Pierre Vermuelen

Of itself

27.10.18 – 24.11.18

JOHANNESBURG

Pierre Vermeulen’s latest body of work, entitled Of itself, sees his continued exploration around the nature of presence, cyclicism and the prospects for humankind in an automated future. Created for his second solo exhibition at SMAC Gallery, Vermeulen introduces a new series of oxidised impressions on gold leaf imitate, paintings on raw linen and hemp, and a large-scale work spanning six aluminium panels. Unequivocally nonrepresentational, Vermeulen’s compositions make use of abstraction in observing the human condition – questioning certain proclivities, such as the increasing occupancy of technology, within our current social structures.   

The work finds its strength in harnessing the philosophy of Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, becoming a deeply serious, richly textured, enigmatic and meditative spectacle. Like Kubrick’s masterpiece, Of itself is an uncanny arrangement of speculative fiction, where Vermeulen’s signature use of imitation gold leaf speaks of a certain vision – a dimensionless source of light, a sun rising over the horizon of a future planet, an opening into new territory.

Employing a combination of unorthodox and traditional processes to create his experimental works, Vermeulen takes direction from the materiality and performative quality of these chosen mediums, using his own body, sweat and hair as a vehicle for expression. Post-humanist in its execution – both in theory and artistic practice – Of itself considers notions of consciousness, the ‘self’, becoming, and the dissolution of boundaries – attempting to detach itself from a restrictively human perspective, and pose the question: ‘where are we going?’

Vermeulen’s unique method involves manipulating the oxidation process of the imitation gold leaf imitate, creating impressions of his perspiring figure by carefully controlling the delicate surface from corroding, until the exact moment of impression. A premeditated composition is often altered by an unexpected hand or thigh – a form of improvisation within limits. In preparation for the creation of his work, Vermeulen enters a sauna and consciously places the body in an extreme environment of high temperature – where the body regulates temperature independently, and produces sweat – a chemical composition of water and trace minerals – as a result.

Vermeulen is interested in how this process relates to an understanding of consciousness – the internal/external world is observed by means of the sauna’s location within the building, the body’s location in the sauna, the sweat located inside the body, the sweat located outside the body. The self-regulating body thus allows the artist an alternative understanding of consciousness. Through this process of filtering the ‘self’ – of discarding and imprinting, and also preserving the ‘self’ – Vermeulen has transcended the boundaries of the body and emphasised the ideological and aesthetic fragmentation of his practice, bringing a physical, ‘human’ element to a portrayal of life in the future.

Vermeulen’s use of gold speaks of a constructed utopian world – a bizarre cosmological phenomena and strange landscape of unusual colours – where the human element of sweat and hair perhaps threaten to destroy this civilization. Here, Vermeulen has placed his work in a specific time, reflective of a specific time – and asked about the role of humanity in the fast-approaching future.

Vermeulen has also incorporated colour, meticulously crafted ‘hair orchids’ and dried orchids embalmed in shellac into this body of work – combining floral, geometric and biomorphic forms to create a vocabulary of complex and coded meanings. For Vermeulen, these cast-off objects included in his processes become what he considers a proto-thought – a primitive extension of the ‘self’, a “discarded part of yourself transferred into an artwork”.

In choosing to work with materials cast-off from the human body and dried orchids – once living, organic cells now existing within the mineral world of dead material objects – Vermeulen has presented a space where boundaries begin to breakdown, where we are confronted with a world both before and after the subsistence of linguistic binaries – ‘self’/other and subject/object. This world, in Vermeulen’s vision, echoes and emulates, flashes and conceals, promises to reveal great secrets of the universe before reneging once more.

The work can also be understood as an exploration of the non-hierarchical existence between object and subject. Perhaps best articulated by Julia Kristeva, the ‘abject’ refers to the human reaction to a threatened breakdown in meaning caused by the loss of distinction between subject and object, or between the ‘self’ and the other. Of itself is concerned, at its core, with the “thingness of things” – the idea that one doesn’t need to become something, one is something, just as an object is simply of itself. Vermeulen’s choice in materials is a gentle nudge towards this abject and the spontaneity of things. Not overtly defilement, the sweat prints disturb our understanding of subject, object, abject – dissolving boundaries, locating identity within a space of impermanence, and clearing the ground to see certain absurdities simply as they appear.

Situated on this fragile border between dimensions, Of itself invites us to meditate in the space – at once presenting a considered acceptance of the ever-changing nature of life, engaging with the impermanence of the present ‘self’, and questioning human elements in a technology-based future. Yet, Vermeulen’s large-scale gold leaf imitate canvasses – both in how they become a source of light and how the concentrated minerals eat away at the gold, revealing a rich verdigris – are not representations of something, they are something. Existing, and growing, and pulsing, and dying – flashing light from its surfaces, and leaping again from world to world.

A seriousness and transcendence to the work, like ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, Of itself comes as an optimistic statement about a humanity which is seen to be born and reborn, yet is darkly apocalyptic in its foreboding of the approach of a technology that lies far beyond our horizon – a technology of paraphysical forces, deeming humanity inept. It is a body of work that seeks to understand the next great evolutionary step of humankind, from birth to metamorphosis – perhaps the last choice between life and death.