.

The body is present too in Inner Chains: inside the tubes, organic shapes are floating as if caught in amber. Dried octopuses, ginseng roots and swim bladders are paired with USB cables, the new waste of our anthropocene. Disparate objects, like fossils in a geological stratification or, to use the artist’s metaphor, like waste taken by the sea stream, in a confined body of water.

Furthermore, one is not far from making a connection with the specimens found in scientific and anatomic museums, in which the educational efforts, the scientific – or even positivist – approach, the information overload regarding the objects origins and the contracted illness through anatomical sampling, doesn’t make the feeling of dread less intense when looking at what is inside the see-through containers. In some ways, in these container-like tubes, the organic substances continue their existence, as if the viscous liquid in which they bathe were breathing life into them.

The tourniquets, like crutches holding Inner Chains’ five umbilical tubes, give the combination a grim look. We are facing a prosthetic sculpture, of which only some bits remain – disiecta membra, or as Laura Gozlan says, a sick body whose internal organs are not enough to attribute them to an anthropos. Inner Chains is simultaneously a series of connectors, roots and rhizomes coming out of the ground, an umbilical cord and a cyborg body. It is above all a life form, far from the initial impression of alienation.

Everything can be used as a screen, the body of a protagonist or even the bodies of the spectators; everything can replace the film stock, in a virtual film that now only goes on in the head, behind the pupils, with sound sources taken as required from the movie theatre.
Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time Image, 1985

It is precisely at this time that the sculpture that intrigued us from the start (Sensorium, 2017), placed right in front of the entrance at eye level but whose encounter we delayed, becomes intelligible in its dual anthropomorphic nature. The recto shows a modeled nose (happening to be, as we expected, the artist’s own nose), a self-portrait fragment made out of moulded palm wax. The verso, whose accessibility is suggested in the empty space between the piece and the walls’ angle, shows a hollowed structure with its consolidation and its fiberglass hardness, as well as a more visceral nature, compared to the recto’s smooth surface. What happens is a significant change of scale, which takes us from the nose to the whole body. The isolated organ therefore becomes a body, the nose becomes a foetus, and Sensorium becomes a shell-like sculpture.

Yet, while walking around the sculpture, we realise that a smell emanates from the nose too. It is no coincidence that this odorous nose is made out of wax, a material the artist used for its capacity to retain odours so as to render them successively, a material used for its memorial persistence. By doing so, she joins the secular and long-lost tradition of ceroplasty (on which Julius von Schlosser published a classic book in 1911, History of Portraiture in Wax), a technique used for moulding both the living and the dead, for imprinted effigies, for ex-votos and relics, for automatons and modern fairs. It is a form of realism, certainly, but a form of realism opposed to all classicist aesthetics, to all disembodied idea of the Beautiful, which retains the impression left by a direct contact with the model’s own body. This link becomes even more meaningful when we think of the resemblance there is between wax and skin, which increases both its naturalistic potency and its erotic potentialities. It is not surprising that its cultural history is so rich, going from portraits in the round to horror movies.

Laura Gozlan worked on the texture of images as if it was skin epidermis, conjured literally or more elusively by its texture, its colour, its processing, its membranes. Discreet but omnipresent, the body’s presence is suggested in its subtraction by the entanglements between skin and stone, or by more striking operations such as disfiguration. This disfiguration affects the figure in a straightjacket, in its identity appropriation and in its narcissism. The disfiguration agents include the drawing, historically the medium that shaped the human face, and special effects from zombie movies that Laura Gozlan is passionate about, especially the ones by Lucio Fulci, with its heads simmering at high temperature and decomposing before the eyes of the spectators. A third disfiguration agent is, more trivially, a bad scan made by a Kinect infrared camera. The technology used here does not project the future its perfecting techniques allow us to imagine, but forces us into thinking back to the present. The rotation, as it is involved in Inner Chains, also relates to a disfiguration operation.

We have all felt a peculiar unease in front of wax figures. This arises from the insistent ambiguity which inhabits them and which prevents our adopting a consistent attitude towards them. Treat them as living beings and they mock us by revealing their cadaverous and waxen secrets, yet if we look on them as dolls they seem to protest in a rage. There is no way of reducing them to mere objects. Looking at them, we become uneasy with the suspicion that it is they who are looking at us. And we end up by feeling loathing towards this species of hired corpses.
José Ortega y Gasset, The Dehumanization of Art, 1925

In the video installation which gave its title to the exhibition (physical self, 2017) and takes place in the second room of the gallery, analogue and digital images as well as movie and scientific images are all chained together in un-symmetrical frames. The images go through a multiplication and refraction device perfectly mastered by Laura Gozlan. The device is made of Plexiglas and glass surfaces (the curved one is glass) located between the projector and the back wall used as a screen. Although the surfaces are see-through and enable the projected beams of light to go through them, they do possess an opacity that heightens their plasticity.

Amongst the images flow, one can identify extracts from the Japanese anime Perfect Blue (1997) by Satoshi Kon, but also a 3D model of the artist’s torso and facial movements. The camera follows her rotating face in a virtual gravity-free space, as if we could manipulate it ourselves, like any other malleable material. Wax is, once again, the key reference. In this metamorphosis, the asperities of the face, the cutaneous envelopes drilled with holes on the surface of our bodies then become caverns and other unknown territories.

The video-ludic experience is decisive, especially through the long sequence shots and uninterrupted tracking shots the artist decided to focus on. In other words, she focused on its cinematographically different spacio-temporal construction, making the four-angle screen and the monofocal perspective burst into pieces.

How can we consider the video game images beyond their recreational use, beyond the easy confusion one can make between reality and fiction, beyond the players, geeks and hackers’ position? Maybe, for example, as we look at physical self, by adopting a countergaming strategy, which questions the possibility of a video game with no game and no console, of a video game with no gameplay (Alexander R. Galloway, Gaming. Essays on Algorithmic Culture, Minneapolis-London: University of Minnesota Press, 2006). We are not far from the expanded cinema, which was enlarged not in the way that it produced elements beyond the classic cinema experience, but rather in the way that it could do without its constituent parts, without its filmic specificities. “This is not a particular style of filmmaking. […] It is cinema expanded to the point at which the effect of film may be produced without the use of film at all.” (Sheldon Renan, Introduction to the American Underground Film, 1967).

Regarding the video game, this means paying less attention to its recreational action and more to its representation space, less to the perception objects and more to the perception itself, or, paying better attention to the unique way in which they articulate perception, technology and imagination. This capacity to build hallucinated states, haunted by the spectres, as any other perception action would, is essential to video installations.

Where I have broken or removed the first wall, the projected one remains. Since it is a projection nothing can pierce or eliminate it as long as the motors are running.
Adolfo Bioy Casares, The Invention of Morel, 1940

As a whole, Laura Gozlan’s exhibition is filled with a narrative latency or, more specifically, with a length of time, with a time span lived away from the chronos. It appears intangibly in the white noise made out of sounds and voices forging linkage between the exhibition pieces as much as, in a more material way, in the screen sculptures and in the projection of refracted moving images. Dwelling in this chronotope – which evokes the dystopian ambiances found in science fiction, seizing a parallel time more than a time to come – is a significant challenge launched by physical self.