CRITICS’ PICKS | Kawita Vatanajyankur

Sophie Kovel, ARTFORUM, 1 July 2019

Kawita Vatanajyankur
1285 Elmwood Avenue
June 5–September 22, 2019

“She’s cleaning the floor,” a father whispered to his daughter in the dark gallery. “It’s like she is the sponge.” “Foul Play,” the largest presentation of Kawita Vatanajyankur’s work in the United States to date, highlights eight of the artist’s silent videos, which document her standing in for tools and performing demanding, durational, often domestic tasks—picturing, as she says, “humans as machines.”

In all of the works across the series “Tools,” 2012–14; “Performing Textiles,” 2018–; and “Work,” 2015–17, Vatanajyankur’s body merges with objects and “becomes their extension until it finally succumbs.” In The Scale, 2015, for example, she balances in a shoulderstand, holding up a crate of watermelons with her feet as more are thrown into it and burst on impact. She dons cotton threads on her head in Dye, 2018, and, suspended upside down, is lowered into a large bowl of red liquid. In Shuttle, 2018, she repeatedly crawls and dives across an outsize rudimentary loom, pulling thread behind her to weave a swatch of fabric. Time and time again, Vatanajyankur abstracts labor, then repeats it, confronting the possibility of collapse. Like the performances of the endurance artists who preceded her, Vatanjyankur’s motions are tests of both her physical limits and onlookers’ capacity to passively witness violence.

And yet, her films are aesthetically rich. The absurd acts—at once real and extreme—unfold in vibrant blues and pinks on orange grounds, and in reds on green grounds, resembling commercials as much as Color Field paintings. The afterimage is strong, but what’s haunting is that Vatanajyankur’s endurance is not far from defeat.

— Sophie Kovel