Dangerous Puns. Katja Pilipenko and the crisis of truth.
Text by Filipe Lippe for Hfbk Rhizome
There is a tradition in the Western thinking that sees the world as a game of forces of different intensities that clash producing form. The excess of this world brilliantly orchestrated by chaos dazzles and frightens. This is perhaps why Western epistemology has for so many centuries been committed to define the imponderability of life through language. Thus, reflecting on the world - and about living in it - is perhaps an attempt to delimit it, to name it. It is giving meaning to things that shock, destroy and renew themselves all the time, by imposing the predominance of truth over illusion. Is language capable to codify this world? The authoritarian language of reason, which is also the language of power, is certainly not.
In the context of global capitalism, the war of narratives explains a diffuse world in which facts and interpretations are mystified so that the political-economic interests of certain social groups are overlaid. Post-truth is nothing new under the sun. Truth does not exist and has never existed, but even so it has not ceased to be a central problem of life in the present time. That is why the current shattering of truth and the enormous inability of language to codify the present are the main reason for Katja Pilipenko’s work.
In a time hyper-populated by images, the artist chooses to create a visual vocabulary in which images do not really fit. In Katja Pilipenko’s works Image is turned into words that scratch the throat, an aesthetic potency that bewilders. The invisibility of image is evident in the work The King Is Naked (2019), which shows a complete white painting hanging close to a spotlight. The curious viewer who gets closer to this apparently boring post-minimal work activates the sensor of the spotlight. The black light cast by the spotlight reveals a sentence written on the canvas: “the king is naked”. A direct quotation to the short story “The Emperor’s New Clothes” published in 1837 by Hans Christian Anderson. The unfolding of this action then provokes the question: Who is naked? Us? The world? The image? The word? The truth? Despite the initial doubt that the work causes, it is, in fact, a revelation. It reveals the mystery of obviousness: Everybody knows that in this world “the king is naked”, but no one is brave enough to say that. Wouldn’t that be the most accurate metaphor for the current geopolitical situation?
In the work Signing Session (2017), Pilipenko exhibits colourful textual paintings that appropriate art statements from iconic Western contemporary artists. All of them white European and American man. By appropriating the words of these artists during the performance in which the she signs postcards made with the paintings, the artist transforms a playful action in a deep critique on (art) history. While appropriates the history of the winners (white male artists), she is “brushing history against the grain” as Walter Benjamin wanted in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History”. During the performance, the artist’s slender body may seem crushed by the weight of Western art history, but it is from her fragility that the artist finds the potency to subvert the masculinism of art. The artist’s disobedience seeks to rewrite art history through her subtle empowerment, imposing a non-masculinist historical narrative.
The epistemic disobedience of Signing Session is the same driving force behind to other works of the artist: the artist book Mystification (2019) and the installation The List of Mystification (2019). In both works the artist presents a list of historical falsifications that in one way or another also formed our understanding of reality. Pilipenko shows how misleading historical narrative can be and that the post-truth era has nothing of authenticity. Almost the entire history of human civilisation is a mystified history.
Is this mystification the consequence of our immense inability to bear the real? Are these “false” narratives the biography of the precariousness of written and spoken language? Perhaps these questions are what motivate the artist in her work Spotlight (2019). The work is a dark theatrical scenery illuminated by one single spotlight that blinds the viewer. Once the viewer is inside the scenery, it is invited to talk to three performers sitting in the dark. The performers wear theatrical masks in order to ensure their anonymity. The performers provoke the viewer to debate on all sorts of topics, but usually focusing on existential matters such as fear, desire and anxiety. The blind viewer speaks to voices as if they were the voices of its unconscious. The uncanny fragile situation creates a high tension in the room that is intensified when the viewer speaks freely about its deep emotions and experiences. Little by little, the dialogue establishes an almost unbreakable bond between the public and the work. Thus, the artist creates a fundamental affinity between art and people; fragile things that are alive and connected by language and for this reason create other things that do not yet exist.
Revealing what is (in)visible is the poetic exercise that guides the work Synonyms (2020), a kind of visual poem containing 40 pairs of words – euphemisms and its direct meaning – made in the technique of lenticular printing. Two words are printed one on top of each other on a black surface. The viewer’s movement in the exhibition room changes the angle of its gaze, making one or another word visible. The words that emerge from this action are taken from the mainstream media. They are the doublespeak commonly used in newspapers today. Since, doublespeak overshadows the “real” meaning of words and makes up reality with fake information, shaping the world according to the interests of the social group that has the power to manipulate language. The instability of the printing, then, reveals the ambiguity of language and its fragile relationship with power. The one who has the power to narrate history is the one who tells the truth, the truth of power. Therefore, Pilipenko inscribes art as a counter-information. If the language is the politics that imposes a specific truth, the body that moves in the room is the instrument that activates a counter-information that challenges the established truth.
Katja Pilipenko knows that art does not explain anything but that it communicates to people. She knows that art is a symbolic exercise of one’s own tearing experience of being alive, a form of language that does not create closed signs, but allows us to shout out the discomfort and pleasure that it is to live in this world. By doing dangerous puns Katja Pilipenko tells us that (rational) language fails. Our understanding of reality is manipulated by power. There is no truth and no guarantee of anything, but it is all right because we can challenge the limits of language and invent new worlds.