(Update: There are now 3 parts to this series)
“Under a table you have the possibility to test your own absence. The realization that life is taking its course, even without you, is an intense human experience; it shows the finiteness of personality. Mark Manders has inhabited his self-portrait since 1986. This building can expand or shrink at any moment. In this building all words created by mankind are on hand. The building arises, like words, out of interaction with life and things.” Mark Manders, 1996
A casual review of Mark Menders work might leave one scratching his or her head: what’s this talk of doing a self portrait as a building, that’s actually not a building but some objects arranged as a floor plan, or actually the name of his exhibition, that started out after meeting someone on the street whom he ‘fell in love with’? And what’s this fascination with a young woman’s head, sheared between wood boards, or arm-less and leg-less strung out from a chair?
Mark Manders is what’s known as an installation artist. He makes sculptures for exhibitions that are site-specific. Sometimes a similar piece in a different location can evoke a completely different feeling. Back to the original question, just who is this woman, or, what does she represent?
Looking back at women in historic sculptures and paintings might reveal some clues, like Joan Of Arc, the valiant, young female liberator of France in 14th century, or Eugene Delacroix’s Liberty Leading The People (1830) commemorating the revolution that toppled the French monarchy. This painting personified the concept of a woman goddess figure liberating the masses from tyranny; so dedicated is she to this cause that she doesn’t even care that her blouse is torn, revealing her bare breast, while trampling over piles of dead bodies, fallen comrades, in the battle against the king. So radical or ‘politically incorrect’ would this painting be, that it would take another 18 years before it could be publicly displayed in Paris, when the republic was firmly established, and would come to represent the values of the new Government; of freedom, equality and the brotherhood of man.
‘Liberty’ decades later became an icon to represent another human ideal, concretized and institutionalized in the 1886 Statue of Liberty; freedom. Which is what might comes to mind, abstractly, when one looks at the Dry Head On A Wooden Floor (2015) sculpture. If statues represent people’s aspirations, the Statue of Liberty certainly represented a positive, upwardly hopeful feeling in America at that time (and for many years since). And so could it be that this huge, partly sheared off, despondent, crumpling female head is Mander’s expression on what has happened to our ‘liberty’, a commentary on the assault our personal freedoms have faced in the recent developments in geo-political sphere, brought on primarily by our governments’ reaction to extremist, international terrorism?
All the other works with a woman’s head, can thus be viewed in this light, as various personas’, in various situations, of ‘Liberty’. For example, in Still Life With Books, Table And Fake Newspaper (2010) a sheared woman’s head trapped between a table and some wooden boards, which could represent books, or ‘work’, might signify the suffocating nature of the education and jobs duplex-system, with students trapped within.
In Figure With Three Piles Of Sand (2010), ‘Liberty’ is without any arms and with just one leg, struggling to hold up against a fallen cross with 3 piles of sand on it. We know from history that 3 is a ‘holy’ number, trinity, thus together with the cross shaped wooden beams, it could be inferred that this piece has something to do with traditional western religion, with the 3 piles of sand representing Jesus and the 2 other convicts crucified with him, and the cross being the church, and one’s faith in this system, and its all teetering and precarious, might collapse soon. But then again it could just be a wooden structure, like a barn or something, because upon closer inspection, the column doesn’t penetrate the beam to create a real cross shape, and so cannot truly represent the church and one’s faith in it. Complexity and contradiction is a regular theme in Manders’ work.
Mind Study (2013), which is part of the Venice Biennale Dutch Pavillion exhibition Room With Broken Sentence, ‘Liberty’, again is without arms and with just one leg, is part of the structure holding up a long rectangular table. The table itself, if you look closely, is without legs and is being held up by the arm rests of the chairs against it, and by a complex rope contraption to hold the table top down on the chairs with ‘Liberty’ at one end and concrete weights at the other. So, is ‘Liberty’ being held up by the table or is she part of the system holding it up? Also, is it a dining table which would infer that this piece is about the home, or is it a meeting room table, which would be about work or corporate life? The answer may never be known.
A further contradiction is found in the materiality of these sculptures; they are in fact actually made of bronze but covered with clay to make it look like they are made of clay, a play on the question of reality before our eyes.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of 3 in this blog series, we will review Self Portrait As A Building and just what Manders is talking about.