Between the Sky and the Water
14 December - 2 May 2021
Between the Sky and the Water is a mid-career retrospective of Janaina Tschäpe (b. Munich, Germany 1973). Tschäpe’s wide-ranging oeuvre is visually connected by a lexicon of forms that array across a variety of media—painting, drawing, installation, sculpture, photography, video, and performance. These varied articulations of her core concepts comprise a holistic cosmology, a gesamtkunstwerk (a total work of art), a grand evolutionary opera where each piece plays a supporting role, subsumed by the totality of the body. Recurring themes persist—Kafkaesque metamorphosis and transformation, a feminist resistance to the perpetual policing of the female body, a collapsing of scale undifferentiating the grand cosmos from the infinitesimal cellular, an excavation of the nature of landscape—but always, most importantly, is an exploration of painting as a way of understanding the world.
Paul Klee said, “Drawing is a line taken for a walk.” We invite you to wander and let your eye take you for a walk through the ethereal, existential landscapes of Janaina Tschäpe’s world.
Janaina Tschäpe was born in 1973 in Munich, Germany and was raised in Saõ Paulo, Brazil. She received her Bachelor of Fine Arts from the Hochschule für Bilende Künste, Hamburg and her Masters in Fine Arts from the School of Visual Arts, New York. Tschäpe’s work has been shown in numerous exhibitions throughout the world, including New York, Tokyo, Saõ Paulo, London, Madrid, Switzerland, Berlin, and most recently at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris.
Tschäpe lives and works in New York and Brazil.
Blood, Sea (2004)
four-channel video installation, color, sound, 13:46 min.
Courtesy of the artist, commissioned by Graphicstudio, University of South Florida.
The universe created by artist Janaina Tschäpe beckons one into a parallel world of ambiguous scale—indeterminate in both time and space. Reminiscent of Voltaire’s Micromegas, the fantastical scenes she conjures collapse boundaries and fluidly mingle in a continuum of evolution and transformation. Recurring gestures become characters in a grand opera that touches on evolution, gender, and the construction of myth and history. In the end, Tschäpe’s work begs the big picture questions that tease us all. As Gauguin put it, Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?
The spring-fed grotto at the South Florida theme park provides the scenographic impetus for this grand production, but is in no way the origin of game. The sea maiden mythologies that inform Blood, Sea link endless stories from across time and space. Millennia of previously unknown deep-sea creatures caught in fishermen’s nets spawned the mythic narratives that gave rise to these goddess/creature tales. From the Mami Wata cults of West Africa (which, ironically, anthropologist Henry Drewal suggests can be traced to a late 19th century German chromolithograph of a female Indian snake-charmer) to the water sprites of Irish lore, the trope of the sea maiden is overdetermined, to say the least. Tschäpe’s primary connection is, of course, to her namesake, the Orixa Iemanja of Candomble, the Brazilian version of the many syncretic articulations born of the Yoruban diaspora. But Iemanja is merely one character in the global pantheon of the water goddess.
This intrinsic cultural paradox allows Tschäpe to fluidly operate as both subject and object, both voyeur and agent, and to embody the participant-observer position of the ethnographic model. This is evidenced clearly in Blood, Sea, where the point of view witnessed in the photographs and the video perpetually shifts—at times the viewer is on board the ship, cast in the role of scientist discovering a previously unknown life form. At other times, we are privileged to swirl amidst the creatures, as one of them.
But I’ll leave that to someone else.
Though the work may have narrative origins in these mythical tales, it transcends the trope of the sea maiden and enters the cosmic and microcosmic realm of a far grander story—evolution. The Eames’ The Power of 10, Smithson’s spiral, Vonnegut’s Galapagos, Voltaire’s Micromegas, and Tschäpe’s experiments in alternate evolutionary paths and the imagined worlds they might produce all share a line of inquiry. Each of these gestures seeks to locate the big in the small, the infinite in the infinitesimal. Tschäpe’s choice of Italo Calvino’s passage from t zero confirms that there is more at play in her work than simply sirens and fish tales/tails. In the realm of evolution—change over time—elemental issues of art meld with elemental issues of evolutionary biology—namely, form and scale. Blood, Sea, and Tschäpe’s drawings, articulate a magnificent and fantastical taxonomy of creatures and environments that toy with scale—one never knows if the imagined scene is interstitial or interstellar.
Artists like Tschäpe —the big picture artists—are attuned to the echo, somewhere between the occurrence and the appearance. Ears to the tracks, or perhaps, fingertips on the superstrings sensing the pulses, giving them form and translating the signals for the rest of us. This is, of course, what all artists do—construct fantastical parallel worlds, and then seek the lessons and the logic that dictates the shape and actions of that world. Tschäpe’s mutations hint at another universe, speculating an alternate path or branch on the phylogenetic tree. She visually articulates our collective quest to understand. By excavating our vestigial qualities and desires, she implies both past and future—our collective biological urge to carry on and our collective cultural urge to connect to the past. When asked to share thoughts about Calvino’s Blood, Sea passage, an evolutionary biologist responded simply “things change.” Cetaceans left the sea and roamed the earth. And then they went back.
Anne-Marie Russell, 2006
- Paul Gauguin, Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? 1897 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
- Drewal, Henry John. 1988. Mermaids, Mirrors and Snake Charmers: Igbo Mami Wata Shrines. African Arts 21 (2):38-45, 96.
- Many thanks to Dr. Annatina Meischer for images and thoughts about art in the towns of Sent and Ftan.
- Kafka, Franz, The Metamorphosis (Schocken Books: New York, 1983) p.92-95.
- Kubler, George, The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things (Yale University Press: New Haven and London, 1962), p. 19.
- Drs. Derek Wildman and Monica Uddin, collaborating with Dr. Morris Goodman have recently found more evidence to support Goodman’s 1962 assertions regarding our relations to other primates. The authors state: “The most parsimonious phylogenetic tree that can be constructed from our results demonstrates that humans and chimpanzees are closest relatives, not chimpanzees and gorillas. Also, simply in terms of degree of divergence, there are fewer character-state differences between humans and chimpanzees than between chimpanzees and gorillas.” March 2 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (vool. 101, no. 9)
- Calvino toys with these ideas throughout his hilarious and poignant Cosmicomics essays, in particular his Aquatic Uncle, in which our poor narrator finds his fish uncle seducing his fiancé into giving up terrestrial life and joining him in the ocean. (Harcourt, Brace & Co.: San Diego, New York, London,1968)