Neringa Vasiliauskaitė, Haut Muster, 2020. Exhibition view at Editorial, Vilnius.
Photography: Ugnius Gelguda
Neringa Vasiliauskaitė follows the flow of materials, to borrow a phrase from anthropologist Tim Ingold. The artist had originally trained in glass, where proficiency and technique depend on a careful calibration of body, materials and environment. You are not allowed to make mistakes with glass, Vasiliauskaitė remembers.
Her new body of work, ‘Haut Muster’ is on one level different. It was made by a series of gestures – scratching, bleaching, cutting, remaking, extending – and involved spur of the moment decisions as she worked dynamically with the materials. And yet, this making also involved the inter-relationship of gesture, body and materials, as they worked through and alongside one another. Vasiliauskaitė’s touch, configured by different bodily techniques, like cutting and scrubbing and stitching, is itself touched by the varying surfaces of the materials she works with. It is this reciprocity of touch that brings these assemblages into being. In a way, her works become the evidence or trace of the processes by which the artist’s body extends itself into the materials with which it is surrounded and the ways in which these materials themselves are incorporated into the body in action. If Vasiliauskaitė is dealing with surfaces like skin in her work, she challenges a long-standing assumption dominant in Western culture that surface is merely something to be worked on and exists only as a passive recipient of action or form. Looking at her works, we can sense how surfaces are complex and evolving sites of exchange.
As Elizabeth Grosz has observed, we can re-think of dualisms (surface – depth, body – mind, object – space etc.) as a kind of moebius strip, where each term, like inside and outside, are connected along one continuous surface. From this perspective, surfaces like the skin aren’t merely boundaries of a body; they act as passages of exchange between inside and outside. Skin contains the body, but it also contains within it the environment in which that body is situated.
Thinking of skin as always in process and as a site of exchange disrupts attempts to fix skin according to certain rules of legibility and meaning. In a material culture dominated by consumerism and certain forms of oppressive power, skin has often been fixed and made to signify specific meanings as a form of control. This is especially the case for women, teenagers, the aged and racialised subjects. This control also has an impact on ways of using the body. For example, the pressure to have clean, smooth skin, leads to a set of (often costly) practices of cleaning and consuming certain products and rituals. Having clean, smooth skin, itself has been fixed as an indication of health, success and socio-economic status. But as Sarah Ahmed and Jackie Stacey remind us in their book, ‘Thinking Through Skin’ (2001), ‘skin becomes rather than is simply meaningful’. This becoming meaningful is shaped by certain socio-cultural forces and forms of power.
Incorporating clothing labels and materials that have a particular set of associations as well as a variety of production processes, Vasiliauskaitė’s ‘Haut Muster’ allows us to understand skin as always being assembled and disassembled in processes of meaning as well as embodied experience and agency. In other words, Vasiliauskaitė looks at surfaces like skin as something with and through which to think and act, not merely as something to break through or decode in order to reach inner meaning. This is perhaps the power of seeing skin as a type of patterning (as her title, which is translated as Skin Patterns suggests we might do). This is because it demonstrates how skin is not a stable surface. Rather it is something whose meaning and the ways it makes us act, depend on different configurations, whose particular patterns of relations are informed by systems of power, sociality, emotion and bodily agency.
– Yates Norton