Born in Zurich, a Jew by birth and brought up in Italy as a Catholic only to be extradited due to her heritage; a refugee, sent through Switzerland, Austria and Yugoslavia before finally settling in Brazil, it is no wonder that the work of self-taught artist Mira Schendel’s examines the self, cultural identity and the significance of language. Confusion these factors is evident in work which views language as having not one concrete meaning but instead as a fluid idea, her text pieces combining various European languages with binary text and symbols in chaotic, swirling graphic drawings.
As this exhibition details, Schendel moved through a plethora of mediums, however the most successful pieces are her transparencies: text printed onto acrylic, or handmade, rice and tracing papers. The most significant of which is her Graphic Objects series; designed for the 1968 Venice Biennale, Tate shows fifteen of this 150 work series in which sheets of translucent papers are sandwiched between planes of acrylic and suspended from the ceiling. Schendel’s handwriting is scrawled over the delicate paper – scratches, blots and fingerprints reviving the late artist – whilst the clear plastic is marked with harsh vinyl letters. In this way, Schendel simultaneously creates autobiographical and detached artworks which stem from her own multi-lingual, layered identity, yet also refer to the universal idea of language and population.
Working in the heavily multi-cultural city of Sao Paolo, it is no surprise that Schendel’s work remained focused upon this blurred sense of self even in her later works. Her use of handmade papers at times seems conflicting with the strong lines of her text pieces – especially her typed drawings – however this material, like acrylic, suggests temporality and in her sculptural works is almost skin-like; rooting the work to its central theme, humanity and our fleeting existence.
In fact Schendel’s work is almost a critique of this: it comments upon the linguistic systems which we create as a means to achieve order yet Schendel, speaking mainly German and Italian whilst being married to a Croat and living in Brazil, is living proof that language is interchangeable and that people communicate regardless of language and cultural barriers.
Schendel’s Graphic Objects are suspended for this very reason – they must be walked around, these complex layers of language standing as a crowd humanoid figures, conversing with one another. Meanwhile other works such as Variants and Still Waves of Probability hang ceiling to floor with thin strands of nylon, like gossamer.
Her work is visually similar to that of Louise Bourgeouis: elegant yet chaotic, and simultaneously fragile yet tough – Schendel’s work certainly puts on a fight. An additional similarity between these artists is the importance of movement, both enforcing movement to fully view the works, whilst the spidery congregations, swirling and splitting of letters within Schendel’s text pieces suggesting a dance upon the page. Actual movement within her work is something which Schendel sought out in her Notebooks series, however the equipment was out of reach in 1970s Sao Paolo; still, Tate have very simply and sympathetically constructed the intended film pieces.
Retrospectives of this size have a habit of becoming slightly flat in the middle, like a novel lacking in climax, however this narrative is dark, full of unexpected twists, deeply personal and at times even humorous. Mira Schendel was a fascinating figure, her work rife with curiosity and defiance, and spending a couple of hours in her company makes for a truly eye-opening journey.