Article by Jess Harrison in Berlin // Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018
‘Empathic Creatures’, Barbara Kapusta’s first solo exhibition in Germany, presents a new body of work, combining film, sculptural objects and text, all of which studies how objects engage with each other and with us as spectators. The world that the Viennese artist constructs is suspended in an afterwards, a time after the collapse of societal systems. It is a post-apocalyptic state, illustrating the destruction of hierarchies and institutional structures. Navigating this environment are four characters represented by sculptures of the number ‘8’, a human hand, the letter ‘O’ and a bracket—four figures that Kapusta often utilizes in her work. These anthropomorphised creatures mediate between the human and the non-human, becoming linguistic signs as well as corporeal bodies. In her relay between video and sculpture, Kapusta plays with the animation of sculptural objects and a fluid materiality to ultimately explore the relationship between matter and bodies.
The viewer is first faced with a cluster of sculptures, exposed in the centre of the exhibition space, becoming stranded bodies in this vast dystopian landscape. The blank background of the video reflects this, presenting its characters in a barren cyber space and further evoking the notion of a state after the present. In both works, the characters’ humanism is depicted through their physical proximity and need for interaction. Despite being abstract shapes, they evoke a tenderness and desire for companionship and familiarity through their entanglement. One of the hands is entwined with the figure of the 8, revealing a non-verbal communication between the objects and giving them an empathy that follows the exhibition’s name.
Such companionship is then mirrored in the accompanying video, which plays on a small screen on the floor of the exhibition. To the soundtrack of a robotic female voice, the characters are mobilised in a series of mechanical looped movements. There is a focus on tactility as the figures rub against each other and at some points one shape dissolves into another. The fluidity of the surfaces of the shapes opposes the metallic exterior of the sculptures and adds to their sense of vulnerability and yearning for company. The narrative which plays over the top of the video—and which is displayed as text at several points around the room—presents pseudo-factual scientific statements that are centred on the human body but given a subjectivity through the use of pronouns and personal bodies.
Themes of political and societal collapse run through a lot of Kapusta’s visual and written works. She has published several poems which centre on these same characters, giving them voice and agency, most notably her book THE 8 AND THE FIST. In this, she explores tensions between brutality and gentility and the past and present through the backdrop of an imaginary dystopian wasteland. It is the characters of the 8, O, the hand and the bracket that, once again, enable a dialogue of empathy in such a landscape. This conversation or dialogue is typically centred around their own status of being and how this relates to their materiality.
Alongside investigations of materiality, Kapusta’s work draws concepts from a wide range of feminist and scientific literature. She frames her work in the context of essays by theoretical physicist-turned-feminist theorist Karen Barad and repeatedly cites feminist theorist Donna Haraway’s texts as sources of inspiration. Their theories of matter provide a springboard for Kapusta to explore the world as a whole rather than as composed of separate natural and social realms. She borrows Barad’s notion of entanglement quite literally in ‘Empathic Creatures’ through her overlaying of sculptural objects and the video’s malleable figures; the objects or characters in the exhibition do not exist individually but rather in their communication and interaction with each other. Kapusta equally draws from Haraway’s essays in her rejection of the rigid boundaries that separate human and object. Her figures are not concrete analogies or symbols, but rather mediate between the human form and non-human bodies.