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mumok opens solo exhibition of works by Hannah Black
Installation view. Photo: mumok / Klaus Pichler.

VIENNA.- Hannah Black’s solo show at mumok takes a contemporary approach to key questions raised in the group exhibition WOMAN. Feminist Avant-garde in the 1970s from the SAMMLUNG VERBUND Collection (May 6 to September 3, 2017).

Black, born in Manchester and living in Berlin and New York, focuses in her work on her own corporeality and the social rules and norms that relate to the body. She begins with radical feminist ideas, the theory of Marxism, and critical race theory, and her artistic practice reflects how social and global developments are inscribed into the body. The body becomes a trap for social role ascriptions that allow no alternatives.

Black is especially interested in overlaps and stalemates between the forces of social coercion, representations of reality based on experience, world history, and personal history. She combines autobiographical moments with theoretical material. These elements are presented by means of contemporary visual idioms from celebrity culture, pop songs, and google image searches.

In the past, the artist has often explored external appearances—skin color, age, gender—and the obstacles that ensue. Her new work for mumok is a video which looks at the smallest unit of living organisms and the bearer of genetic information— the biological cell.

A multichannel video installation highlights the political implications of what are taken to be biological certainties. One of the best-known examples for this is the biological determination of sex and the debate about gender as a social construct— from Simone de Beauvoir to Monique Wittig to Judith Butler.

The title of this show, Small Room, alludes to the ambivalence of the word “cell” in English, and “Zelle” in German. On the one hand this is the biological cell, on the other a prison cell. Both meanings have claustrophobic connotations. On the basis of the single cell—the “single room”—Black playfully asks us to think about what can constitute life.

In Hannah Black’s new work, the cell is a striking example for the difficulties biology faces when trying to draw a line between life and death. On the level of molecular biology it becomes clear that the determination of life or non-life is a terrain that is hotly disputed, using all the arguments science has at its disposal. Black deconstructs the apparent neutrality of contemporary biology, and questions the indifference of what takes place within a single cell—seen as mere life.

To do this, she utilizes the metaphor of the cell as a factory, as seen in series for children and in scientific studies alike. On several screens, Black compares the biological cell, this precise piece of machinery invisible to the human eye, quite literally with the history of real factories—those symbols of industrial mass production that stand for the victory of capitalism and the social control of the individual.

In this analogy from popular science, the smallest unit of organisms capable of life is seen as a seemingly “innocent” locus of production, but it is in fact revealed to be as much an important instrument of social power as high-tech industrial production plants for goods.

In a publication accompanying the exhibition, Hannah Black presents her ideas together with US artist and musician Juliana Huxtable within a science-fiction scenario of impending apocalypse. Referring to a Wikipedia entry on “Life/Leben,” the two artists develop a narrative about two risk analysts returning from retirement to attempt to avert the end of the world.

Curated by Marianne Dobner

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