06.06. – 06.07. 2014
Curator: Gerda Szeplaky
Zsolt Berszán’s work focuses on the issue of impermanence. His works before 2010 investigate the possibilities of alternative genesis, seeking answers to such questions as how life may be born in death, and what perspectives open for human beings in the inhuman sphere of nature’s eternal circulation. His former exhibitions usually present works that link the thought of impermanence with the motif of the maggot. As the protagonist of the world represented by Berszán is the symbolic figure of the maggot, the human world loses its anthropomorphic characteristics: we encounter an unknown, alien universe. These earlier works also focused on man’s struggle with death, yet they did not represent it through human figures, but rather through the micro-world of alien life forms hiding in the dark inner spaces of the body. The maggot, the very thought of which evokes horror in most beings, appears as the representative of renewal and the continuity of life.
The exhibition in Venice reveals another layer of the notion of death: What happens to us after death? The exhibited works and the site-specific installation explore the idea of decomposition with a special focus on the human body.
According to the Christian doctrine, the human body does not stay in one piece after death, it does not become transsublimated and does not rise to the heavens as the body of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary did: rather, it falls into pieces, gets rotten and destroyed. This is the ultimate trauma of human life. According to Berszán’s works, history also consists of parables of decomposition: it is made of stories of wars and assassinations, that is, stories of physical decay. The oil-silicon pictures look figurative. However, this figurativity is not based on identification or recognition, but rather on the deconstruction of the composition. The sculptures are also subjected to the all-pervasive power of decomposition, to the erosion of form achieved by death. Here even water, which usually symbolizes life as a motif, evokes the thought of death. In this regard, Berszán’s works also reflect the town of Venice, which continuously reminds one of the duality of life and death. Yet, the effect on the visitor is not only that of pain and horror: it is also cathartic and uplifting. Decomposition opens the semantic field of the sacred. While it makes us witnesses of the processes of decomposition, it also opens a path towards formulating the ultimate question: What happens to the human soul after death?
PAINTINGS, GRAPHIC WORKS
In 1913 Malevich reduced the whole human world to two colours. Black, which stands for the density of material, was placed in the context of white, which stands for infinity. A few decades later black was born to a life of its own: in the 1950’s the painters of American abstract expressionism recognized in it the possibility of signifying transcendence, and started to treat it as a “holy colour.” In case of the contemporary artists of black painting the reduction of colour is still accompanied by the abstraction of objectless representation. This holds true for Berszán as well.
The large graphic works and paintings exhibited here, however, are not entirely nonfigurative. The subtle differences in shade between black and grey seem to evoke human forms in hardly noticeable ways. The sensitive, densely woven lines of the pencil works, and the powerful, structured surfaces of the oil-silicon paintings create compositions that may remind one of the shapes of human corpses. Moreover, these lifeless limbs lying around seem to be heaped together. This aspect of Berszán’s works makes them go beyond the trauma of the individual human body’s decay: by way of evoking the narratives of the Holocaust and other historical massacres, they also remind the visitor of the historical traumas preserved in our collective memory.
Berszán approaches painting as a sculptor: on the one hand, he creates a two-dimensional visual composition, but on the other, he produces pronounced facture and spatial surfaces. By leading his works back to their own “flatness,” he eventually follows the kind of painterly self-criticism defined by Clement Greenberg. As the back silicone he borrows from the construction industry – his favourite material, the trademark of his practice – can only be applied in layers, in case of the oil-silicon paintings his method necessarily leads to reliefs. The structurality of his surfaces is partly created by the application of several layers, and partly by the way he puts the silicone on the canvas, as a result of his twisting bands. These processes and methods lead to a visual world that constantly evokes the organic forms of human limbs and inner organs. Yet, the condensed brands of silicone are accompanied on the canvas by the smeared stains of oil paint, representing decomposition, the dissolve of forms. The dramatic quality of these works stem from the conflict between the end-points of the world: these troubled surfaces host such contrasts as that of form and formlessness, roughness and smoothness, saturation and emptiness – life and death. In the process of the decomposition of the decaying body these essentially different qualities of the world are continuously conflicted and depicted.
Berszán builds up the immediate environment of objects around his bodies made of black silicone: tubs, tables, beds, a room framed by iron bars. He surrounds the forms reminiscent of human bodies with a realistic space, and places it in a specific situation, thus producing environments that may call to mind Georges Segal’s groups of sculptures or Edward Kienholz’s object-collages. However, as opposed to the realism of these genre-forming artists, Berszán produces stylized human forms: the contours of the body – following the picturesque gestures of the paintings on the walls – are drawn by the layered bands of silicone. The enclosing spaces, similarly to the frames of classic board paintings, function as boundaries: they cut out the represented object (the human being) from the real world. These enclosing spaces also serve as a medium that holds, albeit at the price of fixing the floating bodies, that is, stretching them in these frames. The rusty steel structures of the spatial frames especially highlight the stretching wires, the screws and rollers, those technical devices that contrast the reduced, black, abstract human forms, and express the power of gravity on physical existence. The sight of these stretched beings necessarily evokes the pictures of the iconographic tradition of Christ’s crucifixion.
The biomorph body-fragments are presented in tubs filled with water and in “water-tables” on stands: the decaying forms of human organs and limbs protrude from an undulating, reflective surface. The concrete and black plastic objects remind one of coffins, yet the edges of the box shapes seem to have eroded: instead of angularity, one encounters the outlines of decomposing human bodies. The site-specific installation enlarges and repeats the motifs of the spatial frame and the coffin. Yet, when the visitor enters the enclosing box of the installation, one does not meet the hardness of wood (or any other firm building material), but rather the squirming fibres of black silicone bands.
All the objects exhibited here represent decomposing bodily forms. These are no longer real objects, but rather “collapsed objects.” These are bodily remains that twist one’s proper selfhood, as they force us to face our own demise. As Julia Kristeva puts it in one of her essays: “The corpse, the most terrifying waste, forms a boundary that reaches everything. Here I am not the one who makes something abject: I become abject.”