20.04.2012 – 15.05.2012, Triumph Gallery

Living Matrix

The French semiologist Roland Barthes wrote that a literary man never sits before a blank sheet of paper. On that sheet, thanks to centuries of the practise of writing, something has already been written; the outcome is founded in the process itself – words, sentences, formulations, plots and denouements. The task of an experienced writer is to discern that speech of the past text and oppose it with his own voice, without in any way being under any illusions about the fact that that voice is also constructed out of the numerous layers of experience of the reader. The modern painter is in a very similar situation. The primed canvas is not empty as the work is begun. At the finish, it may appear that the languages piled into it have entirely absorbed the initial impulse to create something new. In a certain sense, the artist is like the unnamed pimp from Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer”: “Perhaps it isn't so wonderful, when he bends over his Lucienne, to taste another man's breath … Maybe when he takes her body and practices a new tune, maybe it isn't all passion and curiosity with him, but a fight in the dark, a fight single-handed against the army that rushed the gates, the army that walked over her, trampled her, that left her with such a devouring hunger…” (Later we will discuss why we chose this comparison specifically.) Taisia Korotkova is well aware of the semantic background possessed by an empty canvas and does everything possible to move away from the dictates of its imposed solutions. The attentive spectator will appreciate the significant work that has been carried out in the cleaning away and rebooting of the picture space. This is perhaps most apparent in the series of pictures focusing on births, as the subject itself beds into several well-developed ranks in European painting. Firstly, there are the pictures on medicine, at the semantic center of which lies Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp” (1632). Secondly, there is the immense variety of works dedicated to motherhood, both in its secular and in its religious aspects. And, finally, there is a third group – the interpretation presented by the artist herself. And so, before us we have “12 works divided into three thematic sections: students, mothers, children.” This is “a certain rotation: the children were born, studied, conceived those to follow, who were born, studied, and so on.” There is no strict succession in the changing of the pictures as it is impossible to say which came first, the chicken or the egg. Before us, if we develop this analogy further, is a variation on the beloved theme of the Medieval era and the Northern Renaissance – the three ages of man. Reproductive technologies, in this way, serve as settings for morality in the spirit of Hans Baldung and his “Ages.” With Baldung, however, one of the characters is Death. In Korotkova’s series, death is only shown tangentially. It appears either in the form of study materials – mock-ups of embryos at various stages of development, dummies of pregnant women – or as the absent enemy of numerous medical students preparing to master the art of victory over it.

In this way a shift to another theme that “shines through” the work is accomplished. Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp” was a work commissioned by Tulp to demonstrate his abilities. Pictures of this kind existed prior to Rembrandt – they began appearing along with the first anatomical atlases and the partial removal of the ban by the church on the dissection of human bodies. As passive actors in this theater, doctors could take the bodies of executed criminals, one of whom – the 28-year old Adriaan Adriaanszoon (aka Aris Kindt), hung for theft – lies on the table in Rembrandt’s picture, at the center of the attention of those gathered around. As a result of the relative freshness of the theme, Rembrandt’s masterpiece is packed with additional connotations. In an article of 1958, William S. Heckscher points out that Tulp orientated Rembrandt towards a portrait of the author of a well-known anatomical atlas, Andreas Vesalius, which was to be found in the first edition of the book. Dolores Mitchell, in an article in 1994, put forward a suggestion that Rembrandt, apparently without the agreement of his customer, associates the dissected body with the motif of the deceased Christ, and guides our sympathetic gaze towards the body of the sinner. The artist doesn’t openly accent attention on the subtext – the figures crowding around the main site of the action in a painterly manner are free of any histrionic gesticulations, though they might appear to be on the verge of them.

It should come as no surprise, then, that in two of the canvases in the series we can see parallels with “The Anatomy Lesson”. In “The Caesarean section” and “Transplant of an embryo”, medical procedures are shown as theatrical acts. The instruments in the “proscenium” of “The Caesarian section” indicate the chief character – the newborn babe. In order to underline its significance, the nurse on the far right is handing the doctor scissors, which can be interpreted as being characteristic of mannerism and the baroque – a pointing gesture made by a character of secondary importance in the depths of the picture. But in Korotkova’s work, this gesture is skewed: the scissors in the hand of the nurse stress the functional and everyday nature of what is taking place. “Transplant of an embryo” is even closer to “The Anatomy lesson.” Here, there is even an immobile body, albeit anaesthetized rather than dead, which exists in the picture fragmentarily in the form of a hand bunched into a fist. This touching detail is the only indication that before us is a medical procedure being carried out on a living person. The doctors, however, are not looking at that person: their attention is riveted to the screen, with the aid of which the guidance of the operation is carried out. The process has been taken on to an extreme level of automation, reminding us of what Dr. Tulp was demonstrating, at how. Tulp points at a muscle that answers for movement in the fingers, opening up to spectators the mechanics of life, rather than conditioned spiritual movements. Korotkova, in turn, stresses the technological sophistication of crucial medical operations, where the participation of a person – indeed, the mother – is passive in the extreme.

If motherhood, in the context of one relief or another is renowned for the variety of its depictions, then pregnancy is a subject that is even newer than lessons in anatomy. Its appearance is definitely linked to the development of medicine and lengthening of life expectancy, which made it possible for attention, albeit highly artistic, to be focused on pregnancy without fear of “jinxing” the mother and as-yet-unborn child. Gustav Klimt in “Nadezhda I” (1908) painted an enormous pregnant figure as a symbol of hope and, at the same time, a warning of its futility.: in the background he places a face, distorted by a grimace of suffering, and a skull. Marc Chagall’s “Pregnant woman” (1913) is far more optimistic, as it is characteristic of works of this period in its combining of Christian myth with the landscape of a Jewish locality. Before us, undoubtedly, we see the Madonna with an infant, which can easily envisage on her knees, rather than in her belly. Prior to the Second World War, interpretations of pregnancy as a whole were placed somewhere between these polarities. Later, with the development of feminist movements, pregnancy and care for the child became grounds for taking the woman’s sometimes radical point of view. As Veronika Golitsyna noted in an article in 2012, the American Mary Kelly, in her series Post-Partum Document, achieves something that leads Russian spectators to recall the albums of Ilya Kabakov. Here, however, Kelly’s absurdist drawings capture the exhaustion of daily life. In one section in the series, for example, she applies the diaper of her newborn son to the paper and next to it prints (it should be noted that the inscription is not done by hand, but mechanically) his menu du jour. Susan Hiller photographs her stomach whilst pregnant as a lunar landscape. The “male view” which regularly dramatizes pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood, placing these processes at the centre of a certain non-personalized game of the elements, a struggle between good and evil and other “big ideas”, is opposed by artists-feminists who counter with the view of a documentarian or scientist painstakingly studying the details.

Through the 1970s we come right up against the question of why we had to compare a painter to a pimp with the aid of a quote from a book by Henry Miller, a man regarded by the standards today’s political correctness as being misogynistic. We have cleansed the quote of the most pungent crudities, but it has been used nevertheless. Here we are entering into a sphere which instinctively – there are no intellectual grounds to fear it – is regarded as being dangerous on the territory of our country. No doubt the artist herself will be against the use of this term. What is important here is that Korotkova constructs a feminist view of the machinery of birth. That view isn’t declared on the level of publicity, but it can be traced out of the specificities of the composition and subjects. It would no doubt be an exaggeration, perhaps, to term this series an act of symbolic male castration. Nevertheless, the tension for the male view (which is to say for the author of this article) is too great not to try to ease it with the aid of a profane, debasing phrase from “Tropic of Cancer”. After all, any crudity, as students of folklore tell us, indicates a fear of the unknown and the inexplicable, and in some cases a forced crossing of the borders between the male and female worlds is evidence of a fear of castration.

Essentially, the series is constructed on a violation of borders. The mechanics of birth, more often than not, are not conveyed in sensations. Instead that is done in sterile laboratories, closed off to outsiders. Thanks to Korotkova, we can spy on narrowly professional and/or deeply personal processes. In addition, the heroines in the series, expectant mothers, are subjects, rather than objects, in choosing in favour of children. They are not the toys of external forces, and they are not occasions for generalizations. Here there are mothers, but there are no fathers, or indeed male essences – the members of the not-so-fair sex represented are entirely lacking in any facial hair. The women inject themselves with hormones, transfer embryos, bear children for others (“Surrogate mother,” we can note as an aside, is perhaps the most touching image in the series, clearly because any mother at some time or another senses themselves to be a surrogate, an appendage to the developing foetus). The mothers are surrounded by beings that are neutral in terms of gender. In “Students”, the young boy and girl are dressed in special tracksuit jackets that help them to understand the weight of a woman bearing a child at different terms in the pregnancy. Nevertheless, the main thing that allows us to call this view feminist is the predominance of the documentary element and the restraint in the demonstration of the machinery of birth. It is presented directly, without equivocation or sentimentality. And in Russian art, such an approach, without doubt, is revolutionary: before Taisia Korotkova, nobody has done anything of the kind.

Valentin Dyakonov