To make a World

I associate Maggie Cardelus’s art with the well-known Pygmalion myth, in which the statue of beautiful Galatea, created by Pygmalion, comes to life. The theme of art is here interwoven with eroticism, which lies at its base. It is not simply about the attraction of the male artist to his female creation, but also involves Aphrodite as a magical medium. Because Pygmalion is able to create only the likeness of life, only the goddess of love can turn that simulacrum into a living being. The artist can only achieve mimesis, whereas the goddess can accomplish a hypermimesis, the creation of life. But their partnership has а certain redundancy. If Pygmalion had been born a woman, he would have had, thanks to nature itself, the talent for life-creation, and there would have been no need for any divine intermediaries.

That is, in essence, why I associate the art of a contemporary female artist with an Ancient Greek myth. The age-old history of culture (or, should we say, the history of the culture of a patriarchal civilization) presents the figure of the female artist as a total contradiction. Sublimated male sexuality always lay at the heart of creativity, which worked itself out through the creation of an aesthetic artifact. In other words, artistic creativity was seen as a compensatory form of life-creation, obviously unnecessary for the woman, who is pre-determined by nature to childbearing. Moreover, creative art was seen as something extraordinary and sublime, while childbearing was large-scale and commonplace, and was in biological terms labeled as reproduction. And only when, in the XX century, cultural theory defined artistic production as an aspect of technical reproduction, did female art come to be seen as a phenomenon with its own laws, rather than a mere replication of the age-old masculine paradigm.
According to that masculine paradigm, art ends at the moment that the artifact comes into being (which obviously suggests marital coitus). While, according to the female paradigm, art only begins at a child’s birth: the peak of rapture is localized here not at the end, but at the beginnning of perspective. Perspective itself, meanwhile, emerges as the development of its potential in time and space (thus, the working title of Maggie Cardelus’s exhibition in Moscow is Making Space for Time). At bottom, masculine optics can be described by the closing formulation of many fairy tales: “and they lived a long time, and they died on the same day.” The only distinguishable things are those that precede this formulation and the very moment of creative coitus. Whatever events follow it fall out of sight. The optics of female creativity are different; they are directed exactly at the undefined, undeveloped duration, marked by the word “long,” and they bring it into focus. It is also important that masculine and feminine points of focus are separated by a blind spot that is nine months long, from conception to birth. Speaking metaphorically, that time-space distance is the depth of a mirror. Its compressed, collapsed field serves as the axis of symmetry between masculine and feminine worlds, which to each other become а veritable mirror-world.

Cardelus once gives that mutual mirror-world a visual interpretation. In the work Looking for time (Quogue), from the 2007 project of the same name, she “searches for time,” photographing the interior through the mirror, and, in doing so, she pierces its surface with the photo flash. Since every photograph is by itself a mirror-world, it turns out that the mutuality of mirrored worlds becomes one of the objects of representation. As does another theme – the theme of space as internal, dark, multi-heterogenous – i.e, possessing attributes of the obviously feminine-ying nature.

Incidentally, Cardelus produces a portrait of such a space ten years earlier, in the programmatic work L’Origine du Monde (1997). The name alludes unequivocally to Gustave Courbet’s provocative work, which showed female genitalia in close-up. However, in Courbet’s work the image draws in the gaze, as in pornography, whereas with Cardelus, a pile of cutouts from family photographs, whose shape resembles that of female loins, drop on to the viewer. The conceptual inversion is obvious: the metaphor of coitus is transformed into the image of the birth of the world. Thanks to this, Cardelus’s object looks like a manifesto of female art, in which biological reproduction and aesthetic production become an undivided whole. The object is given form by two personages – the artist herself and her sister Sarah – who blow it out, as if it were a single comics bubble. That bubble functions as both the visualization of the materiality of a continuing dialogue, and the effusion of biological substances from the depths of a shared familial birthing body. Thus, the work is in full agreement with its name – both the genesis of the world, and that world itself. I suspect that Cardelus’s creative world formed together with this very work. It came about as its quintessence, as the singularity of a so-called “big bang,” from which а whole universe was set forth. All its further evolution is shown to us in the artist’s later works.

The material from which this universe is made is the family photo archive. The primary form that it takes is the lace of cutouts. The knife of the artist, the effort of work, turns matter into movement, thereby creating space and endowing it with time. Such work is demonstrably autorized: it is performed single-handedly, without involving hired hands. That is fairly unusual for contemporary art, where the artistic object appears as if from nowhere, often being the product of non-aesthetic industrial work. Cardelus, in proclaiming the value of her work and time, returns to artisanal work its aesthetic dimension: it is the condensed energy of her world, the mover of its formation.
As already mentioned, in the primal material of the cut-outs time is connected to space. At first that space has only two dimensions. But that is not for long: the lace of the photographs overlaps one another, giving the image already a certain depth. They turn their backs to us, reflect off the walls as a colored shadow, which makes visible the air that’s woven into the pattern. They writhe in space, turning into fully three-dimensional objects. However, if this were simply paper, all of the author’s patterned constructions would have seemed to be simply interior design. Cardelus, however, works with photo-paper, and the movements of her knife are predetermined by the nature of the family photographic archive.

There is nothing more misleading that the stasis and flatness of the photographic image. It is taken in a second, but our eye knows for certain that an unquantifiable amount of time, if not eternity, is concealed inside. Real space, meanwhile, is re-coded into a flat image with the kind of ineffable preciosity that no human talent would be able to emulate. “I have allowed my pho-tographs… to draw me in so that I can draw them out of their stillness,” — says Maggie Cardelus. And so she unravels the photographic image as if it were a ball of yarn, creating a whole world from it. Sometimes this, her basic technique, leads to a literalness in the imagery. In White heavy head (2000) we are shown a ball-sphere made of photographs cut into thin strips with the image turned inward, which hangs on a “thread.” And in “Unraveling the universe” (2011) we see a woman knitting, while from her needles escapes a spiral galaxy, formed from paper “yarn,” which takes up three quarters of the image.

Sometimes, the artist takes her photographic archive and “draws them out of their stillness” in order to turn it into a photo-film, as in the videosequence Zoo, age 10 (2007), collected from 20,000 photos. In another instance, her camera circles around a vase with flowers, each time moving one degree and through this procedure pulling out of the flat image, together with time, volume and space. Finally, in the third (Looking for Time 2, 2007), she studies every fragment of an image, modeling its space, until she pulls one of the depicted images out of the video projection and into reality. Moreover, that object – a vase created from clay ropes, by its very nature (volume created by rope wound around space) mimics the procedure of the pulling of time-space out of photographic flatness and stasis that was described above. Her ontogenesis repeats the phylogenesis of all objects in the artist’s world, or more precisely, the genesis of that world.

And again: genesis. Having closed the circle, we return to L’Origine du Monde with the theme of knitting yarn made from photographic strips that is central to that work. It seems that for Cardelus, everything in her photographic images reduces in the final analysis to three basic shapes: line, circle, and sphere. A sphere for her is a sign of ultimate fullness, but it is also the original sphere, full of the impulse of life. A line is the umbilical cord between these two, its unwinding through space and tme. A circle then becomes the beginning of turning the line into a sphere, etc.

Cardelus says that “My mother/artist roles are inseparable,” specifying that the role of the artist gives her the “opportunity to be a mother differently.” That is, being a woman, and an artist (that is, an artist who is a woman), she unites in herself not only Pygmalion and Aphrodite, but also Pygmalion and Galatea. As an artist, she creates works, as a woman she gives them life, and as a loving mother she gifts them with her own role as author. Moreover, I am speaking not only of the obvious fact that family becomes the content of her work (parents, children, relatives and the entire world of interior, ancestral life), but of the more original phenomenon of shared authorship. Relatives most often figure as characters in Cardelus’s work, and she notes repeatedly that her art in general comes exactly from intensive and long-ranging dialogues with them. But more important still is that Cardelus gives her children her own role as artist; she makes them not only co-creators, but artists in their own right (for example, Zoo on Zoo, 2011). And this is not simply a conceptualist gesture, designed to support the role of female artist, but a natural development of the imagery intrinsic to her art.

I would not have fully addressed the already mentioned theme of the ball-sphere of knitting yarn if I were to miss one other very important transformation of that basic form – the image of the belly, of the life-giving womb. It appears in a series of photographs of the aforementioend body part of the pregnant artist, or in the photograph of a piece of bread through which shines a cluster of stars (Slice of Space, 2011), or in ceramic sculptures-vases, filled with fruits (Umbilicus, 2011) or in objects that directly allude to the process of childbirth (Placenta, 2011; Inscape, 2011). However, in its most non-banal incarnation, the theme of the womb appears in several of Cardelus’s works that are dedicated to her daughter. In Laura’s Inheritance (2003), we meet with a very strange and very large (400х500 cm) image of a small girl whose tummy looks, literally, like a package for an enormous bouquet of flowers. And in Laura’s Belly: Blue pearl (2003) and Laura’s Belly: Black Pearl (2006) the ball of a child’s tummy, enclosed in a funereal wreath, is given as a sign of the unending circle of life. It is at once, in the past, the fruit, and, in the future, the fruit-bearing womb — just as Cardelus’s biological/artistic creativity, which spreads from the past toward the present, is at once (by spreading from the present to the future) the artistry of her descendants.
The order of these relations is eloquently reproduced in the work “Descendents” (2003), which Cardelus calls the attempt to “make photographs show the future, and make portraits of my descendents (…) of my grand-daughter, great grand-daughter, great great grand-daughter, and great great great grand-daughter.” The piece consists of four similar forms. The first is cut by the artist from a photograph of her daughter; the second – from the photograph of the remains of the first cut-out, and so on. Each of them resembles a Mobius strip that becomes each time more and more transparent, while all of them together become a visual reverberation of a circular structure that is closed in on itself. Their succession becomes the very essence of the perspective of time that gets lost in the future, but each form separatedly functions as an autonomous world, a closed space.

In general, the closing off of space in order to lenthen time is a device that is very important to Cardelus. She uses it in Zoo, Age 10, where the half-hour photo sequeces that have recorded ten years of the life of her son are repeated again and again, the changing order of the sequences creating yet another new ten years. Or she uses it again, but in a new way, in Mervyn, an expanding portrait, where the final element of the work, the photograph of her son, should, at long last, finish her in her last day of life as an artist. And, therefore, the life of the child – in the reality created by this work – exactly coincides with the life of his mother, and then they will mirror each other, close each other off, in order to repeat endlessly. In one way or another, Cardelus constructs a double (spatial and temporal) sphere of eternity, whose halves are mounted on each other as a line would be in a circle or sphere. They thus become multiplied, through their dialogue, as equally beautiful, parallel worlds.