Chantal Michel

Kabinett Zürich / Kabinett Bern

Having abandoned her early plaster objects as being too “cool and technical,” Chantal Michel has for the last few years made her own body the sculptural subject of her photographs, videos, and performances. Perched astride an eighteenth-century chest in a sumptuous room or limbs flailing inside a piece of industrial machinery, Michel both transforms her bizarre surroundings with her presence and, like a casually placed vase or forgotten handbag, becomes one with them. Always wearing gorgeous party clothes (the artist allegedly owns two thousand dresses and three hundred wigs), Michel is both a woman yearning to be the wild little girl with the run of the dress-up box and the good girl encouraged to be attractive yet not stand out too much from her environment. She often appears to divert the erotic charge in her work by concealing her face or selecting roles that have no overt personality. As documentation of private performances, Michel’s photographs and videos capture the artist’s desire to push her body to extremes. They may not be as violent or didactic as those by some women artists of the ’60s and ’70s, but they are nevertheless politically charged, giving voice to marginalized women. The Pleasure of Woods, 1999, shown in Zurich, is typical of Michel’s videos. In a neutral interior the artist dances vigorously in and out of a row of tall box shrubs, their clipped formality contrasting with her ungainly strides. Her full dress is bunched up to reveal black schoolgirl socks. As with her previous clamberings around furniture and acrobatics on architectural fittings (slumped over industrial pipes or hanging upside down in a tool cupboard), here again Michel expresses a child’s fantasies about being alone in a place, at liberty to test it out physically and emotionally.

This double bill of exhibitions included two photographic series that depart from Michel’s usual practice. Rather than staging herself in “found” interiors, in these she occupies her own art installations. In Why the cake falls from heaven, Lili must clear an obstacle and know finally what she wants, 2002, Michel, dressed like an oversize Heidi, fuses with the candy-palette garden she created last year on an island in the Lake of Zurich. Whether curved around a flowerbed, dancing with wild flowers crammed in her mouth, or gazing wonderingly at this brave new world, she takes a natural idyll to Disneyland extremes of artificiality. As Lewis Carroll created Alice in Wonderland, an outlandish fantasy based on the fundamentals of logic, so Michel’s work challenges socially constructed “female identity” by embodying it to the extreme.

The photographs in “Last Intervention,” 2002, were inspired by Michel’s participation in an exhibition at a disused women’s hospital, where she placed some of her early plaster sculptures in the clinical environment of an operating theater. In the photographs, Michel is dressed appropriately in a white lab coat, but the predictable sweetness has been stripped away to reveal a nurse gone mad—her face tense and deranged-looking, her actions absurd. As a setting for her sculptures, the room looked like a sci-fi film set; as her co-actor in the photographs, it becomes a coconspirator in her hysterical hyperreality. Peering dementedly at her crazed reflection, she breathes demonic life into the innocuous environment; and yet, curled up under the basin, sandwiched between shelves, or face pressed to the wall, the artist seeks to disappear, to merge with the room, to join the absent women who were once treated there.

Felicity Lunn