Latex. It’s that thin, stretchy sheath that gives us the most intimate proximity to the forces of nature while disuniting us from it utterly, too. It’s the gloves surgeons pull taut over their fingers to manhandle our internal organs or the condoms donned to keep creation at bay.
It’s a barrier. It’s skin, imitated.
Though made from one of the gooiest materials found in nature — the milky, primordial ooze of flowering plants — latex also embodies notions of sterility, of human control and safety.
All of these incongruities, connotations and contradictions come wonderfully to bear in the odd objects fashioned from latex by artist Yevgeniya Kaganovich. Her works are in many ways about these points of intersection, where what’s natural and what’s artificial are like inside-out versions of each other.
Because many people are allergic to latex, visitors to the Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum are warned of its presence by small, makeshift, computer-generated signs tacked to the walls along the route to the upstairs gallery where Kaganovich’s latest installation is on view.
Long before we arrive, the scent, familiar to anyone who’s spent time in a lab, dentist chair or hospital ward, comes to us – at us – rather than the other way around. With my sinus membranes laced with it, the bouquet wormed its way to some part of my psyche to do with pain and mortality.
And that was still out in the hallway.
The installation itself is in what was once a child’s bedroom, a kind of magical, otherly space where human history and Earth time seem to face off, where notions of what’s real and not are already at play.
David Adler, who designed this Italian Renaissance-style mansion, built in 1923, was known for recreating the architectural styles of the past in his residential commissions. He covered the walls of this room with a panorama dense with exotic birds, trees and blooms.
It took 50 men to create the 24 panels of wallpaper using a Napoleonic-era technique, more than 1,500 wooden plates and 192 colors. It had to be done “by hand,” it was thought at the time. Any mechanical assistance would have made this faux scene somehow inauthentic.
So, fantasies of fictional landscapes and bygone periods co-mingle in this space, the Renaissance-era architectural style, the early 19th century interior design traditions and the early 20th century recreations, now themselves open to nostalgic fixation. And this ricochet of centuries is happening, let’s not forget, in a structure that both recalled the past and is aging in real time.
Bringing all of this human history into perspective, of course, is the room’s defining characteristic — its expansive view of the lake. The windows open to a spill of formal gardens and that body of blue, a rare place on Earth, carved out by advancing and retreating glaciers over millennia.
All of this becomes a platform for Kaganovich, who worked in collaboration with multimedia artist Nathaniel Stern on the piece. She responded to the room, particularly the world inside the wallpaper, for “Strange Vegetation.”
Splayed flaccid on the floor is a tangle of tendrils, something akin to colorless seaweed. These limp stalks are attached to little towers or nodes, set about the room.
A loud and sudden burst from an unseen compressor is heard inside the system. Air begins to flow through a series of tubes that connect the rhizomatic plant, which has propagated across the floor, clustering primarily in a corner away from the sun.
The pointy tendrils begin to inflate and rise, bobbing up, like time lapse-footage of plants used to teach children about photosynthesis. Almost imperceptibly, the conical shapes turn bulbous as the air seeps in, giving them the look of protruding onion plants.
The hoses that feed the system run off into a small side room where they connect to a box and a computer. A few staccato squeaks of the shut-off valve marks the end of this part of the cycle.
Movement stills. There’s a pause. It’s as if the plant is holding its breath. In this moment of suspension and quiet we’re transported to the floor of some magical if oddly unnatural garden. It’s a wonderful Thumbelina effect, leaving us to ponder the purpose of this peculiar prophylactic plant.
Then, another valve opens and air slowly begins to escape. The stalks bend and collapse, one by one, falling lightly to the floor like the limbs of lithe dancers. It is the sound of skin on wood.
For years, Kaganovich, one of Milwaukee’s more consequential conceptual artists, has made work that implies a sort of necessary and at times urgent human intervention into bodily functions. She has created fictional assistive technologies, sculptural objects that appear to aid speaking, seeing, hearing and — especially — breathing.
Intuitively we understand these prior works because of the ways they so directly related to the body — sculptures that could nestle inside an ear or be strapped over a nose and mouth. On inspection, though, we are left to puzzle over how these mysterious objects don’t do what they seem to promise. They fix nothing.
This dysfunction exists in “Strange Vegetation,” too, a manmade plant that shuns the sun and appears to exist on artificial life support. A plant that seems to breathe, that fills itself up with and retains air rather than generating oxygen like the rest of the plant kingdom.
This ventilation system evokes the unnerving psychological condition of life in the balance, something, again, we can relate to in a visceral and personal way. But with this work, Kaganovich explores something broader than the body. We are witnessing a system, a network, too.
That this is equally familiar to us, is telling. It’s a reminder of how entwined we are with things such as our online social networks and our urban infrastructures, things that themselves can function like prophylactic extensions or assistive technologies.
I can’t decide whether Kaganovich’s art is actually futuristic or of the future in a nostalgic way, like something from a 1950s science fiction novel. But they strike me as from an otherly time, not at all of the moment.
Yet, “Strange Vegetation” opens whole new pathways for puzzlement that are very much about our time. It raises questions about the boundaries that define life, about the organic tendencies in inorganic things, human systems, theoretical physics and architecture, among other things.
This makes Stern’s involvement, as an artist who works with digital mediums and who has created online interventions, particularly apt. (I am still thinking about “Falling Still,” their last collaboration together.)
The Villa Terrace and its curator Martha Monroe deserve a lot of credit for creating such a provocative show in a place that many curators would deem hostile to art and for commissioning a thoughtful essay and presentation from contemporary art historian Jennifer Johung as well.
It is wonderfully appropriate that we first take in this artwork through the act of breathing.