View of “Ana Roldán,” 2016. Photo: Andreas Furrer.

View of “Ana Roldán,” 2016. Photo: Andreas Furrer.

Ana Roldán


View of “Ana Roldán,” 2016. Photo: Andreas Furrer.

Placed at the back of the gallery was Lacking the Real (all works 2016), a folding screen composed of double-sided mirrors that reflected a fractured image of Ana Roldán’s exhibition “NO,” including its visitors, while concealing what was behind it from any inquisitive glances—a seemingly simple device that nonetheless introduced an uncanny disruption into the space of the gallery. Lying on the floor in front of this reflective partition was Elsewhere, a flat, round stone across which a blue, many-armed form, like an abstract octopus, extends a set of truncated tentacles. Here, too, a gap opened up in the fabric of the real.

In his 1966 radio talk titled “The Utopian Body,” Michel Foucault refers to our own bodies as “pitiless place” to which we are “condemned.” And yet I shall never be able to see my own back, my own head—and least of all the back of my head—in the same way I can see the things in front of my eyes. The former reveal themselves to my gaze only if I contort myself physically or have recourse to a mirror. But as he pursues these thoughts, Foucault slowly comes to the conclusion that the utopian moments offered by one’s body’s ineluctable presence lurk precisely in its shaded depths and hidden corners.

In Roldán’s work, however, the absence of the real does not simply amount to the failure of an integrated representation—for instance in the series “Negative Bodies,” which extended across an entire wall of this exhibition. What shines forth in these works in black overpainted neon—which hang like the cryptic symbols of a latter-day writing on the wall—are precise copies of the curled shapes assumed by images of snakes in encyclopedias or scientific publications. In this way, a series of simple models gives rise to mysterious forms, some open, some closed; and these “negative bodies” can implicitly be understood as glowing symbols of the body’s utopian depths as described by Foucault.

Vanilla Overseas is a pair of square silk cloths printed with a series of short, clear black lines formed by the silhouettes of vanilla pods. Beneath them, the words of its title appear to sink into backgrounds evocative of a bright or gray sky, while the words CHANGE and TAKE are repeated across the entire surface. The Aztecs referred to the vanilla pod as the “black flower.” The colonial imperative to “take” it ensured that it came to be cultivated far beyond the Gulf of Mexico, in many different colonies across the world. Today its placeless and historyless aroma has become the epitome of a globalized culture of taste. For Roldán, who comes from Mexico and now lives in Zurich, vanilla has become a key symbol of the complexity of postcolonial dependencies, as well as of the loss of biological and historical roots. Her work generally avoids the explicit imagery of exoticism, which here appears only in the palm leaves featured in high-contrast photograms from the series “Constructions,” 2012–, composed of photochemically fixed traces of light.

“NO,” the exhibition’s title, appeared in two small sculptures, one composed of obsidian and the other of brass; but their costly mien, their seductively shiny existence, seemed only to negate itself. The two letters might initially remind us of Markus Raetz, whose anamorphic sculpture Crossing, 2002, turns the word NO into a YES and back again. But Roldán lets her “NO” remain as it is and keep its meaning, alluding to different kinds of negation and self-dissolution.

Hans Rudolf Reust

Translated from German by Nathaniel McBride.