Donna Huanca's work leads visitors from artificial light to darkness

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Donna Huanca's work leads visitors from artificial light to darkness
Donna Huanca. Piedra Quemada. Photo: Johannes Stoll © Belvedere, Vienna.

VIENNA.- The Belvedere invited emerging artist Donna Huanca to create a multisensory cosmos of sculpture, painting, video works, sound, and olfactory elements, including live performances within the historic rooms of the building. The Bolivian-American artist’s work leads visitors from artificial light to darkness.

In the former private chambers of Prince Eugene of Savoy, Donna Huanca’s mise en scène juxtaposes the self-asserted display of male power and virility with a female universe. The Baroque palace has become the setting for a journey from light to dark, symbolizing the movement from superficial perception to insight and understanding.

Stella Rollig, CEO of the Belvedere and curator of the exhibition, explains her motivation in presenting the innovative project: ‘We see the Belvedere’s reputation and attraction as a mandate to showcase experimental artists at the beginning of their career. It is precisely the ephemeral in Donna Huanca’s work, the volatile, that I wanted to place in a stimulating contrast with the historic building. During these times, when performance elements are of great importance in visual arts, Huanca is not only relevant but radical and as pioneering as Tino Sehgal was in the noughties.’

Models, whose bodies are adorned with colour and textile elements, move, much like tableaux vivants, engrossed and meditative through the exhibition space. They are confronted with historical counterparts in the form of life-sized, white female sculptures. The meditative character of the multisensory scenes is emphasized by a soundscape. The ephemeral atmosphere of the performance is in direct dialogue with the paintings and sculptures, which are a fixed part of the exhibition. This juxtaposition of classical sculpture and live performance generates a field of tension between stasis and flux, past and present. The traces of colour left behind on the walls by the models make time visible and ensure a continuous transformation of the space. ‘Space is transience that can be activated. This is where I see the meaning of the models: they are mediators of a fleeting process in which space is morphed and developed. For the duration of the exhibition, the models exist as a breathing system that revolves around temporality and deconstruction. They scar the space and then leave the environment changed’, says Donna Huanca.

Models as ‘original paintings’: The artist designates her models as ‘original paintings’. She generates photographs of them, transfers those to canvas, and subsequently reworks them with paint. In the process, she revisits those colours and forms she had previously painted onto the nude bodies of the performers, thus creating a literal connection between image and performer. The human body is a recurring element in her sculptural and assemblage works. In her choice of materials, such as velvet, latex, or leather, Huanca refers to the transience of physical existence. Her video works draw attention to the human skin as a multilayered surface through which we experience the world. The close-up fusion of model, colour, and materials create moving images.

The exhibition title Piedra Quemada, loosely translated as ‘burning or burnt stone’, refers to Huanca’s examination of her Bolivian heritage and ways of seeing the world from a perspective of the Incas. The contradictory combination of the terms ‘piedra’ and ‘quemada’ addresses the duality that permeates the entire exhibition concept: light versus darkness, ignorance versus wisdom, youth versus old age. These are important aspects of her work, which can also be found in the frescoes of the Belvedere. For instance, scenes and motifs of transition and transformation can be detected in both Huanca’s works and in the rooms of the former summer residence. Huanca references the building in many ways in this work: Beginning from the Marble Hall and following the peculiarities of the Baroque architecture, the artist lays out the sequence of her work to align in a mirror image of the building’s architectural plan.

Born in Chicago in 1980, Donna Huanca studied painting at the Städelschule in Frankfurt am Main, the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine, and at the University of Houston in Texas. Piedra Quemada is Donna Huanca’s first major solo show in Austria. She has had previous museum exhibitions, for instance, in 2016 at the Zabludowicz Collection in London and in 2018 at the Yuz Museum in Shanghai. The artist lives and works in Berlin. Her multidisciplinary approach connects elements from music, performance, and painting and circles around the themes of femininity and gender identity and related stereotypes and prejudices. Preoccupation with the human body—its presence in space as well as its use as a material and medium of art—is a central feature of Huanca’s multidisciplinary works, while elements such as wall rubbings and body painting reference her Bolivian roots, another recurring motif of her works.

‘What I particularly like about my works is the experience of the performance, this moment when you don't yet know where the boundaries lie, where everything will take place, whether you can get close to the performers or not. I like this unpleasant tension that arises from the situation of the live event.’ — Donna Huanca

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