Daiga Grantina: What Eats Around Itself at the New Museum

Daiga Grantina: What Eats Around Itself, The New Musuem, New York, 21 January 2020-17 May 2020.

Daiga Grantina: What Eats Around Itself,” 2020. Exhibition View: New Museum, New York. Image courtesy New Museum, New York. Photo: Toan Vu-Huu.

New York’s New Museum for Contemporary Art is hosting the first U.S. solo exhibition of the Latvian artist Daiga Grantina, with a single multi-piece sculptural installation entitled What Eats Around Itself. Grantina has exhibited internationally, especially in France, Germany, and Austria, and was recently the featured artist in the Latvian Pavilion of the 2019 Venice Biennale with her site-specific installation Saules Sun. Her New Museum installation, which includes both ground-based and suspended sculptural elements, occupies the gallery at the rear of the lobby space and is thus visible to museum visitors at a distance through the glass walls. However, it unfolds its startling ensemble of material and perceptual micro-environments only to those viewers who enter into the glass-enclosed space that surrounds Grantina’s sculptures like a large-scale terrarium or greenhouse. To experience the work more fully, including its rich tactile and textural evocations, one must step across the gallery threshold, to wander between the various pieces, and to stand amidst the variegated stations, taking in the discontinuous, shifting views they offer.

Grantina’s title references two organic metaphors, which in turn accrete thematic connotations and poetic resonances. The first and most direct is to lichens, which have a number of curious characteristics to which the artist alludes in her biomorphic sculptural forms and materials. Lichen are symbiotic composites of two different types of organism, algae or cyanobacteria and fungi, which makes them extremely variable in shape and color and also highly adaptable to even extreme, austere conditions. They photosynthesize their nutrients rather than extracting them from other plants, as parasitic growths would, or from the surrounding soil, as with other plants. Lichen can also propagate on a vast range of surfaces, from bare stones to the bark of trees to anchors from which they grow suspended in air. In themselves they thus constitute, across their own dynamically growing morphologies, microcosmic ecologies.

Daiga Grantina: What Eats Around Itself,” 2020. Exhibition View: New Museum, New York. Image courtesy New Museum, New York. Photo: Toan Vu-Huu

The second organic metaphor derives from Rainer Maria Rilke’s poetic trope of the rose, which is part of the poet’s exploration of interior feelings and forces expressed in externally unfolding shapes and form (or vice versa, his sensitive interpretations of the external forms of objects and creatures as indices of hidden inner forces that gave rise to their outward existence). Thus, for example, in his 1908 poem Das Rosen-Innere (The Rose’s Interior), Rilke describes the irresistible inner ripening and overflowing of forces that generates the petals and foliage of the flower in one immanent dynamic. Grantina references Rilke’s gravestone epitaph, which reads “Rose, o pure contradiction, desire / to be no one’s sleep under so many / lids” (translation by Stephen Mitchell, quoted in wall text). Yet in relation to the experience of What Eats Around Itself, the dream-room that Rilke’s blooming roses generate in The Rose’s Interior offers an even more appropriate analogue to the way in which Grantina’s sculptural units interact with their glass gallery-house, filling its emptiness with just-barely constrained energies:  “They can almost not contain // themselves; they let themselves //  be filled to bursting and overflow //  from inner space into day, which closes // itself ever more fully and more completely, // till the whole summer becomes // a room, a room in a dream.” (Translation mine, T.M.)

Daiga Grantina: What Eats Around Itself,” 2020. Exhibition View: New Museum, New York. Image courtesy New Museum, New York. Photo: Toan Vu-Huu

Grantina’s individual sculptural forms aptly mobilize such connotations of blossoming and growth to present themselves as autopoetic complexes of form, color, weight, and materiality. From a distance they appear as brightly colored, geometrically membered volumes, especially the large hanging units. Given their clearly organicist intentions, one’s first impression may be that they allude visually to the multi-dimensional vectoral compositions of Russian Constructivism. One discerns, for example, hints of El Lissitzky’s Prouns, or even more manifestly, of Tatlin’s counter-reliefs, in a unit composed of a bright orange cloth triangle, ribbed like a kite or wing, and connected to a pentagonal base by hanging strips of filleted plastic. Yet in their extravagant polychromatic palette and use of curved, looping, melting, sagging, folding, and striated forms in various plastic materials, Grantina’s molded forms even more strongly recall the elaborately painted aluminum, fiberglass, and plastic reliefs of the later Frank Stella. In his later work, Stella tensely play off shapes such as cylinders, cones, and loops against insistent painted stripes, swirls, and patches of color.

Grantina, in contrast, absorbs to a greater extent her color patterns into the immanence of the formed materials, as with her fringes of colored cloth accented with contrasting sewn thread or in her use—in one segment—of clear plastic through which delicate threads of purple billow, like drops of ink cascading and diffusing through a glass of water. She employs an astonishing range of materials, colors, and techniques to create local diversity as well as transversal communication within and among individual units. She composes her figures through their relation to gravity and curvilinear forces: suspended or exerting weight on the ground or a base; hanging, drooping, unfurling, folding, curving. She employs strongly textured material ranging from gelatinous to smooth to raw, and rough to fuzzy, as well as ostentatious interventions into the surface faktura (perhaps here, too, in a Constructivist echo), such as melting, tearing, hemming, ribboning, pocking, molding, and attaching painted wooden blocks to surfaces. The color and modes of application are equally various, including reds, yellows, whites, oranges, blacks, and purples applied in mottles and blotches, dyed into cloth and thread, stained into other materials, paint-brushed or sprayed on.

Daiga Grantina: What Eats Around Itself,” 2020. Exhibition View: New Museum, New York. Image courtesy New Museum, New York. Photo: Toan Vu-Huu

This diversity of techniques lends Grantina’s different stations a strong sense of individuality and definition, despite the deliquescence of their external outline as one more closely approaches them and experiences their hidden pockets and stark heterogeneity of materials and patterns. Yet they also metaphorically suggest a sort of space of non-human “intersubjectivity.” Grantina’s sculptural units communicate across spatial gaps that extend from one to another, entering into an enigmatic, silent dialogue—a murmuring in the forest of fabricated things. Viewers, in turn, may become party to this communication by recognizing their own perception as the channel of an unlikely translation between unfamiliar beings.  Collectively, Grantina’s sculptures stand in changing relations of adjacency—or to use John Cage’s term, “neighboring”—whereby degrees of spatial separation, differences of scale, and formal distinctions may be measured against intimations of connection, such as similarities of color, the incorporation of common formal or material elements, or simply the shifting of relations in the perceptual field of the viewer standing and moving around among them. There are rich implications of community between these enigmatic objects—albeit an “inoperative” community in which the “work,” the unity of the work of art is put at risk. No encompassing formal, thematic, or perceptual frame is able to provide more than a highly partial, perspectivally limited field of connections, soon to be reconfigured once the focus of attention or the physical position of the viewer’s body turns in other directions.

It is this latter feature of the exhibit which, finally, conjures a metaphorically rich temporal dimension to the installation, suggesting interleaved rhythms of growth and withering, hardening and softening, filling and emptying that are distributed across an ecological field of plastic elements. Grantina may even sound a faint epochal note here, suggesting a post-extinction world in which not only do skin, flesh, bone, hair, cartilage, scales, chitin, and cellulose undergo evolutionary pressures to bear nature’s evolving diversities of forms and colors, but so too—beyond their original human fabricator—the resins, silicas, gels, fabrics, foams, and concretes we humans have bestowed upon the earth. While Grantina’s exhibit may indeed evoke Rilke’s rose-filled “room in a dream,” or imagine the rose’s elegiac “no one’s sleep under so many / lids”—the accent has, if we are attentive, shifted from Rilke’s contradictory poetic flower to a different sort of artistic bloom. In her What Eats Around Itself, Grantina may offer us an anticipatory elegy of our own mass extinction, while for a fragile moment imagining flowers of precarious life that may yet survive beyond the human.

Tyrus Miller
Tyrus Miller is dean of the School of Humanities and a professor of English and Art History at University of California, Irvine. He is the author and editor of several books on modernism and the avant-garde, including Late Modernism: Politics, Fiction, and the Arts Between the World Wars (1999); Singular Examples: Artistic Politics and the Neo-Avant-Garde (2009), and Modernism and the Frankfurt School (2014). He is co-editor of the György Lukács Library of the Historical Materialism Series, Brill Press, and edited and translated for the series Lukács’s post-World War II essays in Hungarian, The Culture of People’s Democracy: Hungarian Essays on Literature, Art, and Democratic Transition1945-1948 (2013).