Since Walter Benjamin’s pivotal essay of 1936, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, the reconciliation of the seemingly contradictory terms “art” and “technology” has been a central goal of the avant-garde. The aim was to destroy the monopoly on technology held by industry and demolish the aura of the art object as a natural expression of disembodied aesthetic value. What is missing from Benjamin’s discussion of the dialectic of political power in culture is consideration of gender for the dichotomy between art and technology, not to mention nature and culture, is inextricably bound in our society to femininity and masculinity. As the feminist critic Alice Jardine has pointed out, the conjunction of femininity and technology at first seems to be a contradiction, as technology offers a “man-made” challenge to “mother nature”.(1) Nothing, however, that tek, the etymological root of technology, refers to “weaving and fabricating as well as to giving birth to form,”(2) she argues that in Western culture the machine has also served as a metaphor for woman. The paradoxical nature of the gender connotations of technology only serves as an illustration of the existing sexual power structure, with assumption of masculine control over feminine creativity and fertility. Echoing Benjamin, Jardine argues for a re-appropriation of technology as the most effective way to smash this unequal power relationship. Her strategy calls for what she terms the “refeminization” of the means of mechanical (re)production.(3) Jardine gives no specific examples of the successful rationalization of technology and nature on feminist terms. Interestingly, however, like Benjamin she points out that this synthesis has been effected in today’s culture only on one level, art.
Frida Baranek’s most recent large-scale abstract metal sculptures are all about dichotomies between nature and culture, organicism and artificiality, technology and femininity. Materially, procedurally and metaphorically they wrestle with these ingrained paradoxes and bring them towards resolutions which, in a larger sense, pose questions about gendered nature of cultural production. In all her sculpture over the past few years, Baranek has explored the tension between organic forms and subjects and inorganic materials. Although earlier works incorporating rusted sheet metal and sometimes even stones are earthbound in their references, in these new pieces, allusions to the sky, to the cosmos, and to flight abound. Airily spun with copper and gold wire – The angel hair of the metal trade – they seem to float weightless above the surface on which they sit. Many of these sculptures incorporate puffs of steel wool and sheets of steel which are perforated like constellations, or gaily twisted metal ribbons which shimmer like comet’s tails. All of these elements hang in delicate, cloud-like suspension in a hovering atmosphere of metal thread. In spite of the highly artificial nature of these glittering models of the firmament, these pieces, in an almost magical contradiction, also exhibit a marked organicism. Biomorphically shaped of elements that quiver and change at the slightest vibration or touch, they are so permeable as to appear fused with the space which they occupy, their thin-hair boundaries dissolving when the light is right. That some of her sculptures take the form of fences or screens only serves to extend the inquiry between mass and space. At once transparent and impenetrable, they sprout wildly, for all the world like untamed forest foliage. The tension between opposites – between mass and evanescence, between the inorganic and the organic is reinforced by her incorporation is some sculptures of fiberglass and metal elements, identifiable as pieces of the wings, the bodies and the fuselages of airplanes. Her decision to use man-made birds as her most direct reference to the relationship of living matter to the heaven is a wry one, particularly if one considers the secondary resemblance of her wire structures to synthetic nests.
There is obvious reference to the classical and classic tropes of women’s work in these sculptures, and there is no doubt that the artist plays on these associations by knitting and weaving thin threads of metal into womb and bag-like forms. Snarled and curled, her skeins of silver, copper and stainless steel also have an uncanny resemblance to the extravagance of crops of hair. A potent sexual symbol which both identifies and hides the female sex, women’s hair is the quintessential male fetish object. It is a symbol not only of desire but of danger as well. Lustrous to the point of sensuality, yet treacherously sharp, Baranek’s mammoth tangles and whiskered sacs refer to this duality. The reference in Baranek’s works to everything from Ariadne’s golden thread in Eva Hesse’s rubberized webs situate them within the rich history of women’s art production. They are decidedly not, however, the genteel busy-work of a latter day Penelope. The metal wires and aluminum ribbon used for the body of the sculptures are produced in large bales which are wound so tightly they must initially be pulled apart with a crane. To create her metal screens and woven containers Baranek uses the heavy tools of the foundry and the muscles of Heracles. This powerful contradiction, between industrial strength materials and the delicacy of the result, offers a succinct refutation of gender-based assumptions still so attached by many to consideration of large scale metal sculpture. These intricate and knotted networks stand as evidence of a tremendous struggle with the mobile to produce stability, and with the inert to produce a form which is organic and living. Contrasting with the mass and weight of sculptural masculinity – the stainless/corten steel of Smith and Serra, the sheet metal of De Suvero and Stella – these airy but imposing works are a literal tooth and nail attack on the authoritarian order of the Minimalist grid, they represent the battle with rationality to impose chaos. This bridging of the contradiction between technology and organicism serves to realign the oppressive, gender-based dichotomy between (male) culture and (female) nature.
In this light, that Baranek has chosen to incorporate the fractured and discarded parts of airplanes in this series takes on a greater significance. Caught like brightly colored insects in the artist’s steel webs and aluminium cages, the detritus of advanced technology is rendered pitiful, and almost absurd. What was once sleek and streamlined is made clumsy, what was once airborne is unceremoniously immobilized. This good-humored tweak of technology also has its darker connotations, as these rudely severed parts cannot help but remind us of the potential disastrous of scientific hubris. Built to withstand wind, water, ice, fire and gravity, these fiberglass and aluminium reminders of our failures to question our earthbound status could, ironically end up as the menhirs of our time. Discovered in pieces degraded just enough to be unintelligible and divorced from their material function, it is possible that they will not be considered as evidence of our achievements, of our rationality, but rather, as Baranek’s sculpture seems to show us, as art, arguably the most perfect convergence of the organic and the inorganic, the most unnatural but also the most human of all creations.