Art Brussel | 2023
To The Brink
Text by Alexandra Dodd
On the airbrushed surface of things, everything seems like mad fun – all-inclusive, adults-only, ultra-luxpleasure. The good-time-girls in polka-dot bathing suits play Twister, the pool loungers are eternally vacant and there is no limit to the naked fun that can be had here. But something is amiss with the visitors. Fractured identities and strangely awkward bodies mingle in fleshy proximity at the poolside. Dissociated and numb, theyhover on the solid edges, hungry for a diagnosis, or lose themselves in total liquid submission.
Shot through with doubles, twins, pairs and replicas, this unsettling new body of paintings by Kate Gottgen stakes her signature cocktail of playful, macabre and erotic undertones into woozy and dystopian new territory.The clone-like figures are inspired by the doomsday song ‘Slippery People’ from the 1983 album Speaking in Tongues by Talking Heads, a band whose blend of Afro-beat and post-punk psychedelia is a counterpoint to pervasive themes of alienation and dread. When David Byrne manically yelps ‘What’s the matter with him? I don’t see his face’, he could be responding to some of the perplexing figures in these paintings, whose faces are a mere blur of pigment. Physiognomy has gone awry. Where there should be a hand and fingers, there is sometimes a strange, amorphous prong. Back in 1983, artificial intelligence was still a futuristic fiction. Now, AI is amongst us. It’s not just the proximity of naked bodies we experience in these paintings, but the otherworldly proximity between human and not-so human beings in an increasingly post-humanist world. ‘These slippery people, help us understand.’
Despite the directness of their gaze, the two girls in The Shining Day seem unable to hide their disquieting imperfections beneath their canary-yellow bikinis. A sleek shoulder blade collapses into a dark and mountainous landscape. The neck is a tautology, a rhetorical repetition, oddly adjacent to the life-giving centrality of the spine. The title of this painting is a reference to Stanley Kubrick’s psychological horror film The Shining (1980), for which he drew on his memory of the Diane Arbus photograph Identical Twins, Roselle, N.J, 1996 in casting the terrifying Grady sisters. In Stephen King’s book on which the film was based, the sisters are not twins. By recasting them as twins, Kubrick introduced the notion of the doppelganger, a theme that also runs throughout this series of paintings in which distortion and doubling abound.
Another entry point is Hans Holbein’s Renaissance masterpiece The Ambassadors (1533). In this double portrait two grand and powerful Frenchmen stand beside a table covered in richly symbolic objects, alluding to colonisation, globalised trade and European imperial ambitions. Between them looms a large anamorphic skull. When seen head on, it appears as a surreal fragment of amorphous bone – little more than a grey smear. But when seen from a certain point, the skull leaps into focus, hovering in ghostly glory at the feet of the two swankily attired gents, undercutting their worldly pomp and delivering a blunt visual memo of inevitable nothingness. The link between these paintings and Holbein’s Ambassadors might not be immediately apparent. Material wealth and power look starkly different in 2023 to what they looked like in 1533. But beneath the perky, affluent, suburban psyche, the old anxiety endures.
Strikingly uncoupled is the lone, etiolated polar bear – a haunting presence that, like the memento mori, has made its way into previous bodies of work by Gottgens, bespeaking the absurdity of these staged settings amidst red-hot anxieties around the impending doom of global warming and environmental ruin. In a world on the eve of destruction, human survival is not guaranteed. A far cry from the dripping, green lushness of some of Gottgens’s earlier paintings, there is an uneasy absence of foliage here. Green is a mere backdrop for psychic and sexual frolics. There is no ice either – only the chilling architecture and the displaced bear. The time has come, it seems, for everyone to cross the threshold and face their demons.