MARE NOSTRUM
KAREN BENBENISTY

 

Curated by Carolina Pozzi
From June 9th to October 29th 2016
Opening Thursday, June 9th 2016, 6 pm



1869: An international society led by the French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps inaugurates the Suez Canal. The connection between the Mediterranean and the Indian oceans triggers immediate repercussions on an international level, facilitating commercial relationships and fostering the European infiltrationof Africa. 

Shortly after, a “reverse migration” results in numerous Red Sea marine species moving to the Mediterranean through the canal— the so called Lessepsian migration — establishing stable populations and in some cases forcing the mediterranean-atlantical species out of their ecological niches. 

1869-1870: Gustave Courbet paints a series of seascapes using close-up frontal views, which distances itself from the sense of the sublime and picturesque that had depicted the same subjects in the Romantic period, and focuses instead on the effects of light and movement of the waves. Concurrently, the wide-spread use of photography inspires the work of realist painters, and offset printing — based on the same principle of lithography —, revolutionizes the production of printed materials and paves the way for mass-production. 

2013: In response to the many tragedies off the Italian coasts, the national government implements Mare Nostrum, a humanitarian and military operation aimed at recovering and rescuing migrants, and combatting human trafficking on Mediterranean routes.

2015: In anticipation of the increasing number of Asian shipping routes, an expansion of a segment of the Suez Canal is inaugurated.

This list of dates and events provides the time frame within which Keren Benbenisty’s (Isreal,1977) research has developed. Mare Nostrum explores the evolution of the sea in all its symbolic, cultural, and geopolitical connotations: beginning with connections to the principles of creation and destruction, the idea of the unknown journey, the unpredictability and power of natural forces, and man’s destiny, ulitimately arriving at contemporary political and military implications. These reflections are investigated in an oeuvre in which the works’ relationships to eachother result in a conceptual map that is articulated inside the gallery.

A trail, marked by years of discovery of lessepsian species in the Mediterranean, reveals itself to the viewer, materializing in a spatial timeline that summarizes a century and a half of sea migrations. The environment thus becomes, in its volumes, an analytical diagram as well as a container of meaning that can be interpreted on multiple levels.

The historical timeline line is echoed by the physical one of seascapes drawn with the artist’s fingerprints. Each panel represents one of the mid-end 19th century works by Courbet, painted in the same period as the opening of the Suez Canal in Egypt. Working with digital reproductions, the artist doubles the original format in order to restore an expanded and material version, revealing a very physical and instinctive approach to the image. While the iconographic motif is one of the most representative of the romantic tradition, the use of fingerprints introduces a reference to the biometric control systems of migratory movements, which the artist - an Israeli resident in the United States – has experienced several times.

An additional reference to art history — particularly to classical statuary, or rather to the incomplete view connected to the idea of a ruin and fragment — is present in the sculpture that represents a pedestal on which two life-sized swimfins are laid. Just as in the seascape series, the body is an absent protagonist, it is understood as a ghostly presence, which the viewer can only recognize through its traces. Carved in travertine — chosen for its ties to the history of Rome — its porosity declares a calcareous and aquatic origin, as its stratification tells us about the thousand-year history that shaped it, and the identity of the populations surrounding the Mediterranean.

The same tension between fluidity and density, stillness and movement, imbues the video where we see the artist’s fingers leaving their trace on an illuminated surface. In a sort of moving image, the fingerprints expand and give shape to an abstract composition. Once again, the tactile impression stands as the element through which the surface of things can be investigated in a meta-historical trajectory that connects the graffiti found in paleolithic caves to the screens of our smartphones.

Printed articles, chosen for their ability to be used as a method of disseminating knowledge and meaning, are often employed by Benbenisty as materials on which to intervene using subtraction, through a conceptual and pragmatic process of erasure. Eight pages from the“Manet and the Sea” exhibition catalogue from the Philadelphia Museum of Art have been partially manipulated in order to leave only the profiles of the boats on each sheet of paper. In a double reversal process from positive to negative, they were used to create the offset plate with which this brochure, an index and tool to guide the viewer’s understanding of Mare Nostrum, was printed. 

 

*  Mare Nostrum — Latin for "Our Sea” — was a Roman name for the Mediterranean Sea (from Wikipedia)