[Review] The Humane Futurism of Zoë Paul

For her fifth solo show and her first at The Breeder gallery, South Africa-born, Athens-based artist Zoë Paul has created an evocative sculptural garden surrounded by large-scale murals painted directly on the gallery’s walls with mud. Titled Solitude and Village, the exhibition touches upon issues of individual identity, conforming and belonging, and does so through an exploration of the genealogy of found materials and objects sourced from the artist’s immediate environment. Also participating in the well-received DESTE group show The Equilibrists at the Benaki Museum, Paul is evoking Athens in its crumbling, most fragile and even nostalgic state, but in a naïf, haptic, humanly flawed way.

Using fired clay, ceramic tiles, mud and wool, Paul directly references community and how technology has diluted social bonds and traditional rituals of coming-together.

In the gallery’s main hall, seven heads made of fired clay stand on geometric, white pedestals, their asymmetrical forms reminiscent perhaps of the whitewashed low-houses of Plaka and Kerameikos. Each pedestal is topped with vintage ceramic tiles that are typical of old Athenian houses, symbolising the area an individual occupies for herself within her community. The ceramic heads were made and fired by the artist with impromptu means, and each possesses a plain face that doesn’t reveal any information about race, gender, place or time. On the walls around them, large naked figures were painted with mud, their graceful lines drawn quickly and intuitively. Most of them female in relaxed positions and their genitals fully exposed, these figures surround the architectural pedestals like a rolling landscape. Meanwhile, the dried mud is chipping off at points just as the fired clay of the heads is often cracked, charred and broken. On the walls also hang rusty refrigerator racks which were woven using coloured woolen threads. Part traditional tapestry, part some kind of weird mutated fungus or neon-coloured decomposed plastic, these works directly reference community and how technology has diluted social bonds and traditional rituals of coming-together.

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A much calmer and meditative atmosphere prevails in the basement of the gallery, where two curtains made of handmade ceramic beads and depicting female figures hang on either side of a vintage, ornate marble sink placed on the floor. Probably once part of a luxurious mansion or upper-class townhouse, the sink has decorative marble inlays and is  also embellished with golden coins bearing the artist’s name spelled in Greek: ΖΩΗ/ΠΩΛ. Out of its draining hole comes a mist that fills the basin, reverting the sink’s function: what used to take water and dirt away now puffs out cool mist in silence. Hanging like veils inside a sacred grotto, the bead curtains are semi-transparent images that, like the mist puffing out of the marble sink, are sensitive to the slightest movement of air and seem to evaporate in space.

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By reversing the myth of the urban as the site of futuristic, post-human advancement, Paul also treats the city not as a reified achievement but as a found environment.

While in the murals we can detect the artist’s hand, trace her movements and witness the marks of her labour, the rest of the objects in the exhibition don’t reveal the presence of their maker as much, but either appear to have grown organically or to have been handed down by previous generations as part of an imaginary tradition. In fact, the exhibition does feel like a museum of objects made by an imaginary tribe. If Athens were abandoned someday and a tribe of nomads settled here thousands of years later, this is perhaps what they would be making out of whatever they could find in the rubble. By reversing the myth of the urban as the site of futuristic, post-human advancement, Paul also treats the city not as a reified achievement but as a found environment: her “village” occupies the cityscape blissfully without knowing what it used to be, and her “villagers” turn industry into decor, digging into the rubble of civilisation for fancy stones and weird-shaped metals. Although the community that supposedly made these things is nowhere to be seen, the aura of a communality remains: this is a space where relationships jump scale, and the domestic becomes relevant, outward, worldly.

Photo captions
1. Zoë Paul, Oi, 2016. Semi-fired clay, 26 cm high. Photo courtesy The Breeder, Athens.
2. Zoë Paul, Suppliant Branches at my Knees, 2016. Semi-fired clay beads on metal wires, 220 x 105 cm. Installation view of Solitude and Village at The Breeder Gallery, Athens, July 2016. Photo by Kiriakos Spirou.

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