Simone Mangos

Ivan Dougherty

Like exposed photographic paper in a chemical bath, Undertow, 1990, an installation by Simone Mangos, dissolves, blurs, and eventually clarifies into an image of memorable density. Seven large, grainy, black and white photographs of a Berlin cemetery are suspended like scrolls from a ceiling approximately three feet away from the wall. Opposite, six stone windowsills, bricked-in since the gallery’s conversion from a schoolroom, have been excavated. On an accompanying document, a six-panel photograph shows the wire-mesh screen across a canal formerly dividing East from West Berlin. The undertow of water is also the undertow of death, and a bare minimum of information in the gallery emphasizes that tidal attractions between objects are felt rather than seen. The materials of her installations have always had metaphoric meanings and sought to suggest the harvest of consequences that accompany human intervention.

Mangos lives in Berlin. Her photographs are of a ruined cemetery in that city. Each grave is framed by the architecture of the dead—defaced plaques, crumbling classical pilasters, and a Gothic proliferation of ivy. The images soften into sunlight that dissolves the top of a cemetery wall. Except for the suggestion of Hebrew letters in one, these funerary plaques are mostly bare as are the exposed sandstone blocks. Mangos reveals this hidden past; both plaques and windowsills present blank faces, just as both originally divided spaces and experiences. Her visual correspondences are a meditation on the history of mortality. Because they are poetic—Mangos frames her propositions about the subterranean forces beneath phenomena with analogies—this is a work about the ability to feel empathy rather than a specific commemoration. Undertow presents such great distance and self-awareness that this artist’s presence in her work is minimal. Instead of the revelation of an image or picture of inevitability, her installation is a frame inside which our perceptions about natural forces that reabsorb human activity are collected. I think that Mangos is asserting the role of poetry in the political economy of discourse. Like most such installations, Undertow is essentially metaphysical; in speaking thus of death and the ephemeral character of existence, its purpose is more than pathological melancholy. It aims at the communication of extreme gravity. Saturn is often identified with such an undertow beneath events—fate. This, not the vanished Berlin Wall, is probably the chief referent of Undertow. Recent culture has demonstrated an endless capacity to recuperate all persuasive critique, by virtue of art’s inherent duplicity, into the sensational or seductive. It seems that Mangos sidesteps that enterprise completely in favor of a more cryptic, Delphic purpose.

Charles Green