She, who sees. On the works of Jessica Fertonani Cooke

FROM LANDSCAPE TO MYTH

Jessica Cooke was born in Brazil, in 2010 she moved to Berlin and later earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Arts. In 2016, Cooke received a Master’s of Fine Arts Degree from the Berlin University of the Arts and her MFA at the San Francisco Art Institute in 2018. Working in a variety of mediums, Cooke is interested in the friction between science and magic, in weaving narratives and creating antidotes to the dehumanizing conditions of a world always in crisis. 

Her current practice can be split in two main bodies of work that complement each other: first, performances, and video performances, in which she uses her bare body, situated either outdoors or in gallery spaces; second, her video and films, which are pregnant with natural landscapes and organisms. In Cooke’s collection of nature, one encounters monumental landscapes, such as the region of Olafsfjordur in Iceland, other times, one finds small-scale and hypnotic aesthetic narratives, such as glimmering algae dancing in a deep sea. Cooke’s series of video-performances Fall I, Fall II, and Fall III are experiments in falling. In Fall I, Cooke appears naked on the bottom of a hill––she is surrounded by green grass, rock, and foliage. The performance consists of her body leaning forward just to break onto the floor. While Cooke repeats a series of movements that lead to intentional falling, spectators realize that every action is a new action, every fall is a new fall. Although they all look like part of the same sequence of actions (leaning forward, slipping and falling), Cooke “fails” in predicting the way her body will fall, but also in avoiding making purely random gestures. In this work, the action and the body are trapped between purpose and chance, as if Cooke were stuck inside a crystal ball, bound to repeat the same movement and also failing to do so.

In Fall III, her figure can be recognized filmed far away from the camera: tiny, she stands on the top of a beach’s cliff. Cooke faces the sea under cloudy sky and over crashing waves. At the verge of falling from the cliff, the artist purposely allows her body to break over the green soil, reaching just the right distance to avoid a double fall: first onto the ground and then into the sea. In this series, one realizes that Cooke’s body becomes a structuring element of the category “landscape.” Because the viewer is positioned too far away from the artist’s action, one is captivated by what one cannot really see: the details of that gorgeous setting, or the wind blowing against Cooke’s hair and breasts. That unbreakable distance––a clash between time and space––becomes everything.

But to perceive the impossibility of seeing it all, is also to perceive that Cooke’s camera purposely transforms her into a minuscule silhouette. In relation to the scale of the entire landscape, her naked body becomes a dominant, vertical, and defining aesthetic feature of that territory. She sees the land and in doing so she controls it. One can understand Fall III as an exercise in reclaiming landscape: how does one transform nature in landscape? What are the limits of that landscape? How to test them? How to interfere with them?

Cooke deploys a similar tactic in The Map is Not the Territory in which she appears running against the course of a turbulent river in Switzerland. Her naked body endures both low temperatures and the running and climbing over rocky formations on one side of the river. I can see the rocks are wet and that Cooke could fall into the river at any moment, if she had slipped. The camera follows her steps from afar, trembling, zooming in or out, fearing her fall. How far she can go without falling? What are the limits both of her body and of its interaction with that territory?

Unlike the will to tame nature, to mold it into landscape, it seems that what Cooke really wants is to speak the language of the wild. She fights the river only to show she cannot really “tame it,” but that she can be with it, learn from the texture of the rocks underneath her feet, trust those wild elements that open wide to her touch. As she reaches an unreachable rock or a falling point and decides to turn back, I realize that in this work falling is only feasible, but never fulfilled.

One could understand Cooke’s Fall series as this artist’s take on Sisyphean exercises, embedded in a history of performance. This history includes works such as early Bruce Nauman’s performances, with his repetitive actions of walking “in an exaggerated manner” in his studio to test its space, or more specifically Bas Jan Ader’s “failure” exercises outdoors, such as Broken Fall (Organic). But I would say that in Cooke’s Fall series, actions are not win-lose metaphors against western notions of success. Hers are mimetic exercises, part of a broader dialectics: to become bi-lingual in speaking both the languages of reason and of nature.

SEEING BONES, AND A PURSUIT

Cooke’s pursuit of a space in-between nature and reason, continues in He, who sees from 2015, even though the artist shifts her aesthetic approach significantly. Here, Cooke’s own body is not as evident as it is in other works, instead, it is as if it had been metamorphosed into other kinds of bodies: the work shows a sequence of bones, skulls, tools, and animals’ corpses in process of putrefaction, seen half-buried lying over soil covered by bright snow. 

The video begins with the sound of strong winds blowing into an Icelandic landscape: a dark sky falls over a frozen horizon. Next, I see a gigantic and opulent snowy mountain. Dozens of birds fly around that mountain, as if circling a pole of energy. The scene shifts to a close up of waves breaking onto rocks, while the wind still blows, fiercely. An abrupt cut takes me into another scene: I see bones of an animal or a human, from above, flattened, as if they were part of an architectural blueprint of death. A woman’s computerized voice begins to speak in pseudo-scientific language––I amunsure if what the voice says holds any scholarly validation,

“The part with which he sees comprehends the figure seen.
This light-sensitive sensory structure exists in all animals,
nearly all vertebrates, most arthropods and some mollusks.
It is called the image-forming organ of sight and it lives in
a bony orbit of the skull. The organ was given as one of
the four elements of the alchemists.”

After displaying animal bones, the scene shifts to a hammer, and back to birds’ skulls. These shifts, combined with the voiceover, suggest a correspondence between the manmade and natural, or the relationships between modified tools and nature end-products: corpses and putrefaction. The “scientific” riddles continue: one could understand the woman’s dull voiceover as an examination of the image sequence of bones, stones, and other natural elements laid out over snow, but the script only vaguely re-counts what one sees, leaving behind always an awkward gap, a surplus, or lack of meaning. While the images speak the language of the wild, of things detached from humanity, the narrative speaks of transformation, human interference and analysis.

Part of the mystery in the work is due to Cooke’s intentional codification: she arranged images, symbols, and narration in order to re-tell an excerpt of The Prose Edda, one of the most important works of literature in Norse mythology, written in the 11th century. Cooke developed the video while in a residency in Iceland, during which she finished reading the Edda. According to the tale, the god Odin had to lose one of his eyes, hanged underneath a tree for nine days, and faced death all in order to achieve his desired wisdom. But instead of re-telling the myth, the artist decided to translate the narrative using a scientific language, therefore creating a code that conceals the mythological origin of the manuscript. The notion of Odin’s sacrifice lies implicit in this work: as if flesh were buried underneath the snow, among the vestiges of bodies and bones, all given as sacrifice to the knowledge received: death leading to transformation.

In He who sees, Cooke enacts the language of scientific complexity, but she also dodges it to recodify the rising of science, its emergence out of the tradition of magic, which is represented by Odin’s tale. The corpses, the bones, the tools, the stones in her work seem to predict a time in which spells, charms, and amulets were progressively replaced by Wunderkammers, cabinets of curiosity. Or, one could say the work re-enacts a time when magic was replaced by an––overconfident––objective mode of thinking and its obsession for collecting death and otherness. The west’s archive-mania turned out to be just one of the shaping tools for the normative discourses of domination over the Other’s knowledges, such as myths, or indigenous traditions. Cooke’s work speaks of this shift.

ABOUT WESTERN BINARIES AND HOW TO BREAK WITH THEM

But before I implicate the artist’s work in binaries such as nature and culture, madness and reason, wildness and domestication, it is important to briefly remember the role of art history in contributing to the formation of those binaries, so that I can re- situate Cooke’s work in relation to this past. As a predominantly western practice, art history emerged as a discipline with modernity, in the late 19 th century. Figures such as Heinrich Wöfflin and his attempts to objectively categorize art, transformed art history into a field in which objects and images entered only to be desacralized and isolated from their diverse social functions.

With time, both colonizing and, mostly, colonized cultures and their aesthetic productions were separated from the social to the realm of art. Beyond that split, modern distinctions progressively emerged, such as the notions of the ugly and the beautiful, or constructions that shaped the natural landscape,(*FOOT NOTE 1) such as the pastoral or the sublime. The “colonized”––both nature and bodies––entered into the predominant western disciplines to be objectively analyzed: the latter measured and racialized, bound to inhabit what Foucault called the Panopticon, while the former had to be studied in its capacity to be controlled and exploited by humanity, later capitalized as resource. 

(*FOOT NOTE 1- Mitchell: Landscape is a natural scene mediated by culture. It is both represented and presented space, both a signifier and signified, both a frame and what a frame contains, both a real place and its simulacrum, both a package and the commodity inside a package.”)

When transferred into the realm of art history, cultural objects (*FOOT NOTE 2) have been stripped from their spiritual, mythological, ritualistic functions and have been often scrutinized in terms of style, provenance, and iconography. But from the late 20 th century onwards, historians and scholars have sought to decolonize art history by engaging in postcolonial critiques. This on-going, necessary, critique of art history as a discipline means that one cannot look at Cooke’s work without considering this shift. In regard to her practice, one needs to ask, what does it mean for this young artist to conflate these historically deemed opposite poles: science and magic, nature and culture? What does it mean to speak of the mythological, the spiritual, if art historians in the past have either categorized these practices as non-secular, or dismissed them in the 1960s and 1970s as “new-agey”? I will return to these questions later. 

(*FOOT NOTE 2 - If Byzantine icons would come alive through early Christian prayers and Ere Ibejis would honor the dead in Yoruba beliefs, in different moments all these practices had to somehow fit into art history and its categories. This is not to say that objects produced in Africa or non-western world were easily “accepted” into art history or through the same means and at the same time of Christian iconography, but eventually the discipline promoted the integration of cultural objects, formally analyzed and categorized to fit the art museum’s or the natural history museum’s departments, most often considered “primitive.”8)

SPIRIT ANIMALS AND CRYSTAL BALLS 

In Wolf Sanctuary, as if honoring Joseph Beuys, Cooke paid a visit to a group of wolves that live in captivity in a sanctuary called Wolf Connection, in the village of Acton, one-hour from Los Angeles —those animals that had been raised into forced domestication but “failed” to be tamed. Cooke goes into their caged spaces and kneels next to them, mostly without moving, waiting for them to approach. A gray female lies down next to her but human and wolf do not yet interact. The wind blows Cooke’s and the wolf’s hair. In another scene, a majestic black wolf finally comes closer to Cooke’s
kneeling figure. The artist touches him, letting her fingers move through his velvety furry dark coat. Instead of ritualistic following a coyote, like Beuys did in the past, Cooke seeks them, and limits her space to understand their own space, as if speaking their language: the lexicon of those in-between tame and wild.

In I call the Snake, Cooke appears in an enclosed and almost pitch-black space fed by a distant and fainting light source. One can barely see she is naked and that her skin is covered by a body paint that suggests indigeneity. She performs a private ritual, blowing into an almost unseen container to make fire. The recording emits only a few sounds, but as she continuously blows into the vessel her pixelated image starts to blink and pulsate, as if the spectator participated with her of a trance—the calling of the snake. What ancestral knowledge is she calling for? Is she indigenous? Is she appropriating indigeneity by creating her own ritual? Because the moving image is pixelated and dark, Cooke emulates the aesthetics of a trance, and beyond that, the video becomes a trance-like mental image, as if seen only in imagination. In doing so, Cooke partially escapes the violent history of indigenous peoples’ impersonation, even though flirting with shamanism as a practice. In both Wolf Sanctuary and I call the Snake, one finds present narratives of indigeneity: a pursuit of the sacred, of reverence and healing.

In Re Space, Cooke conflates her Fall series with other narrative-type works, such as He who sees. The film opens with what looks like a green tropical forest that progressively dissolves into a bright blue background. That color field segways into an image of a different forest. High regal trees appear covered by heavy snow and surrounded by dense fog, a scene that is played backwards. Am I being transported to another time, another place, another life? I am immersed in nature and meditation, seeking to touch it. My mind has time to wander, my eyes have time to see.

The music playing is Wagner’s Tristan & Isolde; again, a European mythological narrative, this time with Celtic origins. I feel I am in a crystal ball, watching myself being moved from place to place. A stunning image catches my eyes: sparkly aquatic plants, like emerald women’s long hair swing gently with the flow of the river, they lull me forward into the charm of the crystal ball. A second curious image emerges: now it is dark grayish real human hair that takes the entire screen so that I can see its texture, perfectly. Zooming out, I see Cooke’s body buried under soil—she breathes, raising the earth up and down, as if she were one with the dirt. Her flesh, limbs, and hair all become bound to that earth, forever connected to it by a sort of charm. She breathes, and I breath, the earth remains. The film ends with a dark screen and white circular mental images that replicate into my mind’s eye. I borrow that trance: that crystal ball is now mine.

AFTERWORD

In 1984, Ana Mendieta buried herself in a mound of dirt somewhere in Mexico. She poured pounder inside the remaining negative shape of her body against the soil; she set the mound on fire and filmed it. The images of her gesture echoed through time as an evidence of her life-death sealed with the earth. In 1974, Joseph Beuys moved in into the Rene Block Gallery at 409 West Broadway in New York to live with a coyote for three
days. The photographs that registered the performance, I Like America and America Likes Me became the most famous images of Beuys’ work.(*FOOT NOTE 3) In 1976, Lygia Clark returned to Brazil after years living in Paris; still during a military regime, Clark created a therapeutic method of her own and sought to heal her clients by providing them with the experience of what she previously considered art objects. The image of a client’s hand holding a stone remains as a vestige of both madness and cure. 

(*FOOT NOTE 3- Levi Strauss, Between Dog and Wolf, 36.)

Cooke’s work is impregnated by a nostalgic approach to the history of performance. Her naked body and her longing for the wild are deeply connected to the practices of artists who marked the late 1960s and 1970s, such as Mendieta, Beuys, and Clark. On the other hand, Cooke’s return to a moment of crisis such as the “end” of modernity––or the longing for the body and the land, the will to heal and break away from a world full of war and genocide––speaks of a necessary continuation of the postcolonial critique. In the postcolonial approach that criticizes the foundations of art history, binaries should be reviewed and re-accessed, constantly, to prevent forms of present-day colonial thinking: objects that have been ordinarily secularized can continue to be recognized in the realm of art history and visual culture, but they should “regain” their spiritual and social significations.

In this sense, by looking at these sublimated indigenous traditions––of both the indigenous Americas and Europe––Cooke engages in exploring the zones of conflict which the discipline of art history sought to eliminate. That elimination defined which modes of knowledge took predominance throughout history, such as science, in detriment of others, sublimated, such as magic, shamanism, and myths. One must think of Cooke’s
conflation of reason and madness, magic and science, not as contradictory or a polarizing gesture, but actually as an attempt to reconnect elements that naturally belong to each other.

In her works, folktales have the same importance as history, fairytales are as measurable as is scientific methodology, and a trance is as enlightening as when on looks through a microscope’s lens. Artists such as Cooke, who enact the history of performance and its spiritual legacies today, ask of us, writers and scholars, to move beyond past easy analyzes that have framed these practices as part of a New Age era, stripped of rigor and criticality. It means that, when one looks at these works, one must be one who sees, and one who sees beyond binaries.

The world is changing. We can feel it happening under and above our skins, when heat and anger, both higher than usual, impregnate our cities and spirits; when the storms and hate speeches are longer and stronger than they seemed to be; or as we notice those old, normally fierce trees falling too easily due to rotten roots, inundated by overwhelming floods and human dishonesty: no soil or souls can hold them. The normative western, objective, lens over nature has failed: we now find no handling manual to deal with extreme corruption. But we can resist this “fall” by deploying imagination. That is why artists such as Cooke are essential vectors of resistance: they offer us relief and a change of imagination, in-between image-making, making-feeling, and soul-healing.

Tatiane Schilaro Santa Rosa

Tatiane Schilaro Santa Rosa, Creative Director at AnnexB, is a Brazilian-born art writer and independent curator. She is a 2018-19 Whitney Museum Independent Study Program participant, and a Ph.D. Candidate in Visual Studies at the University of California Santa Cruz. She graduated in 2015 with an MFA from the Art Criticism and Writing Master’s Program at the School of Visual Arts, and has an MA in Art History, Contemporary Art from Sotheby’s Institute of Art. She has curated shows at A.I.R. Gallery, NARS Foundation, Fundação Pró- Memória in São Paulo, and ArteActual FLASCO, in Quito. Her essays and reviews have been published by Guernica, ARTnews, Artcritical, Hyperallergic, LatinxSpaces, and NewCityBrazil. From 2017 to 2018 she was a visiting faculty at the San Francisco Art Institute, CA.