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We live in the age of plastic, or rather, of plastic bodies. Julia Frank takes on plastics as the first pollutant of the human body, our sacred temple, plasticity being the property of the material domain explored in her exhibition The body is our general medium for having a world. It was originally conceived in 2015 for her Master’s degree show at London’s Royal College of Art. The works are made of different plastic resins and have a strong resonance with purchasable commodities (food, toys, beauty and cleaning products) that have proven to be environmentally polluting. Among them is a vacuum-formed medieval plate armor and a yellow horse shaffron sized to a child’s face whose studs recall the renowned LEGO blocks powerful body armors. Though appearing to shield us from imaginable harm or to play tongue-in-cheek with the medieval military architecture tradition of the South-Tyrolean town of Silandro/Schlanders where the artist was born, all works manifest a preponderance of evidence toward, in her own words, “exploitation, transport, and metamorphosis.”
Such notions present strong affiliations with the process of moulding, a practice interestingly relevant to the field of art production as to that of cosmetic surgery, and in line with the etymology of the Greek word “plastikos” that defines something able to be moulded and thus undergo permanent deformation.
Since the 1960s the legacy of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological theories have exerted much influence in the aesthetic practice of contemporary sculptors obsessed by the concept of activation. Frank’s artworks pertain to this tradition, consolidated in the 1990s at the heyday of so-called installation or relational art, given the inseparable knot that interlaces minimalist abstract sculpture, audiences, movement, and perception. As the phrasing of her exhibition title is openly inspired by the French philosopher, to Frank these pieces “attempt to encourage exchanges between the main viewers/audience and the artist.” However, in her practice, the relationship of exchange, where the body ties all interacting elements together, is marked differently. Unlike minimalist artworks that forced spectators to pay attention to their participation in an artwork thus embodying the space to validate the act of perception, here the artist demands no voluntary motoric reactions.
Frank’s approach disengages with the anthropocentrism typical of traditional sculpture to focus, instead, on the complex trans-mutant realm of inorganic things themselves.
This is possible thanks to the deployment of industrial materials and technologies, such as 3D scanning or acrylic paint that imitate life and objects in completely digital and transformed ways. Her production shows the inherent component of technologies, revealing the chemical and physical processes behind them. However, at times, such an approach is counter-balanced by an interest in appropriating found objects or situations. In the installation Savoir Vivre (2014) at Villa Arson, Nice, the outdoor floor tiles of the institution are replicated in a gallery space by means of black and brown shoe polish imprints. This method is also recalled in other works making use of materials of road tarmac and dirt that pertain to the urban sphere: in the video performance Body Surface Area: London (2014) their traces picture the surface of a stretched canvas dragged by the artist from Battersea to Kensington. Frank’s practice highlights how the manufactured environment is equally important to that of the body.
The body and the world are inseparably shaped by each other, an idea reflected in the display of her presentation at Museion whose subtle mise-en-scène elicits an enlivened domestic environment.
This format highlights how the roots of identity can be found in the affective circuits of our everyday lives latched on to culture. Her approach seems to adhere to the theory of American psychologist and philosopher William James in The Principles of Psychology (1890) that states: “Plasticity means the possession of a structure weak enough to yield to an influence, but strong enough not to yield all at once.” In other words, to be composed of a plastic substance is to be susceptible to influences from the outside, but the integrity of a subject is resistant to the affective and destructive excesses of existence. By materially fluctuating, our bodies are plastic. Even perception, says Merleau-Ponty, is physiognomic and therefore plastic. It is thanks to such plasticity that we form our identity: we yield so that we are able to encounter things and situations but our culture minimizes its dangers, keeping us from straying too far toward extremes.
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