In the nineteenth century, Karl Marx declared that the “engine of history” was the working class, ushering in revolutions. In these early years of the twenty-first century, the climate crisis, followed by a lethal COVID pandemic, show us that the engine of contemporary history is no longer a human group, and that it partly sidesteps the order of the visible: what makes our history is the increasingly chaotic interactions between human activities and living matter. We are in fact living inside the direct and indirect effects of these interactions. For example, machines give rise to an atmospheric warming that will culminate in a rise of water levels, or in an outburst of bacteria confined for thousands of years in the Siberian permafrost. The tear gas used by the police, the pesticides sprayed on fields, and new viruses are all writing history in invisible ink. Furthermore, the social life of human beings, which used to unfurl before their eyes, is now largely dominated by digital flows and algorithms. The history of the planet and its inhabitants thus eludes the human eye; politics is no longer made through the masses, but in these problematic exchanges between (massive) human entities and these (invisible) molecules that pass through them, or which they in turn assume.
So there is nothing surprising about an artist like Pamela Rosenkranz deciding to organize her visual arts activity around the invisible: on the contrary, this is probably the only possible way of reinstating the reality of our day and age within the framework of representation. Since prehistory, art has given substance, or form, to non-visual entities — as a general rule to deities and abstract forces. With modern art, the invisible has gradually become more problematic under the aegis of the notion of immaterial, meaning within a dialectic with the object. In conceptual art, the idea thus became a “machine producing art,” as it was defined by Sol LeWitt. Yves Klein, whose ideas about monochromy are often referred to by Pamela Rosenkranz, developed his work on the immaterial on the basis of a contrast between line and color: the latter, he thought, is “free,” “like the humidity in the air,” while the line encloses and forecloses life. “Color basks in the whole just like everything that is indefinable sensibility,” he wrote, “without form or limit. This is indeed space-matter, simultaneously abstract and real.”1 Otherwise put, for the modern artist the invisible represented a sort of raw material in which to steep things with one’s personal sensibility.
Unlike Klein, Pamela Rosenkranz does not regard the invisible as a place of ideas, or as an immaterial element: on the contrary, she presents its material quality, clout, and effects. For her, the invisible is a very concrete reality, a reality whose outlines art must grasp. First and foremost, however, she starts out from a physiological reality: the invisible is what exists beyond the eye. At the root of her work we thus find an anthropological stance in relation to the human species, and a desire to broach artistic activity as the effect of an organic development that dates back to the tools of homo faber. The gradual acquisition of the upright position has led the human species, whose eyes have thus emerged to look at the faraway, to develop its sight to the detriment of the other senses as a means of survival. If the objects that we call “artworks” derive from this organic postulate, Rosenkranz strives to expand the chord of artistic activity while at the same time clinging to basic elements: color, light, and aromas. And all three represent wavelengths, based on which she puts her exhibitions together like chemical operas.
Rosenkranz’s works are presented like surfaces, zones, and dyes. The human body is ubiquitous, but as a membrane it is a place of passage for flows. Having introduced pheromones in an earlier project, in her current exhibition at Kunsthaus Bregenz she diffuses a synthetic scent that evokes a building that burns. The smell of fire that, depending on the history of one’s own body, is inscribed didifferently in the DNA and creates a strange dissonance in the cold concrete of the museum. For Pamela Rosenkranz, art is (and always has been) a tool for transforming the human species: “New art would be coming into the forum of art history as a challenge to the immune system of the discourse. That is how, generation after generation, art history is continuing to alter perception.”2 Among the artists of her generation, she is the one who goes furthest in re-indexing artistic activity on the living world through color and light.
Her exhibitions, conceived as living organisms, call to mind prehistoric caves and Gothic churches more than contemporary art spaces. In Bregenz, she accordingly organizes the space of the building with the help of colored light and lightboxes that conjure up medieval stained-glass windows. Abbot Suger, who introduced the figurative stained-glass window into religious buildings in the eleventh century, wanted to usher in a “wondrous uninterrupted light.” In the central portal of the cathedral of St. Denis, he had an inscription carved: “The blind spirit rises up towards the truth through what is material and, seeing the light, it is resurrected from its earlier submersion.” What is interesting here is the term submersion: the light of the stained-glass window brings us out of a submersion, and not the reverse. The fact is that Suger saw them as so many membranes, like intercessional points between the human and the divine light. If light is so present in Rosenkranz’s work, and in particular in the ogival form of the stained-glass windows in churches, this is to enable us to escape from our passive submersion into the invisible sphere of the living world, which is clear in her work in the form of wavelengths: art is also a tool of appropriation, a reduction of the world to components that can be mastered and analyzed.
For Charles Darwin, who published On the Origin of Species in 1859, the relation between harmony, beauty, and diversity was based on the invisible struggle of organisms with one another. He singled out three orders of what is known as “natural beauty.” The first was the underlying aesthetic order in the organization of the living world. The second was beauty that comes into being from an ecological relation: “If insects had not developed on the Earth,” he wrote, “our plants would not have been bedecked with beautiful flowers, but would only have produced lowly flowers like those of the fir and the oak.” The third was beauty stemming from sexual selection, through the preservation of features contributing to the ability of organisms to survive. In other words, the existence of the sense of the beautiful in animals is a driving force in the joint evolution of species: in animals and in human beings alike, the sense of beauty is just a habit that becomes an instinct. Rosenkranz’s work, which includes all the components of the living world, is made up of aromas, light, and bacteria, but also of artificial intelligence and synthetic materials. Like all the animals on Earth, the human being uses things in his environment for his own purpose. And art is the most complex degree of this use of the world.
The aquarium has assumed a paramount significance in the art of our day and age, either as an object or as a new visual format, because it offers a tangible reality (or a metaphorical medium) to relations between humans and nonhumans, objects and organisms. In it Pierre Huyghe puts mollusks carrying modernist works; Dora Budor uses it to present atmospheric pollution; and Max Hooper Schneider uses it to carry out interspecies crossbreeding. But with Pamela Rosenkranz it is the exhibition space in its entirety that is turned into a giant vivarium, a place of biological exchanges, in which “cultural” elements (if this word cultural still has any meaning) take part in a general contamination, an experience of radiation. In Bregenz, this porousness is incarnated in a “snakebot,” a machine controlled by a computer that reacts to electromagnetic rays and visitors’s devices. With Healer (Anamazon) (2021), Rosenkranz introduces into her show an extremely powerful animal motif: the reference to healing comes from the caduceus or staff (with a serpent coiled around it), an attribute of Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine. In ancient mythologies, he is associated with the earth and the creation of the world. In “The Ritual of the Serpent,” Aby Warburg describes in detail how Hopi ceremonies are practiced, based on the formal similarity between flashes of lightning and animals. These are totemic rituals, whose fundamental idea has been summed up by Claude Lévi-Strauss: “the projection beyond our world […] of mental attitudes incompatible with the demand for a discontinuity between man and nature, which Christian thought regarded as essential.3” The machine/animal interaction is also one of the central figures of the Anthropocene, and the presence of a snakebot in the Pamela Rosenkranz show might be read as the invention of a totemism 2.0: a figure of continuity between the human being, his natural environment, and digital flows. Philippe Parreno put a coelacanth in the middle of his exhibition at Tate Modern, but the animal’s movements acted as impulses for the operations of the exhibition itself. Rosenkranz’s serpent healer is interactive, nurtured by its immediate surroundings. It moves about like an animal, raises its head, looks about, and sometimes rests. It is the reptilian equivalent of Alexa, the Amazon robot that ponders our data and spits it back out in the form of “proposals.”
Since her early days, Pamela Rosenkranz has been working with silicon, photographic paper, plastic film, latex paint, Viagra, pheromones, liquids, perfume, noises, Amazon and Ikea packaging, machines, and microbes… She makes no distinction between industrial products and raw materials, the living world and the product. This is quite simply because the Anthropocene involves the impossibility of telling things apart: our environment is from now on made up of a single and unique continuous substratum, in which human activity is nothing more than an extra layer. For example, our brain needs energy if it is to function: when you look at one of her works, Pamela Rosenkranz mischievously reminds us, your own brain will perhaps burn as much glucose as hers has needed to imagine and produce it. The communication at work between the artist and the viewer is also a fusion between two sources of energy.
In early twenty-first-century art, the interest paid by artists to the invisible entails a fusion or merger between the properties of form and those of materials. Artists no longer lay forms on neutral backgrounds, because they know that everything they use is active. What we used to call a “support” is just as alive as its “surface.” Art becomes a sort of atomic transformer, a particle accelerator, and Rosenkranz produces works that obey the same rules as the creation of a living organism. If she was one of the first to use molecules as compositional materials, today we can see Juliette Bonneviot including xenoestrogens in her sculptures, and Sam Lewitt and Dora Budor spreading chemical dust. By observing the world at the molecular level, a new generation of artists is revolutionizing the formats of representation by working through reduction, and translating the political and social world into particles and atoms. These molecular art practices are altering the way we look at the world: the artist’s action on states of matter is overtaking the use of labels and classifications whereby the capitalist system distributes objects in the social space. With the help of visible elements, Rosenkranz constructs points of passage with this molecular level of reality, which, today, might quite simply be that of the real. And Rosenkranz teaches us not only to perceive this real, that of the Anthropocene, but also to live in it. The way we look at her works goes way beyond the traditional relation of aesthetic pleasure that modern times have accustomed us to; it is much more akin to the link that connected the believer to the stained-glass windows of his church, but as a point of access to a materialist invisibility.