The Worshipper of the Image

Capullo A6 (2013), stoneware with multilayered glazing, 33x26x9cm
Impronta Series (2013), wet collodion photography on aluminium plates, 9x13cm

Artist Talk with artist Lucia Pizzani in conversation with critic, writer and curator Lorena Muñoz-Alonso.
Thursday 3 July beginning at 7pm @ Beers Contemporary 
RSVP info@beerscontemporary.com 


The Worshipper of the Image is the latest body of work by Venezuelan artist Lucia Pizzani, delving further into the artist’s practice, and driving relevant and uninhibited inquiry into ideas surrounding body and self.  The exhibition, which is the first solo show Pizzani has had in London, incorporates a series of work that explores relationships between the natural world, femininity and contemporary gender issues. Working from within this artistic and intellectual framework, Pizzani’s creative process is not clearly defined by one sole artistic discipline but rather, a combination of practices that includes sculpture, drawing, video and performance. In early 2013, Pizzani won one the most important prizes in Venezuela, the “XII Premio Eugenio Mendoza” that awarded her a residency in Hangar (Barcelona) where she created a significant part of this work. She was also recognized with the Emerging Artist Award by the International Association of Arts Critics (AICA) Venezuelan Chapter and received special mention in the Region 0 Video art festival in New York. 
 
Pizzani is largely informed by her educational background in Biology as well as an inherently Latin American, feminist perspective, both of which become crucial in understanding the artist’s discourse as based in the natural world, yet borrowing from both feminist theory and notions of magic realism most typified in Latin American art and prose. In the broadest sense, Pizzani’s work addresses issues surrounding the feminine as a symbol of transgression – submissive (but empowered?), fatal and tragic. In The Worshipper of the Image, Pizanni continues the investigation she began in a previous body of work, The Unknown of the Seine, which itself drew from the non-fiction story of a forensic surgeon in 1880 who became captivated by the beauty of a young suicide victim who threw herself into Paris’ Seine River. The surgeon preserved her features in the form of a haunting funereal mask, and began a type of forlorn romance with the mask. After extensive research it was discovered that the woman was really a model, playing dead. This anonymous urban legend who fooled so many began to appear in salons and art galleries and was later reproduced and distributed widely across the world; in fact, Pizzani herself has imbued the (idea of the) mask with a host of signifiers and symbols – and as a pivotal starting point to her own work and practice.
 
More specifically, The Worshipper of the Image, borrows its name from the tragic novel written by Richard Le Galliene in 1900, which tells the fictional story of a family tormented by the imagined supernatural powers of the funereal mask and are ultimately lead to their collective demise. The haunting, final image in which the death mask sprouts a butterfly from its lips presented Pizzani with the underlying framework for this particular body of work, where ideas of life, death, and transformation become intertwined and inseparable, and where the idea of transformation becomes of particular significance to both butterflies and the human form.
 
Operating upon such laden histories (both fictitious and factual) and the vivid imagery inherent in these stories are recontextualized through Pizzani’s interpretation of the females as paused in the act of ‘becoming’ - always in transition, constantly in flux, as Lorena Muñoz-Alonzo explains in the essay accompanying the exhibition: “becoming” is a key notion in Deleuze's thinking which defines the idea of movement in its purest form. The series of ceramics entitled Capullo draws as its very source imagery of the butterfly in various stages of chrysalis, freezing the moment of transformation as an allegory that obscures private physical or emotional elements. In fact, one will see plenty of repeated motifs throughout Pizzani’s work, where the figure is draped, shrouded, or bathed in shadow. The video Nocturna II (2013) presents the artist before a projection of the motion picture Création de la Serpentine (1908) starring Loie Fuller, a pioneering Victorian female theatrical figure. Here Pizzani is like the personified ‘worshipper of the image’, a fantastical creation carried out before other true-to-life events. The idea is that the human touch, while evident, seems unable to find its true form, and truth is coldly absent…as though a vestige or quite consciously a simulacra is all that remains, not unlike the vaguely Romantic but ultimately grotesque (and ubiquitous) appearance of the death mask and stories or narratives that included the mask rose in popularity throughout 20th Century France and beyond. Never fully attainable, its origins lost through repetition and retelling.
 
Perhaps The Impronta Series (2013) best illustrates this idea, where a series of ferrotypes  (using the outdated Victorian method of exposing collodion emulsified plates to light,) feature five figures photographed in various configurations and positions in full-length printed fabrics. Pizzani uses an older mode of creation to illustrate her concept: again, it is one of beings in a state of ‘becoming’, obscured, ambiguous, and yet evoking a strong sense of empathy, or an underlying desire to identify oneself from one’s surroundings, while simultaneously exhibiting the desire to break free from within.
 
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Essasy written by Lorena Muñoz-Alonso
The Worshipper of the Image: Transgression and Metamorphoses in Lucía Pizzani's work
 
Her eyes were completely open, and from her lips a night moth hung with the face of death on its wings." [1]
 
The woman as a symbol of transgression – non-submissive, fatal and tragic – is the point of departure of Lucía Pizzani's latest project, which continues a set of concerns outlined in her previous work, About the Unknown of the Seine and other Ofelias, in which she explored the long-lived fascination for this funerary mask, a veritable icon of the Victorian era.
 
Its cultural status was so relevant that in 1900 the British writer Richard Le Galliene used the mask as the main character of his novel The Worshipper of the Image, in which it played both the role of the object of desire and the villain. The last scene of the novel is precisely the quotation that opens this text: when the man sees a butterfly, with the face of death on its wings, coming out of the mask's mouth. The death butterfly is a horror image of prevailing weight that resurfaces in novels, movies and other cultural products every now and then: from Edgar Allan Poe in his The Sphinx (1846), to the movie The Silence of the Lambs (1991).
 
Departing from this sinister yet romantic image Pizzani started working with butterfly shapes as metaphors for women, using them as symbols of their body and the natural world, constantly mutating from one state to another with a huge potential of transformation. Pizzani has never avoided macabre or awkward themes. Death, the body and viscous organic shapes are an essential part of her methodology.
 
This kind of insect is particularly meaningful at a symbolic level, due to the fact that in its short life cycle -sometimes of only one day of duration- it goes from caterpillar to chrysalis, and then into butterfly state; and once its reproductive function is achieved, the insect dies. The shocking metamorphosis process – from slimy caterpillar to one of the most beautiful and flashy species in the natural world – illustrates to perfection the concept of “becoming”, a key notion in Deleuze's thinking which defines the idea of movement in its purest form. More than a final or intermediate product, “becoming” is the dynamics of change itself, not focused on accomplishing a certain goal or final state, but a permanent one.
 
The Capullo series (2013), a group of enameled stoneware, represent the most explicit concretion of this idea of transformation. The stoneware pieces have been modeled in a wide variety of chrysalis type shapes. By freezing the moment of transformation from caterpillar to butterfly, right before hatching, the insects are forever suspended in a state of becoming. The sculptures are aesthetically fascinating; with their brilliant curves, folds and organic colors they invite to be touched and looked at carefully, with time and dedication. But their sinuous shapes are also disturbing, suggesting huge insects and bodily organs. Pizzani takes the interior outside and reminds us of our physical contingency and frailty. She invites us to reconcile body and soul, opening a phenomenological and metaphysical chasm.
 
The device of the female anatomy and its contours as stages for fictional narratives is again employed in the series of ferrotypes Annie, Paola, Julia, Patricia y Katherine (Impronta Series, 2013). It shows a group of women wearing chrysalis suits, which are also exhibited in the entrance of the gallery (Textiles, 2013). All portraits, shot in a classic, Victorian manner – exposing collodion-emulsified plates to light – take their title from the woman inside the suit. The use of this ancient technique and the strange configurations of bodies and fabrics result in a series of evocative images that seem to belong to an ethnographic expedition, in which an unknown tribe of strange customs that used these dresses in ancient rituals, was found.
 
In Nocturna II (2013), on the other hand, the costumes’ black fabric works as a screen for the projection of the motion picture Création de la Serpentine (1908) by Segundo de Chomón, a film-maker known as the “Spanish Méliès”, featuring the dancer Loie Fuller . Here, Fuller materializes as a result of some sort of alchemy performed by the devil, who has previously interrupted a peaceful evening of music and dancing in a French salon of the early 19th Century. Fuller starts dancing and multiplying, as a swarm of insects, invading the space. The ballerinas spin around, shaking their costume wings until they explode in flames and disappear. Meanwhile, Pizzani observes the swarm projected on her skirt from above, as a sort of meditative demiurge, submerged in a deep state of trance. Although Pizzani only shows the scenes with the ballerinas, not including Chomon's film from the beginning, the demonic metaphor is a key element for interpreting this work: the dark, fatal woman – whose uncontrollable seductive powers were equated through years with Satan, leading to the invention of the witch and the subsequent witch hunts – is the symbol considered by Pizzani a starting point for her whole project. As mentioned at the beginning of this essay, in the novel The Worshipper of the Image the villain is precisely the image of a beautiful woman, whose malignant yet fascinating power unchains a series of misfortunes that ruin the masculine character.
 
The confluence in the historic dates of these different events is also interesting: the “Unknown of the Seine” became an icon late in the decade of 1880; Le Galliene published his novel in 1900 and Chomón immortalized Loie Fuller's butterfly choreographies during the years around 1900 and 1910. What is it that attracts Pizzani to research the Victorian Europe and the Belle Époque over and over again? A possible answer is that this is precisely the historic and cultural period in which women began their struggle for freedom.
 
The suffragette's movement achieved its first big success in 1893 in New Zealand, the first country that passed a law that granted all women over 21 the right to vote. From there on, different collectives and activists began to spread across UK, USA, France, Ireland, Australia and Canada, organizing themselves in groups and partnerships, struggling for their rights even in violent fashion, with many activists dying in demonstrations and hunger strikes. Victorian women were particularly troublesome individuals, living in a time in which they were still valued – according to tradition – for their beauty and submissiveness, but also in which collective movements had also began their struggle to increase women's agency and representation in society. This turned some women into seditious and dangerous subjects, who “deserved” moral and physical punishment, thus perpetuating the cycle of frustration, insurrection, revenge and the growing discontent between the sexes. The transition from being a docile woman to becoming a woman that owns her fate – with its inherent pain and conflict – finds its delicate, poetic echo in Pizzani's butterflies: submerged in an eternal process of transformation from caterpillar to butterfly, changing their bodies in order to evolve. A creature that, after her elaborate metamorphosis, opens its wings and flies away. Free, daring, and beautiful.
 
[1] Ricard Le Gallienne, The Worshipper of the Image