“Proximities, a rehearsal, an archive,” a solo exhibition by Serbian artist Katarina Zdjelar (she/her), invites a pluralistic relationship to context. This exhibition is one point on a much larger spectrum of Zdjelar’s research into transgenerational artistic forces that came before her, namely Dore Hoyer (1911-1967) and Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945). However, “Proximities” could also be experienced without a drop of context and still provoke plenty of curiosities about the relationships unfolding across its various touchstones. The exhibition’s curator, Lucy Cotter (she/her), invited me to preview Zdjelar’s exhibition, which has since gone on view at Oregon Contemporary and will run through January 2, 2022.
Upon entering the gallery, I found a resting place in front of a prominent looping video—one facet of Zdjelar’s multi-channel piece, Not a Pillar not a Pile (Tanz für Dore Hoyer) (2017). In this particular video, the arms of several individuals were filmed close-up, moving in connection to one another. As I watched, I was struck by their searching, sensitive hands. I thought about my own hands and the ways I use them. They protect me. They allow me insight into the energetic and physical state of whatever I may come into contact with. They provide me with the information I need to calculate my next movement—be it a choice to trust, receive, or withdraw.
After watching Zdjelar’s video for long enough, the iterative mechanics of the moving hands felt more apparent to me. I sensed the nuanced articulation of the little phalange bones in each of the fingers and the folding metacarpals of the many palms. These motions signaled states of both openness and resistance. Fingers curled in here and there, locking together and doubling down on a shared grasp. I saw a number of arms with pale skin and a set of arms with much darker skin. My mind drifted to hypervisibility, and I wondered: Who is doing the most as this whole thing plays out? Whose hands are supporting and whose are being supported? Shifts continued to unfold across the limbs, changing up the dynamics again and again.
The other videos that comprise Zdjelar’s Not a Pillar not a Pile (Tanz für Dore Hoyer) were dispersed throughout the dark atmosphere of the exhibition space. Their bright imagery contrasted with a series of grainy printed photos of hands and feet, which curved and popped out amongst shadows. Strange gouges in the back wall of the exhibition provided a curious backdrop, forming shapes of elusive but intentional design. Cotter explained to me that these gouges were plotted out by Zdjelar, who could not be present for the exhibition installation due to travel restrictions. Portland-based artist Curtis Reid Henderson exacted the marks.
Each disparate element of “Proximities” seemed to me to be bizarrely related in aesthetic tone, as if indicating subterranean levels of psychic connection across its parts. Zdjelar’s crisp videos featured dancers, activists, and performers, whom she had brought together for embodied exploration as part of her ongoing research. Zdjelar’s cinematography offered attention to detail in concert with the other exhibition elements.
Cotter has followed Zdjelar’s work since 2009 and gained intimate insight into Zdjelar’s praxis through their continued correspondence and collaborative endeavors. Cotter said of Zdjelar’s work: “Politically, it’s very interesting because it moves away from a kind of political manifesto or an identitarian politics…but at the same time, it understands the depths to which we are political subjects and the physical reality of that.”
“Proximities” is seeded with Zdjelar’s prolonged process of research into the archives of dancer and choreographer Dore Hoyer. Hoyer created works with a company of dancers in post-World War II Dresden, laboring in impoverished conditions in the remains of Mary Wigman’s bombed studio. In turn, Hoyer drew influence from elder German visual artist Käthe Kollwitz, whose work dealt heavily with concerns of women and class struggle around the turn of the 20th century.
The dark photos of hands and feet that subtly punctuate “Proximities” were excerpted from the archive of Hoyer’s own work, Tanz für Käthe Kollwitz, translated Dance for Käthe Kollwitz. So it happened that Hoyer made dance for Kollwitz, and now Zdjelar has made dance for Hoyer—(Tanz für Dore Hoyer). This transgenerational chain of influence comes to bear in a way that feels both palpable and mysterious.
The gouges on the exhibition’s back wall bemused me. This strange component of the exhibition made sense in relation to all its other components—but it was not clear why. Cotter directed me to a book depicting Kollwitz’s work, and the connection to the gouges on the wall became clear. In The Mothers Kollwitz’s gouges into the woodblock render a collective embrace of deep emotion. Cotter informed me that she had actually attempted to secure several works of Kollwitz’s from the Portland Art Museum’s collection to present as part of Proximities, works which have been tucked away from public eye for decades, but the museum did not have the capacity to oblige.
Context is always in play, regardless whether it is named or known. “Katarina’s work, it’s not utopian, you know,” said Cotter, clarifying, “It’s also not dystopian.” As we broached the theme of rehearsal in Zdjelar’s video work, she mused, “[Y]ou come up against everything when you try to make something happen together.”
All the details and fragments of “Proximities” help narrow the gaps across time that run between its touchstones, creating a kind of tensegrity with one another. The vanishing materiality of the gouged wall hearkens to the loss involved in all kinds of war, including class war. The poignant grainy images of hands and feet call in the disciplined femme labor from Hoyer’s time. And Zdjelar’s close-up videos suggest that the entirety of any of these relationships and experiences will never be fully “in frame”—but will always be ghosting in the scene. In this way, “Proximities” allowed me to feel its missing pieces and to sense its varied connections that will continue evolving in the wake of all that has been subtracted.
A reception for “Proximities” and the concurrent exhibition WATER:NFS will be held at Oregon Contemporary, November 6, 5-8PM. “Proximities” is on view through January 2nd.
Our visual arts coverage is made possible in part by support from The Ford Family Foundation’s Visual Arts Program.