// A pregnant woman wishing her child to be beautiful must look at beautiful objects
Solo Show, Pawel Susara Museum of Contemporary Art, Bucharest, Romania
(3rd October – 3rd November 2019)
The art of contagion
Contagion is all around you. The air you breathe, the action of sunlight on your skin, the words you absorb, garble and regurgitate in conversations and dreams — all of this constitutes a complex economy of exchange and inter-permeation, between your body and its physical and social environment.
Viewing yourself in this light, as a bodily, interacting thing, you feel a certain humility. Whatever confidence or bluster you embody in daily life, arranging to meet someone new, sending a decisive email, dropping an HP Laser Jet 600 printer out of the office window, you can only ever stem the tide, bend and redirect what is always already happening.
In some cases you seek to turn things away altogether. Like a bouncer at the door of a nightclub, patting people down, going through their stuff and checking IDs, you attend to tell-tale qualities, looking for a certain texture of glass bottle or plastic bag, a certain glint or hardness of metal, a look of too-young naivety. On the basis of these qualities you say “yes” or “no”, working for and yet basically alienated from the world inside the club you help create. Like the bouncer, you say no to certain foods, you wash your hands and your body when you get home at night, you vape on the balcony, draped in a towel, observing the nightly augury of foxes as they rearrange the contents of bins along the road. All of this projects forwards, embedding your habits with wishes to be certain way, to wake up in the morning to another world. And yet, as for the bouncer, these things are also work. They are just what you do. Like work, your rituals against contagion go on and on, demanding constant renewal.
In other cases, you try to say yes without reservation. The sunbather stripping off on a spit of rock, bearing her skin to the sun for hours on end, commits to cellular transformation, becoming at a molecular level statue-like, bronzed. Sunbathing is nothing if not a long, drawn-out, cellular “yes”.
In still other cases, you yourself seek to be a source of contamination.
Loulou Siem is an artist who contaminates her materials. The fingers, thumbprints and faces, the feet and eyes, scrunched up, gouged out — applying these signs of bodily feeling, touching, self-awareness in works of sculpture, print, film, jewelry and installation, Siem generates transgressions between the realms of the inanimate and the living. Like the work of a modern day Doctor Frankenstein, her glazed heads strain to be recognised as human, formed and beautiful at one moment — at the next to return to the sublime, undefined world of raw material from which they have been extracted.
There is something golem-like in this struggle. An automaton-figure of Jewish folklore, the golem represents the alchemy of life itself — clay drawing breath. The golem was a prototype for Mary Shelley’s monster and is, as Suzanne Livingston and Steve Goodman have recently explored, a precursor to the making of artificial intelligence in computers. Like the golem, Siem’s works inhabit what the late theorist Mark Fisher called the ‘gothic flatline’: a ‘plane where it is no longer possible to differentiate the animate from the inanimate and where to have agency is not necessarily to be alive’.
Where to have agency is not necessarily to be alive — Siem creates that kind of place.
The title of her new show, ‘A pregnant woman wishing her child to be beautiful must look at beautiful objects’, embodies this possibility, of objects — and particularly objects that bear the signature, the contamination, of another — acting on you.
The line is lifted from Watermark, an essay by Joseph Brodsky in which the author recalls his memories of passing a series of seventeen winters in Venice. Brodsky’s is a Venice of canals that are dark and forbidding, of dust-encrusted, barely reflective mirrors, shadowy palaces lit from within with the glimmer of gold. Even as he struggles to find his way into the city’s imagined inner sanctum — the real Venice — Brodsky finds himself permeated, his dreams and writings issuing forth with portentous similarity to his surroundings, like a tide moving out of the city, like printer ink spreading across tarmac and smashed plastic, like the contents of bins rearranged along the road at night by foxes, like the offspring of a future mother attending diligently to objects of beauty.
 Esther Leslie, Liquid Crystals: The Science and Art of a Fluid Form (London: Reaktion, 2016), p. 9.
 Suzanne Livingston and Steve Goodman, ‘More Than Human: Exploring AI, Sound, and the Golem In It with Kode9 and Suzanne Livingston’, https://032c.com/kode9-and-suzanne-livingston [accessed 20.6.19].
Mark Fisher, Flatline Constructs: Gothic Materialism and Cybernetic Theory-Fiction (New York: Exmilitary, 2018), p. 2.
 Joseph Brodsky, Watermark (London: Penguin, 2013).