Josephine Pryde

Galerie Neu | Mehringdamm

Josephine Pryde’s exhibitions always appear straightforwardly thematic, then become more and more perplexing the longer you think about them. Her recent show, “Hollow Inside,” was no exception: Her new diagrams of yoga positions—in chains mounted on Plexiglas—might seem clear enough, but then you started to wonder why multiple-exposure head shots of bewildered-looking sheep were hung on the walls around them. The photographs of staring sheep look blurry and hallucinatory; in some cases, the technique of multiple exposure creates more than two eyes. It is as if our own perplexity were materialized in their gaze.

The four aluminum-framed panes of Plexiglas come in bluish, greenish, and brownish tints reminiscent of designer sunglasses and, staggered one behind another in the gallery like yoga mats, recall Liam Gillick’s room dividers. The contrast between the Beuysian patina of the massive, heavily rusted chains with their variously shaped links and the slick minimalism of the Plexiglas constructions supported by gridlike stands could hardly be greater. An aura of country life clings to the chains, which flow now and then into stirruplike shapes—as if the city, with its various fashionable imperatives (minimalism, sunglasses, yoga), had been infused with the atmosphere of a paddock.

Yoga is not a new subject in contemporary art, but in contrast, for example, to the literal approach of Marc Quinn’s “Sphinx” sculptures, 2006–2007, showing Kate Moss in various “impossible” yoga poses, Pryde has opted for an abstract language of forms. It is the outline, the outer form of yoga, as it were, that appears in her diagrams. At the same time, yoga is shown as a form that shapes and disciplines the body—one that literally enchains it. But wait a minute: Isn’t this an exaggeration based on a cheap metaphor—using chains to suggest that yoga is a sort of bondage? Not at all. Even leaving aside the fact than in Pryde’s work chains have always implied mobility and process, the use of yoga as a model for contemporary forms of repressive tolerance is entirely cogent. It’s a practice whose normative power has in recent years become nigh on inescapable. Even sworn enemies of anything New Age at some point in their lives find themselves in a room full of people doing the downward dog. What explains the ubiquity of yoga? In my opinion, it is that its prescribed mix of relaxation and discipline is a desirable resource in a post-Fordist economy. One learns how to handle stress in order, should it become necessary, to breathe the pain away. Yoga is the literal embodiment of that “flexibility” so universally in demand in today’s working world.

In Pryde’s work, however, the classical yoga positions are embodied by flaccid-looking stick figures. Awkward, literally rusty, and hopelessly isolated, they attempt nonetheless to conform to the ideal. The isolation of the individual fate from everything social is aptly noted in one of Pryde’s titles, What else was happening while I was in a (Back Bend) (all works 2007). Just as yoga trains the individual for the society of competition, it blinds us to the reality of that society. In hanging an extract from a letter among the sheep photographs that encircle the yoga sculptures, Pryde is attempting to counteract this negation of social reality. The letter reports the auction of a lamb that brought unexpectedly good results—certainly an analogy to the exploding auction prices of art, a nowadays obligatory touch of market reflexivity. But the exhibition’s strength lies in the myriad instances of social critique it provokes while not seeking an obvious legitimation. After all, for yoga diagrams surrounded by portraits of sheep there can be no exhaustive explanation. Unless we go for the obvious explanation that she is comparing people who do yoga to sheep? But Pryde’s sheep heads—if anthropomorphized—don’t look dumb; quite the contrary, they have “knowing” and stubborn expressions. Perhaps there is a way of submitting consciously and reflectively to the yoga hype that doesn’t lead to total surrender.

Isabelle Graw

Translated from German by Diana Reese.