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Juul Kraijer. Il tradimento del corpo

by Giorgio Verzotti

 

I belong to a family of hypochondriacs. Because I am one of them, I can understand the sensation of the human body as a source of betrayals shared by the multitudes of individuals who are obsessed by illness.
No matter how hard you try to know and take care of it, your body always betrays you, and when you least expect it some baleful wonder, an illness, is announced by the appearance of a new, unfamiliar symptom. The body of a hypochondriac is a fenced field, but the fence is full of cracks, holes that open here and there without warning and allow the alien, the evil, to enter unbeknownst to you. The most serious degrees of this imbalance also admit the possibility of an evil that comes from within, which is even more alarming, given the fact that we discover that it has been generated from inside, from our own guts.
I fall, I will undoubtedly fall, my legs are collapsing; what’s happening to my stomach, why do I always feel nausea? I can still recall the horrid fear that obsessed my father in his old age, the fear of urinating blood.
Above all, such a body is studded with symptoms that manifest themselves in the widest range of ways, all of them creating anxiety, and that transform the harlequin suit of erogenous zones into a minefield, the progressive shifts of pleasure into drifts of suffering, the body of love, in short (as we should all be) into a body of pain. I speak of bodies, but I should say phantoms, as pain and pleasure are the extremes of a state of mind that transfigures the physical plane, giving it meaning in the symbolic field. Perhaps it is no wonder if a hypochondriac decides to become an art critic; the work of the artist becomes a projection, an outer manifestation of the bodily ghost that harbors us. And artworks, by definition, betray all expectations.

Now the interesting thing is that Juul Kraijer also talks about betrayals, in an extremely clear, well-founded text in which she describes her figures. She says they are images of contradiction, and that the calm of their posture simply betrays the horrific vitality of their inner world. An inner world that is manifested through betrayal, i.e. the evil symptom that interrupts the positive, rejoicing vision of the body and reveals it as the source of hidden threats. So the female portraits of Kraijer have no eyebrows, because they might betray, i.e. allow to emerge, the presence of that world that ought to stay hidden, or burst forth suddenly, wondrously.
The images, defined with skillful strokes of charcoal or pastels, seem diaphanous, almost bodiless, resting in a boundless empty space. They are crossed by a very sharp tension that makes them immobile, caught between opposing forces, centripetal and centrifugal, inner and outer, so that the beings depicted are simultaneously “themselves” and “other than”.
Kraijer’s great skill encloses, concludes and closes them in perfect, clearly recognizable forms, where precisely this recognizability becomes a gap for the entry of otherness, with its fascinating, fearful visage. Like a neurotic symptom: Kraijer describes her images precisely as if she were describing a symptom, which as such stands for something else and calls for interpretation. But we, as observers, are simultaneously the bearers and the decoders of the neurosis. How can we disentangle ourselves?

First of all, what do we see? A very beautiful face seems to be covered by an elegant veil, but on second glance we see it is veiled by flies; the serpents of a Medusa head seem to attack their host rather than petrifying others, and certain static Daphnes, tree branches densely sprouting from their body, are pursued by no Apollo. Heads can be seen amidst the roots of trees, the roots forming their hair or imprisoning the entire nude body, as in the case of a reclining figure. A sculpted head, with mouth closed and an absent gaze, is studded with identical little heads whose mouths, however, are open. Kraijer’s characters are seen, therefore, in a state of metamorphosis (and the allusions to classical figures, figures of myth, capture a courtly, literary origin of that which is spurious), in the moment in which they undergo a mutation. In some cases, as in the works previous to the ones in this show, the metamorphosis is happening before our eyes, as in the transparent torso superimposed on the dark body of a serpent; or it has already happened, and we can see the results in the birds with the head of a woman, or in the female bodies bristling with quills. In other cases what is shown, instead, is the physical proximity between human and animal: women with a wreath of frogs around their throats, or women who seem to be expelling a seahorse from their mouths (and when it comes to blood, what can we say about the profile that seems to push its own circulatory system outward with every breath?)

Kraijer, in short, points to a surpassing of the boundaries between the animal and vegetable kingdoms; above all, she stages the fusion of human and animal, high and low, pushing this pairing to the extreme limit beyond which the censure mechanisms of the Super-Ego are triggered, given the fact that in a certain sense what is being staged is the return of what has been repressed, the flagrant reappearance of the condemned, usually unspoken part of things. Bataille urged an Ego that would plunge into the abyss of the “absolutely other”, for which the animal is a good approximation, and he spoke of “base materialism”. Naturally what gets lost is form.
Kraijer is not a follower of Bataille to this point, and first of all she salvages the formal values, because she captures the disturbing side of the other (and of the absolute, as the counterpart of the animal is the divine). Her figures show us a body that betrays and is therefore held at bay with images balanced on contradiction, double, ambiguous. Their excellent formal elaboration, their undeniable beauty – we might as well say it – means just one thing: that the damned part, the animal that dwells inside us “like a caged beast”, once liberated, might even please us. We discover that the much-feared malady was secretly desired, pain blends with pleasure and the body becomes “spasmodic”, ready to receive the “other” in all its forms. And this is the greatest danger for our civilized consciousness.

 

Giorgio Verzotti

2007

Translated from the Italian by Steve Piccolo and Ricardo Conti