The entrance to ‘Son of a Witch’, Raphaela Vogel’s first institutional solo show in Berlin, resembles a Chinese Moon Gate, albeit one constructed from a melted material that seems to be mid-drip. Set within are a group of Buddha-hand chairs, the open palms supporting a vast, metal pentagonal frame, which sits inside a second, half-cylindrical structure. The setting is one of religious kitsch: a temple constructed from mixed-and-matched parts, its industrial architectural skeleton obscuring the white gallery walls.
Once inside, viewers encounter Sequence (2017), a video that opens on the artist, swathed in covers, as she reclines on a circular bed that might be an inflatable paddling pool or a trampoline. With the assistance of a selfie stick, she spins the camera directly overhead, at which point the video shifts shortly to footage of a roundabout shot by a drone. Sequence flicks through a series of circles and holes: from bed to roundabout and from roundabout to cave, where Vogel stands in flowing, blue robes like a witch-practitioner. From here, we move to a round derriere slapped in front of a webcam; to the now-empty cave, the mouth of which is laced with disembodied, floating hair; and back to Vogel, in a new bed, thrashing under her covers while holding a toy swan. The sequence ends on an X: the shadow of a drone that Vogel attempts to align with her body underneath. In this shot, the drone ceases to be just a filming tool and becomes a character. Vogel plays with the machine but remains at odds with it: she stretches and contorts her body in an attempt to mimic its shadow, a knowingly impossible task, her body too corporeal to recreate the angular skeleton of the drone.
At the head of the gallery-cum-industrial-temple, the video takes the place of an altar: a point from which the ceremony leader surveys the congregation and the watchful eye of the abstract deity reminds its disciples that they are seen. Reclining in bed, Vogel is both watcher, gazing from above, and watched, the focus of both the camera’s mechanical lens and the viewers’ fibrous eyes. She is mistress of her domain, her recumbent pose exuding the same calm confidence as the figure of Christ. But when we find her in bed at the film’s close, this ease has vanished. Vogel thrashes with the toy bird, a tussle evocative of the myth of Leda and the Swan, and she no longer wields her selfie stick, so what (or who) is controlling the camera above?
Vogel, whose work often explores the male gaze of technology, seems to find her body at odds with the drone in a way that she does not with the iPhone or the webcam. Is this due to the gendered coding of such devices? The drone: a tool of war and a recurring inclusion on ‘25 Toys Your Guy Will Love’ listicles; the phone camera: a technology that, thanks to c. 2014 (white) selfie-feminism, remains imbued with a so-said ‘empowering’ sexualization. While Vogel watches herself in her phone, thus retaining a degree of agency over the device, the drone looks down on her from a remove, its literal shadow cast across her body. It is a spirit of a new age, observing silently from the skies. Sequence ends where it begins: in Vogel’s circular bed, with the camera spinning faster than before on its selfie stick. If Vogel feels a sense of security here, then it is a false one, the result of a flawed dichotomy.
Raphaela Vogel, 'Son of a Witch' was on view at Berlinische Galerie from 30 November 2018 until 11 March 2019.
Main image: Raphaela Vogel, 'Son of a Witch', 2018, exhibition view. Courtesy: the artist and Berlinische Galerie; photograph: Max Sprott