Shiny, curved metal bodies gather in obscure social constellations in the work of French sculptor Caroline Mesquita. Their bright, reflective surfaces, though outwardly precious, seem at odds with the grotesque and eccentric gestures in which they’re frozen. The protagonists are shaking, tripping and falling over each other in an orgy of affection that might switch into a violent act of rebellion at any moment. Their hollow, life-sized torsos are composed of stacked geometrical shapes made from folded sheets of copper; the artist leaves them unfinished, presenting them naked or “dressing” them by covering their surface with painted or etched patterns and figurative details. When placed in the exhibition space, they occupy the center in a stage-like way, enacting a negotiation between figure and space that brings to mind the work of Oskar Schlemmer and his triadic ballet.
Known for decking his dancers in costumes that abstracted the human body to geometric forms, Schlemmer simplified his subjects’ general characteristics while at the same time accentuating them. He considered dance and theater as being wholly emotional in origin, representing the unadulterated pleasure of Dionysus. Similarly, Mesquita’s sculptures seem to celebrate collective rituals that deliberately violate existing customs and morals. With their dubious appearances, ambiguous poses and indistinguishable genders—sometimes only illustrated by bold painterly gestures on their surfaces—Mesquita’s figures caricature and foil conventional roles as clichés.
LIFELESS TABLEAUX VIVANTS OF AMBIGUOUS FIGURES SET OUT TO CARICATURE CLICHÉS AND VIOLATE CUSTOMS
Some of her scenes turn out to be lifeless tableaux vivants with triumphant leading women in moments of upheaval and protest, much like the goddess of Liberty and an emblematic version of Marianne as a national personification in Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People. But where that canvas served as a symbol of emancipation, Mesquita’s arrangements are not explicitly allegorical in their nature. That the artist uses these sculptural figures to go beyond the physical immediacy of objects becomes obvious in her accompanying video and sound works, which often serve as backdrop settings or are integrated into the installations. In BAL (2015), for instance, improvised melodies and rhythms, played by Mesquita using self-made metal flutes or by banging on the metallic torsos, increase the doubt in the objects’ static nature. In more recent video works, the figures reappear in an intimate liaison with the artist herself; shot in stop-motion, the sculptures finally come alive, although the contrived manner of their awakening remains apparent.
The complex relationship between the sculptures and the artist starts to fully unfold in Some blue in my mouth and Pink everywhere (both 2016), where Mesquita herself appears naked or dressed up as different characters (a man, a schoolgirl), transforming herself into an object of desire for her own creations. The scenes shift between erotic encounters and child-like clumsy play; as positions of control are blurred, so are the power relations between the sculptures and their creator. In turn, the spectator involuntarily gives in to scopophilia, the erotic pleasure of looking at other people’s bodies as objects. Utterly confused by human flesh and animated metal fusing in a waltz of affection, the viewer is left unsure whether he/she is witnessing a private, morally equivocal obsession or a passionate, genuine act of artistic creation.
Caroline Mesquita (French, b. 1989) is an artist who lives and works in Paris. She is represented by Carlier Gebauer, Paris, and Union Pacific, London.
Mesquita’s solo exhibition “The Ballad,” curated by Martha Kirszenbaum, is currently on view at Fondation d'Entreprise Ricard, Paris, through 11 March. In April, the exhibition will travel to 221A, Vancouver.
Elisa R. Linn and Lennart Wolff are a duo of writers and curators based in Berlin, where they run the project space KM Temporaer.
Image: 123 Soleil Victoria, 2015 (detail), Courtesy of the artist