In 1652, when Gian Lorenzo Bernini completed his sculpture Ecstasy of Saint Teresa for the Cornaro Chapel in Rome, the public response ranged from admiration to rejection. For many, his portrayal of the saint in rapture was too sexy, too ambiguous. But Bernini was merely highlighting an ambiguity that was already present in the sensuous spirituality of Teresa of Ávila’s own written account of a vision in which a seraph drove a spear through her heart: ‘The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it.’
Elaine Cameron-Weir’s show at Dortmunder Kunstverein, ‘Exhibit from a Dripping Personal Collection’, is so inundated with folds and markers of sexual ecstasy that it is almost impossible not to think of Bernini’s euphoric Teresa. The Canadian artist’s exhibition comprises a group of eight works (all Untitled, 2018), which are variations on two wall-mounted pieces included in her 2017 solo show at Los Angeles’s Hannah Hoffman Gallery: Aftermath, When the Restraints Bound Them to Their Will and Saint Concretion in the Aftermath, When the Restraints (both 2017). But while, in this earlier exhibition, the refinement of these pieces’ composition was upstaged by more attention-grabbing works, in Dortmund they are allowed to stand for themselves, developing a subtle grandeur.
Each work consists of a structural grid in cool steel that resembles a framed cross on account of missing sections of bars. Behind each grid is a piece of stretched black leather, with finger-like fringes gripping the frames’ edges. Pressed between the leather and the grids are large pieces of aged silk, the folds of which creep out between the bars. In formal terms, it is the luxuriance of these tucks, folds and frills that points to Bernini, who carved Teresa’s marble habit with such exuberance. But there exists another link to the saint’s experience of transcendence in pleasurable pain, with the silks taking the shape of constricting Victorian undergarments, their seams suggesting the silhouette of a female body. The steel structures press on the material, while the cold leather both tenderly hugs and firmly binds it in place. This is not to say that the pieces are anthropomorphic. The scenario of pleasurable agony, with its coded references to bondage, results wholly from the artist’s eloquent use of materials. This is especially true of three works that are suspended from the ceiling by steel cables and counterweighted with sandbags, recalling techniques of suspension bondage. It is in this suspended state that we find Bernini once more, whose mystic Teresa floats on a cloud, somewhere between body and soul, life and death, heaven and earth.
It would be unfair to interpret ‘Exhibit from a Dripping Personal Collection’ as ‘art about art’ alone. While it widens the range of interpretation, the show does not necessarily need the explicit reference to Bernini – its interplay of materials is too finely calibrated for that. A strong, sexual rapture can be felt amidst the lashings of stretched fabrics, while the floating motif is introduced by the silk: cream-coloured and scattered with printed lettering that discloses its former use in military surplus parachutes. These printed characters include serial numbers, which in turn nod to the serial nature of the works themselves. The reasoning behind Cameron-Weir’s dedication to producing variations on a single theme is not fully evident. Perhaps she has opted for seriality because, like Bernini’s Teresa, each of these individual works achieves a similar synthesis, able to fully inhabiting a diffuse zone in which pleasure and anguish, repression and submission, floating and falling, momentarily appear inseparably fused.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell
Elaine Cameron-Weir: Exhibit from a Dripping Personal Collection runs at Dortmunder Kunstverein until 22 July.
Main image: Elaine Cameron-Weir, 'Exhibit From A Dripping Personal Collection', 2018, installation view, Dortmunder Kunstverein. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Simon Vogel
First published in Issue 197