black face – white cube – white face – black cube
Noa Gur’s works presented in the exhibition “Dawn till Dusk” intertwine two series of questions: one thread questioning contemporary modes of artistic production, the other thread questioning inequality based on class or ethnicity. She uses and transforms the genre of self-portrait to point towards contemporary aporias of the artist as an economic unit, asked to simultaneously show and hide her labor, her body, her face.
The investment of subjectivity in a work of art has become an imposing riddle as part of the breakthrough of the “aesthetic regime” (Jacques Rancière). Once artistic production was cut loose from its representational function, the artist’s subjectivity was required to stand in for an empty signifier or a fixed set of meanings. In an initial phase – with its peak in the nineteenth century – the genius of the artist was established as the central myth in artistic productivity. The figure of the anarchic and sensitive artist, constantly threatened by the art market as well as by the bourgeois economy and biopolitics, resulted in numerous portraits and self-portraits. These iconic images of artists (suffering at the hands of society, an object of exploitation and restriction) are paradoxically entangled in the purest form of the market: the art market, based on nothing but exchange value. After a number of crises of the author – his abolishment by poststructuralism, deconstruction and feminism – the place of the artist’s body and face within economic circulation is even harder to detect: Her name is still important as a trademark, and artists’ faces can acquire the status of celebrity images. But who or what is exploiting artists today? How can we evaluate artists’ subjectivity when artistic production as a mode of autonomous, self-regulated labor has become the model for cognitive and immaterial labor as we know it? What is the logic of self-exploitation itself? What does it do with the subject that performs it? And what is the place of material labor within this hall of mirrors? Noa Gur tries to get all that back into the picture, more precisely into the self-portrait.
“Burning Bush” shows the artist’s face painted black with soot. The mouth inhales and exhales smoke. The face, which at first appears to be a flat, black surface, is partly lit and reveals its contours. The chest is covered with black spots and presented in the classic posture of the self-portrait and in an androgynous way, thereby pointing towards the problematic status of the female body as a represented object. Soot and smoke refer to industrial means of production, as well as to capitalism as a way of ‘melting all that is solid into the air’. Wearing soot as a mask recalls the fact that somewhere physical work still takes place, and that it is performed predominantly by those who are not part of the glorious regime of creative and cognitive labor. Like the artist’s face, it is invisible labor: invisible because of its remoteness (it is outsourced to parts of the world we do not observe closely) or because it does not count as gainful employment (like female carework). One could also have the impression that the face is consuming itself by inhaling and exhaling: A self-sufficient circle of production and indulgence in a post-apocalyptic atmosphere. Everything has already been burned.
By using her own body as a ‘model’, Noa Gur digs back into the traditional relation of (male) artist and female (naked) object. In “Painting on All Fours”, she hangs her own body in a gallery. The female body is no longer depicted and represented by the artistic gaze, but instead exposed directly to the public. By leaving black traces on the gallery wall, the work brings back into the gallery what is not allowed into the cleanly world of the white cube, the market of pure exchange value: waste and filth, and thus the exclusion of people who work with their own dirty hands.
“White Noise I” approaches contemporary modes of artistic production more directly: Noa Gur uses her face as a stamp, as a printing machine to produce a series of quasi-portraits on paper towels. Artistic production is totally worldly here: One image per frame, thus mimicking the film reel, and its industrial logic with the kitchen roll. At the same time this film questions numerous assumptions that have been made with regard to mechanical reproduction in art history. Here the copies are not similar but individual. Assembled into a film, the printed faces acquire a phantom-like quality.
The second part of “White Noise” inverts the white cube and the process of self-portrayal: Here the ’white’ face appears gradually from a pitch dark ground as the soot is removed by the paper towels. This evokes the other great heterotopia of modern art: the cinema with its analogies of film and skin. It tells about the procedure of exposing a sensitive material to light. It also tells about the fact that early film coatings were not made sensitive enough to capture black faces; they were optimised for white faces only. Film began – in a very technical sense – as a white medium fit into a black, velvet-like cube.
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Galerie Campagne Première Berlin, Kristina Bewersdorff