The birth of Black and White
ceramic sculptures, birch tar, steel
"A mingled perfume, half animal, half vegetable emanated from them; the perfume of their blood and of the gardenias …- which all wore in their hair."
Paul Gauguin on the woman residents of Tahiti, Noa Noa
"The Birth of Black and White" is a meeting place of suffocating sensuality, suggestive realism and a classical reticence of composition. Branas marries, as he has done more than once before, a conceptual gesture, (post)minimalist form and the expressive charge inherent in them. The artist purchased a life-size, ceramic children’s head, belonging previously to a larger composition, in a Prague used-bookstore. Symptomatically and somewhat humorously, the composition was, most likely, the birth of Christ. After all the staffage was knocked off, a grimace remained, a penetrating scream, which does not resemble a portent of ‘good news’. It is purely, crudely biological – incarnation in its fullness. The scream is echoed by a black plaster copy, forged by the artist, multiplied in a smooth surface of wood tar, and returns in a closed loop. A binary order emerges from a dense chaos, hard matter – from a sticky, fluid abyss. Branas demonstrates the moment of division with a sensual power of ritual and a precision of vivisection; attacking our nostrils, disorienting us as much as dishing out in plain sight all his jigsaw puzzles. Myth’s ethereal charm encounters a dispassionate exactitude of an encyclopaedic entry.
Peculiarly pleasant smell of wood tar soon becomes intrusive in high concentration. The substance, which had for centuries been produced by dry distillation of wood and bark in holes in the ground, was once ubiquitous. The world of industrial revolution and specialised medicine emerged from a world covered in sticky, black slime. It was used to cure all sorts of ailments, to waterproof wood, oil wheels, impregnate fabrics. Peasants’ everyday life abounded in wood tar, but the substance, as a crucial export good in the Polish Commonwealth from the 15th to the 19th century, also drove the wheels of feudal exploitation. The alchemy transmutation of wood into a cure carried on to its ultimate form of gold in noblemen’s pouches. But black and white is not just ‘peasants’ and ‘masters’.
"They were monstrous … adumbrations of the pithecanthropoid and amoebal; vaguely moulded from some stinking viscous slime of earth’s corruption ... ."
H. P. Lovecraft on New York migrants, a letter to Frank Belknap Long
Paul Gaugain’s Tahitian journals Przemek sent me are entitled Noa Noa, which means ‘very fragrant’ in the Maohi. The French painter found ‘very fragrant’ in Tahiti not only items of tropical plant-life, but also, obviously, bodies of its residents; his young wahine (wife)’s body, in particular. Gaugin’s enthusiasm for the culture, exotic – from his perspective, is undeniable. Even if the enthusiasm was (often) colonial in spirit, it was colonialism’s silver lining.
However, a close encounter with "The Birth of Black and White" is reminiscent not of the Maori wannabe’s exotic peregrinations, but of an immersion in a misty, sticky atmosphere of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu stories. The primordial evil inhabiting the pages of stories by the ‘loner from Providence’—the cult object of ‘degenerated’ human tribes on the brink of civilisation, terrifying creatures existing on the margins of the known world, which they begin to infiltrate—is more than just a flicker of uncanny imagination. Lovecraft’s mythology, which was vigorously pointed out by Michel Houellebecq in his essay on the writer, was also constructed on the grounds of a frenzied compensation of his passionate, albeit carefully concealed by the mask of a provincial gentleman, racism.
Be it ecstatic or sick with fear, every sensation is preceded by a smell which pierces, before any intellectual recognition, the deepest deposits of the unconscious.