Imagine the essence of humanity as an object. Pamela Rosenkranz can, and sure does. When she represents Switzerland this year at the 56th Venice Biennale, her nation’s pavilion will “mix the materiality of a Central European skin color,” she told Artsy. “I want to somehow to think about why does skin color attract us and what does it mean? Why are these skin colors so predominant?”
Rosenkranz’s presentation averts its inquiry to the ontological realm, an extension of Speculative Realism. The school of philosophy, best championed by Robin Mackay and Reza Negarestani (with talons reaching as far as Margaret Atwood’s foreboding tales) follows the metaphysical belief that thinking and being aren’t bound as binaries—nor are they exclusively human.
It’s a rather popular ideology among those deeply entrenched in Internet and digital circles. “It tries to find new terms to name the new problems,” says Rosenkranz, not yet thirty-five, explaining her takeaways from the philosophical school, where existence is not defined by experience. Often the human body is felt by its absence, with objects replacing it instead. Her practice bridges philosophy and art—Rosenkranz sees the two modes as equals—in order for her to bring “points together to know more and create something that hasn’t been seen before.” It’s evident in her work that human physicality is being tested to the limits of our understanding.
As an artist who sources material on the Internet, Rosenkranz’s practice follows not a predestined path but rather her own curiosity. She operates like a detective, investigating ideas or information bits until all facts are found. In that way, Rosenkranz, for her pavilion project, “works on the many levels of the senses. There’s smell, light, color, all kind of immaterial components that are integrated into the appearance of the architecture.”
Rosenkranz is somewhat of a Biennale darling. Instead of working the gallery stage, she has often found herself creating within parameters dictated by inquisitive curators, like Venice Biennale curator Okwui Enwezor’s “age of anxiety” that’s shaping the 56th Biennale and Massimiliano Gioni (of the 55th Biennale), whose Imagined Encyclopedic Palace wooed Venice in 2013, or Hicham Khalidi of the 2014 Marrakech Biennale, which beckoned artists to reflect upon “where society is now,” especially in the context of the Arabic nation’s unique political situation amongst its fellow MENASA countries. Rosenkranz supplied a work exploring shades of blue, the color with most varieties perceived by the human eye.
Museum curators, particularly those helming more cutting-edge institutions, clear space for her conceptual creations. No exception is fellow-countryman Hans Ulrich Obrist, who storms the Astrup Fearnley Museet in Oslo in his upcoming Europe Europe survey of the Continent’s under-35-and-blessed. Rosenkranz, naturally, has been anointed with the honor. She’s also shown at the New York’s Swiss Institute, Kunsthalle Basel, and Centre d’Art Contemporain Geneva. Still, according to international art world press, her gallery efforts have been strong, especially adored by the New York Times, which raved about both her solo efforts at Miguel Abreu Gallery, in New York’s Lower East Side. It was also in Rosenkranz’s home turf, at Karma International, the show “My Sexuality” (2014) caught the eye of European critics, featuring a series of paintings evoking Yves Klein’s Anthropométries—painted in-situ, after swallowing Viagra, in gestural spatters of flesh-toned paint. It’s well known that Viagra has little effect on female biology, except for expanding capillaries, thereby inducing a woman to blush, such as did Rosenkranz when she painted the canvases. The “blushing,” as Rosenkranz has explained, is a gesture often culturally interpreted as one of shame. As one might expect, Rosenkranz is not, in her estimation, subverting the patriarchy or commenting on the perimeters of female sexuality. Rather, in her view, she is commenting on the cultural constructs of perception. This piece—as with her practice—attempts to attune us to how identity in society arrives through each other’s perceptions. It’s all skin deep.
For “Our Product,” the title of Rosenkranz’s Swiss Pavilion, her understanding of the essence of humanity is fluid—superficial, literally. “I created this product,” she says. “It’s a solution liquid of the Central European skin color.” She then translated this new material into a smell-based work: “I worked with Dominique Ropion and Frederic Malle. The idea was to make a scent that’s similar to the liquid monochrome Central European Skin color, they constructed molecules to make a synesthetic appearance of the liquid”—as part of a sensorium, which treats “the pavilion almost like an object.” All the works’ ephemerality wafts with the very questions that line Rosenkranz’s practice. “What does it mean to be human? How do we perceive it?,” she asks. “I want to get beyond certain things that are a standard and seem obvious but think deeper about what that means.”