Rhonda Zwillinger at Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam (2017)

R. J. Preece
artdesigncafé - art | 15 September 2018.
This review was previously published in Sculpture magazine in January / February 2018, pp. 70-1.

Rhonda Zwillinger’s recent exhibition was unexpectedly rattling. Ten hours after the experience, I could still feel the accompanying soundtrack. The show opened a door that I found myself not wanting to cross because the situation was so troubling. Though the work progressed from tragedy toward acceptance (my wishful thinking?), it offered a disturbing story that deserves attention.

[As the narrative goes with accompanying museum display cards, Rhonda Zwillinger was an active artist in New York’s East Village scene in the mid-1970s and 1980s. Her work gradually became of interest to European curators. But by the early 1990s, Zwillinger developed a hypersensitivity to chemicals. This drastically changed her art-making and presumably her life, and she opted to relocate to living next to a desert in Arizona.]

[Presented in four rectangular vitrines of about 10-12 sq m each, each perpendicularly around a corridor axis, over 40 works were displayed in a kind of mini-retrospective, untitled.] The four vitrines were connected by a new installation by Zwillinger inspired by Man Ray’s Venus Restored (1936), which is in the museum’s collection. Five female torsos positioned high on plinths and wrapped in tribal-looking, beaded jewelry made up Venus restored again (2017). A melancholic soundtrack on a 30-second loop added to the surreal atmosphere.

Twelve works made in the 1980s, largely from Dutch museum collections, filled the first vitrine. In addition to a painting, there were found and discarded objects like small tables and mirrors adorned with beads, glitter, and fake jewels in colorful patterns evoking a kind of reclaimed-object recovery project.

The next two vitrines, [on the other side of the Man Ray-inspired installation], featured Arizona-inspired works, including manipulated [found objects forms such as the end of a shovel, a pitchfork, and wiring from a mattress, which contrasts with beads. The beading is now on nylon coated steel wire versus the previous usages of glues and adhesives, presumably a response to her hypersensitivity to chemicals.] I was particularly struck by the contrasts of texture— how the beading could appear so soft and fluffy at times, almost like a “blanket” over the wiring of a hard mattress form, for instance.

The documentation vitrine, [back across the first vitrine], contained Zwillinger’s large-format photo project and book The Dispossessed (1998), about people driven to the edge of society by disease. The soundtrack was louder here, and as I digested the material, the melancholy entered my body more deeply. One Multiple Chemical Sensitivity sufferer was quoted as saying, “Sadly, I think MCS would get more recognition if more people died of it. Dying of MCS is a slow, painful process— many people commit suicide.” Reading account after account with accompanying photos, one began to understand why.

The soundtrack came from a monitor on the floor that faced the wall. You had to go into a tight triangular space to see the screen. A woman sits on a bed in a darkened room, alone, wearing an oxygen mask. (I later learned it was the introduction to the film Safe [1995].) By this time, the emotional depth of the exhibition made sense. I was alone, the monitor just above my knees, looking through the glass vitrine from the inside out. People were walking to and from other parts of the museum; some glanced at Zwillinger’s installation, some did not. The soundtrack was almost all I could hear. Two days later, I still felt that damn soundtrack; the show was a surreal haze, with Zwillinger’s Dada fetish Cha Cha (from the Dada Toys series) providing odd, shamanistic-like comfort. I imagined myself playing with it in the desert. Everyone should see this work, but not everyone will want to feel it.