Wangechi Mutu: My Dirty Little Heaven

Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin

Wangechi  Mutu’s  mutated,  morphing  forms  walk  a  line between beauty and abjection. At first the works seem  delicate  –  exquisite  even  –  but  upon  closer  inspection this pleasing quality is undermined by unnerving and incongruous juxtapositions. Born in Kenya and  now  living  in  New  York,  Mutu  is  the  2010  Deutsche Bank Artist of the Year. My Dirty Little Heaven is her first solo show in Germany.
The  exhibition  space  at  the  Guggenheim  has  been  organised into one large installation, breaking with the tradition  of  the  clean  white  cube  in  favour  of  a  murkier, more suggestive environment. The walls are covered  in  grey  felt  and  two  large  organic  tree-­like  structures, placed at opposite ends of the gallery, both articulate  the  space  and  provide  a  thematic  framework for Mutu’s collage, installation and video work.  While  Mutu’s  ‘heaven’  might  have  evoked  a  cocooning space of safety, here any such sense is subverted  by  a  strong  undercurrent  of  violence  and  decay.
In collages, such as The Bride Who Married a Camel’s Head  (2009),  Mutu  uses  her  own  cultural  identity  to  confront clichés of both race and gender, especially those  associated  with  colonial  constructions  of  the  ‘dark continent’ as both exotic and dangerous. The image  of  the  beautifully  adorned  African  bride,  seductively positioned in the long grass, is fashioned from a delicate application of gems, pearls, fabric, and flowers. This is contrasted with the decapitated head of the camel, spurting blood from its freshly cut neck, which she grasps in her hands as an offering. By way of  a  strategy  of  excessive  referencing,  Mutu  tries  to  deconstruct such oft quoted visual symbols, although there  is  some  irony  in  the  fact  that  this  exhibition  works only because of our instant recognition of these stereotypes.
Although an African artist, Mutu has lived and worked in several countries and wants to present not just her original  cultural  identity  but  also  how  she  has  been  shaped by her itinerant lifestyle. She suggests that identity  is  no  longer  defined  by  geographic  or  biological designations, but is instead formed by the multi-perspectival  experience  of  a  trans‐global  existence. At university Mutu studied both Art and Anthropology,  and  this  comes  through  in  the  exhibition as she explores our move from specific geographic locations to truly global networks.
As  more  and  more  people  choose  or  are  required  to  move across the globe, Mutu suggests that in the future we will see the rise of permanent global travelers  or  migrants  in  what  she  calls  the  ‘AlieNation’.  In  Zebra Crossing (2008), this juncture is envisioned in five  separate  frames,  variously  playing  upon  organic  primordial formations, as perhaps the next evolutionary phase. However, the nature of her ‘AlieNation’ is left rather ambiguous. This global perspective can perhaps  help  us  move  beyond  these  ethnic  stereotypes,  but devoid of geographic or ethnic roots an atmosphere  of  alienation,  uprooting,  and  even  disorientation is reflected throughout the exhibition.
A  series  of  large  white  tables,  rustically  painted  and  covered with floral crockery, take central position in the  exhibition  space.  Suspended  from  the  ceiling  are  green glass bottles out of which drops of liquid slowly fall into the chipped and cracked bowls below. For the most part it appears as water but towards the end of the room, as the liquid overflows onto the carpet, the stain  is  most  definitely  red.  The  viewer  literally  contaminates the space as traces of footprints are dragged along the floor from this suggestive puddle. The  unnerving  atmosphere  which  pervades  the  exhibition is aggravated by the hints that some catastrophic event has recently occurred -­the damp seeping  up  the  walls,  the  way  in  which  the  tables  echo  stretchers, the stale smell in the air, and the pools of soiled  liquid  slowly  spreading  along  the  ground.  This  heaven is undercut by the association between migration, disaster, material want, physical force and often explotation. Mutu’s heaven cannot be divorced from the  determining  connection  between  migration  and  economic, political, and military forces.
However, there are also suggestions of hope in Mutu’s ‘AlieNation’.  In  literally  using  society’s  refuse  to  create this exhibition, Mutu explores the problem of waste  in  relation  to  consumerism  and  exploitation.  She counters our often cavalier attitude to consumption  with  her  own  philosophy:  ‘I  have  a  theory  that  there’s an incredible waste of resources, imagination, and  ideas  –  although  they  are  right  in  front  of  us’.  While her collages also reflect the fragmented feelings of alienation, at the same time they represent the way in which this new transglobal existence can be pieced together in an endless array of new possibilities.
Creativity,  Mutu  seems  to  suggest,  is  the  spring  from  which these possibilities steam; she writes: ‘In a way, my  exhibition  is  an  homage…[to]  tenacity  and  ingenuity’. This philosophy extends into the exhibition itself, as the artist salvages the detritus of an alienated world and reprocesses these materials in her creative output. The large tree-­like structures, for example, are held  together  with  the  humblest  of  materials:  simple brown duct tape. Like the new multi-perspectival traveller  that  Mutu  sees  emerging  from  this  globalised  world, her work is also collaged together from a varied array of geographic, ethnic, and experiential concerns. Whilst the sanctity of Mutu’s heaven is up for debate, the  power  of  collage  to  connect  these  disparate  elements, and in so doing transform them, is passed on to the viewer as Mutu invites us into her ‘Dirty Little Heaven’.
Wangechi Mutu: My Dirty Little Heaven was on show 30 April – 13 June 2010.