View of “Feliza Bursztyn,” 2021–22. Photo: Annik Wetter.

View of “Feliza Bursztyn,” 2021–22. Photo: Annik Wetter.

Feliza Bursztyn

A frenzied jangling echoes intermittently throughout the Feliza Bursztyn retrospective in the converted twelfth-century monastery and brewery that houses the Muzeum Susch. The sounds made by the Colombian artist’s kinetic sculptures, which are activated on a timer for conservation purposes, seems to beckon one through the large-scale exhibition that spans Bursztyn’s oeuvre from 1964 through to her abrupt death in 1982 at the age of forty-eight. Propelled by electric motors attached to constructions in metal and fabric, this rattling encapsulates the drive to provoke that undergirded Bursztyn’s practice. Always unsettling something, whether utopian views of modernity, the norms of patriarchal Catholic Bogotá (where she lived and worked, save for a few stints in Paris), or simply the viewer standing before them, Bursztyn’s works leave no room for quiet contemplation. While the exhibition also features pieces comprised of junkyard scraps, disassembled typewriters, or compressed car parts à la John Chamberlain, Bursztyn’s motorized works—the series “Las histéricas” (The Hysterical Ones), 1967–69, and “Las camas” (The Beds), 1970–74; and the installation La baila mecánica (The Mechanical Ballet), 1979—epitomize the artist’s investigation into how sculpture can be disruptive.

The most abrasive of Bursztyn’s shaking sculptures are “Las histéricas,” in which curved strips of thin stainless steel from a factory that produced heaters are welded into abstract forms. In one such work (Untitled, 1967–69), concentric circles extending out from a square sheet of metal hung on the wall recall a decoratively curled ribbon, a flourish at odds with the work’s cold metal and frenetic clattering. This formal discordance bolsters the ambivalence of the series’ title, which Bursztyn seems to employ as a feminist reclaiming of the Freudian diagnosis. Indeed, when the conservative Colombian press referred to her as “la loca” (the crazy woman), she didn’t challenge the moniker, declaring instead in an interview in 1979, “En un país de machistas, ¡hágase la loca!” (In a sexist country, be the mad one!).

Bursztyn long occupied the posture of an outsider, and the experience filtered into her work: Born in 1933 to Polish Jewish parents whose holiday in Colombia became a state of exile when Hitler seized power, Bursztyn would divorce an abusive husband at the age of twenty-four, losing custody of her three children and prompting her conservative parents to disown her and mourn her as if she were dead. As curators Marta Dziewańska and Abigail Winograd suggest, Bursztyn reconfigured the charges of feminine excess and instability she faced, as well as the legacy of women deemed “hysterical” since the nineteenth century, not just as a theme but also as an artistic strategy.

The question of how hysteria might function as a lens took on a humorous dimension in “Las camas,” in which dimly lit metal bed frames fitted with motors and draped in purple- and red-satin sheets convulse suggestively against an experimental soundscape by Jacqueline Nova. In tandem with their implicit eroticism, the three bed sculptures exhibited in Susch almost seem to perform the erratic symptoms that psychoanalysis attributes to shrouded sexual origins. Like Bursztyn’s practice at large, these works flirt with anthropomorphism only to remain resolutely abstract. Abstraction offered the artist a certain freedom to refract sociopolitical realities and to lure her viewers in—perhaps to read into or react against the work and in this way to get involved.