The Meta, Metamorphosis
The Metamorphosis is possibly Franz Kafka’s most well known literary work. Published in 1915, the plot dovetails around a travelling salesman named Gregor Samsa who wakes up one day only to discover he has been transformed into an “insect.” There is a point of contention, however, as to what kind of creature he became. The Metamorphosis was written in Middle German, and ungeziefer is the word used to describe Samsa’s non-human transformation. Although the English translation is vermin and could broadly mean rodent as well as bug, the early twentieth-century source defines ungeziefer as “unclean animal not suitable for sacrifice.” Kafka thought the use of the word insect, which is ubiquitous in English versions of the book, would foreclose what the human imagination may concoct as to the entity referred to that gives The Metamorphosis its title. For its author wanted Samsa to morph into an indescribable bug without a distinct species, consequently allowing the reader to envision the horror as to what the protagonist turned into upon awakening?
At the story’s onset, the reader is immediately made aware of Samsa’s predicament; he awakes and tries to go back to sleep, but cannot do so because his newly configured body forces him to remain flat on his back all the while encumbered and mortified by the sight of his gruesome “little legs in the air.” Yet by using this open ended trope where liberty is given to the reader to individually visualize the resulting metamorphosis, an intimacy is created as the image of Samsa’s abject state becomes internalized. Another dimension to the story is the purported grander themes that run through Kafka’s masterpiece. Some have recognized it as being a proto-existential metaphor of individual alienation in a burgeoning industrial society, as well as encapsulating the collective anxiety felt from World War I with its newer and more efficient forms of mass killing. The former is underscored in Samsa’s rather banal occupation as salesman and the attendant, bureaucratic machinations germane to it. There is also much discussion as to the monstrous shape-shifting central to the narrative: does the mortifying mutation of human to bug pander to the fear of genetic aberration resulting from the use of chemical warfare?
The exhibition titled The Metamorphosis uses as touchstone Kafka’s myriad subtext; especially the amorphous nature as to what Samsa turned into. If the original text is unclear regarding what kind of creature Samsa became—be it bug, insect, vermin or whatever the reader imagines—then one could use this ambiguity as narrative linchpin. The transformative element of The Metamorphosis underscores how its meaning can be varied as are the people who read it. Everybody, as Kafka’s story alludes, has their own private hell that he or she is afraid of spending an eternity in. When viewed from this perspective, Kafka’s novella is also undoubtedly about the other; about waking up one day and discovering one has become what one finds disdainful, be it animal or human. It is in this sense that Kafka’s brilliant story transcends its historical context. This is also true for Kafka’s other literary works such as The Trial (1925), for example. This novel is not only about an individual being prosecuted for some unknown crime by an anonymous authority gone amok, but it is also a poetic, albeit dark commentary on societal abuse of power within Karka’s historical milieu that nonetheless remains topical today. The exhibition titled The Metamorphosis updates the Kafkaesque nightmare into a contemporary context by addressing, among other things, the effects of living in a protean, though unstable and polluted environment; an ever shifting cultural demographic triggered by globalization; as well as the psychological unease in acknowledging identity as malleable, fluid and fragmented rather than fixed, stable and unified. The landscape, for example, is increasingly under metamorphosis at the hands of abusive industries and technology resulting in potentially dire consequences for all; and this also holds true for accelerating heterogeneous geo-cultural spaces ostensibly altered via migration consequently rearranging notions of nationalism, ethnicity, and even the self as well. There are also questions of physical metamorphosis of humans via that advancement of science and medical technology that has allowed reconfiguration of body and ultimately of the psyche too, if one ascribes to Cartesian mind/body dialectic.
The artists in the exhibition engage the thematic of metamorphosis in unique and idiosyncratic ways including Oreet Ashery and her masquerading as an orthodox Hasidim. Two of her related works underscore this: one is a series of portraits titled Self Portrait as Marcus Fischer (2000) where Ashery is performing a kind of transvestitism that broaches not only gender categories, but also cultural and religious ones. The portraits are intimate as they are revelatory in their nonchalant demeanor: Marcus is seen smoking a cigarette while sitting casually in a chair; in another picture he is facing opposite the viewer exposing his bareback; in another photograph he is portrayed with a rather strange, buzzed haircut that has been manicured into symbols including the Star of David. The most visually arresting component to this series, however, is when Marcus looks bewildered upon discovering what he holds in his hand: a female breast protruding through his starchy, white, buttoned-down shirt. In Dancing with Men (2003), which is a video work related to the photographs, Ashery has extended Marcus’ activities beyond the exhibition space and into the real world. For Ashery not only dons her alter ego, but also plays the role of ethnographer as we accompany her into Hasidic festivals in Israel where women and outsiders are prohibited from participating. Similarly addressing questions of the social construction of gender, but through a framework of nature rather than culture are the works of Erika Harrsch. Harrsch engages the theme of metamorphosis by conflating a butterfly with female genitalia. Her ongoing project consists of photographing butterflies and the genitalia of women who also originate from the areas native to the butterflies’ species. The work is, however, already charged with political subtext, but this becomes more apparent when the artist conflates the monarch butterfly with a Mexican woman’s sex while using the backdrop of the monarch’s migratory patterns across North America to Mexico. Questions of migration morph into issues around illegal immigration; the body, here signified via female genitalia, becomes the battle ground of patriarchal politics played out across the register of American xenophobia. The convergence of the anthropomorphic and zoomorphic is also intrinsic to Gabriel de la Mora’s renditions of canines on which he has graphed his head onto their bodies. But the signifiers that constitute his iconography are built up from human hair creating an elegant, yet subversive commentary on the human need to anthropomorphize animals.
The dialectic of human and beast appears in other works as well yet can take more visceral articulations, as is the case with Miguel Angel Rios and his single-channel video piece titled Matambre (2008). This work consists of an individual dancer who incorporates a myriad of dance traditions including Spanish Flamenco, Argentine dance, and the traditional weaponry of the Argentine gaucho called boleador. The boleador is a type of weapon used in a sling-like fashion. It consists of steel balls that hang at the end of a rope, which is then swung and released. Rios has reworked this very deadly tool by replacing the steel balls with chunks of meat. As the dancer swings these around while violently kicking his heels in staccato tempo on the floor, dogs attack him in a frenzied attempt to eat the meat; metamorphosis, in this instance, concerns the poetic reciprocity between rhythmic dancer and frenetic state of the carnivorous canines that cohere into a kind of kinetic, sculptural gestalt. The canine and anthropomorphism are also a leitmotif in Carlos Amorales’ Manimal (2005) as well. Amorales’ high definition, black and white animation is set in an apocalyptic mise-en-scene where wolves or dogs seem to have taken over the metropolis; yet the only remnants of human activity are silhouetted jets that ominously taxi the tarmac like mechanical apparitions.
The phantasmal is also intrinsic to Bill Berry’s Self Portrait (2006); a work simply consisting of a cast of the artist’s face stuffed into a sock; a contemporary memento mori with subtext to sadomasochism. Somatic metamorphosis is what is also articulated in the paintings of Emma McCagg and the photographic work of Koh Sang Woo. The former consists of images of baby girls that have been transplanted onto promiscuous bodies of adults that bring to mind a plethora of anxieties about the eroticization of children. Koh, on the other hand, investigates the social codes of beauty and death, of Eros and Thanatos, in his lush, large-scale pictures. Other artists approach the fragmented body via history as is the case with Cleverson de Oliveira’s citation of Man Ray’s Tears (1930-32) and Georges Bataille’s banned text Histoire de l'oeil [Story of the Eye] (1928). History is also the formal and conceptual ground zero of Svai and Paul Stanikas’ installation titled Magda Goebells, Queen of Bones (2009). Existing somewhere between the archive, archaeology, the carnival, opera and the detective novel, Stanikas’ installation is a tour de force: wallpaper, fine line drawing, works-on-paper, sculpture and video all mesh into a breathtaking spin on the Goebells family whose matriarch was a female Nazi Saturn who devoured her children for the Fatherland. The revisiting of history has also been the sine qua non of the painter Jorge Tacla. His works recover historical trauma while universalizing the particular. His iconography is culled from media sources including photojournalism of bombed out cities ravaged by war or terrorism. There is, however, nothing transparent about his methodology: for Tacla empties the content of his beautiful cityscapes and presents us something akin to architectural phantasmagoria. In doing so, we are left with traumatic vistas brimming with the detritus of military, political and cultural conflict. The past is also intrinsic to Wojtek Ulrich’s three-channel video installation titled SCUM (2007). SCUM is a primal yet concomitantly futuristic work in which a lone protagonist wanders through a post-apocalyptic underground labyrinthine wasteland as he encounters its naked denizens: the infirmed, the tortured, and the victimized as well as the unknown, authoritarian perpetrators responsible for what appears to be total, systemic dehumanization.
The Metamorphosis uses as foil aspects of Franz Kafka’s story; but the exhibition not only mines Kafka’s work as it also draws from the author’s own conflicted biography, however subliminally it may appear in the tale of Gregor Samsa. That is to say, Kafka was a Czech in the Austro-Hungarian Empire; a speaker of German amongst his countrymen and a Jew amongst German-speakers; he was also skeptical of Judaism. Compounding these idiosyncrasies was his disdain for his menial and banal, bureaucratic vocation. In short, Kafka’s life was somewhat analogous to the narrative of his groundbreaking, modernist novella; a work of literature that will continue to speak to as anew; especially now as a new decade begins in the twenty first century, an era that without a doubt will undergo its own metamorphosis to a future of exceedingly existential uncertainty.