‘Le Pays où tout est permis’ (The Country Where Everything Is Permitted) is the first exhibition of work by the Belgian artist and poet Sophie Podolski, who died in 1974 aged 21. Produced between 1968 and that final year, mainly in black ink on paper but also, strikingly, in coloured pencil and felt-tip pen, this is just a selection from her prodigious output. Also on view are etchings, ceramics, collages and pages from the handwritten, illustrated manuscript of the book for which Podolski is best known: Le Pays où tout est permis (1972). In the background, a film plays: Dans la maison (du Montfaucon Research Center) (In the House of Montfaucon Research Center, 2017), by Joëlle de La Casinière, a close friend of Podolski’s who cared for her work after her death. The film documents the former artists’ community in Brussels where Podolski made her work and found her people.
Podolski, born stateless, only became Belgian aged 20. If one has no country, it is necessary to invent it, and, in Podolski’s, everything is indeed permitted. In her bizarre, precisely rendered comic strips, her exuberant drawings in candy-coloured pencil and acid-tinged felt-tip, Podolski’s visual vocabulary is informed by the countercultural moment of the late 1960s and early ’70s and her own limitless thinking. Throughout her work, images recur of genital transgression, gender interrogation, sexual experimentation, the monstrous consumption of chemicals illicit, prescribed or medically enforced, and the machines of bodies and state. The detail is so dizzying, the hand so skilled, that all elements claim attention: to look at a work by Podolski is to notice at once everything you see.
How to present this work – and in such a space? WIELS’s modernist industrial architecture feels wrong for an artist who rejected and feared institutions (kicked out of school at 12; repeatedly hospitalized after a diagnosis of schizophrenia). Instead, a suite of three small galleries has been created for the show: rooms within rooms (suitably psychedelic) mimicking a typical Brussels apartment. Podolski’s soft, sing-song voice is heard throughout: recordings she made of herself intoning, riffing, bringing to mind the dislocated soundtrack of Saute ma ville (Blow Up My Town, 1968), by fellow bruxelloise prodigy Chantal Akerman.
At times, her art is as poetic as her writing. In vitrines displaying pages from a sketchbook – pieces focused on process – a heart-stopping calligraphic series (‘Untitled’, c.1971–73) renders visible the struggle of coming into being/focus: a state of blur, then the moment something is willed, or wills itself, into existence. While much of Podolski’s work contains words, this doesn’t. And yet it feels strangely linguistic; textual.
Elsewhere, language obstructs. In Une Femme noire (A Black Woman, 1974), red and black words seem to drip, a disturbing tension evident between the lexical chaos and the extreme care taken in the painting of the words themselves, as if the artist had struggled to focus. The ‘f’ in the ‘femme’ of the title phrase is highly stylized, suggesting petals, a clitoris. What ‘noire’ meant to Podolski, in Brussels, given Belgium’s colonial history – and in 1974, the last year of her life – is not clear. Nor is the piece’s connection to the rest of her work, which is peopled with many women, many black and of colour, as well as white, and often naked and eroticized.
It’s in her writing that Podolski’s political focus becomes crystalline – if not in terms of clarity, then at least structurally, with its kaleidoscopic refractions of her passions: the politics of mental illness, of prohibition, of social control and systems, the depredations of power and of capital – themes in both her art and the manuscript on show. Podolski wrote right to the edges of the pages, finishing her book in just two months. This is writing as performance: a committed act of individual resistance and – while in the process of writing itself – endurance.
Main image: Sophie Podolski, Untitled, ca. 1968-69, (detail), print on paper, 38 x 54 cm. Courtesy: Catherine Podolski
'Sophie Podolski: Le pays où tout est permis' runs at WIELS, Brussels, until 1 April.