Buenos Aires Herald. Sunday, November 17, 2002.
A new insight into
Marcela Astorga’s work
Leather as inroads into religious and spiritual territory
For the Herald
The latest work by
Astorga (1965, Mendoza), currently on show at Luisa Pedrouzo’s, has moved miles
away from previous political statements into a sensual and religious territory
that broadens the aesthetic and spiritual scope of her proposals. The author, who was awarded the 2001 Subsidio a la Creación Artística de la
Fundación Antorchas (Artistic Creation Antorchas Foundation Grant) to
develop the project for this show, is at ease with what she had achieved. As well
she should be.
Cuestión de piel, as the exhibition is called, refers to the material the work is made of: cow hides, as well as to questions of empathy and antipathy. The literal English translation of this expression would be “A matter of skin”, meaning our feelings for somebody are dictated by a physical perception of his or her presence. The skin as sensor, as a receptive organ. Also, the skin as the apparent measure of who we are and where we come from, as it is part of the inheritance we received from our ancestors.
As Astorga worked the last pieces for this show, she realized that she was coming to terms with her family history, through stories told by her mother. These stories dealt with her mother’s father, a German Jew, and his lovable and distinct character. Once we understand this and her deep feelings of belonging to the religious and secular cultures she inherited, this exhibition reads as a celebration and a strong personal assessment. Each piece has a distinct meaning and is conceptually different than anything she has done before.
An elegant wooden chair, the seat of which has fallen through into long narrow leather straps that trail behind it and around it, confronts the viewer with a cabbalistic riddle: what is the use of a chair without a seat? Or what is the purpose of an art piece that looks like a chair on which you cannot sit down? Or why do the straps fall through and trail behind the chair as if they were long strands of hair? What does it all mean?
Lashebet in Hebrew means to sit down, and from this word stems yeshiva: a seminary where orthodox Jews study the Talmud, the primary source of Jewish law. It is well known that orthodox religious male Jews sit for hours studying and discussing long standing and new references and counter references of each Talmudic law. The Hasidim, who emphasize the emotional relationship with God, are taught through apparently arbitrary riddles, rather than through pragmatic thinking, to provoke intellectual somersaults that will allow them to achieve enlightment. So, if we follow this train of thought, Astorga’s chair is an art piece that poses questions to which we do not know the answers, and therefore becomes a riddle as well as an object of devotion that stands for a long quest of the truth.
Another very impressive work, in which the straps buckled to each other cascade from high up on the wall to the floor into overlapping and intertwining arabesques, may be read as a head of the longest hair, symbol of strength and superior physical and intellectual energy. Or one can read the falling straps as parchment scrolls on which the Torah is written, this Torah that is the occasion of so many hair splitting discussions.
A dish, full to the brim with thin spaghetti-like hairy pieces of leather, on a shelf against a wall at the very back of the gallery, is obviously unpalatable. Or a rich dish that may be bring about dire moral consequences, as the traditional lentils that lost Esau his father’s blessing.
Driving down the country side, the artist was impressed by those rolls of hay lying in the fields to provide food for the cattle in Winter. Inspired by their beauty, she reproduced
one in cow hides treated as parchment. The large, thick roll of parchment is a beautiful art object in itself, but one cannot avoid the strong references to the importance of food as nourishment to survive. As well as the fact that the parchment quality of the piece introduces the importance of written texts, particularly the scriptures, which are food for thought and provide the intellectual energy that allows people to endure intense suffering and stress.
Though these preoccupations may strike imminent contemporary issues, they are also timeless, linking the past with the present and the present with the future. Physical and intellectual hunger and the means to nourish them are everlasting conditions and pursuits.
The short passage lined by black bristle brush material is a homage to her maternal grandfather, a German Jew, who made brushes. It is a sensual installation that, to the artist, became a rite of passage from her ordinary immediate life into the rich cultures she inherited from both her families.
The layout of the exhibition is careful and spacious, allowing plenty of room for every piece. It is a good show to analyse the creative process of an honest artist. An artist who is not out to design something to please the media or the collector, but who is following her own internal project. She allows her thoughts and feelings to stretch and stress the elements she works with, often before she actually understands what she is doing. The neutral white gallery space and the understated elegance of the pieces add to their profound and rich connotations. This exhibition affords a mystical insight into Astorga’s work that was not apparent before.
A show not to be missed.
Marcela Astorga, Cuestión
de piel, Luisa Pedrouzo, Arenales 834. Until November 30).