A Reading of Jonna Kina’s Somnivm (2018) by Ryan Blakeley
For any contemporary artist who may contemplate using Carrara marble in their work, there may be a certain sense of reverence when approaching that iconic stone. Certainly over the course of western art history it has accumulated a level of gravitas that few other materials have come close to. Perhaps most famously, it was from a piece of Carrara marble, put to one side and thought unusable, that Michelangelo carved his seminal figure David (1501 – 04). It is therefore incredibly exciting to see a contemporary artist return to this motif of traditional artistic excellence to explore, and challenge, and realign our perceptions.
In her contemporary re-engagement with this pearlescent mineral, Jonna Kina has made Carrara marble both the subject and medium of her work, constructing a conceptual dialogue that focuses on a history of the material different to the one commonly approached by formal art schools. One that has run parallel to that of its use for sculpting, yet has remained estranged from the lofty position that it holds within the canon of European tradition. For her latest work, Somnivm (2018), Kina has chosen to focus on the history of the quarries from which this famous marble is procured, being particularly influenced by her research on the Anarchist factions that developed at the Carrara quarries in the 19th century, and the part they played in the Lunigiana revolt of 1894. Kina responds to a duality that exists within the marble in the context of these two histories and their conflicting natures. She does this by using sculptural and filmic elements to highlight a sense of cultural detachment between industrialised modes of quarrying at Carrara and the artisanal usages of the marble that the quarries procure. As such, Kina’s approach to this ancient medium proposes thought on a rich conundrum of complex tensions that exist between culture, industry, and nature, and that ultimately exist between creation and destruction.
From the marble Kina has sculpted a retractor hydrobag: these metal bags are tools of the quarrying industry and are used to split up to 200 tons of marble away from the earth. However, any preconceptions that may be formulated from the item’s industrial function are subverted through the subtle grace of its description, which harks back to the golden ages of Carrara’s statuary production – to the imperial palaces of ancient Rome, and the Renaissance and Baroque masters with whom Carrara marble is now synonymous. At first glance the viewer may be led to believe that what they have been presented with is a cushion taken from beneath the head of a reclining Venus or sleeping cupid, yet on closer inspection the marble is found to be sculpted into an item of its own destruction, created using digitally driven, contemporary stone working techniques. We may therefore read this piece as a work of tense juxtaposition between the reality of industrial exploitation and the cultural aspirations that such exploitation feeds.
The film work that accompanies the sculpture takes these themes even further, extending them into the more ubiquitous tensions that exist between man and nature, order and chaos. The film was shot on location in Carrara and is composed of a series of long, poised shots of the manmade cliff faces and caves that have been sculpted over time to form the threshold of man’s influence on the surrounding area. Each shot is quiet and still, yet the scale of their subject matter makes each one sublime to behold. The destruction is real, yet so is the ingenuity and skill that brought it about and so the internal conflict continues whilst Kina, through her skilled handling of the subject matter, manages to keep her own position ambiguous. As with her previous works like Secret Words and Related Stories (2013 – 2016) and Arr. For A Scene (2017), Somnivm’s video takes the form of objective documentation and it is through this stylistic choice that the artist maintains her personal distance. However, like her previous works, the poetry of Kina’s composition takes Somnivm far beyond the realm of documentation. Here, she has chosen to doctor her shots of the quarry by digitally removing almost all elements that may evidence human activity at the sites – vehicles, equipment, power lines. This small act of fiction-making is transformative. Without these human elements a sense of the uncanny develops, an impression of timelessness, as though looking at an archaeological site where all that remains are the scars of human influence on the earth in a post-human world, at once familiar and unfamiliar. The poignance of this unnerving spectacle is heightened by the use of sound. With the projected imagery, or perhaps against it, she has chosen to play recordings that was recorded at the quarry so that the viewer is surrounded by the sounds of the natural environment in which the quarry sits, of the anarchy of wind, and water, flora and fauna. As such the projected image plane becomes a point at which the juxtaposition between anarchy and order tilts. The viewer is left between these two states in a meta-position between nature and man, without the comfort of being pushed either way by Kina’s influence. This state of suspension is testimony of her nuanced ability to weave kaleidoscopic tapestries of conceptual confrontation, without falling into the reassuring yet limiting simplistic binary embrace of didacticism.
Jonna Kina has developed an artistic practice that is focused on investigation. She exhibits her findings with a poetic yet objective and open visual language that activates her viewers, challenging them to think critically about what they are being presented with. The value of this proposition in today’s world of untrustworthy channels of information should not be underestimated. Her work, however, holds further complexity in its use of artifice to search for new perspectives and meaning. Kina reveals, manipulates, and disturbs systems that would otherwise be hidden by the finesse and craftsmanship inherent to the finished product, so that such products may be reevaluated. She creates a fictional, dream-like perspective so that she can manipulate and disturb the conventions on which our perceptions of the world are formed, so that we may find new meaning. Perhaps then, if we are to take anything from Somnivm, and indeed, from Kina’s oeuvre to date, it may be an understanding of the value of the alien perspective, of fictional viewpoints in non-fictional investigations, and the knowledge that these may help us to develop a better understanding of the world around us.
–Ryan Blakeley, curator and art historian based in London