The Mill on the Fleet

Involutus Memet : Denise Zygadlo

Photocopies of the artist’s body variously wrapped in cloth then transfer-printed onto chiffon, canvas and calico make up series of works: hangings, wall pieces, and a ‘book of folds’. These were on show during September 2012 at The Mill on the Fleet, Gatehouse of Fleet, Galloway.

The title of the exhibition, ‘Involutus Memet’ (wrapped up in myself), gives the spectator a clue to the meaning of these works. They are personal and intensely felt, their presence is powerful. At the same time many of these works are delicate, subtle and have an ephemeral aspect. They repay the time you spend with them, they haunt the imagination.

A source of affirmation for Denise Zygadlo was the work of the conceptual artist Helen Chadwick, 1953-1996, a friend of the artist. Helen Chadwick’s work explores the relationship between the body and our sense of self, the body and memory. On completing the work for ‘Involutus Memet’ Denise recognised that although her work was conceived without conscious reference to other works, was original in its inspiration and a record of a personal and particular journey (a form of autobiography if you will) there was a kind of kinship, affinity with the work of a valued friend and companion. Two works of Chadwick’s that came to mind in this respect were ‘Ego Geometria Sum’ 1983 and ‘Of Mutability’ 1994.

‘Involutus Memet’ begins with the artist’s own body, which is then represented in different works in different ways. All the images in the exhibition start their life by the artist laying her head, hand, arm, elbow, shoulder, back, legs, feet, etc., onto the glass bed of a photocopier. We are reminded here that we are physical beings subject to physical laws by the evidence in the prints of weight pressing onto a hard surface and the effect of that pressing on soft tissue. In the resulting images you also feel the weight of the skeleton – bones are surprisingly heavy, you can see the pressure of the bones beneath the skin. Sometimes it seems to age the body where the skin has been pressed into lines and wrinkles. You would normally associate these signs with the elderly. The artist is not elderly. A kind of metamorphosis is at work here too then. In contrast to this weight, in some of the pieces the figure has become weightless (a very different metamorphosis); this is particularly apparent in the four large hangings.

These works on chiffon hung from ceiling beams are approximately 9’ x 5’. In the Mill they were at right angles to each other but with space to walk around and between them. With a breeze coming in through open windows or simply by walking closely past them, the chiffon ripples, waves and sways.
The images on the hangings are different views of the whole figure. They were produced by taking a photograph of collaged photocopies laid out on a large sheet of paper. The resulting photograph was then the source for the finalised digital prints on the chiffon, the dark tones of which are a deep sepia in colour.

A linking motif running through all the works in the exhibition is the relationship of the body to cloth. Whether it is in the detail of a hand or elbow in the smaller wall-works or the whole figure in the hangings: muslin, wool, tulle, these fabrics cover, wrap, lie beside hand, arm, neck, back, etc. The figure is bound and unbound.

The human forms on these tall works are life-size. In some respects, at first glance, they suggest a cubist visual language, or possibly the grammar of photomontage works. The flat, overlapping pages of the original photocopies trigger such ideas. However, these works have a language of their own. Moving, rippling in space as they do, they are not exclusively pictorial. They are kinetic sculptures as well as representational images. In addition to this duality we are reminded by the figures’ almost ghost-like appearance that though we exist as solid objects in the world we also have another kind of presence: as immaterial selves existing in the minds of others and in our own minds.

As mentioned the four hangings are four different views of the figure. The hanging of the front view of the artist has a clear symmetry, arms held out to the sides, feet together and head thrown back – of the head all you can clearly see is the under-lit neck and jaw. The head is thrown back into darkness. The feeling, with bands of muslin wrapping arms, hands and a leg, is of a figure floating. The transparency of chiffon emphasises this feeling. You can choose to look straight through this body to the room and surroundings beyond.

The clothed body, the wrapped body, all carry associations, moods and cultural messages with them. There is the aesthetic dimension to clothes as well – the movement of cloth, the sway of materials and their changing patterns of folds have an energy and life of their own. At the same time they are expressive of the energy and life of the body beneath.

In the hanging of the back view of the figure a veil is lifted and extends into space beyond the head, as though caught by the wind. A kind of visual pun that is apparent in all the hangings. They are pictorial illusions, representations of cloth and the clothed figure but at the same time they also actually all exist as real cloth, as things in themselves, and move in the same time frame and space as we do. Also in this work a child’s woollen christening shawl has been wrapped around the back of the figure. Lace evening gloves are worn. These clothes carry stories. How evocative they are when we catch sight of such garments, the triggering of trains of thought, of family relationships, of memories and associations. The rites of passage we all witness and participate in, the christenings, marriages, anniversaries and funerals of our society. While looking at this work and works like it we experience a form of time travel, an escape from the body in the present. We leave it behind and float off into other realms as these chiffon figures appear to. Free to drift in our recollections and memories of particular events, to revisit the past and to understand and see that past in new and different ways.

The two remaining hangings, a side view of the body and a front view of the artist in a stepping pose are more directly expressive. The human body is capable of almost endless configurations. Formalised movement: ritual, performance, dance is, I think, another reference in these works. At the opening of the exhibition the artist and a collaborator gave a performance accompanied by music composed for the occasion. The hanging which represents a side view of the figure could be interpreted as having the aspect of a still from a dance video. The artist’s right arm is stretched at full length above the head, the hand, with fingers splayed out, pointing straight upwards. One leg is bent as though in a dance step. There are dramatic jumps between the dark space surrounding the figure and the light of the figure itself and the light tones of the bands of muslin. This is typical of the striking contrasts in all the chiffon works between the clothed body and the darkness of the surrounding space. This effect of dark space, emptiness, was arrived at by draping black cloth over the arm, foot, hand, etc., that was being photocopied. As the light washed under the glass it faithfully and paradoxically reproduced the inky nothingness of the cloth, achieving the resulting powerful presence of nothing. Is there an intention here to direct our imagination to the notion that we are essentially, within the measurable, finite limits of our physical selves, insubstantial and insignificant almost to the point of invisibility against the dark?

In the final hanging the figure is expressive of strong emotion. The head is held in both hands seemingly in some tension or anguish. The figure’s right leg is bent up into the body, the left leg stretches down into waves of cloth. Here it is as though we are looking at a foot through water. There are passages in these works that are simply extremely beautiful. The photocopier capturing the airy lightness of forms and the fine geometry of folded waves of the lightest cloth imaginable.

In contrast to the tall chiffon ‘mobiles’ inhabiting the centre of the gallery the ‘Veil Works’ and the ‘Canvas Works’ are more discreet. They are relatively still, quiet, anchored to the gallery wall.

The ‘veil’ works are a series of small wall pieces, mostly no more than 12 inches in any one dimension. Layers of fabric are sewn and buttoned. You look through fabric to transfer-printed images of a heel or arm, or elbow say, alongside or wrapped in cloth – the play of looking through real cloth to an image of cloth. These veil works and four box-framed works where images have been transfer-printed onto old primed canvases that have been removed from their stretchers, are different in mood from the hangings. They are fixed and in the case of the framed images (the canvas works) are conventionally, as a consequence of the framing, at a slight remove, distance from us. As images they remain on one plane. They are, being of cloth and canvas, tactile but you can’t walk round them, they don’t share our space as is the case with the hangings. At the same time we know these arms, feet, hands, elbows, heels, are the artist’s. They aren’t anonymous. We respond to this: the lines, scars, wrinkles, pores, creases that leave their traces on the human body belong to an individual. The various histories of the human body are here in detail, in close-up. These images too are monochrome, though with one or two exceptions with less contrast than the hangings. This also gives them a quieter feel.

The making of these canvas works was labour intensive. The photocopy was transferred to the canvas using a Dylon solution. Once dry the paper was peeled and rubbed away by hand leaving the image fixed to the canvas. This process occasionally leaves its marks where the ink is worn thin, edges become frayed. This process, it seems to me, echoes the elements endlessly brushing past us throughout our lives. Streams of air, light, water and dust. Rubbing, soothing, scratching, wearing away, comforting. Warm, cold, rough and smooth. Everything leaves its mark on us. Our bodies are surfaces the world around us writes on. There are no shawls, veils or gloves here to remind us of the theatre our clothed bodies are involved in, more the mood is one of the passing of time. An elegy.

The most intimate work in the exhibition is the ‘Book of Folds’, a book of calico pages with images measuring mere inches in the centre of the pages. You look into these small pictures of folded cloth. It is only after a while that you realise that in two images, hidden amongst the cloth, are glimpses of the sole of a foot in one and the back of a leg in the other. In this sense they continue the theme apparent in the canvas pieces.

In conversation the artist said something extraordinary about the making of the work in the exhibition. It triggered a memory of an experience soon after the birth of her first child. Looking at the baby’s arm as she held her she couldn’t distinguish it from her own arm. She had a similar feeling while making the works shown in ‘Involutus Memet’. That when making the work and looking at it, it was as though she was somehow outside herself looking back at herself. It is a very strange and privileged experience to be momentarily elsewhere, to be a spectator to your own body. Looking at her baby the emotion was one of wonder, of complete identification with another. As though there was nothing to distinguish between herself and the object of her attention. Photocopying your own human frame you can’t control or predict with any exactitude what the image will look like. There is no viewfinder or screen to check the composition before the button is pressed. This must enhance the surprise you feel as the machine rolls out its copy and you see it for the first time: a foot – how indescribably strange. A back, mine but now detached from me but it is more me than me as in fact I can’t actually see my own back. Inspired by these works we can imaginatively make this journey ourselves. What is it like to see oneself as others see us? Would it be with some tenderness, compassion, awe? This fragile, ephemeral being that feels things so strongly.

Included in the exhibition were four haikus written by the artist. One line of each haiku came to the artist in a dream. This ‘given’ line was then added to in order to make up a completed haiku. It is a game for the visitor to the exhibition to guess which line was the dream line.

‘she lay unlinen like a dog
No comfort just the dust
Worn threadbare’

All the haikus relate to the visual work in their imagery. This combining of words from a dream and of being added to when awake echoes the physical work. We are awake, we clearly see the world around us but at the same time we dream on and this dreaming affects the way we see the world and the way we make art.

This is a remarkable body of work, pun intended. By using her own body, her self, to make art the artist has given us the opportunity to reconsider who we are and what we are. We emerge from the stream of life, have a life, develop an identity, a self, a history. Then we disappear. Occasionally a footprint in the mud is fossilised or a body is preserved in a peat bog – these are prints of a kind. ‘Involutus Memet’ is just such a print.