by Katalin Timár
Ekaterina Shapiro-Obermair is among those artists whose works we are compelled to reevaluate for ourselves again and again. The artist is not unknown to the Budapest public, for at the Holocaust Exhibition in the Ludwig Museum in 2014, the Salon systémique raised one of the most disturbing questions for the majority of visitors. The work’s presence in this context was far from obvious to the viewers, although it obviously had a place in this kind of holocaust exhibition, which treated the subject matter not in a documentarian way but in a—so to speak—structuralist (or post-structuralist) manner and presented a system that showed, via aesthetic means, the connections between the heritage of Modernism and the Nazi death machine.
One of the central, recurring elements of the artist’s installations is the repeated use of pictures containing geometric forms, which seem to have been created using some kind of reproduction technology, although it turns out, after closer inspection, that she made them individually by hand. The elements differ from one another in tiny details. While they may be conceived of as binary opposites, to use a term from language theory—that is, as differences that carry meaning—these differences take on a metaphorical meaning in the context of art. Uniformity in a modernist grid system (or raster) is an understandable requirement from a scientific viewpoint, but it is not suited to a proper categorisation of the world. In reality, individual, very similar elements are never uniform, perhaps not even if they are the products of mechanical reproduction.
The formalist and abstract identity of Shapiro-Obermair’s apparently modernist installations is called into question by the fact that, in the case of objects that are perfectly designed aesthetically, we cannot help but to look for some function for them. The support of the two-dimensional picture protrudes slightly into space—owing in part to its thickness and in part to its “supporting function,” set at a 90-degree angle. In this way, the pictures are simultaneously two-dimensional and present in (three-dimensional) space. Yet the spatiality of the painted, geometric works themselves is also binary: partly it refers to the two-dimensionality of spatial depictions and to the illusionistic status of the three dimensions, and partly, by virtue of the right-angled support elements, it is extremely conscious of its own spatiality, which is not mere illusion but reality itself. As such, whether explicitly or implicitly, it also explores the question of the convention of representation.
The exhibition entitled Double Bind contains two elements that are seemingly very different from those mentioned above. One is a video, which appears almost as a still image of a young woman and could be the counterpart to the black-and-white photos of the artist balancing a stick on her outstretched arms in such a way that the stick actually “transforms” into a line intersecting the circle visible on the wall. These works are unique combinations of the personal and the general or objective. On the one hand, they highlight tiny details, personal moments, whose original associations remain almost unfathomable to the viewer. On the other hand, however—and perhaps the best example of this is the black-and-white photo that utilises its own self—they also objectify the two women who appear in the pictures. This is supplemented with a third woman, the artist herself, who appears as a small-sized propagandistic sculpture, which simultaneously binds her to the video (where the theme of propaganda is partly present) and to the photos (to the statuesque female figure in each of them).
At the same time, these two elements have repercussions for the interpretation of the installation, reinforcing the reading indicated by the exhibition title—the double “bind” or bond, with which Shapiro-Obermair’s works are tied simultaneously to mutually contradictory systems of views and artistic concepts. They do not enter into debate, nor do they blur them together, but they present us with that unique combination with which we would be well-advised to make ourselves fully acquainted when we look at the world or at art.