When you first walk into ‘To Exalt the Ephemeral: Alina Szapocznikow, 1962–1972’, you see the artist’s leg in a vitrine. Cast in plaster, Noga (Leg, 1962) lies there as if resting, cool and heavy. It is fitting that you begin this way, pulled apart. Szapocznikow’s biography, that lucent spectre that haunts any art object, is so harrowing that it splinters and cracks the usual perfunctory blurbs. She was born a Jewish girl in Poland, 1926. When she was 13, her family was moved to the ghettoes, where she worked as a nurse alongside her mother, who was a doctor. She survived Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and Theresienstadt. Afterwards, she moved to Prague, then Paris in her early 20s, where she became an artist. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1969 and died, at 46, four years later.
Szapocznikow’s most famous works are a series of surreal, sardonic household items that dominate the first floor: plastic lamps in the shape of pink mouths glowing on wiry stalks, like chatty tulips (‘Lampe-bouche’, Illuminated Lips, 1966); a woman’s jaw as an ashtray, butts collecting where teeth should be (Cendrier de Célibataire I, The Bachelor’s Ashtray I, 1972). She imagined these pieces mass-produced for home use, not as rarefied art objects. Prescient feminist works, beautiful and scathing in equal parts, they occupy the lighter side of Szapocznikow’s oeuvre.
Ascending each floor of the gallery takes us closer to the artist’s death. This is loosely chronological, but mostly atmospheric, since – as someone who not only survived the Holocaust but also had a terminal illness that prematurely cut short her career – Szapocznikow’s dying was not a fixed event but a situation in which she lived and worked. In Pamiątka I (Souvenir I, 1971), photographs are held in thick gooey layers of resin and fiberglass: Szapocznikow, as a young child smiling at the beach, floats above an image of the corpse of a concentration-camp victim. The slab seems perpetually unearthed, mossy and damp. A bulge of plastic emerges from the little girl’s abdomen, as if the sculpture has been fossilized in the middle of growing its own double: a rotting fertility. Memory and spectacle are caught in a flattened, fungal substrate. I feel I am looking at the only representation of the unconscious that comes close to getting it right.
Further upstairs, works from Szapocznikow’s ‘Tumeur’ series (‘Tumour’, 1969–70) are scattered like little crumpled parcels or washed-up stones, in the same yellowed resin. Tucked inside each, you can see gentle imprints of their maker – pursed lips, hair, a nipple. There’s something almost companionable about the little morbid bundles. A photograph shows Szapocznikow in her back garden surrounded by piles of her tumours: she throws them in the air, lies across them like cushions, holds them up in cheery display. Suddenly, all the disembodied breasts, cast tummies and mammalian sacks of memory seem to be getting a jump on the illness that was literally disembodying her at the time. This is a personal factory of prosthetics, or perhaps, a dress rehearsal for her funeral, a peek into the open casket. Art historians have often tried to reclaim Szapocznikow from her own trauma, lodging her firmly in issues of form and representation. They care about the index of the woman’s body, how that relates to plasticity and ease of production, but I care about what it feels like to see your own body on the floor, in pieces. How that might be the only way to survive having survived. The show expands and grows from the root of her wry irreverence. Here, catharsis is not a wail, or a bellow, but the soft, infinite thud of many small weights meeting each other as they fall.
‘To Exalt the Ephemeral: Alina Szapocznikow, 1962–1972’ continues at Hauser & Wirth’s 69th St location, New York, USA, through 21 December 2020.
Main image: ‘To Exalt the Ephemeral: Alina Szapocznikow, 1962 – 1972’, 2019, installation view. © Alina Szapocznikow. Courtesy: the artist and Hauser & Wirth; photograph: Genevieve Hanson