Mariechen Danz, Digestive System (Map Toxin) (detail), 2015, polyurethane with firestones, pigment, steel rod, 25 1/2 × 9 × 3".

Mariechen Danz, Digestive System (Map Toxin) (detail), 2015, polyurethane with firestones, pigment, steel rod, 25 1/2 × 9 × 3".

Mariechen Danz

Mariechen Danz, Digestive System (Map Toxin) (detail), 2015, polyurethane with firestones, pigment, steel rod, 25 1/2 × 9 × 3".

This recent exhibition by Berlin-based Irish artist Mariechen Danz was titled after its central piece, Womb Tomb, 2014–15, a sculpture of a naked human figure resting in a supine position with eyes open, mouth closed. There were some peculiar things about this apparition—for instance, there was no clear sign of its gender, and its intestines and heart were visible on its surface, as if its skin had been removed. It appeared somehow as a colorful alien, or a mummified being of some sort, while at the same time putting one in mind of an operating room or even a morgue. Differences in ambient temperature affected the red and purple of its skin, regulated through a hidden internal system. Heat caused thermochromic pigments to become transparent, making visible an even more colorful pattern underneath. So there were at least two layers of paint on this creature. Likewise, when one touched the body—and the gallery staff encouraged this—the heat of one’s own body would cause the figure to change color. This act of touching seemed significant, and was echoed by imprints of fingers in the body, as if the creator had left her signature while making the sculpture. I couldn’t help but think about Jesus and the supernatural appearance of stigmata on a body.

The eight other pieces in the exhibition, all dated 2015, were also in one way or another related to the body; the exhibition as a whole could be regarded as an exploration of transformative processes inside the body and the transmission of knowledge through the visibility and tactility of those processes. The titles of the pieces pointed to specific parts or organs that were exposed; among these were Digestive System (Map Toxin) and Brains, both cast in polyurethane, and thus works of artifice rather than nature, but again evincing a disturbing edge, hinting at surgery. A clinical view of human life was crossed with an imaginative—or even psychedelic—take on physics. Three works, each titled Mask, were based on models of cross sections of the human head, as used in medical education. Here, they looked like tribal masks. The whole gallery space was bathed in red light.

For the visitor, the crucial question seemed be whether this was a kind of medical freak show, making a spectacle of the bodies of others, or if some visceral identification was meant to take place. After all, gallerygoers also possess bodies. One could take the exhibition personally and see it as a memento mori. In terms of aesthetics, the show was solid; the pieces worked together to form a spatial whole, helped by the recurring painterly take on sculpture and by the red light, which changed the whole gallery into a kind of colorful womb. While most hospital rooms are places you want to leave, my physical reaction to this space was the opposite: I wanted to stay and blend in, despite the fact that life was sliced up or laid out in spare parts. Apparently some transmutation had taken place.

While in previous works Danz acted as a performer, addressing the relation between language and body, in this case the artist turned the viewers into performers by encouraging them to touch the Womb Tomb figure. It was noticeable that the act of touching, which in an art context usually is forbidden, in this case created conversations between individual visitors. A mysterious, colorful creature brought people together. Touching led to talking.

Jurriaan Benschop