TO NOT KNOW IT ALL
It only takes one click to open my Facebook ‘wall’ and stumble upon people who are convinced they know it all. In his book Know-It-All Society: Truth and Arrogance in Political Culture, Michael Patrick Lynch describes how the internet contributes to the licentious spread of ‘intellectual arrogance’. ‘In this culture, we have come to think that we have nothing to learn from one another; we are rewarded for emotional outrage over reflective thought, and we glorify a defensive rejection of those different from us.’ It seems that we found ourselves in an online society where people tend to be the experts of anything and everything. We don’t listen to the actual experts, because well, we know better. But what, if for once, we didn’t know it all? If we allow ourselves to be influenced by what we already know, or by what we think we know, it can block us. If, instead, we dare to venture off the beaten track, new and unexpected things may just come our way.
From architecture to fine arts with a focus on photography, to multidisciplinary fine arts and eventually to ceramics. The Russian artist Lucia Sotnikova (1986, Wolgograd, USSR) cannot be pigeon-holed. Sotnikova lives and works in Düsseldorf and recently worked at the European Ceramic Work Centre. A number of weeks ago Sotnikova arrived well prepared in Oisterwijk, and during the first week of her arrival, she threw all these well worked out plans aside.
BOUND TO BREAK THE RULES
Lucia Sotnikova never worked with clay before and after locking herself in the library for a few days, she started her work process inspired by possibilities and accumulating organically formed tresses. Uninhibited by not knowing, Sotnikova found herself in an inexhaustible inspiring process governed by influences from her own practice and the discovery of new material. ‘If you don’t know the rules, you are bound to break them’. It became her artist’s practice motto. Her experimentation manifested itself in sculptural draperies that are situated between organic and manufactured, between presence and absence and between realism and the surreal. Glazes with deep colours embellish her sculptures; their stratification contributes to the surrealistic atmosphere that lingers over them. They suggest something that is not there, something we cannot bring about in this world but we can guess at.
Influences from her earlier work can be discerned in the work. The draped locks of hair for example are reminiscent of lush insects wriggling their way across the dense forest floor, a notion that can also be found in her work Epimorpha (2019). The chains that Sotnikova used to create this work are reminiscent of insects with an extraterrestrial skeleton, swirling in organic shapes to create a jumble of lines across the image. On the whole, the work creates a surrealistic impression, as if the sculptures could have been found at the bottom of a swamp.
THE SURREAL WORLD OF SOTNIKOVA
The sculptures produced at EKWC by Sotnikova can be placed in the context of her artistic practice, parallels are easily discernible. Women, absence, hair, iconographic references and the surreal all form recurring topics in the artist’s oeuvre. Sotnikova’s work can be seen as her own interpretation of the world. In the words of the famous painter Frida Kahlo: ‘I paint my own reality’. By making art, she tries to grasp and decipher the world around her. This becomes visible through her manipulation of found footage, among other things. By editing, distorting and adding many layers to the original image, the artist creates her own truth, her perception of what she sees around her. This results in alienated images, manipulated to near abstraction through distortion and synthetic colours.
The way Sotnikova plays with negative space suggests the absence of an individual. She drapes the hair-like clay, leaving out space where the individual’s face would be, creating emptiness. The void in the work makes it surreal and mystical. The form that left its shell, leaving behind a few strands of hair. Inevitably, my own imagination starts to run away with me; what was here before? These associations evoke questions about the ambitions and objections of the artist. She describes her aims as follows: ‘To highlight unconventional beauty and to provoke a conversation without subconsciousness through associations’. Through the surrealistic world, the artist creates, the viewer can get lost in their own imagination by equations that pile up in their own head and thus build further Sotnikova’s surrealistic world.
During our conversation, Sotnikova mentions that she has an inexplicable fascination for the serpent, something that is also evident in her most recent sculptures. The strands of her hair wriggle around the negative space as though they were snakes. Equally, if we look at earlier work such as Zoom in – Zoom out (2019), we can discern a snake-like skin that appears to be draped over the print. In this work, the perception of women, mysticism and serpent merge. By manipulating found photos, Sotnikova visibly and invisibly makes her marks on the photos of naked women. She found these images in journals and books that explained photography and photographic phenomena and techniques. An old woman gifted them to the artist. The photos were all taken by male photographers and they all depict naked women. The artist soon asked herself: what purpose does this naked body have besides being appealing to the male gaze?
By systematically destroying, re-photographing and developing the images again, a snake-like skin appears over the photos. The outer layer of the pictures and the depicted skin of the photographed women are affected by this process. Wrinkling for example makes them transient, less flat and perhaps more alive for those who look at the representations.
THE STORY OF THE SNAKE
In the story The Snake, John Steinbeck narrates about a biologist who is working in his lab when an unknown woman enters the room. The otherwise organised man is upset by her obsession with the male rattlesnake in his lab. She buys the snake from him, not to keep it but to watch it, and forces the biologist to feed the snake a rat. An interesting triangular relationship emerges in the story between the biologist, the woman and the rattlesnake. The otherwise objective biologist, who until that point only had a clinical relationship with both the snake and the rat, suddenly feels a threshold to feeding the snake the rat. After all, the snake does not need to be fed, it now only serves as a spectacle for the benefit of the woman. When the rat and the snake are together in the cage, even before the snake attacks, the biologist repeats ‘It’s the most beautiful thing in the world’ but at the same time he’s upset, he never felt this empathy towards the rat and he feels objectionable feeding it to the snake.
The contradiction in the beauty and horror the biologist experiences when feeding the helpless rat to the snake resonates with Sotnikova’s practice that highlights unconventional beauty.
THE MEANING OF THE SERPENT
The contrast between man and woman, which is recurring in Sotnikova’s practice, is remarkably also reflected in the iconography of the snake. Originally, the snake was seen as a phallic symbol. However, Mackenzie describes in The Migrantion of Symbols that Cro-Magnon people associated the snake with the feminine: ‘The snake symbolised whirlpool, whirlwind, cosmic energy. Snakes originally symbolized the cosmic energy of the female womb which protected and nourished the embryo as they believed the ocean originally did the earth…’.
The snake is one of the richest iconographic symbols known. It represents fertility, immortality, wisdom, and prosperity. In addition to her fascination with snakes and arthropods, Sotnikova also takes an inexplicable interest in eyes and vision. In several of her sculptures eyeballs can be distinguished. They stare at you tirelessly, like a god’s print that fixes its gaze on you no matter where you are located in the room.
The human-like figures combined with the serpent and eye references evoke an inevitable association with the mythical Medusa figure. Medusa is a so-called Gorgon from Greek mythology. The myth describes three sisters who lived near the kingdom of the dead. Whereas her two sisters were immortal, Medusa was not given eternal life. In the first century BC, the Roman author Ovid describes Medusa as a beautiful maiden who was seduced by Poseidon in the temple of Athena. In revenge, Athena turned Medusa’s long locks into writhing serpents and cursed her as from then on, anyone who crossed Medusa’s eyes would be turned to stone.
Literally translated from French, femme fatale means ‘the fatal women’. In The Femme Fatale in Vogue: Femininity Ideologies in Fin-de-siècle America, Yuko Minowa provides a more nuanced definition: ‘an attractive woman, often a self-determined seductress, who causes anguish to a man who becomes involved with her’.
In early images, Medusa is often depicted as a human-beast-like figure, monstrous. However, from the fifth century BC onwards, a change took place. The figure from Greek myth began to morph into an alluring seductress, shaped by the idealisation of the body in Greek art. Normally, gorgons were seen as beastly and unattractive, while Medusa was now depicted as an attractive woman. Today Medusa, with her luxuriant snake-like hair and her gaze that turns people to stone, is endured as an allegorical figure of fatal beauty. ‘Medusa, in effect, became the archetypal femme fatale: a conflation of femininity, erotic desire, violence, and death,’ writes Kiki Karoglouin in an issue of the Met’s quarterly Bulletin.
Sotnikova’s sculptures have the same mystique around them as the mythological femme fatale. The inability to look at the face, the twisting strands of hair with organic forms evoke all sorts of associations in the viewer. Strangely enough, this also unintentionally brings us back to the image of women and unconventional beauty that the artist has already made central to her practice.
Davis, B. (2018, June 27). How to Break Internal Rules that Keep You Bound to Misery. Roots of Abundance.
Hostetler, Kristen Lee (2007) “Serpent Iconography,” Etruscan Studies: Vol. 10, Article 16.
Lynch, M. P. (2019). Know-It-All Society: Truth and Arrogance in Political Culture. Liveright.
Mackenzie, D. A. (1926). The Migration of Symbols and Their Relations to Beliefs and Customs. K. Paul, Trench, Trubner & Company, Limited.
Schneemann, C. (1997). More than Meat Joy: performance works and selected writings. McPherson & Company.
Steinbeck, J. (2011). The Long Valley. Penguin Classics, p. 49-60
Glennon, M. (2017, March). Medusa in Ancient Greek Art. The Met.
Oates, R. (2019, October 15). The Horrible Tale of Medusa. The Odyssey Online.
Meier, A. (2018, March 20). The Beauty and Horror of Medusa, an Enduring Symbol of Women’s Power. Hyperallergic.
Carroll J. S., Sperling. A. (Summer/Fall 2020), Weird Temporalities: An Introduction, in Studies in the Fantastic.
Lucia Sotnikova website
This article originally appeared on the SEA Foundation website as studio encounter.