Installation view of High Art at LISTE 2015. Photo by Alec Bastian for Artsy.
Olga Balema did not intend for “Cannibals,” the series of sculptures recently shown at Berlin’s Croy Nielsen and on view with Paris’s High Art at the LISTE art fair in Basel this week, to deeply distress her viewers. The sealed transparent bags, however, bloated with darkening yellow, red, and black liquid, are hard to encounter without associating them with postoperative drips, saline bags, and similarly upsetting real-world horrors.
Further advancing the conceptual connection between these works and everyone’s worst nightmares are thin white curtains hanging on delicate wires between the sculptures, like dividers separating patients in hospital rooms. Despite the dark connotations, Balema—who was born in Ukraine, raised in the Midwest of the United States, and now makes her home in Amsterdam—describes the work in much gentler and optimistic terms. Rather than fixating on sick bodies, she is instead interested in the most basic and life-generating bodily functions: eating and regeneration.
For Balema, the outward appearance of “Cannibals” is less significant than the internal processes. Inside each piece, the artist stows parts of older, discarded sculptures. Submerged in the water that fills the plastic bags, these repurposed metal fragments gradually corrode, causing the sculptures’ noxious coloration. (Hence the title.)
Balema recognizes that the morbid palette and organic texture of the work might strike nerves. “The color comes from the rusting of the steel,” she says. “All the pieces start out clear and then change and decay in their own pace and way. Sometimes they turn a beautiful orange, sometimes black, sometimes brown. I think, in this case, the color kind of repulses and attracts the viewer at the same time. There are a lot of people who like to pick on a scab.” In this way, the works feel anthropomorphic. Balema concedes that “the color and shape of the works have a strong bodily feeling. They also appear and are quite fragile. When people get sick, they become very aware of the fragility of their own bodies.”
As the works in “Cannibals” deteriorate and change, associations of physicality and mortality emerge, triggering empathy in her audience. The sculptures are, within their own life cycle, aging. When the exhibition ends, the artist drains the liquid from the clear sacks, but can replace it later—and the cycle renews.
The title of the series alludes to the work’s conceptual underpinnings, but also contains a much more prosaic meaning. “I am interested in how other things can become part of our bodies/selves through being ingested and how we assimilate things,” Balema says. She cites as inspiration recent research into the two kilograms of intestinal flora that we all carry inside our bellies. These trillions of microbes, which affect our moods and health, are largely unknown to us but fundamental to our wellbeing. As Balema says, “This kind of an idea expands the borders of what it means to be a person or what it means to be human.” Or a sculpture.
—Ana Finel Honigman