‘I suppose one could see my approach to certain phenomena of culture as slightly anarchic […]. It is a bit like strange archaeology: you discover old meanings that were developed for a certain period or audience that has since changed’.
In The Beasts, Maria Loboda (Krakow, Poland, 1979) engages in a sort of contemporary archaeology through the recontextualization of objects charged with latent significances that permit new free associations, since various layers of meaning coexist in them. The museum provides an area of safety, but what is shown there may be potentially threatening, sinister or subtly terrifying.
For Freud, narcissism situates the human being at the center of the world, yet civilization is born of the fearful control and domestication of a hostile environment apt to show its violent face once more. This primeval fear is summed up in the Freudian maxim: “The ego is not even the master in his own house”. The Beasts points to culture as a precarious entity that does not spring from the earth but rather from our defenses against it. As much is suggested by Her Artillery, a lion inspired by a sculpture from the Porte Dorée in Paris whose back is turned to the visitor. In the animal, it is possible to see not only humiliation and domestication but also their opposite, since the visible threat of its taut muscles seems to announce the possibility of a rebellion against the infantilizing punishment of being made to face the wall, and so to presage the imagined rising of all the beasts placed in front of official buildings.
Loboda’s fascination with the symbolism of Antiquity has nothing to do with the scientific literalness of the archaeologist’s work, but rather with historical aspects related to esotericism and mystery cults. In The Houses are all Gone Under the Sea, the arcane symbolism of the crustaceans found at the base of certain Egyptian obelisks reused during the Roman period has led her to incorporate this element into the joints of the stones which support the old Sabatini Hospital. Civilized discourse thus rests upon an animal forced into submission. This is the Greek Carcinus, one of the creatures which threatened Heracles, represented in the past by a crab or a lobster. The myth, which endorses the cohabitation of nature and culture, reappears in the present under its Latin name, cancer, as the most feared epidemic of the developed world, and it is seen here in the interstices of the architecture of the Enlightenment, threatening the survival of its project.
This interest in the precariousness of civilization lies at the root of Loboda’s fascination with the 1920s, the era of enthusiasm, speed and hedonism materialized in the Art Deco aesthetic. It was a period born of a traumatic war, and which bore the seeds of another that was to be even more destructive. This ‘before and after’ is suggested by Interbellum, an Art Deco inspired cabinet, a closed and self-contained object that appears to blow up when opened. Looking at first like a proud and severe construction, it seems afterwards to be the victim of an implosion or a bombing. What is denoted is the rupture of sophistication by barbarity, an idea emphasized in another work, The Vanishing, where a falconer’s gauntlet functions as a testimony to an absence. Isolated from its immediate referent, the falcon, it seems to have lost its raison d’être.
In La fiera, a series of photographs, the stones of the Temple of Debod and a set of silverware are sullied through contact with hands wearing leather gloves. The gesture, innocuous in description but transgressive to the eye, reveals the oblique relation between violence and the sacred, and the denial of the magical by the menacing. It generates the fantasy of an obscure original crime: that of the breaking of taboo. With their dual appearance, familiar yet disturbing at the same time, what emerges in these images is Freud’s Unheimliche: the menace which lurks in the everyday.
In the opposite way, Amour céladonique directs the gaze vertically toward the celadon color of the ceiling. This pigment, proper to Chinese and Korean pottery, takes its name from the shepherd Céladon, the epitome of spiritual and metaphysical love, who is the protagonist of L’Astrée, a novel set in pre-Roman Gaul. The color to which he gives his name defies all description, since it lacks historical referents or symbolic associations in the West. Related to the principles of Zen Buddhism, it suggests the elimination of the ego and narcissism, of all fear and of all historical experience. If, as George Steiner has it, “we are haunted not by the past, but by images of the past” (as The Beasts demonstrates), then the ceiling of the museum impregnated with this color suggests both a reference to the sacred (perhaps a peculiar form of celestial vault) and a serene form of iconoclasm. Evoked in both cases is a flight from history through a monochrome vacuum free of referents.