Reading Rämistrasse #66: Leila Peacock on Lena Maria Thuring at Coalmine Raum für Fotografie

In 2017 a landmark act of parliament was passed in New Zealand to recognise the Whanganui River as an independent entity granting it legal personhood. Indigenous guardians were appointed to act and speak on behalf of the river and enforce those rights, in particular its right to flow uninhibited into the sea. It is one of those inventive legal manoeuvres whereby ancient fictions are brought to bear on modern desecration, but it also feels like a good context in which to understand Lena Maria Thüring’s latest work Liquid Connections in which the protagonist is water. Water, or that conductive, generative brine that connects us all. Fluids both amniotic and fluvial, oceanic and cytoplasmic, flowing, oozing, dripping through the story of life on earth. We are reminded that «we are all bodies of water», and therefore also part of an amorphous liquid subjectivity that links us to those «primeval amniotic waters gestating us all».

Image of performance by cloaked, swirling figure in a dark, blue-lit roomImage of performance by cloaked, swirling figure in a dark, blue-lit room

These are quotes from the prose-poem that is central to the piece and which will be performed on two occasions over the duration of the exhibition. A text that encompasses fragments from earth science studies and climate change research alongside founding works of feminist science fiction (Octavia Butler, Ursula K Le Guin) and gender theory (Donna Harraway, Astrida Nemanis) interspersed with infectious refrains from well-known pop songs (Leonard Cohen, Nelly, Salt N’Pepa). These are then delivered with the delirious thrust of a creation myth over a roiling baseline. The category of the prose-poem is itself an aberration of genre, an overflow, a transgressive form that deploys thought-rhymes as images overlap and intertwine with each other in expansive reverberations, and the form is put to good use here in Thüring’s «womb of words, womb of worlds».

The performance takes place within an installed scene that feels like an abandoned film set. There’s a bubbling chrome fountain with an anatomically suggestive open-mouth form and a scattered reef of ceramic vessels with sand strewn over the floor, everything bathed in blue light which gives it an early space-opera, B-movie feel. But this is also a hydrofeminist world – an innovative posthuman feminist phenomenology developed by Nemanis. Each installed element draws on the themes of the prose poem, from the invocation of «wetness» both sexual and aqueous, to the call to our «inner coral reefs» and that otherness of our own bodies as sealed vessels in which our organs swim unseen, with the blue light invoking cyanobacteria – a marine life-form intrinsic to biogeochemical cycles. The installation functions as indirect exposition, that technique of world-building familiar to the sci-fi genre in which the reader is subsumed into the atmosphere of the invented realm in which the story is set. But it also recalls Hans Thies Lehmann’s concept of the scenic essay, whereby the set offers the theatrical potential for Denkbilder to be thought out loud. 

Image of performance by cloaked, swirling figure in a dark, blue-lit roomImage of performance by cloaked, swirling figure in a dark, blue-lit room

To really appreciate the dimensions of this work you need to see it activated by the performance of the text. Two costumed figures, fully draped in black tendrils appear like apparitions from the deep. One (dancer Lucia Gugerli) sways, swirls and floats like a current in motion while the other declaims the words projected on the wall with defiant fervour. Zainab Lascandri’s voice has all the drama of a classic house music sermon, recalling Chuck Robert’s seminal 1987 Chicago House track My House… which starts with the biblical refrain «In the beginning there was Jack». Thüring’s text subverts this apocalypse-bound Western teleology, opening and finishing with the refrain: «The end and the beginning, And then the end again. And then the beginning. Both wet, so wet.» All of this happens over a seductive dance track that surges to a euphoric climax about halfway through the piece and then recedes again like a tide. Music, dance music in particular, offers a particular form of time travel, another staple mechanism of sci-fi thinking. It absorbs the listener in its own temporal logic, one that has a narrative arc but which also transports you into a form of rapturous presentism. 

This work is a clear homage to speculative/science fictional thinking on many levels and speaks more generally to the rising interest and influence of SF in all forms of discourse. Science fiction scholar Darko Suvin writes about the strategy of «estrangement» in the genre, presenting something recognisable as other-worldly, which becomes a wildly inventive means of reactualising the world we are in by inverting familiar narratives and reimagining categories that bind us. Thüring’s text also oscillates between the strange and the familiar, or the familiar rendered as something strange and glutenous. In Le Guin’s words, our strange reality requires a strange realism. Science fictional strategies offer a way of imagining radical new subjectivities, a way of embracing this alien condition we are living in. In Donna Harraway’s words «some of the best thinking is done as storytelling», fictions have consequences. It’s a self-fulfilling potential that might be the only thing to redeem us now and rescue those minds that float inside our bodies from a neoliberal logic that both controls and constitutes the flow of our libidinal impulses as we consume our way towards climate cataclysm. As Thüring (quoting Butler’s invented religion Earthseed) reminds us in a repeated refrain that comes at the apex of this rhapsodic siren’s song of salt and sex and deep-time and life cycles:

We say all that we touch, we change

We say all that we change, changes us

 

Lena Maria Thüring, Liquid Connections, Part II: Water, Other, Coalmine Raum für Fotografie, Volkarthaus, Turnerstrasse 1, 8400 Winterthur

03 September–30 October 2021

Images: Lena Maria Thüring, Liquid Connections, 2021, performance with Zainab Lascandri and Lucia Gugerli, photographer: Jiri Makovec

 

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If art criticism is losing ground, we must act. That’s why we created space for criticism – Reading Rämistrasse – on the Kunsthalle Zürich website and publish reviews of current exhibitions. What is published here does not represent the opinion of the Kunsthalle Zürich. Because criticism has to be independent. Feedback or questions? Email rosenmeyer@kunsthallezurich.ch

08.10.2021