DEBORAH KRIEGER, NOV. 2016
Entering Anna Jermolaewa’s solo show Both White at Vienna’s 21er Haus is a disorienting experience for any viewer, but particularly for a non-native speaker of German like myself. The exhibition is tucked away into a small partially enclosed gallery on the top floor of the museum, marked only by the text on the wall with the artist’s name and show title. There is no helpful splatter of wall text to explain who the artist is, what her background is, and what the works, which span and include painting, drawing, sculpture, video art, and photography, might be addressing. You are left entirely on your own to make your own meaning from this somewhat disjointed show, which functions more as several discrete installations laid throughout the space.
You hear more than see your way into acclimatization in Both White—the dull roar of the ambient sounds of five televisions playing simultaneously immediately transports you into a very particular space, far away from the tranquility of the rest of the gallery space at 21erhaus. Mild static, chatter in the background—there’s an overall cloud of sound from the televisions, which show footage of people going down a public transit escalator. Watching these five screens is anything but passive, however, because the changes of light in the corner of your eye move your gaze and focus to the screen next to it, and on and on. Your eye is never still, and the people on the escalators remain blurry and indistinct, much like the buzz of sound in the background. It’s also quite informative to watch and see how the people on the escalators interact with one another, or choose not to altogether—some take the polite passive stance of remaining on the right, while others push past on the left, clearly needing to get somewhere. Some people are talking to one another, huddled in a group, while others wear headphones to isolate themselves further.
This installation of five ordinary televisions, placed on a low platform, is titled “Five Year Plan.” Part of what gives “Five Year Plan” a sense of meaning and intrigue is the simple fact that work is dated from 1996-2016, yet the people in the installation bear little to no markers of the difference in eras from when this work was begun to its current state. The term “five-year plan” refers to the window of time in the lives of young professionals during which they will do something big, something decisive, something they find intrinsically important—get that job, finish their degree, earn enough to buy their first home, et cetera. But this “five-year plan” has been elongated to twenty, and nothing much has changed from 1996 to 2016, at least as far as we can see. We will always have somewhere to be, we will always use public transit, we will isolate themselves and/or interact in this way forever. And that sense of motion and transit of life is actually something that is shown to be, in the artist’s mind, a kind of permanent fixture—a five-year plan going nowhere, repeating ad infinitum.
“Both White (after Valeria Mukhina)” is the title work of this show, and consists of a sculpture and three watercolors. The wooden sculpture is simple enough on its own: a black and a white pyramid sit side by side on a table. Behind the sculpture are the three monochromatic watercolors that, taken in conjunction with the sculpture itself, create a moment of self-reflexivity. Referencing Valeria Mukhina in the title of the work makes Jermolaewa’s motives more readily apparent. Mukhina was a psychologist in the 1980s who studied child development, and so, taking Jermolaewa’s background in the USSR as a reference point, the author cites the conditioning and tyranny of the majority present within the USSR—conditioning that can make someone doubt their own mind so much that they will give into peer pressure to believe what they know is false. And so the watercolors replicate our experience of looking at the sculpture: two drawings hung side-by-side depict a reproduction of the sculpture in a human context. The drawing on the left depicts three children and an adult, their features and forms all grey and blurry, studying the black and white triangles over a dark background. In a narrative sense, it’s easy to imagine that this watercolor captures a moment of conditioning, one of many. In contrast, the drawing on the right depicts this same sculpture, but isolated from the human figures who sit in the background, their postures hunched and features sad, with plenty of white paper distance between them and this sculpture. It’s as if the drawing on the left depicts conditioning of the children to see black and white as the same, whereas the drawing on the right suggests almost a support group—perhaps people recovering from this kind of conditioning, but if the grimness of the palette is anything to go by, it isn’t going to be easy.
On the opposite wall from “Both White” is the multimedia installation “Untitled (Hermitage Cats)” from 2013, which consists of drawings, photographs, and a video. While the writing on the drawing is not in English and there is no translation provided, in the context of the other parts of the installation it is clear that Jermolaewa aims to elevate the image of the cat—so ubiquitous in our age of Buzzfeed listicles—using the Hermitage as a reference. The visual cues in the photographs and video lend credence to this interpretation, where a photograph of the Hermitage museum in its grand, ornate glory is adjacent to the video, which consists of footage of cats moving around a steam room; the photograph and the video screen are the same size and dimensions, at least to the naked eye, so there is a comparison being made in terms of importance. Beside the video is a grid of forty portrait photos of cats in larger than life-size, which immediately serves as another reference to the Hermitage—namely, the salon-style method of hanging works close together on a wall, right on top of one another almost to the ceiling. In this way, Jermolaewa is cleverly treating these photos of cats, each with their own personality and pose, as legitimate art that she has installed in the style of the Hermitage.
Another standout in Both White is “Disney-Look,” an installation dating from 2016 consisting of a light sculpture, video with audio, and vintage flyers, all combining to challenge the idea of the “Disney Look”—that is, the changing series of grooming standards required of Disneyland employees. The video features interviews with various park staffers, some bearded, one with a drawn-on mustache, some wearing makeup—which would have been considered violations of park policy as recently as the 1970s. Off-camera, the artist asks if these employees believe in a “Disney Look,” and seems to be surprised at what she finds in terms of personal style. Placed in the context of this contemporary video, the flyers displayed as part of this installation seem antiquated and restricting in the extreme: dating from 1967, these flyers detail the extensive rules and regulations of how Disney “hosts” and “hostesses” must look, from the length of their fingernails to the width of a hair ribbon. Comparing this homogenous idealized standard with the current reality in the video is rather jarring. Is Disney perhaps shedding its tightly-controlled corporate image by allowing more unique personal style at their parks? By doing this, is Disney purposefully making a statement about what the all-American look can be, or is this seeming open-mindedness merely a side effect of a change in policy?
Ultimately, the disparate pieces in Both White never come together to really form a cohesive whole. But they provide an in-depth look into the wide-ranging interests and foci of the artist, and demonstrate her facility with a variety of media. The lack of wall text is both a blessing and a curse, because on the one hand, it allows the viewer to be creative with their interpretations, but on the other hand, having no context at all is not ideal. WM
Both White is on display until January 22, 2017
Deborah Krieger is a graduate of Swarthmore College in Art History, German, and Film and Media Studies. She has been published in the Northwestern Art Review, Hyperallergic, and other art and culture platforms both online and in print. She is a recipient of a Fulbright grant to Vienna, Austria, where she is teaching English, researching contemporary art, and studying at the University of Vienna.view all articles from this author