BERLIN GALLERY WEEKEND
Believing that art is a way to create space for reflection, Pamela Rosenkranz uses her work to interrogate perception and how we are entangled with our sexual desires and biological material. On the occasion of her exhibition at Sprüth Magers, which opens tonight, she discusses gender conceptions, the extinction of humanity, and the uncanny force of cuteness.
Interview by Elisa R. Linn and Lennart Wolff | Photography by Franziska Sinn
The (domesticated) cat, and especially the use of its scent, has been a recurring motive in your work, and is especially prevalent in your new exhibition in Berlin. Could you say a bit more about the role this animal plays in your work and in particular this exhibition?
The cat was one of the first animals to be domesticated by humans. Around 10,000 years ago, in the Fertile Crescent, cats were tamed and bred. They were used to prey on mice, which can spread diseases, but they were also an attractive and archaic reminder of their past as successful hunters and eaters of men. I am interested in the evolutionary relationship between us and cats, especially on a microbial level.
One might say, to put it short, that your work addresses a fundamental paradox of modernity: the separation between human/natural and scientific/cultural (i.e., political). Is it due to the environmental quality of this condition that you employ immersive and multi-sensory installations?
You could say so, although for me a monochrome painting is as complex to perceive as a scent. Our perception is saturated with our evolutionary past; culture and art are deeply affected by immemorial biological mechanisms.
You developed a new series of paintings for this exhibition. Could you tell us a bit more about them?
Tabby patterns trigger fight or flight responses in humans but also signal sexual and cultural dominance. I was searching Google for images featuring tabby cats and tabby coats, cute cats, replicas of the cat goddess Bastet from a gift shop, and the Dream Stele, in which the Pharaoh Thutmose IV inscribed his spiritual vision of the Sphinx, and the high noon sky, produced by an epileptic seizure in 1400 BC.
I painted layers of transparent acrylic paint that cover the image with a three-dimensional and porous “skin” that sticks to the acrylic glass, which was then painted over and pressed towards it and into a tabby pattern itself. The paint used pigments of skin tones, cat furs, and hues of the sand and earth native to the sub-Saharan African landscape in which cats first hunted men, and where human language and culture emerged.
When considering the position of the Speculative Realists—bluntly speaking, the existence of a reality independent of human perception—would you say that art could have a privileged access to this reality?
That would be nice. First, regarding Speculative Realism: I don’t see my work as exemplary of it in a direct way. My way to see it is that, human civilization is about to become more and more intelligent, and this intelligence somehow makes us able to see and understand more than before. Augmented by cutting edge technology, we become something that can’t be clearly defined as human. Art is a way to grasp this radical change, to see something different and to create space for reflection.
When looking at your use of images and objects from the consumerist realm and similarly references from art history, one notes that it is the performance of their symbolic function that is not only made visible but also become materials of your works. Would you agree with this?
I would, yes. I see images, ideas and history as something material or, you could say, physical, and symbols, to me, are embedded in a complex natural system.
In the press release for your exhibition in Berlin it reads that your work calls into questions that art can be separated from evolution. Could you imagine its extinction?
Definitely! Can’t we all imagine human extinction by now?! But imagining the extinction of humanity is easy. What’s more difficult is to contrast this dystopian vision with how we can avoid global catastrophes. I think that art can create new perspectives on value. First and foremost, art is social culture, and this is the core strength of human-kind’s evolutionary advantage. Our brains have managed to cultivate and organize fire—which, by the way, is apparently the reason why we overtook cats in the food chain—develop language, writing, cities, and schools. We made it to the Moon and will eventually go to Mars, so I believe we can manage to organize our consumption more ecologically! Is it easier to create the climate of Earth on Mars or to reanimate our own climate?! But I think that as long as there are humans, there will be art.
The exhibition’s title, “She Has No Mouth,” points towards the projection of sexual desires. How does it relate to works in the show?
The title refers to Hello Kitty. The company Sanjo says that “consumers can project their intimate feelings and emotions onto the fictional character.” It has a double take to it: it is about the microbial background of sexual desires—in particular, a parasite that we share with cats and that directly our attraction—and, at the same time, it’s about the biological basis of language.
When reading the exhibition text and references like Hello Kitty, Sianne Ngai’s book Our Aesthetic Categories. Zany, Cute, Interesting comes to mind, in which she traces the emergence of new aesthetic categories replacing ones like beauty. What would you say is the reason that cuteness has become a common category to describe our aesthetic experience in the consumerist society?
I am not very familiar with Ngai’s work so far. As far as I know, her work is about cuteness as an “aestheticization of powerlessness.” To me, cuteness seems to be a currency more than a weakness. If you think about the Japanese form of cuteness, kawaii, I find it becomes a rather uncanny force. Biologist Stephen Jay Gould has noted that so-called “cute” features trigger feelings of affection and nurturing. Evolutionarily, house cats are stronger than wild cats. Most of them are extinct by now. Unlike a wild cat, the domesticated cat meows not just as a baby cat but also in adulthood, in order to make humans more likely to care for them. You should probably look at it both ways.
Although most of your earlier work seemed to avoid representing bodies, or at least limited them to specific identities, your exhibition “My Sexuality” at Karma International in 2014 featured your own female body at its center. Is this pointing towards your own position in the patriarchal paradoxes of gender conceptions of femininity and masculinity?
You can say so. It is a confrontation of a certain authority that I claim by taking in a symbol of virility and performance: Viagra. I am interested in how we are entangled with our sexual desires and biological material, and whether and how we can “escape” from it. But the work was not about identifying the limits of a female body, obviously. To the contrary, it’s about exploring the perceptions of our sexuality, which are obviously shaped by culture and our natural history.
"She Has No Mouth" is Pamela Rosenkranz’s first solo exhibition at Sprüth Magers, Berlin, for which she has developed a new series of paintings and an installation with light, scent, and sound. On view through 17 June.