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Sculpture, November, 1996
By Anne Wilson Lloyd
Denise Marika's poetic video installations attempt to bring the whole soul into activity, to paraphrase Coleridge. Her camera focuses on repetitive, mundane physical motions that mark the bodyd's passage through ordinary life experiences: bathing, rocking, pacing; or physical exertions like endless pull-ups that become metaphors for human perseverance. These images are projected onto minimalist, architectural surfaces or confining sculptural constructions. Though thoroughly contemporary in manifestation, both the video images and the three-dimensional elements evoke memories of collective human experience and art history. A subtle implication of her work is that every human life contains vestigial aspects of the classical, mythological, and heroic spirit. A further inference is that what through the ages has been called heroic human spirit may have much to do with encoded biological urges, like survival instincts, or with society's restrictive forces of acculturation.
More Weight, her installation this fall at the Museum of Modern Art, features a life size projection of two nude figures, male and female. The woman, who has a slender frame, slowly paces to and fro, struggling to carry the stocky man in her arms. She staggers slightly under his dead weight -- his limp body drapes in a classic pieta pose -- but she manages a precarious control. The figures are projected upon pink felt that is folded accordion-style, top to bottom, held in place by an 11.5-foot-high, industrial-looking aluminum framework. The figures are also projected, reversed, and synchronized on the back side of the felt-and-metal structure. The pink felt imparts a lush color to the bodies, while its folds distort them into undulating, linear slices (a recurring tactic in Marika's imagery). The felt also absorbs the projected light, giving the image a slightly increased depth and a wave-like modeling. Emanating from the piece is the sound of labored breathing, fading slightly as the woman turns away from the viewer, increasing as she faces us.
For all of Marika's contemporary imagery, technology, industrial materials, and minimalist handling, the classical notations seep through -- the nudity, the ambiguous but heroic poses, the reference to drapery in the folded felt. Other material metaphors also creep in. Felt is an archaic fabric made tough by intense pressure. The cold metal framework is both arbitrary and restrictive, like a cage. Whenever the projected figures touch the metal's edges, the image disappears as if the figures are restrained behind them. The rigid frame can be understood to refer to society's arbitrary framework of imposed expectations or to Minimalism's restrictive art-historical legacy. In any case, its monumental scale and hard-edged presence serves as a foil for the soft, flesh-like folds of felt as well as for the flesh in the projected image. Marika's best works are marked by the restrained use of evocative materials pitted against the bare skin of her video subjects, triggering contradictory haptic/intellectual sensations in the viewer.
Bathing, a piece from 1984, features three video monitors set on the floor. Segments of a body are shown on each of them, languidly floating and shifting in pale blue water. The slightly convex video screens act like lenses, sealing in and preserving the action that seems to be occurring below the glass surface. Again, though it is thoroughly contemporary, the piece triggers a kind of claustrophobic empathy. There are archaeological associations of submerged Roman baths, of marble sarcophagi, of a preserved, entrapped specimen after some natural Pompeii-like disaster. The work's lush color and internal lighting allows the viewer glimpses of a mysterious inhabitant immersed in another world -- very private, luxuriant, sealed-off, entombed. After, a 1994 work shown at Harvard University's Fogg Art Museum has a similar specimen-like, post trauma feel. A photo transparency of two life-size, prone female nudes -- an adult and a child, either sleeping or dead -- is suspended in a long, antique museum vitrine. Overhead lights create a duplicate image below the film on the white deck of the case.
In her 1994 installation at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Marika appropriated objects in the museum's re-installed collection of classical architectural artifacts. In Nameless (1994), two startling life-size stills of prone female nudes were projected against the ground level supports of cold, dark marble benches overlooking a lush garden courtyard. Animal (1994) a slit like moving image of a crouched and agitated human, seemed to piece the surface of an ancient column, allowing glimpses of a furtive creature trapped inside. Hug (1994), in the temporary gallery, presented the segmented, moving image of two pairs of arms and shoulders, the arms of one tightly encircling the other from behind. Vainly, the encircled shoulders tried to wriggle out of a grasp that seemed paradoxically affectionate and sinister. This image was projected on a massive metal I-beam that spanned the gallery walls and seemed to penetrate them. It was a sculptural construct as macho and utilitarian as the Gardner Museum is fussy and theatrical.
Marika's sculptural sensibility is often marked by a subtle tension between image and material, projection and site. She not only blows up the usually diminished video figure to a size that imparts a real sculptural presence, but her projection surfaces and body-scaled material constructs are essential sensory and spatial ingredients -- they trap her mute, classical figures inside an I-beam, a glass cylinder, a plywood box, or a museum vitrine.
Marika's bodies and body fragments, and their sculptural confinements, their positions, and their gestures, are often echoes from collective images and experiences. These familiar glimpses of human activities and conditions are personal and universal, historical and contemporary. In preparation for More Weight, Marika searched for both art historical and current depictions of women carrying men. She found virtually none: only a news photo of a grieving Bosnian woman burdened with a male war casualty. Perhaps it is this lack of familiarity that gives this piece its dramatic edge. Marika has moved away from images grounded in collective experience toward an action whose truth is metaphorical. Throughout her work, Marika's arcanely caged, naked subjects expose fundamental mysteries within the human soul.