There is more wisdom in your body than in your deepest philosophy. – Friedrich Nietzsche
Nietzsche’s notion that wisdom resides in the body is augmented in Louise Bourgeois’ statement “I am not what I am, I am what I do with my hands…” Her deceptively simple proposition suggests that identity, perhaps even soul, may in fact be located within range of the fingertips. The dualistic separation between mind and body, between conception and touch is a flawed notion that leaves no room for the multiple leaps of faith vital to a life of making.
Film footage of Louise Bourgeois in her studio reveals her touching materials, both unfinished and completed works, measuring them with her hands, knowing them with her touch. Such sensate engagement with material doesn’t come at the expense of conception, rather it informs and guides it. Without materialisation it remains largely inconsequential.
Being with Sofie Muller in her Ghent studio offers a profoundly similar experience. Part laboratory, part curiosity cabinet, Muller’s habitat folds a long regime of making with a life-long dedication to collecting an idiosyncratic range of museological objects.
Muller’s sculptures of hands feel emblematic – foundational. When we claim to know something intimately, we often say we know it like the back of our hand. The terrain formed by veins and knuckles, by skin and nails is unquestionably the part of the body that we sight most often. It may be that we recognize this topography more than we do our own faces, whose coordinates after all, can only be found reversed in a mirror. Hands are laden with symbolism and responsibility. From depictions of stigmata to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel’s ‘hand of god’, art history is loaded with images of hands – in prayer, at work, cradling, directing, striking, placating, beseeching, nailed to a cross. Thomas, overcome with doubt reaches out his hand to touch Christ’s wound and as Dave Hickey pointed out so potently in his The Invisible Dragon, Mapplethorpe’s infamous fisting image is as much about the disappearance of the hand as it is its new location. The sheer horror of the idea that under some religious regimes, hands may be cut off for theft, demonstrates the most repellent punishment of not merely body but of soul.
Sofie Muller’s hands then illicit the most visceral awareness in us. No part of the body so completely informs our understanding of touch, of feel – expresses the utter necessity of contact.
The manner in which Muller’s forms remain partially imprisoned by the alabaster reminds one of Medardo Rosso whose heads are forever captive of the larger mass of material. This communion between the form and its original material DNA seems to suggest that our mineral life is always at hand. We may escape it – but only for a time. If animation is only temporary then we need to find a way to wrestle less with its inevitability, be somehow accepting of this fugitive state and deal more with the quality of our existence.
Collectively the heads in this exhibition manage to entwine multiple threads of Art History. The alabaster Muller selects, with its alluring translucency was used in ancient Egyptian, Greek and Cycladic sculpture and centuries later in the lowlands of the Netherlands and Belgium. But as much as these finely sculpted forms and their kindred materiality draw connections to those more distant histories, her sculptures are invested with a quiet, yet forceful contemporaneity.
If the sculptures have a dignity and gravity, not least because of their material density, then it is Muller’s drawings where we witness a more fragile description of the trials and tribulations of human condition. Rendered with smoke and blood, these drawings present the figure with a deep sense of attachment and melancholy. Some way from the idealised notion of the human figure, Muller’s figures feel closer to Durer or Masaccio, even Bosch – artists whose figures were shaped by significant anxiety and turmoil, the kind brought on by apocalypse, expulsions and a pronounced fear of hell. Bent, grasping and incomplete Muller’s figures belong more to tragedy than to comedy and yet there is something oddly sympathetic and tender in her examination of their physical and psychological condition.
Muller’s understanding of the human condition is without question one that is rooted in the judgement and comprehension of the human form and yet these works deliver a poignancy and metaphorical weight that transcends their depiction and their material, instead offering the viewer an other-worldly experience that is rooted in the worldly. Much as hers and Jean Baptiste de Bethune’s interior sanctuary remains faithful to shared aspirations – to the spirit of invention and discovery, one can sense in all Muller’s works a fundamental acknowledgement of our flaws and our indignities and with that an acceptance of our shadow side. Jung said in 1938, “everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and dense it is.” It is from this understanding that Sofie Muller begins.
– Andrew Jensen