On 30 November Margot Samel, New York, opens Breaking up of ice on a river, a group exhibition curated by Lilian Hiob alongside featured artists Carolina Fusilier, Nina Hartmann, Jaanus Samma, Tai Shani, Anastasia Sosunova, and Johanna Ulfsak.
In the confines of the exhibition space, we are greeted by a surreal spectacle—floating jockstraps, each adorned with an intricate set of Estonian national embroidery by Jaanus Samma. Appearing to defy gravity, their tethers are bound to the gallery floor by a chain and weighty concrete block. This initial encounter sets the tone for an exploration of the enigmatic, the unexpected, and the subversive.
A series of collages by Anastasia Sosunova rests on the gallery walls. Combining offset lithography, intaglio, and woodcut techniques with digital prints and found materials, the imagery is a patchwork of found motifs sourced from the boundless expanse of cyberspace and from personal photo archives. These collages, interwoven with intimate scenes of tenderness plucked from the pages of LGBTQ+ magazines, offer a testament to the raw and unapologetic celebration of queer existence. In the corner of one of these collages we see a small basket, alluding to motifs from Ursula K. Le Guin’s luminary science fiction writing. Le Guin suggests that the genesis of human tools did not lie in the phallic and violent usurpation of another species but rather in a far humbler object—a basket or a cloth bag—unassuming vessels and carriers of sustenance that weave a thread of unity and nourishment throughout the tapestry of human history.
Beneath the surface of this same modest tool, a darker undercurrent flows. Depicted in Tai Shani’s work Astrolatrous Communes – Ergot – a sinister fungus that thrives in wet rye that occasionally infiltrates the grain it holds, leading to hallucinations and even gangrene in those who ingest it. In Medieval Europe peasants consuming inferior quality grain compared to their landlords, found themselves disproportionately affected by this hallucinogenic menace.
Nestled in the right armpit of Europe’s easternmost country, Estonia, lies the island of Kihnu. Here, the matriarchal way of life reigns supreme. The eldest woman of each family takes centre stage, just as Tai Shani’s sculpture The Neon Hieroglyph: My Hieromantic Object does in the exhibition. The woman embodies the knowledge and heritage of Kihnu culture, where old age equates to power and authority. At funerals, it is not unusual for women to bear the solemn duty of carrying the coffin, signifying their place of importance in their society. Notably, Kihnu women’s traditional attire incorporates a knife—a once-phallic symbol now confidently wielded by women in this unique tradition. As an island, Kihnu is surrounded by the sea and the Pike is among the more popular sea creatures consumed for food. With its elongated and relatively unbending body and greenish-blue bones, it provokes mixed reactions. To some, the color blue signifies toxins and spoiled food, a warning etched into our collective ancestral memory.
This dualism of the color blue extends to the realm of authority, as police uniforms bear this hue as well. It serves as both a cautionary sign of potential toxicity and an emblem of safety and order. These associations are deeply ingrained, shaping our perceptions from childhood. Nickelodeon’s wildly popular animated series, Paw Patrol for example, offers a curious lens through which we can scrutinize the perpetuation of normative beliefs regarding law enforcement and the overarching control society. In its whimsical portrayal, it unabashedly champions a heroic vision of the police and authorities, albeit in the form of furry four-legged anthropomorphic animals who we see depicted in the series of Johanna Ulfsak’s textile works.
Our exploration takes a surreal and disorienting turn with the works by Nina Hartmann. We descend into a surreal dreamscape, where the boundaries between reality and illusion blur. The dystopic visions of a machine-controlled society depicted decades ago in Terry Gilliam’s iconic 1985 sci-fi film, Brazil, loom closer than ever. They are only exacerbated by today’s algorithms and pervasive data collection. The invisible web of control, machine vision, and social alienation imbues every facet of our existence, entwining us in its intricate embrace. Amidst the labyrinthine web of software and hardware depicted in Carolina Fusilier’s paintings, boundaries blur and it becomes an onerous task to discern whether what unfolds before our eyes is an unvarnished reflection of reality, a stark illumination of the clandestine systems that envelop us, or a fantastical, unbridled, and profoundly personal projection of our very imagination.
What unravels within this exhibition is not a mirage or fantasy of a better or a dystopian society. It is a vivid tapestry, woven from the complex threads of reality, perception, and the intricacies of our shared human experience. A thoughtful reflection of the oft-neglected traditions and clandestine undercurrents of subversive social patterns that have long lurked in the penumbras of the prevailing narrative, unearths stories and perspectives that have long been obscured.
Breaking up of ice on a river, is a group exhibition curated by Lilian Hiob alongside featured artists Carolina Fusilier, Nina Hartmann, Jaanus Samma, Tai Shani, Anastasia Sosunova, and Johanna Ulfsak is at Margot Samel, New York, November , 30 2023 – January, 13 2024.