The UK-based and Toronto-born Athena Papadopoulos created the sculptures for her recent exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto (MOCA), her first institutional solo exhibition in Canada, between 2020 and 2022—that is to say, during the instability, precarity, and isolation of the early pandemic. I say “early” if only to stress that COVID-19 is not over now, not for the disabled and the immunocompromised, not even for the healthy (if there are any of you left). I say “early,” too, not to mark some kind of progressive linear movement suggesting that there is or will be a “late” pandemic. There is no normal to which to return.
Still, time takes. Papadopoulos’s The New Alphabet, composed of paintings, sculpture, and installations, recalled a moment when it felt like politics, or at least language, was on the verge of rebirth. Was it only three years ago that some felt passionately galvanized by the new-old promises of mutual aid, direct action, collective protest, cop cars on fire … ?
Then what? I don’t know, I wanted more. But I’m still sitting here writing art reviews. Papadopoulos’s swaggering, site-specific show at MOCA cast a light on the relationship between desire, art, and institutions. The New Alphabet’s monstrous sculptural forms, bombarded with junk, are fleshy, drippy, light-sensitive, gory, distorted, lumpy, and oddly femme studies of biopolitics. They were presented on the third floor of the museum, where the walls were charcoal and the lights were dimmed, creating a dungeonlike atmosphere replete with shadows and multiples.
The materials in Papadopoulos’s exhibition were wide-ranging: toys, wigs, textiles, oil paint, lipstick, hair dye, cut-up furniture, clothing, paper bags, toilet-bowl-cleaner bottles, plastic bags, glass bottles, doll’s heads, mousetraps, masks. The sculptures were stuffed and overflowing, performing a scattered philosophy of excessive embodiment. Together, the assemblages coalesced into the artist’s sustained themes around women’s subjectivity and interiority, the kinds of consumerist everyday armor (hair, clothes, makeup) they put on in order to leave the house. Papadopoulos’s work gives form to the material struggle of gendered beauty, its ebullience, its perversions, and its horrors.
The show, curated by Rui Mateus Amaral, contained two separate bodies of sculpture: Trees with no sound and Bones for Time (both 2023). While all the individual works are compelling, what is especially absorbing is the artist’s deeper turn from the pop-cultural to the conceptual with Bones for Time, which is my focus in this review. One half-sentient, wormlike sculpture in the series contains several syringes poking out of it: a figure ignored, a figure immobilized. What does it take to heal in a sick society? What can these sensual artifacts of death and illness signify in an institutionalized context, especially at this time when pandemic death and grief still linger, despite pretense of otherwise, and at this time when institutions of all kinds continue to fail us?
After all, Papadopoulos centered bones not bodies, skeleton not figure, tissual not dissected, calcification not liquification, textile not text. In an act of artistic excavation, Bones for Time’s archive of pain pointed to how much has been taken from us, and how much we continue to take from ourselves, bogged down by our limits of linguistic imagination. Here, language was a political project, albeit a slightly detached one. The exhibition’s title, The New Alphabet, suggests the need for a new language or different linguistic properties to help us think anew, help us not so much make sense of things but disrupt the sense-making system that has gotten us here, destroyed. The alphabet that shows up in Bones for Time is poetic, but also literal. How does it work?
Papadopoulos wants to spell it out. The series comprises twenty-six sculptures, one for each letter in the English alphabet. Each letter, from A to Z, started from Papadopoulos tracing the contours of her own body onto discarded hospital blankets. At MOCA, it was easy to register the preparation for the sculpture like a chalk outline for a corpse, as if you were walking into a crime scene, but one with a bit of a sense of humor. Each letter has an attendant sculpture: A is for Antichrist; C is for Casino; F is for Faithless; G is for Girl, Interrupted; I is for I Married a Witch; J is for Junkie; L is for Lost Boys; O is for Outsider; R is for Rosemary’s Baby; W is for Wanda; Y is for Yellow Wallpaper; and so on.
The exercise goes a little further than this, with each sculpture also containing objects and evoking actions that correspond to each letter. The series, referencing Richard Serra’s Verb List (1967), includes an “A” that is shaped like a sludgy and melty letter A. In the exhibition, its upper half was slumped against the wall, the bottom lying flat. Arrows with plastic fletchings poke out of the whole mud-colored shape, as if the “A” is succumbing to an attack. Barfly (B) essentially looks like a baby carriage, but it’s brown and muddied, born with bats, brushes, beer cans, and barbed wires. The “L,” for lost boys, contains doll’s legs protruding from a lumpy figure, with a light dangling from the side. The conceptual side of things may have seemed clunky, if you thought too hard about it. But if you didn’t, the dramatically dim spotlighting and the absence of didactic wall labels by each work prioritized aesthetic experience. But to what extent can the artist be at home with the ghoulishness of the art world?
The introductory wall text noted that “bones for time” refers to a deal made between a prosecutor and a defendant, in which the accused confesses to murders they committed and assists investigators in locating their victims’ bodies in exchange for decreasing their sentence. (The American serial killer Ted Bundy famously tried to deploy this scheme.) Papadopoulos does not stop there with this strange vernacular of true crime. The series also alludes to the general precarious working conditions that characterize the present, whether prison labor (called “slavery” by many incarcerated people and journalists alike) or “zero-hour contracts”—primarily a British term to denote an exploitative labor condition where the employer is not contractually obligated to provide any minimum number of work hours.
The promise of reduced time in the “bones for time” deal relies on the wishes of a victim’s loved ones to grieve, to hold memorials, to lay to rest, materially and psychically. Once again, the pandemic parallels are clear: the Facebook funerals, the pause on repatriating remains, the public amnesia of all this fucking grief. “Families can have a respectful burial and closure to the atrocity that person has committed,” says Papadopoulos in a video made for the exhibition. “So I was thinking a little bit about the idea of something being lost and found. I thought it was a good allegory for making art, finding things within yourself as well as a kind of double meaning about bones for time, like money for time, sort of the exchange of capital for hours of a person’s life and usually at a kind of very low-income or zero-hour contract, the sort of instability that those things can cause.” As the cost of living increases while wages lag behind, it is becoming increasingly clear that precarious labor alone does not cause instability. Is it not labor itself that requires exchanging so much of yourself for so little? Is the artist’s labor itself not exploited?
While Papadopoulos may not prod at her own labor (as labor and not merely as heroic self-exploration), she does prod at the fantasies at the root of notions of care by re-forming medical materials. In Bones for Time she used hospital blankets to trace her own body, as if a corpse. The bedcover then became the basic structure of the lettered sculpture. Medical institutions—sites of neglect, overcrowding, state violence—do not always renew life but have become, as was most clear during the pandemic, places where sick people are often sent to die.
Dominant political culture has willfully unremembered the emergence of medical emergency, but illness, disability, labor, and individual and state violence loomed large throughout The New Alphabet. How could they not? This artist lives in the world. It is hard to separate art-making from increasingly exorbitant rent prices, austerity, mental-health crises, and financialization. But art-making, art-writing, and art-viewing are increasingly difficult when the critique of such violent economic conditions and their effects on life itself, too, become professionalized and institutionalized.
Invoking a study of the medicalized body and the burdens of a feminized body—and since Bones for Time was said to be displayed akin to artifacts in an archaeological museum—the installation suggested institutional critique. On the one hand, Papadopoulos gave her very bones, her human remains, for a museum show. On the other, is the museum simply a repository for the dead and for deadened things? For the recent past we want to quickly sweep under the rug?
When I left the show, somewhat ravenous, with these questions unanswered, I couldn’t help but recall an oft-quoted Stuart Hall line on the popular: “This year’s radical symbol or slogan will be neutralized into next year’s fashion; the year after, it will be the object of a profound cultural nostalgia.”
Papadopoulos’s forms appear to have been wrecked, overdone, fought, pinched, and stretched. Frustratingly, even amid all this stuff, so many layers jumbled together in playful abstractions, there was no antidote embedded in her New Alphabet—only a further obscuration of the lacunae between language and cure.