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Reading Rämistrasse #126: Valerie Chartrain on Sarah Ancelle Schönfeld at je vous propose - Akademie - Kunsthalle Zürich

Reading Rämistrasse #126: Valerie Chartrain on Sarah Ancelle Schönfeld at je vous propose

Looking into the exhibition space through the window, one can see three forms appearing almost like drawings sketched in the air, with the void serving as their canvas. These suspended anthropomorphic bodies are made from bluish metal, with two bronze gongs that seem to represent the chest. Upon entering the venue, we fill the space with our bodies; in turn, the three metal bodies mark ours with their contours. The artist explained to me that the idea of using bronze as a material emerged during the recent pandemic, a time when touch became taboo. Using bronze, an antiviral material, meant the sculptures could be touched, played with and manipulated, altering their appearance through oxidation with each touch.

These sculptures are not impulsive creations but the result of meticulous research. The artist has delved into gongs, sound, frequencies and vibrations through materials and bodies. Some of this research also resulted in the paintings located in the back room of the exhibition space; they were produced while being drummed upon until the paint dried. I am aware that these works are the result of the artist’s intensive research, and that the sculptures are just the tip of the iceberg. Yet this visible part of the iceberg captivates me, taking me in an unforeseen direction.

For about ten years, I co-edited a magazine called Petunia with Dorothée Dupuis and Lili Reynaud Dewar. The idea behind Petunia was to explore diverse themes and artists through the lens of race, class and gender. Our aim was to speak from the margins, carving out new spaces of freedom. For several years, we mainly invited contributors who identified as women or non-binary. We engaged, among other themes, with the concept of the body, particularly women’s bodies, and with issues such as not being reduced to one’s gender, articulating a universal experience distinct from the imposed perspective that constantly emphasised our differences, and never feeling truly aligned with the predefined universality. There is no universal yet.

Sarah Ancelle Schönfeld, installation view Tout Doux: Gong Bath, curated by Elise Lammer, jevouspropose, Zurich, 2023

Courtesy of the artist, image: Studio Seghrouchni

Sarah Ancelle Schönfeld’s work pushes me in a direction that transcends the creations themselves and the underlying research (detailed in other articles*) and fosters profound introspection and contemplation. How should we interpret an ostensibly female body? What are my thoughts on a body that can be accessed and manipulated? Why does it make me feel uncomfortable? How do I reconcile these feelings with my own life path, where the political situation of women both infuriates me and drives me towards activism, alongside my theoretical reflections that encourage the de-essentialisation of women? Do I need to analyse this so extensively?

When I first encountered Sarah Ancelle Schönfeld’s sculptures exhibited at jevouspropose, they brought to mind prehistoric ‘Venus’ figurines – carved or engraved representations of women dating primarily from the Upper Palaeolithic era, around 40,000 to 10,000 years ago. They share their name with the Roman goddess Venus, associated with beauty and femininity. These stone-age relics have been discovered at archaeological sites around the world, found in present-day Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas. Typically small in size, they were crafted from materials such as ivory, bone, clay or stone. Notably, they feature curvaceous body forms and exaggerated sexual characteristics, including breasts, stomach, hips and genitals.

These figurines, predating the concept of Venus as a deity, are nevertheless called ‘Venus’. This nomenclature raises questions about projection and appropriation. Some researchers see them as symbols of fertility and reproduction, suggesting that their amplified physical attributes highlight the importance of reproduction within prehistoric societies. Others propose that prehistoric Venuses played roles in religious or mystical rituals related to fertility, protection or the veneration of a mother goddess. Some figurines may have been symbols of social status or conveyed prestige, associated with specific classes or groups within the community.

In truth, much remains unknown.

Interpretations of Venus-type figurines remain the subject of scholarly debate, varying according to researchers and cultural contexts. Nevertheless, their existence continues to provoke inquiry, much like Sarah Ancelle Schönfeld’s suspended bodies – enigmatic, unexplained musical instruments. And all the more so because of the lightness and joy they exude. These bodies oscillate between figuration and abstraction. They are obvious, ironic, almost obscene yet ethereal. You can project yourself onto them, interpret them, or not. Ultimately, an air of liberation blows through this exhibition, as if these bodies have finally claimed the space they deserve.

And that feels good.

Freedom. Women. In public spaces.

* These articles (Elise Lammer's exhibition text and Samantha Grob's review) merit reading, as they illuminate the histories of women shamans and scholars who were often mislabeled as witches. We also learn about the vast array of gongs and their meanings, the power of sound and frequencies, and the Portuguese Adufe frame drums played solely by women for centuries. Sarah Ancelle Schönfeld weaves together these threads and influences, intuitions and encounters to create her light, blue sculptures and other works.

With thanks to Alisa Kotmair

Sarah Ancelle Schönfeld: Tout Doux: Gong Bath, jevouspropose, Molkenstrasse 21, 8004 Zürich, 2 June-16 July 2023, (extended until 27 August)

Reading Rämistrasse

If art criticism is losing ground, we must act. That’s why we created space for criticism – Reading Rämistrasse – on the Kunsthalle Zürich website and publish reviews of current exhibitions in Zürich. What is published here does not represent the opinion of the Kunsthalle Zürich. Because criticism has to be independent.

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