Please Mind Your Head | text by Michele Robecchi, 2013
‘Please Mind Your Head’ could be the friendliest of the reminders – an invitation to look where you normally wouldn’t and take care of one of the most treasured part of your body while walking across whatever stands in front of you. But, in a linguistic flick of the switch, it could also be a hefty warning about your mental condition, an imploration to carefully evaluate what your brain might suggest, as the millions of thoughts running through your head have the potential ramification of empowering perception as well as clouding judgement. If viewed in a self-referential mode, the ‘Please Mind Your Head’ sign challenges the very same danger it is detecting. What is originally introduced as an external threat turns to be an internal one. The centre of attention is moved from the object to the subject, implicating issues of far greater complexity that cannot simply be ducked behind.
‘Please Mind Your Head’ is also the title of a sculpture Sofia Goscinski installed on the occasion of her solo exhibition at Ve.sch in Vienna in 2010, and one that exemplifies her concerns about the pros and cons of a hard-working human brain, and pinning down the duality that regulates her work at the same time. The wooden bar hanging from the ceiling resembled a classic road signal and acted as an introduction to the rest of the exhibition. Tellingly titled ‘Rejection’ – another indication of displacement – the show’s centrepiece consisted of a small environment where the entire walls were covered with nails that the artist subsequently painted in black. Once faced with the intimacy of the room, the visitor was put in a condition of feeling like an intruder, with the spikes conveying a note of rebuttal while triggering a strange psychological effect of simultaneous fear and attraction. It’s a fascination for the hazardous that brings up a subconscious and disturbing wish to put a practice like self-inflicted pain to trial. Characterized by a claustrophobic and vaguely scientific flavour, ‘Rejection’ looks like a screwed-up version of a padded cell or an insulated room – an apparently protective space that requests contemplation only to alienate its occupier.
The concept of testing the limits of her viewer’s awareness as well as her own and of the art she makes is a common thread in Goscinski’s oeuvre. Her work, which embraces and frequently overlaps a wide range of media including sculpture, photography, performance, video and readymade, questions basic values that form the cornerstones of modern society like happiness, freedom and sanity, and presents them in a way that throws them into the fray with their evil counterpart (sadness, captivity, madness), moving along the fine line that demarcates them. The video projection ‘I Love You’ (2012), for instance, is made of three screens where the artist separately spells one of the words that compose the sentence. Shot in a rigorous, old-fashioned black and white, ‘I Love You’ creates a slightly sinister choreographed sound, a vocal symphony where the overall message is deconstructed in a way that perfectly illustrates the ambivalence that often defines the sentiment. The first screen on the left hand side in particular, with the word ‘I, I, I, I’ chanted in repetition, hints at the looping structure of the work of musicians like Steve Reich, and manifests an initial intention that can only be completed with the aid of the other two. An increasing sense of desperation grows while experiencing the video. All the three characters give the impression of being similarly frustrated by their inhibition, but the beauty of ‘I Love You’ resides precisely in its fragmented nature, which offers a touching reflection on how love can fundamentally exist only through a correspondence between two different subjects.
With such premises, it would be legit to think that Goscinski’s existential investigation unequivocally verges on the dark side. Not so. Admittedly gloomy at times, her work is nevertheless capable of sudden twists of irony – an ingredient that seems to work at best when she leans towards models that establish a dialogue with aspects commonly associated with the mundane and the ordinary. This is the case of ‘The Liberty Pill’ (2006), a gold engraved panacea tablet (or perhaps a recreational drug?) that put the goals of freedom, peace of mind, material security and physical health on the same level, regardless if they are something that can be accomplished as a permanent fixture or a temporary escape. Or ‘Play Human Needs’ (2008), a public art piece originally installed under a bridge in Bahnohfstrasse in Zurich, a district notorious for banking and deluxe shopping, where the cursors of fictional fruit machines, completed with corny digital sounds and flashy colours, are video projected on flat screens, each spinning three reels featuring words like ‘Sexuality’, ‘Beauty’, ‘Safety’ and ‘Identity’ randomly combining them together with no clear winning formula (and no reward). Although the arrangement of the words might appear to be casual, their choice is not – they come from an official list of basic human needs, and reunite the outcasts sheltered under the bridge and the wealthy people living and working above in a common pursuit of happiness tainted with such arbitrariness and unpredictability to eventually assume the dynamics of a gambling process. Similarly, ‘Insane Busy’ (2007) splits the title to articulate the dilemma between keeping your own mind busy or being certifiable with the words ‘Insane’ and ‘Busy’ moulded in brass and adopted as weights of a two-pan scale.
If these works are based on the artificial or fortuitous maintenance of the promise of a better future, others, like ‘Siegespodest’ (2006), are founded on its total betrayal. The three steps of the black podium of ‘Siegespodest’ are in fact water-filled tanks designed to bolt the athletes, somehow democratically resetting their standing. Another pedestal, ‘Golia or the pedestal which grew so high that it’s useless now’ (2012), is a single white column bending over right before reaching the ceiling, wittingly highlighting the limits of even the biggest power. More abstract but equally poignant is the photographic series ‘Rainbow Country’, a group of eighteen pictures representing the colours of the rainbow where the artist carved a single letter on each of them to formulate the anti-climatic phrase ‘Major Depression’.
When it comes to the installation of her work in a solo exhibition setting, Goscinki is attentive to how her three-dimensional and bi-dimensional pieces resonates with each other and with the space they are called to inhabit. This is particularly evident in ‘Spielecke’ (2006), another spray-painted wooden panel who made the best of the existing structure by signalling the presence of an improbable and cramped play area underneath an industrial stairway, or ‘XXX’ (2011), a mosaic of 375 mirror weaves that has the consequence of breaking up the surrounding architecture and the viewer standing in front of it while delivering a compendium of suggestive words like ‘lust’, ‘perversion’ and ‘desire’. When it was exhibited at the Kunstraum Bernsteiner in Vienna in 2011, the mirrors of ‘XXX’ captured and partially dismantled another remarkable piece in the show, ‘Head in the Closet’ (2011), a set of two toilet bowls vertically mounted on the wall facing each other. By openly referring to Marcel Duchamp’s seminal ‘Fountain’ (1917), and to a certain extent to Giulio Paolini’s ‘Dimostrazione’ (1975), ‘Head in the Closet’ plays with the significance of the definition ‘Being in the closet’, the gay community jargon for those still in denial or reluctant to publicly declare themselves for who they are. The symmetrical display of the two objects is an analogy for identical DNA but different status, with one in its normally accepted position, and the other reversed as a menacing helmet, emphasising again questions of social difference and isolation.
Language plays a pivotal role for Goscinski. Either in the shape of words spoken during video projections or performances, or in written form in installations and photographs, one-liners are recurrent, and integrate the hermetic quality of her work. Although the majority of these are penned by the artist, they sometime get located and extrapolated from other contexts, mostly at street level, a factor that guarantees their success due to their proven communal function. This is the process that informs the aforementioned ‘Please Mind Your Head’, or ‘Free Dirt’ (2009), a banner found in Los Angeles during a three-month residency at the Mountain School of Arts founded in 2005 by Piero Golia and Eric Wesley.
Goscinski’s tendency to experiment to the full with the objects she creates or finds generates, by her own admission, mixed results. Sometimes their multi-faceted presentation produces a contingent body of work that, at second inspection, might not see the light, not because there are doubts on its intrinsic merits, but because it doesn’t add the necessary push over the cliff to the original. Other times it can transcends the intended meaning to spawn unexpected variations or even instigate collaborative projects, like when the psychedelic rock band Skull Thong and the Magnolian Shine asked her to use ‘Rejection’ as set for their music video ‘Dis-Tanz’ (2010). Finally, it can contribute to expand its perspective and cast new lights on the master intentions. Bruce Nauman paved the way to this methodology in the early 1970s when he made ‘Green-Light Corridor’ (1970-71), a restricted space between two walls with a bright green illumination in it. Installed in the proximity of a monitor showing the artist cussing his way through it, the piece could be experienced on three different levels – 1) as a video, where Nauman could be seen staging his performance; 2) as a sculpture, and 3) as a vehicle for the spectator to re-enact the artist’s performance, giving the work a circular narrative.
‘Rejection’, in its different forms of total installation, scenery, photography and performance prop, is certainly a fitting example, but the most effective scenario is possibly provided by ‘Headbox’, the black wooden box Goscinski exhibited at the Zimmermann Kratochwill Gallery in Graz in 2012. The piece could be perceived mainly as a sculpture – a coffin-like box with sliding doors on top and a loophole in the middle to accommodate the head of the user. Goscinski used it to perform herself, burying her own head and reciting a rather agitated mantra where every opprobrium, accident and restriction one can meet in life is declared avoidable if approached ‘without head’.
The correlated eight black and white photographs of ‘Headbox Series’ (2012) are largely inspired to Goscinski’s performance, and features a man reprising some of her poses and gestures; last but not least, ‘Headbox’ makes a cameo appearance in ‘Untitled Mirror’ (2012), a circle mirror modified by the artist where the eight pictures are visible from a determinate angle. The size of the box, which is significantly larger than the one of a human skull, is a powerful allegory for how Goscinski sees the brain – an entity that transcends the physical space it occupies and whose capacity requires a much larger container. Here is where emerges one of the most interesting contradictions. The brain is regarded as a burden, a negative force to rail against, an obstacle towards the achievement of a sense of inner peace. Yet, it is precisely its power that springs the negative considerations that build the foundation for a critical discourse. Goscinski’s work is a constant aide-mémoire of the benefits and disadvantages of a lively, intelligent mind. Course of blessing, it hardly matters as there is no trace of judgement in what she does, just a philosophical response coupled with a half-resigned, half-enraged discernment of the fact that a mind can control but cannot be controlled. A piquant situation. And although there is no solution in sight, the conclusion is plainly stated – please mind your head.