Photo Gunnar Meier.

 

Scientific findings can change conceptions of what it means to be human, and that can be quite confrontational.

WHEN THE VENICE BIENNALE opens in May, Pamela Rosenkranz, who is representing Switzerland, will be 35 years old. Despite her relative youth, she is no stranger to high-profile exhibitions. In 2008, while she was still a student at Switzerland’s Hochschule der Künste Bern, Rosenkranz participated in both the 5th Berlin Biennale and Manifesta 7, in Trentino, Italy. In 2010, the year she graduated with a master’s in contemporary art practice, she had solo exhibitions at the Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève as well as Germany’s Kunstverein Braunschweig. Her rise to prominence in the art world has since continued with shows in museums and galleries on both sides of the Atlantic.

Rosenkranz has received such wide attention in part because her work raises fundamental—and potentially troubling—questions about what it means to be human in the contemporary world. She refers unsentimentally to her body as “material” and has spoken of a “human-indifferent universe.” Though formally understated, Rosenkranz’s paintings, sculptures and installations are informed by her extensive research into fields ranging from marketing and medicine to philosophy and religion. The historical avantgardes also provide a touchstone.Taking a cue from Surrealist objects, she’s filled branded water bottles with various fleshtone liquids and clogged running shoes with similarly hued resin, transforming these everyday consumer goods into uncanny sculptures. Her gestural paintings, often rendered with skin-colored pigments on metallic emergency blankets, allude formally to Yves Klein’s seminal “Anthropométries.” Yet Rosenkranz seems uninterested in the mysticism touted by the French artist. Indeed, the title of one 2011 series of paintings underscores the ethos behind much of Rosenkranz’s work: “Express Nothing.”

The artist is frequently mentioned in the same breath as the philosophical school du jour, Speculative Realism. She has collaborated with two of its most important thinkers, Robin Mackay and Reza Negarestani, whose texts feature in No Core, her 2012 monographic catalogue. Rosenkranz and I started our conversation in Spiez, the sleepy town on the shores of Lake Thun where her parents live, on a rainy day in the summer of 2014 and continued the exchange via e-mail in the following months while she prepared for her move, with her husband and child, from Zurich to New York.

AOIFE ROSENMEYER For “MySexuality,”your recent show at Karma International in Zurich, you lined the entire gallery interior with plastic sheeting. On view was the 2014 series “Sexual Power (Viagra Paintings, 1-11).” These works feature synthetic flesh-tone pigments applied to aluminum panels that were propped against the walls of the gallery. You made the paintings in situ, applying the color directly with your hands after having taken Viagra. The press release noted how your complexion “appeared to glow with a strange red flush.” This resonates with traditional ideas of blushing as a sign of female modesty. Yet you pointedly claimed male territory by taking medication designed for men and imitating the painterly gestures of Yves Klein or the hyper-masculine Abstract Expressionists.

PAMELA ROSENKRANZ Blushing is associated with being ashamed, but if you mention that you’re blushing, it’s as if you’re proud of being ashamed: “Look! I am blushing for you!” What makes someone blush exactly? Blood pumping faster and becoming visible through the skin. I usually don’t blush, but the medication brought that ability to the surface. I am interested in how we are entangled with our sexual material, and at what point we can be independent of it.This work is not about identifying the limits of a female body, of course. It’s about exploring how perceptions of our physical- ity—aspects like blushing—are in fact culturally constructed.

ROSENMEYER The 2014 work Attraction (Red and Blue), also in the Karma International show, included three projectors beaming red light and three blue. Synthetic cat pheromones circulated through the gallery, propelled by the hot air from the projectors’ fans. I’ve heard that the scent of this chemical can have a powerful effect on us because of the parasitic disease toxoplasmosis. Can you explain this further?

ROSENKRANZ Cats are the main host of toxoplasmosis. Mice, humans and other mammals are intermediary hosts. The parasite wants the mouse that has been infected to be attracted to the cat, so it invades the region of the mouse’s brain where sexual arousal occurs, and then the parasite reacts to the scent of the cat. This makes the mouse approach the cat instead of fleeing, so that the cat can easily catch it and ingest it. Ultimately, once inside the cat, the parasite can reproduce.

We, too, can be infected by the parasite as intermediate hosts, becoming part of its scheme of attraction in more subtle ways. In France there is a very high infection rate—55 percent—most likely caused by the prevalence of undercooked and raw meat in the cuisine. Overall, about 30 percent of people in Europe carry the parasite. But toxoplas- mosis is a worldwide phenomenon. Because of this parasite, humans are attracted to a certain scent that originates from a cat pheromone; this scent can be found in many perfumes, allegedly Chanel No. 5, for instance. The parasite has accom- panied us for a long while and could well be behind cultural icons like Batman’s Catwoman. And apparently female car- riers are more likely to wear designer clothes. We tend to see sexuality as one of the main markers of our individuality—it helps define us—but not only does our own biological sys- tem react to sexual attractions in ways that we can’t control, but there are also parasites that can neurologically influence, or possibly even direct, our sense of attraction.

ROSENMEYER Ever since your work was included in the 2013 show “Speculations on Anonymous Materi- als” [at the Fridericianum in Kassel] it has been linked with Speculative Realism. There’s no fixed definition of the philosophical school, but we might say that it is concerned with understanding the relationship between people and objects—the material world—without reference to traditional humanistic ideas about subjectivity. Are you at ease with this Speculative Realist label?

ROSENKRANZ I try not to think about art in terms of the primacy of subjective interpretation, but to engage instead with the reality of materials beyond our affective engagement with them. Speculative Realism is a vague umbrella term and I don’t see my work as exemplary of it in a direct way. I am just interested in engaging with philoso- phers who incorporate contemporary ideas in their theories. I have tried to understand the implications that Reza’s and Robin’s work holds for art. I’ve investigated such questions as: How do we connect with art biologically? What does neurology tell us about the meaning of art? To what extent is art geographically determined? What are we made of and why does it make us feel how we feel?

ROSENMEYER Your work could be construed as sharply critical because it debunks certain ingrained notions about human life, such as how sexual attraction works. Would it be right to say that your goal is a kind of emanci- pation from outmoded concepts—a process that can seem cruel at first?

ROSENKRANZ I am concerned with exploring how scientific findings change popular conceptions of what it means to be human, and that can be quite confrontational. For example, it’s interesting how advances in neuroscience challenge our understanding of identity. Through new scientific research into the evolutionary history of the brain, we can understand the self not as a fixed entity but as an ever-changing process. This can be emancipatory for some, perhaps; it can also feel limiting because we become aware of new constraints that are operating on us. Consider something basic, like how we see. From an evo- lutionary standpoint, the operation of our eyes was determined at a time when we, as a species, were not yet even human—we were still creatures in the sea. The eyes we inherited developed the receptors for blue because those are the frequencies that make it into the deep ocean. Understanding our eyes as organs that have developed over very long spans of time helps us to think differently about images we see in the contemporary world. There’s no pure image streaming through our retinas, giving us access to truth. Vision is very physical and conflicted.

ROSENMEYER How do you conduct your research?

ROSENKRANZ Mostly by readingonline. Also by reading papers and books and having conversations, but online research is the greatest resource, as it keeps up with the pace of speculative investigation. Of course, like a hypo- chondriac seeking medical help from search engines, you can race to conclusions that are much too extreme. But at the same time, you cannot say “doctor Google” is bad; it will probably soon be better than your general practitioner.

ROSENMEYER Flesh tones appear frequently in both your paintings and sculptures. An early piece from 2007, I almost forgot that ASICS means Anima Sana in Corpore Sano, comprises a pair of sneakers filled with pale pink resin. The title refers to the Japanese sportswear company’s Latin slo- gan, “A healthy soul in a healthy body.” You’ve rendered the shoes useless, casting in doubt the brand’s promise of physical and spiritual vitality through fitness. Standing in the place of a human figure are resin blobs; they are the familiar color of flesh, but the overall effect is estrangement.

ROSENKRANZ When I work with skin color in a monochrome form, it is to present an element from daily experience—both from advertising and from our interactions with real people—as an abstraction. Successful marketing is mastering how people react to things automatically. It’s been said that the more skin that is in an advertisement, the more people will look at it. I am interested in how this trigger works on us biologically. I wanted to work with flesh tones at first because I was attracted to the colors. By asking myself why this was so, I became aware of the biological trigger, and I tried to establish a distance from it. It seems important to confront the constructed adver- tising image, where we encounter an idea of beauty, and to develop a deeper sensitivity for the physical basis of attraction. I don’t want to refer to marketing or advertising as something that is only to be maligned; the field is also a reflection of material realities. I’ve thought a lot about the problem of anorexia: why do we associate very thin bodies with fashion models? The sheer prevalence of depictions of beautiful, thin models might, of course, have a catalyzing effect, but there may be a biological reason why such bodies are seen as appealing in the first place. In the face of such narrow and poten- tially tragic understandings of beauty, art can be a vehicle to develop new perspectives, fusing insights from different fields. Art is very powerful, I think, for encouraging greater indepen- dence in our perception of what is attractive.

ROSENMEYER In some respects your work dematerializes the body—treating it as a symbolic value for marketing, for example. At the same time, you always offer a physical, even corporeal experience in the gallery, where visitors encounter objects on a human scale.

ROSENKRANZ I think of everything as physical, even the flat works. When I use glass, I always use reflective glass; the reflection ties the work to the space in which it is displayed. I’m also interested in how LCD screens can reproduce image-based stimuli with light. I am fascinated by what the light from screens does to us, how it interferes with our sleep rhythms, for example. Or, think about naked skin appearing in pornography. Those images have a very clear biological impact, creating an intriguing point of intersection between ideas of immateriality and materiality, the physical and the virtual.

ROSENMEYER You’ve repeatedly used a few types of consumer goods in your sculptures, especially sneakers and water bottles. The series “Firm Being,” ongoing since 2009, features bottles manufactured by Evian, Vittel, SmartWater and other brands. You’ve replaced the clear water with murky liquids, again in shades of pink. I’ve seen these displayed in various ways over the years: in groups arranged on the floor of a gallery, on pedestals, or even in refrigerated retail display cases. How did these modified water bottles become a staple of your practice?

ROSENKRANZ My work with water has come a long way. It started with thinking about anorexia, as water remains the only intake that anorexics still like. Similar to air, light and smell, water is an intake that you can absorb but still physically “disappear.” Then there is the whole idea of a health-conscious consumer purging to purity—the idea that water might flush out toxins that accumulate in fat deposits. Even though this notion of “scum” or “slag” does not really have a basis in biology—we can’t target these entities or secrete them—the belief in such impurities remains a powerful motivator for the health industry. Water has similarities to other products, like fair-trade coffee, that give us the feeling of being less guilty. I am not being cynical here, but people clearly feel guilty and burdened, and products are designed with placebo elements to make the buyer feel better.

There are several water brands that I find exemplary for this idea of purity. Evian is probably the one that works with the most “innocent” image. But like air, water is never pure, even when transparent; it is a complex composition of elements with minerals. And it is not totally clean, only more or less so. Water, even bottled water, can be contaminated with bacteria or other components, like residues of medication, which threaten our health. And furthermore it can be—and this is very important with bottled water in plastics—contaminated with hormonelike substances in the long run. Even when regulations are in place to exclude certain phthalates like bisphenol A, research shows that particles that have not yet been identified enter this water from the plastics that hold it, and they have made hormone-sensitive snails procreate at accelerated rates. Research links this to the fact that girls now menstruate earlier and sperm cells are becoming slower. So even Fiji water, sold on the idea of a sacred source, water untouched by man and uncontaminated by “the compromised air of the 21st century”—as their slogan goes—cannot escape this unholy connection.

ROSENMEYER Looking ahead to the spring, what can you tell me about your project for Venice?

ROSENKRANZ I can’t reveal much about the project at this point. But I can say I am going further into my work on the human surface, extending this into the realm of the senses. By drawing from scientific research on the neurobiological basis of perception and its effects, such as attraction, I have been slowly developing an evolutionary perspective on art that’s really at the core of my Venice project. By using skin color and the aesthetic surfaces of various consumer products, I also want to address questions of identity—dissolving the very concept into its materiality.

ROSENMEYER When you say dissolving, are you implying that identity is fluid and changeable?

ROSENKRANZ Or maybe even dispensable. It would be great to manage to get beyond the features of identity. Male, female, dark, pale, nice, mean, etc.—it is all relative within our psychological and physiological structure. I think there are much more interesting and important aspects that define us.