everything has a border doesn’t it? / the edge where the light cannot get in/ until joy knows the original wound.
which is why the earth is feminine,/ and the body, not the soul, cries out in heaven–
March Dawn, Brenda Hillman
I have only seen Lucía Pizzani’s work live on one occasion: her solo show Mariposario at Oficina #1 (2013). Since then, I am fascinated by her output and I try to stay up to date with it, so I was glad to learn she made the book The Body of Nature available for free in her website. This publication compiles images of her works, curatorial texts, and reviews of her shows from 2008 to 2015. This article proposes an approximation to Pizzani’s work based on a reading of the book, as I have not been able to see so many of her exhibitions in person.
Pizzani (Caracas, 1975) studied Mass Communications, Fine Arts, and holds a Certificate in Conservational Biology. She employs photography, performance, sculpture, installation, and video to explore issues of gender, nature, and corporality – The Body of Nature, therefore, is a perfect summary. Her work is delicate and precise, and could also be considered “feminine,” due to the association of certain practices, like ceramics (and dance, which is also present in her work), with activities developed traditionally by women. In general terms, Pizzani’s work is thematically luminous and dark, serene and turbulent; it constantly confounds and challenges the spectator to unravel what appears to be a formally “beautiful” piece and discover its intrinsic narrative.
Without much previous knowledge about her research, my first encounter with Lucía’s work stirred up profound questions related to my self-image, my image as projected onto the collective, and the image that the collective returns to me –all of this associated, of course, with my female (straight, white, Latin American) condition. It is from this perspective that I wish to delve into two notions that I felt very present during my reading of The Body of Nature: the anonymous and the animal.
First, Pizzani claims to take stories and artistic references from Europe and South America and different periods, combining aesthetic, cultural and historical figures. This leads to the creation of hybrid and anonymous figures –without specific origin, without time- that inhabit her imaginary, particularly in Las Cáscaras, a piece from of El Adorador de la Imagen. Pizzani also frequently employs her own body, but it is presented in contexts that displace or complicate its identity: in the Vessel series and her body drawings, the body is a tool to generate a trace, and El Adorador de la Imagen Pizzani’s image is displayed performing a dance choreographed by the American Loie Fuller (1862-1928).
In a review of her solo show Vessel (Galería Fernando Zubillaga, 2009) published in El Nacional, curator and art critic Lorena González argues that this body of work, developed as culmination of Pizzani’s MFA at Chelsea College of Fine Arts, is the expression of a “fragmented corporeality, torn between physical confinement and today’s illusions of escape.” This is the result of an investigation that evinces “the vicissitudes of a body ebclosed by the anguish of our contemporary world.”
Vessel (2009) (live action at Chelsea College) © Lucía Pizzani
The room is the enclosed environment that distresses the body. It is through the impression of movement on the plaster walls that the body expresses its desire to escape. Pizzani’s body can only face enclosure through fragmentation, and can only be fragmented symbolically by generating its own traces. Once the action is completed only marks and grooves remain, which have the possibility of identity but are, in themselves, anonymous.
Philosopher and professor Megan M. Burke argues that, from a phenomenological perspective, anonymity is “the place prior to which my body and self are noticeably different than that of an other,” such that ” anonymity is a pure shared existence”. In the case of Vessels, if the traces on the wall are non- preceded by the performative action, they could be said to belong to anyone: Lucía’s footprints are everyone’s.
This understanding of anonymity is problematic from a feminist perspective, because that “everyone” involves the imposition of a single universal referent (the self) denying , therefore, difference (this is the main criticism that Burke directs towards Merleau-Ponty). On the other hand, the notion of indifferentiation is closely linked to the objectification of the body for commercial or sexual purposes. By introducing undifferentiated bodies in her work, Pizzani might seek to replicate in aesthetic terms the experience of social anonymity to which female bodies are subject.
Indifferentiation is addressed more directly in The unknown of the Seine and other Ophelias, winner of the Eugenio Mendoza Prize in 2013. This work refers to the story of “The Unknown,” an anonymous young woman who drowned in the Seine River in the late 1800s (her death was pronounced a suicide, though no evidence of it existed). The coroner was so captivated by the mysterious expression of serenity on the corpse’s face that he commissioned a death mask; later, in the twentieth century, that face became an object of fascination among the Surrealists and other artists and writers.
The death mask of the Unknown at Sala Mendoza © Lucía Pizzani
Ophelia by John Everett Millais
Pizzani was inspired by the fascination caused by the mask of The Unknown and made it the leitmotif of her exhibition, also replicating it in ink drawings. Thus, she created a collection of “other Ophelias.” She also incorporated press clippings about four female suicides in rivers. The Unknown of the Seine was a dialog between fictional and real women who, in the shared space of “the Ophelias,” partook of the same identity and the same fate, their individualities dissolved in the legend of the death of Ophelia –which is not just any death, but a poetic death, practically devoid of violence, as described by queen Gertrude in the fourth act of Hamlet:
There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream.
There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crowflowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples,
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them.
There on the pendant boughs her coronet weeds
Clamb’ring to hang, an envious sliver broke,
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide
And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up;
Which time she chaunted snatches of old tunes,
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element; but long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.
Press clippings about suicides in rivers © Lucía Pizzani
The male gaze is implicit in the presence of the death mask, considering that the original mask of The Unknown was commissioned by a fascinated man. Hamlet ‘s Ophelia is also a male invention; however, within the space of Ophelias, Pizzani redefines the legend in her own terms and approaches suicide from an indifferentiation that is, nevertheless, clearly feminine: Ophelia as a place of confluence for female vulnerability and self-determination. Anonymity as the establishment of a single female body, in resistance to the anonymity that denies sexual difference and leads to oblivion.
Various reinterpretations of Millais’ Ophelia, Google Image Search
Is this a more productive vision from a feminist perspective? A complex discussion regarding the “commitment” of art might begin here, which is beyond the scope of this article. However, Pizzani proposes interesting questions: Is an anonymity framed within the female better than a male anonymity? What is the utility, ultimately , of indifferentiation? What are the dynamics that could emerge between the individualities that constitute a shared, single body? Regarding the latter point, the Belgian philosopher Luce Irigaray also asks:
Within this [anonymous] world, movement is such that it would take extraordinary luck for two seers to catch sight of each other, ﬁnd each other on the track of the same circle and cross paths, or look at each other as they walk in parallel lines. Or might it happen that they see each other’s eyes? Another possibility which is highly unlikely. For this to come about, it would have to happen that two seers assimilated the “universal Word,” its effects, the world, in exactly the same way, and that they found each other at the same point space and time. An unlikely stroke of luck or chance? Or of grace? Which makes us identical at a given moment
In 2013 , Pizzani opened a solo show at Oficina #1 titled Mariposario. That body of work marked the establishment of an intuitive link between gender issues and her training as a biologist and, at the same time, the beginning of an explicit association between woman and the animal (specifically insect) in her work. According to The Body of Nature, the mask of The Unknown of the Seine inspired English novelist Richard Le Gallienne to write The Worshipper of the Image, a story in which a man becomes obsessed with a mask strikingly similar to the face of his beloved. The story culminates tragically with the appearance of the Acherontia atropos moth, famous for the human skull-shaped mark on its body; moved by this image, it was a logical step for Pizzani to pursue the transition from butterfly to mask as part of her research.
Spanish curator Lorena Muñoz-Alonso said about Mariposario: “[The butterfly] is particularly meaningful at a symbolic level, due to the fact that in its short life cycle –sometimes of only one day of duration– it goes from caterpillar to chrysalis, and then into butterfly state; and once its reproductive function is achieved, the insect dies. The shocking metamorphosis process from slimy caterpillar to one of the most beautiful and flashy species in the natural world, illustrates to perfection the concept of “becoming”, a key notion in Deleuze’s thinking which defines the idea of movement in its purest form.”
Ceramic chrysalis in Mariposario © Lucía Pizzani
Pizzani’s ceramic pupae are paralysed in a “state of becoming,” a tension that echoes the mask of The Unknown and its exhausted possibility of life in motion. On the other hand, the Lepidópteros series of ink and water drawings refers to Pizzani’s body drawings and Vessels: they are an “inventory of traces and footprints,” like stains generated when butterflies take flight. Muñoz-Alonso argues that these impressions serve as a sort of Rorschach tests, inviting the viewers to project their own figures.
Lepidópteros, ink and water drawing © Lucía Pizzani
The butterflies of Mariposario, like the woman of the Seine, are presented in states other than their maximum “splendor,” either as pupae that have not yet transformed or as the ink traces of a past flight (perhaps after reproducing; a last takeoff before their death). Pizzani continues to explore personal fragility and the search for self-determination in a restrictive world, this time represented by the cycle of an animal life.
The notions of “shared” body and the female transmuted into animal are more openly unified in the exhibition El Adorador de la Imagen (The Worshipper of the Image) (Sala Mendoza, 2014). Pizzani presented a large body of work inspired by Le Gallienne’s novel, as well as the iconography she developed for The Unknown of the Seine. She employed the butterfly again to represent the feminine condition, and used video, photography, and installation to address death, transformation and fragility.
I am especially interested in the series Annie, Paola, Julia, Patricia and Katherine (2013): Victorian-like photo portraits of a group of women wearing chrysalis costumes made with African fabrics (the costumes, in turn, made up the installation Textiles at the entrance of the exhibition). The reaffirmation of the given names of the women is significant, as their faces are indistinguishable in the images: they become hybrid characters of indefinite origin, whose morphology is halfway between human and animal.
Annie, Paola, Julia, Patricia y Katherine and Textiles in Sala Mendoza © Lucía Pizzani
In Las Cáscaras, a video piece, the same faceless women are shown as part of a collective in which they do not acknowledge or interact with each other, but vibrate together. On the banks of a river, confined within their chrysalises, they begin to tremble and twitch, attempting to break free from the paralysis of their state-prior-to-movement. This also alludes to their state prior to differentiation: their anonymity, the place where their bodies are hidden and undifferentiated. Occasionally they look out from inside their suits, questioning us: Do we (observers) also participate in their shared, homogeneous existence? As Irigaray say, that look is only possible if we have assimilated the world in the same way. Pizzani puts us, chrysalises and spectators, in the context of the “universal Word”; she shows us that being part of a “single body” is a restrictive, lonely state that calls for painful, desired and necessary process of release.
Still from Las Cáscaras © Lucía Pizzani
Mutation is key in the life cycle of a butterfly as much as it is in a woman’s: puberty, in some cases pregnancy, menopause, menstruation cycles are processes that involve physical and psychic changes. In my opinion, other works in El Adorador … like Cuencos and Hamaca-capullo allude more specifically to such biological transformations. However, my perspective on differentiation in Las Cáscaras locates the notion of transformation that Pizzani refers to in the field of society and culture: the women’s tremors represent the passing from anonymity to the claiming of individual identity. Meanwhile, the curator Lorena Muñoz-Alonso refers to a link between El Adorador… and the European women’s liberation movement, and locates Pizzani’s historical and literary references within a period (1880-1910) of great activism for women’s rights. Pizzani’s human and animal figures are caught in transitional states, in movements that tend to change but have not been finalized –as Muñoz-Alonso says of Victorian women, they are negotiating the transition between submission and self-determination.
The relationship between Mariposario and La Desconocida del Sena y otras Ofelias reached, for me, its highest expression in The Silent Woman (2013), a video in which a black butterfly emerges from the lips of the mask of The Unknown. This powerful image seems to be the culmination of Pizzani’s discourse about the social construction of femininity as emerging from an anonymity defined by non-difference. The black butterfly opens up, in turn, another interpretation, that refers to the pain, death, and transformation involved in the process of differentiation.
Still from The Silent Woman © Lucía Pizzani
The butterfly in The Silent Woman is not, however, really a butterfly: it is the silhouette of the American pioneer of theatrical lighting, choreographer, and dancer Loie Fuller, primarily remembered for her serpentine dance: a routine in which the dancer wears a pair of enormous silk wings and moves them in spiral motion.
Pizzani refers to Fuller in two additional works. First, Nocturna I (2013), a photograph in which the artist is standing with a somber expression while wearing a long, black silk dress, similar to the attire of the Serpentine Dance. Then, in the video Nocturna II (2013), Pizzani uses her black “wings” as a projection screen for a fragment of Création de la Serpentine, a film starring Fuller. In the images, Fuller dances and multiplies in eight copies of herself, incessantly waving their white dresses, until they disappear in flames.
Dance scene from Création de la Serpentine (1908) by Segundo de Chomón, starring Loie Fuller
Similar to Las Cáscaras, La Création de la Serpentine presents a group of women, this time so homogeneous that they even share facial features (they are the same, over and over again). Like the chrysalises, they vibrate in unison, but are led to obliteration instead of liberation. They are consumed by something demonic, as if their movements were intolerable or inherently evil (like the mask in Le Gallienne’s novel). In Nocturna II, Pizzani herself witnesses how the “shared body” is unable to finish its transformation into diverse individuals; she might wish to reference the possibility of a tragic fate: differentiation interrupted by asphyxiating symbolic impositions.
Lucía Pizzani’s work does not address its topics from a unique angle of research or practice, and does not take an “easy” stance on gender issues. Her work provokes questions about the contemporary status of women and the place of their fragility in the struggle for social vindications, the power to appropriate and redefine stereotypes, and the conflict between collective identity (defined from the masculine and from the feminine) and individual identity. Within Pizzani’s body of work, the anonymous and the animal are strategies to reframe very personal problems in universal terms. Her metaphors are realized in the pain of surviving in societies that are still (so far from the Victorian era) hostile towards the feminine. Pizzani acknowledges the strengths and weaknesses, lights and shadows that arise from this constant negotiation.
Note: All images were obtained from http://www.luciapizzani.com/ and their copyright belongs to the artist. The book The Body of Nature contains texts by Pizzani, Lorena González, Kiki Mazzucchelli, María Claudia García, Lorena Muñoz-Alonso, Gabriela Salgado and Cecilia Brunson, and can be downloaded for free here.
Arveláez, Giselle. “La mirada transgresora y feminista de Lucía Pizzani.” El Nacional (Caracas, Venezuela), 5 May, 2013.
Burke, Megan M. “Anonymous Temporality and Gender: Rereading Merleau-Ponty.” philoSOPHIA Vol. 3, No. 2 (SUNY Press, 2013): 138-157.
González, Lorena. “Los portales y el eco.” El Nacional (Caracas, Venezuela), 22 Dec., 2009.
Irigaray, Luce. Two Be Two. Trans. by Monique Rhodes and Marco F. Cocito-Monoc. New York: Routledge, 2001.
Márquez, José G. “Lucía Pizzani pone a volar su Mariposario.” El Nacional (Caracas, Venezuela), 7 Dec., 2013.
Martínez Santiso, Andreína. “Las mariposas de Pizzani resurgen en la Sala Mendoza.” El Nacional (Caracas, Venezuela), 23 Jan., 2014.