Ritual and ecstasy: Pauline Curnier Jardin at Hamburger Bahnhof

The winner of the Nationalgalerie's 2019 art prize now has a solo show titled "Fat to Ashes".

Pauline Curnier Jardin.
Pauline Curnier Jardin.Photo: Andrea Avezzu/SMB

Berlin-In the age of modernity, the saying that art is there to endure reality holds true. To this, the French artist Pauline Curnier Jardin adds a single laconic comment: “Art is often also a paradoxical resource in a world where the good and the beautiful seem to degenerate for money and power, where all certainties fade away.”

To the video artist from Marseille, the art of paradox has a sound: hellish noise echoing through the large hall of the Hamburger Bahnhof. Drum beats, bells, organ bass notes, mixed with the rapturous screams of the participants of a procession dressed in white and red. The sounds emanate from an area in the middle of the exhibition space. Inside a colosseum resembling a circus tent, on a huge screen, one sees the early Christian martyr Agatha being carried through the streets of the Sicilian port city of Catania at the foot of the volcano Mount Etna, as a wooden figure covered with precious stones. This happens every year on the first weekend in February. Last year, the pandemic raged shortly afterwards - and Italy counted one of the highest death tolls in Europe.

Still from Jardin's video work.
Still from Jardin's video work.Photo: Mathias Völzke /P. C.Jardin/VG Bildkunst Bonn 2021 /SMB
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In Jardin's installation, this prologue mutates from the sacred into a folk festival only to be followed by crude scenes, including some from Cologne carnival and an archaic slaughter festival at an Italian mountain farm. Finally, the scenes are knit together in increasingly abrupt, frenetic cuts. Just when you think you can hardly follow the grotesquely merging bodies and objects any longer, the scenes culminate in a kind of ecstasy that is hard to watch. Flesh turns to fat, skin to blood, intestines to wax. Folded paper flowers and cheap devotional objects disappear behind clouds of incense, alcohol and confetti. Everything turns to ash.

Jardin's narrative cinema on two millennia of European civilisation ends apocalyptically. “I take up ancient, mythical narratives in order to deconstruct them, to break through them.” She joyfully mixes the tragic with the comic to create a startling mass of images of excess and violence, a mishmash of traditional customs, a religious procession, ritual debauchery. Jadin has filmed "moments of transgression of the norm." Between religious chanting, dance and trance, unmediated moments of violence appear. The Frenchwoman, who divides her time between Berlin and Rome, concedes the images are shocking.

One expects nothing less from Jardin. A year and a half ago, she won the coveted Preis der Nationalgalerie with her videos - a feat that scored her the solo show at the Hamburger Bahnhof. At the time, the jury was completely overwhelmed by Jardin's spectacularly tender brutality. “In art,” says the 40-year-old, “there are no taboos for me.” In the candidate show, she presented a disturbing video of menstruating matrons who, having escaped from prison, hack up male body parts with a diabolical lust. This, the artist says, with a charming gesture, is not a reference to splatter movies or surrealism. It is a commentary on the question of diversity and gender.

Jardin in front of her Berlin installation “Fat to Ashes”, built in the shape of a Roman arena. On her T-shirt are the miraculous marks of St. Agatha of Catania.
Jardin in front of her Berlin installation “Fat to Ashes”, built in the shape of a Roman arena. On her T-shirt are the miraculous marks of St. Agatha of Catania.Photo: Paul ZInken/dpa

Jardin takes us into her arena, which brings to mind bread and circus in ancient Rome. Its outer walls buldge and are made of a marzipan-like material: soft, permeable, flowing, like Dalí's clocks. For just under 21 minutes, we sit in front of a screen that transports us to Catania - into the middle of the arch-Catholic parade, the cauldron of pilgrimage where an explosive concoction bubbles - religious excess, ecstasy, the violence of patriarchal rituals.

It draws us deep into the brutal history of the early Middle Ages. According to legend, Saint Agatha lived in Catania. She came from a sheltered home. The Roman archconsul Quintian coveted the virgin - who had taken the oath to be a bride of Christ - for her beauty and wealth. But when she repelled his lechery and greed, he had her thrown into the dungeon and her breasts cut off. The virgin perished in unspeakable agony. To this day, Catholics, especially in Sicily, venerate Saint Agatha as the patron saint of rape victims and breast cancer sufferers. In Jardin's film, however, we also see stalls where a popular dessert in the form of a virgin breast is being offered for sale and devoured. Symbolically, the artist has sewn two blood-red circular patches onto her white shirt in memory of the mutilated Agatha. Thus, for a moment, the artist herself becomes part of the artwork.

Stills from Jardin's video work.
Stills from Jardin's video work.Photo: Mathias Völzke /P. C.Jardin/VG Bildkunst Bonn 2021 /SMB

A few seconds later, we are back at Cologne Carnival, in February 2020. It was perhaps the last big debauchery before the first corona lockdown. And, says Jardin, “before the racist, radical rightwing massacre in Hanau on 20 February last year”. Then all goes quiet. Again, we see an archaic scene: the meticulously filmed slaughter of a pig. Every movement is intentional. Everything refers to a long tradition, to experience, to an almost sacred ritual that seems incredibly anachronistic and demonstrates all the more the inadequacy of industrialised killing.

Jardin sees her films as “places of transgression and transformation”. Magic and religiosity become one in the mass of video scenes, against whose disruptive effect this improvised arena seems like a fragile constant. The physical can hardly be named: male, female, androgynous, queer? For Pauline Curnier Jardin, the body is “a contradictory place that cannot be fit into any norm”.

"Fat to Ashes", curated by Kristina Schrei, on view from 13 April at the Museum Hamburger Bahnhof, Invalidenstr. 50/51, Mitte, currently only with a time slot ticket and same-day corona test: www.smb.museum/tickets

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