Angelina Jolie, a lapdog, and a bottle of bubbly: three entities whose relationship to one another doesn’t exactly surprise the modern mind. Yet I was not expecting to see the composition of a celebrity event on the back walls of Greta Meert as I peered in through the gallery’s large windows at Sophie Nys’ third solo show at the downtown venue.
My suspicions dissipated when I took an invitation card introducing the exhibition. It featured an image of a plague stone, a motif that would reverberate throughout the show, referencing the epidemic that ravaged the European continent between 1346 and 1351. Nys encountered such a plague stone – which were commonly used to disinfect money and facilitate trade in times of outbreaks – at a church in the Dutch town of Lochem. The Lochem “healing stone” contained disinfecting or healing substances, such as citrus fruit or vinegar, alluding to Saint Roch, the patron saint of the plague.
Thoughts of suffering, death, and decay spread as visitors are greeted by five small, black and white photograms, such as Kirkstall (2013), each depicting a plague stone. The forms are blurred, inviting the viewer to look closer into the past. In these images, Nys creates a spiritual atmosphere, jarring against the bright whiteness of the space and the clean smiles in her celebrity collages, Brother, Brother, Brother! (2013), on the back wall.
For those unfamiliar with Nys’ work, this show introduces her use of subtle irony in contemplation of the everyday. Here she balances the spirituality of the plague stone with satire, effectively mirroring society’s presentation of celebrity women as the epitome of feminine health and vitality by depicting them as the reincarnation of Saint Roch. Just as plague sufferers looked to Saint Roch to disinfect disease, we look to celebrities to neutralize our blemishes. This is a hyperbolic notion, which tries to compare disease with our superficial quest for physical perfection; the inclusion of lapdogs in these collages merely intensifies the feeling of frivolity.
The playful correlation with Saint Roch helps us make sense of the eclectic images within the space—the champagne bottle on the wall conveys the pouring of healing vinegar into the plague stone, for example. Nys’s critique of contemporary lifestyles is not new. It is difficult to approach these pieces without thinking of New York photographer, Cindy Sherman, whose works such as Centerfolds (1981) question the role and representation of women as victims of society. Nys creates a definite connection between victims of a plague and victims of society.
Sophie Nys, Lochem, 2013; © Sophie Nys and Galerie Greta Meert, Brussels.
With the Jolie/plague connection established, my attention turned to Lochem (2013), a composition of real fruit arranged on a wooden A-frame table. It’s a still life, but not one celebrating a bounty of plentiful ripe fruit. Instead, Nys presents a sparse placement of insubstantial produce, which, in the Dutch vanitas tradition, will decay over the duration of the exhibition.
Nys taps into our morbid fascination with death. Visitors can actually watch the fruit disintegrate, mimicking the public eye’s constant surveillance of celebrity flesh, ageing and fading over time. Next to this fated still life sits a replica of an actual plague stone, which cannot heal the rotting fruit. The piece conceivably serves as a reminder of history’s often-futile attempts at combatting disease, or, in turn, slowing the ageing process.
Sophie Nys, Lochem (detail), 2013; © Sophie Nys and Galerie Greta Meert, Brussels.
Nys expands her social critique by drawing parallels between the plague epidemic and the spread of globalization. The measurements of the tabletop match the standardized sizes for European cargo traffic in the 1960s, and its height references that of the church stone in Lochem. She thus presents the new epidemic spreading across the continent as a plague of increased economic activity and financial transactions. Is Nys saying we are no longer victims of a plague, but actually are a plague ourselves, spreading impurity and disorder in our quest for fulfillment?
The individual works in the exhibition complement and bolster one another. I’m unsure whether they would pack the same punch if exhibited separately but don’t let this put you off. I enjoyed playing detective, piecing together clues of Nys’s puzzle of a show that nicely introduces what’s on offer on Greta Meert’s other two floors: a film by Nys and works by Parisian artist Jean-Luc Moulene.
(Image on top: Sophie Nys, Installation view including Brother, Brother, Brother! , 2013; © Sophie Nys and Galerie Greta Meert, Brussels.)