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2018.04.26 Thu, by
Vivien Zhang: Uzumaki
House of Egorn, Berlin

Vivien Zhang: Uzumaki
House of Egorn, Berlin

Private View/Opening: 27 April, 6-9pm
Exhibition: 27 April – 30 June, 2018

Solomon St. Peter & Seoul: Uzumaki

Uzumaki is the name of a Japanese manga published from 1998 to 1999. Its author Junji Ito used the shape of a spiral as a form of horror. Spirals are generally regarded positively in Japanese society, so the challenge of Uzumaki was to take the mysterious pattern as larger than humanity’s capability for understanding and twist it into a terrible force. In the manga, a remote village is overtaken by a spiral curse. Everything in the village slowly turns into a spiral as it accelerates at a carnivorous rate until consuming the entire town. This slow spiral crawl introduces a contagious disease on structure – examples range from human tongues wrapping into spirals until the character is unable to speak, entire bodies contorting into a tight formation producing death, to the entire town being built as one spiral terrace churning into itself in a final obliteration. The absurdity of the narrative is in the horror of form. How can a spiral cause fear? The two protagonists are a young couple who try to escape the spiral to get help from outside. At one point the teenage Kirie’s hair turns into soaring spirals but her boyfriend Suichi is able to save her by cutting off her hair. The spiral as a form is magnificent as a rip-curl wave, a sea-snail’s shell, or the double-helix that builds genetic code. But it can also take on terrifying dimensions – the eye of a hurricane, the vortex of the tornado, the black hole at the centre of the milky way that will one day consume our planet.

Vivien Zhang, Untitled, acrylic and oil on canvas, 30 x 25 cm, 2018

Vivien Zhang, Untitled, acrylic and oil on canvas, 30 x 25 cm, 2018

Vivien Zhang’s canvases often play with the combination of multiple references in a timeless and placeless plane. This new body of work inserts examples of spiral columns into colour-radiant and iridescent digital planes. Twisted columns exist in Roman and English churches, engravings, and in numerous Baroque paintings – but the grandeur and eloquence of these columns hides a gruesome past. Only by separating the elements from their architectural function can we isolate these cryptic associations. On the canvas, history and time are compressed into one layer like the gravitational centre of Uzumaki’s spiral – a collapse of distance. In the context of a browser window, the isolated spiral columns can repeat endlessly at the click of a button. The items collected in these paintings are severed from linearity and metastasize in the pixelated screens of dislocation and coincidence.

Vivien Zhang, Spiral columns (Boston), acrylic and oil on canvas, 130 x 70 cm, and Spiral columns (Italian daze), acrylic, chalk, and oil on canvas, 130 x 70 cm, 2018

Vivien Zhang, Spiral columns (Boston), acrylic and oil on canvas, 130 x 70 cm, and Spiral columns (Italian daze), acrylic, chalk, and oil on canvas, 130 x 70 cm, 2018

Zhang spent one year living at the British Academy in Rome. The structure of Rome is one of layers of history coexisting in modernity. The contemporary is crushed by the weight of history. Like a Photoshop layer, one century is constructed over the other with portions remaining visible with the twists of history. St. Peter’s baldacchino in Rome is a strange example of twisting Solomonic columns. Unique in Rome, they are said to have been brought from Greece by the First Christian Emperor, Constantine I. St. Peter’s is known to have gone through two phases, the original construction was abandoned in 1309 when the Avignon Papacy moved its seat to France. After years of negligence, it was not until the late 15th century that plans were put forward to rebuild the house of God. Enlisting artistic forces like Michelangelo and Bernini transformed St. Peter’s into the building we know today. But the twisting columns had existed in the old Basilica and were not a Baroque invention. They were an essential part of Bernini’s conceptual plan. Copying the original baldacchino, the form is symbolic of the “East” in the heart of the Western Catholic church. The columns began to have two symbolic geographies – both Jerusalem, and Rome.

These spiral columns and their particular form caught the attention of Zhang. Fascinated by forms, she investigated the varied combinations and ideas of what a ‘twisting’ or ‘spiral’ column could constitute. Art Historians and contemporary sources talk about a ‘true spiral’ vs. a ‘fake spiral’ based on whether the entire rotation of the column exists or if the spiral is simply decorative parergon. The first columns that caught her eye was the strange asymmetrical pairs of twisted columns at St. Peter’s cloister. The recycling of material from older buildings placed different styles of spiral columns next to each other. Architecture can move through world cultures appearing centuries and continents apart. Like Zhang’s own life experience, geography is the stitching together of moments, and culture doesn’t belong to landscape.

For instance, the Solomonic Columns and their symbolic image was again discovered by Zhang in a distant geographical context. A painting by Giuliano da Rimini is in the collection of Boston’s Isabela Stewart Gardner Museum. The Virgin and Child Enthroned with Saints was painted in 1307. This early renaissance masterpiece was commissioned by a convent of nuns and depicts female saints including the founder of the monastery, Saint Clare of Assisi (1194-1253). The dedication to female saints is rare for this period and the connection with the Greek or Byzantine columns may remind us of another depiction connecting women and Greek marble – the caryatids on the Acropolis. The Solomonic columns may give an abstract hint of femininity or be interpreted simply as a complex geometrical form.

The story of how this early Italian painting managed to arrive in Boston relates to an initial de-contextualisation of the piece from its original commissioned location. This is echoed again by Zhang with the isolation of the columns on a flat plane. The coincidence that Zhang would see manifestations of this column across hemispheres manifest her belief in the insistence of forms and objects transcending time in eternal repetition.

 Vivien Zhang, Three Manicules II, mixed media on canvas, 35 x 25 cm, 2018


Vivien Zhang, Three Manicules II, mixed media on canvas, 35 x 25 cm, 2018

Another “twisting column” is found just outside the museum in the streets of contemporary Boston. The barber pole is a common sight in our everyday lives. It was associated to Da Rimini’s twisted columns through formal qualities – the slow rotation of the pole and the swirling colouration in red, white, and blue. This mundane object was also brought from Europe but was transformed into its own American tradition. The red, white, and blue barber pole common in the United States is a reference to the colours of the American flag.

In Korea, the American-flag-coloured barber pole served as a symbol for something much more seedy than the neighbourhood barber. Prostitution is illegal in Korea but common knowledge has it that two barber poles swinging in opposite directions are a  symbol for brothels. From St. Peter’s cloister to Korean brothels, the form of the column has travelled from sacred to profane, from sculpted marble to plastic mass-production.
This symbol of the barber pole to denote a call house originated during the Korean war. The red, white, and blue colours subtly hinted that American soldiers were welcome without being an overt flag. The connotation to the barber shop also served as a cover-up for the authorities. The custom stuck and contemporary visitors to Seoul can find the double barber poles in red light districts. Real Korean hair salons will avoid confusion by using a spinning barber pole with an image of a woman with spiralling locks of hair.

The twisting column winds its way between contexts and meanings. The columns at the holiest site on earth contrast with the original meaning of the barber pole – a symbol of blood and arterial release. From ancient sites which have been wiped from existence to a commonplace sign still in use all over Europe. Zhang is not unfamiliar with medical oddities having used the detailed medical prints of the torso of a syphilitic patient. The linking between architecture and medicine, sacred and profane, is integral to the column’s history and contagious spiralling spread.

The European counterparts to American barbers use an older pole which is red and white. The medieval order of barbers marked their place of work with the pole to indicate their parallel profession of surgery. Barbers and surgeons were not separated as professionals until 1210. The modern-day barber pole is a replacement for a far more macabre practice that was common in the streets of medieval London. Barbers were known to sit bowls of coagulating blood outside of their establishment to remind the passers-by not to forget their blood-letting appointments. The practice of bleeding patients was wholeheartedly accepted by London’s medieval population as barbers collected earnings from the popularity of the belief in the release of humours. Historically, once the barbers were done leeching blood, they would close off the arterial spray with a white cloth and later hang it outside to dry. It was common to see a pole full of red and white blood-stained cloths swinging around in the breeze.

A film installation by Mark Wallinger shown at Hauser and Wirth in 2015 features the storefront of the Pall Mall brothers. This famous barber salon in central London retains the aesthetic of an old school barber. A dark interior and the gyrating barber poles out front. The film’s scene stays still and unmoving except for the slow spiralling of the barber pole. This movement signifies the passing of time while the store itself visibly preserves the past in the layered history of central London.

Neither the grotesque scenes of medieval London nor the Korean brothels associated with the barber pole would fit the strangest accusation of profanity against the twisting column. In 1637 Nicholas Stone designed the South Laud balcony to St. Mary’s church in Oxford. The spiral columns reproduced the Baroque baldacchino in St. Peter’s church, a direct reference to Rome. Only one generation before the newly empowered Protestant authorities had enforced an extensive execution of Catholic priests and the architectural reappearance of the Vatican on British soil was seen as a scandal by the Church of England. Archbishop William Laud commissioned the Oxford balcony, he was not Catholic but was nevertheless accused of sympathies towards the Pope. The porch itself was used in the final trial and examination against Laud. The twisting columns housed a sculpture of the Virgin and Child which detractors named as a “scandalous statue.” Archbishop Laud was executed in 1645, but the offensive spiralling columns remain in Oxford to this day.

One of the most absurd notions of this offence is in the purely formal quality of the columns, opposing the iconoclastic concerns of decadent qualities of figuration. This might be a clue as to why Solomonic columns became an obsession of the Baroque age. The columns portray a geometrical energy and dynamism, increasingly popular in the Italian Renaissance..

Solomon himself was tried for three sins. His final judgment included the collection of 666 talons in taxes – a sum far greater than could be sustained by the small nation of Israel. The number of the Beast – alpha and omega – is composed of three repetitions of the spiral number. His greed and many marriages to foreign wives angered Yahweh who thenceforth split apart the Kingdom of Israel.

The reoccurring Solomonic columns in the work of Vivien Zhang serve as an illusion to digital image production. The copy-pasted column exists in countless repetitions of a theme spanning history and space. Like a spiral encompassing its surroundings, the spread of the columns takes unexpected turns and variations. Zhang’s layering processes play with notions of geometry and figuration. The extremely precise and controlled strokes of the columns present photo-realistic renditions of the marble cuts. Meanwhile, the digital image is dissected in its flattening function. Painting from a photograph is a different exercise than painting from life. The cyclopic perspective of the photographic lens compresses and flattens information perceived naturally. For instance, Giuliano da Rimini’s columns were hand-compressed. Flattening the columns manually, a painterly shading and form is distinguishable on this painting compared with the photographic accuracy of the others. Meticulously painted again by hand, Zhang’s simulation of the painted image is a contradiction to production in an automated world.The instantaneousness act of image collection contradicts the dedication and labour of the original column production. Each column is inserted carefully into a chromosomal colour gradient contrasting this digital coloration with the ancient form. Completely divorced of its function, the Solomonic column has entered the contemporary and its digital reality along with the rest of history.

Àngels Miralda Berlin, April 2018