I HAVE DIFFICULTIES TRAVELLING
—curatorial text accompanying the exhibition Tagesmüdigkeit
(Excessive Daytime Sleepness)
9.9—25.11.2016, Polnisches Institut Düsseldorf
Our bodies are averse to travelling. Since in the 20th century technological progress advanced far quicker than human evolution, the developments brought about by engineering thought, such as planes, are used by people who are taller, heavier and longer-lived than our ancestors, but equally ill-adapted to long-haul flights and changes of time zones1. Our organisms rebel against today’s haste; we suffer from jet lag, sleepiness during the day and complicated nightmares at night, when the brain processes all the images and information registered in reality. This physical helplessness is one of the main threads in Kama Sokolnicka’s exhibition in Düsseldorf. The other one is the sharpening of the senses in the wake of travelling, which lets us perceive more and be more critical of the surroundings.
The lack of control over the body and mind subjected to travelling has been described, among other authors, by Alain de Botton in his book The Art of Travel, 2002.
“My body and mind were to prove temperamental accomplices in the mission of appreciating my destination. The body found it hard to sleep and complained of heat, flies and difficulties digesting hotel meals. The mind meanwhile revealed a commitment to anxiety, boredom, free-floating sadness and financial alarm.”2
The discomfort described by de Botton with words is expressed by Kama Sokolnicka by means of visually-heavy materials and the colour black, which additionally endows the works with gravity. Heavy Metal (2013) is an object consisting of two iron bars found by the artist during her stay in the USA. As she said, jet lag made them even heavier than they really were. She also discovered that when both elements touch each other, they produce a high-pitched, pure sound that is “unpleasant to an aching head.”3 In order to represent the state accompanying her first contact with the object, the artist subjected it to a transformation—she painted it black and hung in space, thus turning it into a disturbing instrument that cannot be easily ignored.
The influence of physical and mental weariness on the senses is also the subject of the works on paper. In the collage Excessive Daytime Sleepiness (2013), the bottom layer of the work consists of a photograph showing a teenager standing in an unrecognisable place. His face is covered with a black scroll pasted on the picture, which seems to make it impossible for the anonymous character to establish any contact with his surroundings. It is suffocating and overwhelming. The form and colour of the material triggers associations with another work by the same artist—Sleep Disorders (2013-2016), which is an object made from heavy black wool, sometimes folded, whose visual heaviness brings to mind heavy eyelids and recurring thoughts that poison the mind. One could go as far as to say that the work establishes a dialogue with sleep paralysis, which has been captured in art history by paintings such as Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare (1781). In his work, the suffocating heaviness in the chest, which sometimes accompanies the process of falling asleep, assumes the form of a demon squatting on the chest of a sleeping woman.
By using photographs in the collages, Kama Sokolnicka alludes to another indispensable element of travelling—the confrontation of knowledge obtained from the media with the actual impression conveyed by a given place. This issue is addressed in her works American Dream II and American Dream III, for instance. Their titles refer to the phrase which in the 20th century became synonymous with the brutal confrontation of dreams about a better world with the difficult reality on the spot. By making these works, the artist poses questions about the price we are forced to pay for keeping this myth alive. Her photographs of houses “somewhere in Massachusetts” are covered with brass netting that she had found in a French supermarket4. The product that ended up in America thanks to the global distribution network reminds her of window blinds typical of Middle East, which in the last few decades has been the main target of American military actions. In this one work, the artist compresses the complicated network of intertwined dependencies between today’s politics, factors of production and markets. In the context of this piece, the drowsiness of the suburbs is captured in a critical way, as indifference to conflicts driving the economy and enabling us to consume goods and purchase houses—in other words, to make the American dream come true.
Such a critical attitude to banal reality is what often characterises outsiders and newcomers who, even when suffering from jet lag, are sometimes able to see the surroundings in a more acute way. Among those who have lent their authority to this critical function of looking have been writers Elfriede Jelinek and Thomas Bernhard, whose portraits peek out from behind the curtain in two of the featured collages. Jelinek and Bernhard, both Austrian, are criticised in their homeland for their uncompromising attitude to their country.
1 Cf. R. Floud, R. W. Fogel, B. Harris, S. Chul Hong, The Changing Body:
Health, Nutrition and the Human Development in the Western World since 1700,
(Cambridge University Press, 2011).
2 A. de Botton, The Art of Travel, (Penguin Books, 2003), p. 20.
3 From an unpublished conversation with the artist, July 2016.
4 From an unpublished conversation with the artist, July 2016.