Monika Grabuschnigg’s solo exhibition at REITER | Leipzig revolves around a central question: what is the place of love and intimacy in our present-day environment split between the virtual and real?
Cognitive psychology tells us that romantic fantasy can be elicited by the smallest of details, the flick of a hair, the dimple in a smile, which constitute the 'signature' of the desired person. Sociologist Eva Illouz, whose writings are central to Grabuschnigg’s work, tells how current-day relationships mediated by technology – screens, websites and dating apps – flip this theory on its head: instead of desire being prompted by gestures remembered from the past, it is the product of anticipated imagination. No longer based on real-life touch, technology-enabled intimacy is shaped through other, bodiless gestures – from right swipes and double-taps to sliding into DMs.
This change in tactile function is apparent in Grabuschnigg's new series of ceramic reliefs, where hands are a recurring motif. In Place yourself where my eyes can feel, where my skin can see (2018), the near-disembodied fingers tangle and twist, fondle and feel, accentuating the visceral materiality of the clay in which they are inscribed, which is at odds with our digital age's preoccupation with all things slick and smooth. Or again in Speeding through gestures (2018), where contorted hands seem to have etched themselves deep into the earthenware, confronting us with the intense physicality of Grabuschnigg's working process: the handling, lifting and glazing of the clay, and her rhythm as she moves around the objects.
The titles of Grabuschnigg's works are rife with allusions to poetry, sociology and philosophical writings on love – Roland Barthes, Alain Badiou, and Eva Illouz, to name a few. They are also peppered with references to time and longing. In works from her series of drawings on paper and clay, like Awaiting for the sky to overwhelm (2018) or Rooted in the dark interior of delay (2018), we see loose groups of nude figures – a take on Renoir's Bathers, perhaps? – engaged in familiar, yet indistinct gestures, their contours suggesting snapshots of moments in time. At the same time, they are infused with a dose of anxiety of the kind commonly induced by contemporary digital romance: how long to wait before double texting after you’ve been left on ‘read’?
“Every contact, for the lover, raises the question of an answer: the skin is asked to reply”,
Roland Barthes wrote in A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments (1977), from which the exhibition’s title
is drawn. Love, as encountered in Monika Grabuschnigg's work, thus evolves in two temporal
dimensions. The one, proper to the digital realm of data flows, creates a version of romance fed
to us by neoliberalism which makes us ignore material reality in favor of fantasy. The other is embodied in the tactile viscerality of objects fired, punctured, scribbled upon, water spurting and bubbling. Grabuschnigg makes no attempt to conceal cracks in the clay: instead, she highlights them, like the visible relics of trauma – or of a broken touchscreen. Together, these works create a liminal space where desire vacillates between the real and the imagined, a world where fantasy and embodied experience collide and coalesce, electrified.
Text: Rachel Walker