Image: Mandy El-Sayegh
Mandy El-Sayegh, Search/Operation: SummerRains/Autumn Clouds, 2019. Photo: Matthew Hollow. © Mandy El-Sayegh. Courtesy the artist
Museum Exhibitions

Mandy El-Sayegh Enfleshing

11 February—16 April 2023
Overbeck-Gesellschaft – Kunstverein Lübeck

Overbeck-Gesellschaft – Kunstverein Lübeck presents Enfleshing, the first solo exhibition in Germany by Mandy El-Sayegh. Situated in both the Overbeck-Pavillon and in St. Petri Church, this expansive presentation brings new works, created by the artist for these two sites, including
large-scale paintings and installations, moving-image and sound works. For the exhibition’s inauguration, El-Sayegh also presents a performance which will activate the installation in St Petri Church through movement (Friday 10 February,17:00).

Enfleshing denotes giving bodily form to something. In the context of the presentation within a church, this choice of title holds distinctly religious connotations of the spirit-become-flesh. The title is also a conscious reference and homage by El-Sayegh to the late British artist Helen Chadwick, whose series of works titled Enfleshings (1989) combines close-up images of human torsos with electric lights, referencing themes of gender and the body, as well as histories of how philosophy and. theology relate to the physical world.

Within El-Sayegh’s practice, Enfleshing also refers to a broader, long-running line of enquiry which  infuses her work across its variety of forms and media - that of the body in its many forms; in society; in science; in eroticism; as metaphor; as pathology; as an unruly object. El-Sayegh is deeply fascinated by the status and authority given to different bodies. Equally, she views her individual artworks as bodies, each made up of disparate fragments, with the task of the artist being to attempt to combine these fragments, always imperfectly, into a coherent whole. In St. Petri Church, large paintings composed of latex, silk and muslin, draped from the pillars and spreading across the floor, form a flesh-like ‘tunnel’ which visitors enter, accompanied by a collaged sound work, created by the artist in collaboration with composer Lily Oakes.

This enveloping of material is described by El-Sayegh as a ‘reskinning’ of the church, a gesture toward making it blank and neutral, erasing the symbolic and historical connotations with which such a space is loaded. But this neutrality is fictional: the paintings, which form part of El-Sayegh’s long-running White Grounds series are, on closer inspection, not white at all, but densely layered with  different tones, collaged with fragments of material collected in the artist’s studio, such as scraps of packaging, newspapers, cleaning rags, and artificial bank-notes.

The title White Grounds is, for the artist, a reference to the presumed ‘zero point’ from which painting, and all things, begin. El-Sayegh is interested in challenging the notion of neutrality in art, and within wider society, asking us to question whether we are all on the same ‘ground’ to begin with, and who is seen as ‘neutral’.

The use of latex, which El-Sayegh has developed in her work over many years, also holds complex symbolism. El-Sayegh is drawn to the material for its curious qualities - being organic, yet often appearing synthetic; preserving matter, while itself always in decay. As a commodity, latex also has a
fraught lineage, with colonial rubber plantations being sites of extraction, exploitation and violence in Africa, Asia and South America. This lineage also intersects with the artist’s personal history - her mother grew up in Malaysia, one of the main contemporary producers of natural rubber, and worked
as a child-labourer on a rubber plantation.

At the back of the church, in front of the altar, hangs another of the White Grounds paintings, onto which is projected a new video work by El-Sayegh, featuring close-ups of bodies - archive footage of skin ravaged by a nuclear explosion - intersecting with shots created by El-Sayegh of moving torsos:
her own and those of the performers she collaborates with. The artist’s hands paint onto them in white, in the same way as she paints her White Grounds works. These projected torsos intersect with the themes explored elsewhere in the show - the ecclesiastical surroundings, and the lineage and formality of history-painting, which El-Sayegh seeks to play with and disrupt. For the exhibition’s opening, this projection work will be the site of a performance, in which El-Sayegh’s collaborators, Chandenie Gobardhan and Chelsea Gordon, will activate the work through live movement.

In the Overbeck-Pavillon, the series of White Grounds paintings is continued, here presented more formally, stretched onto frames rather than draped, continuing the exploration of formalism in painting. Once again El-Sayegh has intervened the floor of the space, creating a layered installation
using pages from the Financial Times, a newspaper which has become a recognisable motif in many of her works, selected both for its status as an international authority on business and finance, and for the flesh-like tone of its pages. Latex is once again used on the floor, ‘trapping’ the newspaper pages along with screen-printed fragments of print and calligraphy and other archival materials collected by the artist.

Projections which echo those seen in St Petri Church are also on view within the pavilion, along with a steel vitrine table. Part of a series continued by El-Sayegh for many years, the table works resemble archival display cases, or autopsy tables. Holding assemblages of objects from the artist’s archive,
sourced from flea-markets, bookshops, found while travelling and from the personal possessions of El-Sayegh and her friends, the tables are composed in much the same way as her paintings. The groups of objects in the tables have a raw physicality, which the artist views as ‘abject’ in comparison
to the more cohesive surfaces of the paintings, though both contain a multitude of found sources. For El-Sayegh, the presence of these tables enables her to make the histories contained in the paintings more explicit - in terms of the physical objects and the process of assembly, and also symbolically in relation to the inherited and erased histories her research-based practice is concerned with.

Also on view in the pavilion are works by the artist incorporating reproductions from medical textbooks illustrating diseases and the marks they leave upon the body. These form another of the many tacit references to religious imagery within the show, conjuring representations of stigmata or
reliquaries. Such images are combined with reproductions from old auction catalogues showing paintings from modern and contemporary art sales. Combining the formality of canonical artworks with the fragmented body in states of abjection, these works encapsulate the thematic strands which
suffuse Enfleshing.

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