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Hidden Mind: An Exhibition of Recent Work by Bodo Korsig

What’s Love Got to Do With It? Tina Turner asks this age-old question in her celebrated song about the downside of romantic entanglement. So what does love have to do with the art of Bodo Korsig? Quite a lot, along with mortality, memory, poetry, brain science, and the vexing question of what constitutes consciousness. Korsig’s subject is all of the above made superbly manifest in idiosyncratic shapes of his own invention that are reminiscent of images from brain scans. These forms originate in scores of meticulous drawings that are then carved in wood and painted with dense velvety blacks. Sometimes Korsig casts his carvings in aluminum or steel, which are also ultimately painted black. These sculptures are not multiples, however, because the original wood form is destroyed in the process. This technique allows the metal to retain the nervous quality of the chiseled line and the apparent fragility of wood.

Korsig is fascinated with love, which he calls a “superpower” that can make us lose all objectivity and commit crazy and often self-destructive acts. He says, “Love makes our brain weak, like an infection. It is the most powerful destructive force.” We know that love can lead to war, suicide, and murder from centuries of literature…from the jealous gods of Greek mythology, the Iliad and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, to the film noir classic The Postman Always Rings Twice. From a 21st Century perspective, Korsig realizes that all this mayhem is the result of neurons releasing chemicals in the brain and questions whether we can identify the place where love resides in the grey matter in our skulls. When confronted with irrational thoughts, one can only hope to have the wherewithal of John Nash, the real life protagonist of A Beautiful Mind who knows enough about the subject to train his own defective brain to question his schizophrenic visions. He ask his students in what is one of Korsig’s most memorable movie moments, “Is he real?” when a representative of the Nobel committee arrives at his door to tell him he has been awarded the prestigious prize.

Are we our brains? Do the chemicals released in them completely control our emotions and actions? These are questions that Korsig began to explore in depth seven years ago when he first visited the Center for Neurobiology and Behavior at Columbia University and began meeting with its founder Eric Kandel, another Nobel Laureate. This concern was prompted by his earlier work about memory in which he examined, like Proust in Remembrances of Things Past, how each one of us makes emotional associations through the minutia of our individual life experience. After learning more about how the brain makes these connections, Korsig sought out Kandel who is known for his revolutionary research on the physiological basis of memory.

Korsig wryly asks the question of whether we can eliminate bad memories in his woodcut, Where Can I Buy a New Brain? now hanging in Kandel’s office at Columbia. The concept that brains could be transferable and that mental processes are biological dates from the 19th Century and is reflected in the literature of the time, particularly Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Her monster does indeed get a new brain with the worst possible consequences. In another cautionary tale from the 21st Century, the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Jim Carrey does what Korsig wryly suggests we should be able to do; erase those pesky recollections of love gone wrong from our brains. The fact that these types of scenarios appear more and more frequently in popular culture suggests an increasing public fascination that has kept pace with recent astounding developments in science. Genetic manipulation, cloning, stem cell research, the mapping of the brain and the quest for pharmaceuticals that alter its chemistry and hence human emotion, and actual head transplants of chimps that remained viable for several hours, have brought about a re-evaluation of the traditional mind-body divide and raise more ethical questions than they answer.

Investigating the science of emotion has proved to Korsig that the two subjects are not mutually exclusive. Art and science aren’t either, although he does differentiate between practitioners in each field when he says, “Scientists want to prove and artists want to ask.” Korsig draws no absolute conclusions from his research. He resists defining what his work is about, preferring to leave the interpretation open to the viewer. He says, “I want to offer a message, but never an immutable statement. I want the experience to be more like life itself, full of signs and symbols that we encounter and interpret.” He prefers his work to pose questions, leave a lasting imprint on the retina, or even function as a tool for meditation.

Korsig’s shapes make up a visual vocabulary of his own invention. Although they recall images from CAT scans, firing synapses, microscopic tendrils, ganglia, and biochemical receptors, they are carefully crafted images that function much like the abstract forms on a Rorschach test. For Korsig, shapes have real power, especially when rendered in stark black. His signs and symbols are graphic and visually striking like the wordless international sign language one encounters when traveling that was carefully developed for optimal visual and conceptual clarity. Instead of pointing out the nearest rest stop on the autobahn, Korsig’s signs are open to interpretation based on the each viewer’s own personal experience. We can read any number of things in the work from cellular structures and insects to common household objects. Our interpretations also depend on scale, something Korsig is adept at manipulating.

From his study of ancient cave painting and contemporary advertising, Korsig knows that scale makes all the difference in the viewer’s reaction to a work and can evoke feelings of intimacy or awe. The exact same form can take on a totally different meaning depending on its size. Even within one body of Korsig’s work, the size of individual piece can vary enormously. In fact, the wall installation Hidden Mind, (also the title of the exhibition as a whole) is composed of 20 elements gauged in inches, while other works in the show such as Metamorphosis, Erase Your Past, and Crutches of Memory, are of human size. Korsig says, “I am interested in how one can paint a bug, and then blow it up one hundred times and then it becomes a monster.” He also plays with our preconceptions when he uses the same shape in both a small sculpture and a gigantic print that measures 15 feet across. The former art form is usually associated with the monumental while the latter is typically an intimate hand held image.

Although Korsig is trained as a sculptor he paints, draws and is especially involved with the reproductive arts, particularly prints and books. He has a love of poetry and often works with writers; John Yau and John Ashbery are just two of his collaborators. Korsig’s art has occasionally been compared with the German Expressionists who were expert printmakers, but connections can also be made with older artists who specialized in the medium. In particular, one thinks of the emotional content and depiction of a particular state of mind in Albrecht Durer’s famous engraving, Melancholia of 1514. Korsig uses the deep blacks most associated with printmaking and one can almost smell the rich dark ink of the print shop while viewing his work, no matter what the medium he used to make it.

Korsig uses black in all of his work and considers it the most important color of all. Painters, of course, and anyone who has ever tried to match separate items of black clothing, know that it is not really the absence of color as we are often taught. Instead black contains subtle combinations of all the colors of the spectrum. Korsig carefully mixes his powerful blacks by hand. In fact he has an intense physical relationship to all of his materials that he likes to test and take to their limits. His monumental prints mentioned above were made when he drove a steamroller over canvas, and he often destroys wood when he sculpts. To create the shapes that comprise Hidden Mind, Korsig used a very thin micrometric saw to carve forms out of industrial pressed wood. The outlines that result can be as thin as a fraction of an inch and often break in the process of being made.

Materials that are inherently fragile that when coaxed take on the appearance of strength, are indicative of Korsig’s art and attitude to life. That existence is uncertain is clearly expressed in his work entitled Life Begins Every Second, Life Stops Every Second. We never know what will happen, what we will do, or how we will react to the challenges life throws at us. Every one of us is different and comes with the baggage of individual experience. In asking whether consciousness can be described in reductive physical terms, Korsig acknowledges that we may be dealing with what he calls “a fascinating enemy called the brain.”

Kathleen Goncharov, New York 2006