Tate Modern

Discovering a new artist whose work is exciting for all sorts of reasons is one of the best things that happens at a survey show. When fellow artist and friend Joanna Jones said she had seen the Mira Schendel exhibition at TATE Modern and had regretted going to see the Paul Klee afterwards, I didn’t think that much of it as I hadn’t heard of Mira Schendel before. However I remembered this after seeing the work myself and made a point then of not following it up with Klee!

What stood out for me were the works using rice paper and acrylics: fabulous transparent drawings in black oil paint with scratched marks, viewable from both sides sandwiched between sheets of Perspex. I couldn’t help looking at how the frames were put together and and hung and wondered whether I could steal a trick or two from the presentation. I also liked the twisted sheets of rice paper all knotted together: funnily enough, only yesterday I was reading Tim Ingold again where he says that “the thing has the character not of an externally bounded entity, set over and against the world, but of a knot whose constituent threads, far from being contained within it, trail beyond, only to become caught with other threads in other knots. Or in aword, things leak, forever discharging through the surfaces that form temporarily around them.” (…)

An article by Holly Williams in The Independent (…) goes into some detail about her life, which I think is important and relevant. It isn’t that the work gets reduced to biography, rather that knowing about her enriches one’s understanding of the work, expands rather than reduces, and enables a point of connection. As well as the sense of a distilled philosophical approach to her work, there is an intense emotionality. Williams attributes this to a feeling of “emotional dislocation” and “outsider status”, the fact that she was a “misplaced person” who “used different languages for different parts of her life”. There is something about the inability of a single language to adequately say what one wants to say that I can relate to: sometimes I feel that I lost my mother’s tongue, Chinese, when my family left Malaysia. Despite learning Chinese later at university and understanding some asides from my mother that she doesn’t want my father to hear, I still don’t really speak it.

The use of transparent materials seems to me to be not just about Schendel’s interest in the Eastern philosophy of nothingness which all the blurb flags up, but about the difficulty or impossibility inherent in finding a language to talk about traumatic and painful experience.