Focusing on art’s imaginative qualities, social impact and active relationship to the future, the Center Stage series directs our attention to the question: What does art do? In this issue, Maria Lind speaks with Marie Kölbaek Iversen.
In the 2015 installation Mirror Therapy, a thin slice of lapis lazuli replaces film as the substance between the projector’s light and the projected image. Through this “stone slide,” you make a hard material immaterial and offer an image for inspection, not unlike an X-ray. It seems to be about presentation, rather than representation or documentation. What led you to this material articulation?
Mirror Therapy is a direct continuation of my general practice and how I relate to my materials. I try to avoid postulating something about or through my material. Instead, I pay attention to it, acknowledging its particularities and, by conceptually enhancing those particularities, make it resonate beyond itself and meet the borders of its definition. I allow it to become strange.
Mirror Therapy came after a series of works with video feedback titled “RETROACTION,” where cameras and projectors are combined in a closed circuit, projecting on and filming the same screen, thereby generating a graphic site- and system-specific pattern. Thinking of myself as an organizer rather than creator of those visual effects, my attempt was to break down the idea of “medium” as transparent vessel for foreign contents and instead allow it to act as an enforcer of the materials’ own characteristics. I wanted to subtly change the power balance between artist and material as a way of experimenting with more attentive and respectful ways of relating to the world, acknowledging that the artistic material is just another “other” in the line of “others” operating outside Euro- and anthropocentric systems of thought.
By using stone in Mirror Therapy, I wanted to see if I could repeat this methodology of “listening” to my material, of organizing rather than creating. Being based in Paris at the time, I was inspired by the cityscape. France is a country built on rock, and many buildings have elaborate marbled facades in which stones unfold like giant mineral Rorschachs. There is a certain beauty in the unifying virtual patterns that arise as a direct consequence of the stones’ destruction and distribution across the facades. The veins and streaks of the cut-up rocks reconnect across the many sections and make up new virtual wholes beyond the initial “trauma” of mutilation. Not as a restorative measure—the material unities of the individual stones are forever gone, carved as they were from the mountainside—but as some kind of cyborg condition that rejects the idea of material destruction as absolute destruction, and directs attention instead to the virtual phantom evoked by physical trauma.
What about the title?
I chose the title in response to the virtual operation of the stone—the idea that new wholes are generated through these virtual patterns. It reminded me of V. S. Ramachandran’s “mirror visual feedback therapy,” which is a treatment method aimed at easing phantom pain. By placing a mirror along the body’s symmetrical axis and mirroring the good limb in the place of the missing limb, the amputee gains cognitive access to what is absent. In both the treatment and my installation, virtuality is inscribed as part of the physical body and its outward projection into the world.
The title led me to my stone material. Mirror therapy is widely used in the treatment of Western veterans from the war in Afghanistan. I therefore chose to work with the Afghan stone lapis lazuli, which has been used for decorative purposes in Asia for centuries due to its bright blue color. Because the slide installation projects the actual stone, it is neither representation nor recollection: it is material actuality, whose virtual resonance spans historical, geopolitical and artistic demarcations.
Fictions of normative embodiment figure prominently in the work—I’m thinking, for example, of a video featuring a Danish soldier who lost his foot while on duty in Afghanistan. Can you tell me a bit more about the geopolitical backdrops of your work, with equal emphasis on “geo” and “political”?
Of the figures reflected in the work, two are particularly important: the planet Earth and the human body. These two figures, simultaneously worlds of their own and subordinates to larger systems, stand on either side of the virtual mirror posed by the artwork, reflecting retroactively upon each other. The cut rock is no more an analogy for the mutilated body than the wounded soldier is an image of the lost unity of the stone, yet they relate to each other through sympathetic processes of similarity and contagion, the soldier having set foot on the Afghan ground from which the stone is sourced. It’s easy enough to lament the lacking innocence of the warring human race. The artwork, however, takes aim at the future: rather than presenting material reorganization or destruction as final, the work renders trauma a fertile ground for new beginnings.
In my work, virtuality is inscribed as part of the physical body and its outward projection into the world
As mentioned earlier, I did not set out to make a work about Afghanistan, but instead arrived there through associative processes; I was shocked that the conceptual machinery of the artwork had brought with it such a charged and tense political reality. With this came a great responsibility, but I also knew that I had to see it through, not least to complicate media-conveyed representations of contemporary wars and conflicts, which reduce people and places to caricatures, alive or dead with a cheer or a tear, depending on political alliances.
Can you elaborate on the idea of responsibility?
There is much debate as to the actual efficiency of war reportage, whether it fosters empathy with or indifference towards the subjects depicted. Short-circuiting the loop of representation by way of actuality, I thought the lapis lazuli slides would be actual representatives of Afghanistan, firsthand witnesses to the sufferings endured. The question remains, however, whether it is possible for people to empathize with a stone.
Mirror therapy offsets phantom pain because it causes mirror neurons to “fire” across a disparity brought about by amputation, allowing patients to recognize themselves despite physical asymmetry. In neurology, the ability to empathize with others is based on similarity: the closer the other is to us, the more vivid the empathetic feeling. But the sense of distance between the self and the other is not a fixed unity—it’s malleable, susceptible to outside stressors and stimuli. A stressed mind equates difference with danger, and is more prone to group behavior and discrimination. So similarity lies both at the core of the problem and in its potential easing. The exercise, then, is to approximate that which is seemingly foreign—to “fire mirror neurons” across gaps posed by geographic, political, religious, linguistic and phenomenological differences. Obviously, I cannot embrace asymmetry in all its manifestations (racial, gender-based, religious, sexual, economic, militaristic, and so on). So let me stress the notion of approximation, of intimacy, of daring to be intimate with that which is troublesome—to stay with the trouble, as Donna Haraway puts it.
How does “embodiment” function in your work?
If we understand “embodiment” as the incarnation of an idea, I’d say that it only covers part of the material dynamics at play in my work. I tend to grant the material more autonomy than the notion of embodiment provides. Rather than objectifying an idea through a given material, I think of my materials as collaborators, the process of developing an artwork becoming a two-way exchange. I mediate the material just as much as it mediates me.
I compare a work of art with the human brain, as both are condensations of physical materiality and virtual thought. From the embryonic state, the human brain and its ideas—its materiality and virtuality—emerge as one. While the brain provides the physical structure associated with the mind, it is in fact just another organ. Thinking is to the brain what walking is to the legs: both are transports.
2015’s Io/I revolves around one of Jupiter’s moons, Io, which is the most volcanically active body in our solar system. On the one hand, there is a similarity between the Earth and Io, as both are celestial bodies with volcanic activity at their cores. But in terms of distance, there is a majestic leap between the proximity of lapis lazuli and a moon in the outer parts of our solar system.
How do you think about such similarities and differences?
Io is at once very distant and very close—first, by way of mistranslation from the Italian Io, meaning “I” or “me.” But like any self, Io is inconsistent, as continuous volcanic activity alters her surface to give rise to new configurations. Being a distant astronomical body, it’s not possible for me to access Io on a material level; the only traces we have of her are pictorial. I am therefore using images from NASA’s archives as the source material for a running series of 3D-animated loops of Io as a volatile celestial body. Every time I show the work is different, as I add new loops and take others out to reflect the constant reconfigurations of the lunar subject. Despite her distance and unavailability, however, Io weaves herself into me by way of the first-person pronoun, just like she wove herself into Galileo, who, when he first fixed his gaze on a spot in the vast unknown, called it “I.”
Although apparently different, Io/I shares with Mirror Therapy an embracing of the new that arises in the face of destruction. Both debunk a moral order based on restoration and an idea of innocence (like virginity, once lost). And while both are projections of outward trauma, what they bring to the fore is potential: other times, other places, other entries into the world, including and exceeding the human measure.
The 11th Gwangju Biennale, where you are showing Mirror Therapy, is entitled “The Eighth Climate (What Does Art Do?)”. The title conveys an interest in the performativity of art, not as performance, but rather what it does once it is launched into the world. What do you think Mirror Therapy does as an artwork?
I read art’s cultural location historically and politically. For that reason, I have previously involved myself in collective, self-organized, artistic and editorial projects. But having grown somewhat disenchanted with activist art, I borrow my understanding of art’s potential from Brazilian psychoanalyst and cultural critic Suely Rolnik. In “The Geopolitics of Pimping,” she writes that while activism accepts “the reigning cartography (conflicts of class, race, gender, etc.)” and fights for a more just configuration, art has the potential of unraveling such cartographies altogether “by bringing the mutations of sensibility into the realm of the visible and the speakable.” I think this is a beautiful way to define art’s performance in the world. I also think her distinction between the essentially different natures of art and activism is urgent: both are important measures of resistance, but they are irreducible to each other, even at the points where they intersect.
Marie Kölbaek Iversen (Danish, b. 1981) is an artist who lives and works between São Paulo and Copenhagen. Upcoming projects include the 2016 Gwangju Biennial 2016 and a solo exhibition at PARMER, New York, opening in 2017.
Images: Io/I, 2015, Installation view at NHL space, Copenhagen. Courtesy of the artist. Photo credit: Frida Gregersen; Retroaction X, 2014, Installation view at STUK Kunstencentrum, Leuven. Courtesy of the artist. Photo credit: Pierre Antoine; Io/I, still, 2015. Courtesy of the artist