SpaceTime. A critical review of Katja Toporski exhibition

Article  /  CriticalThinking   Review   Exhibiting
Published: 07.12.2017
Katja Toporski Katja Toporski
Emily Culver
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Katja Toporski, SpaceTime exhibition view.
. Photo by Robert Batey Photography..
Katja Toporski, SpaceTime exhibition view.
Photo by Robert Batey Photography.

© By the author. Read Copyright.

On August 25th 2017, Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts opened SpaceTime, a solo exhibition of works by jewelry artist Katja Toporski. While also operating in the field as professor and writer who lives outside of Washington DC, Toporski’s artistic career has included numerous national and international exhibitions as well as many publications. This specific exhibition showcased a variety of brooches and necklaces from two bodies of work, Chauvet from 2016 and Angelus Novus from 2015. In its whole, the work of Katja Toporski views time in its existential context. With SpaceTime, this is done in two-fold by questioning humanity’s contemporary existence in relation to the past (and inevitably the present) as well as examining the unknown transitional moments when histories are unwritten and imminent possibility is sustained.
The Chauvet works use abstracted historical references of a 3D model of the Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet taken from the Rosetta space probe and also depictions of cave paintings from the Chauvet Cave in Southern France. Combined, the work weaves together seemingly varied imagery into jewelry that reflects upon the ontology of human-related endeavors. These are works that focus not on the evident difference between our past and current affairs, rather they aim to fold the perceivable distance of time with the imagery of the hourglass to create a delicate bridge between.
Created between 30,000 & 33,000 years ago, the Chauvet Cave paintings depict predatory animals with the exception of two human figures: one female and the other male but with the upper body of a bison. With no direct source remaining to aid in interpreting the purpose and meaning of these works, one is only left with speculation. Perhaps these paintings were intended to depict some belief or story. Perhaps these pictures were thought to bring the natural and the supernatural worlds closer together, or even simply to mark humanity’s physical presence. In this instance, time creates the distance between oneself and knowing.
The Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet (also known as comet 67P) orbits the Sun at a rate of almost six and a half years per lap and has been observed a total of eight times since its discovery in 1969. This comet became a desirable point of study as it happened to journey into the inner Solar System around the same time as the Rosetta launch; in fact, had the launch schedule happened as planned and not been delayed, an entirely different comet would have been the subject of this expedition. With the intent of this mission being to study comet activity and changes (as they expel more gas and dust when they become more heated by the sun) astronomers hoped to learn more about how the solar system was formed. As comets are considered the remnants of planetary and moon formation processes, this made comet 67P a desirable subject for study.

Katja Toporski, Works from the Chauvet Series.
Photo by Robert Batey Photography.

The methods of making present in the works are congruent to the contextual imagery they exhibit: digital processes to depict modern human interventions and piercing metal to represent prehistoric drawings. In addition to the understated color, every facet, face and crevice is a new landscape with hidden symbols and information to discover. The compositions work to confuse elements (between digital and craft processes, between materials, and between imagery) as they collage into indiscernible components by mixing and blending all parts together to make a whole. Even the layered aspect of the display, where works are placed on top of printed images of the source material, further compounds the mixing and blending of separate times and histories. Experiencing these qualities suspends time, even if briefly, as one desires to investigate, distinguish and consider all that is embodied in these works.
By incorporating representations of both the prehistoric paintings of the Chauvet Cave and data collected from the 2014 expedition to the Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet in Toporski’s works, what connection is to be drawn between the two? There is no doubt that these moments in human histories are entirely significant for various reasons, but thousands of years separate them.
One might propose that it is the physical place in which these objects reside that draws their relationship closer. For example, because the caves stem from a culture so foreign and far removed from any group of people living today, one can only consider this landmark through the landscape in which it is found. Any and all information that might possibly be gathered about these paintings exists, and can only be derived, from the physical place in which it is located. There exists no other source of information elsewhere to inform the purpose of the cave paintings. Not unlike its prehistoric counterpart, the aligning (or rather misaligning) of conditions for the Rosetta space probe’s mission is entirely circumstantial for the subsequent data gathering of the Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet. It was at the right place at the right time.

Katja Toporski, Works from the New Angels for Walter Benjamin Series.
Photo by Robert Batey Photography.

Toporski’s body of work Angelus Novus is presented as two subcategories; namely New Angels for Walter Benjamin in which the depiction of a piece of wood and a cosmic Buddha sculpture are referenced. In The Unpredictable Ending of the Taufrische "Nu" both objects listed above are also presented with the addition of a hybrid element of the two.
Walter Benjamin (b. 1892) was a philosopher of German Jewish origins who made notable contributions to methodologies such as Historical Materialism. To briefly summarize this doctrine, the matter that one produces and how one produces it is in direct conjunction with the actual means available in that particular time in history and therefore is a direct expression of one’s life. In other words, in order to understand history one must understand material desires as they mirror the conditions from which they are created.
To describe New Angels for Walter Benjamin would refer to an excerpt from Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History in which he refers to a Paul Klee painting where an angel of history moves reluctantly into the future. While fixated on contemplating the past, his gaze set on a single horrific moment which continually piles debris at his feet, he is blown backwards into the Future by a storm called Progress although he desires nothing more than to amend what was in front of him. Furthermore, adapted from another Walter Benjamin text through a German translation of Critical Evaluations in Cultural Theory, ideas surrounding The Unpredictable Ending of the Taufrische "Nu" describes a similar conundrum. How more accurately might one express the fleeting of time, the end of the new and the now then to describe it as impermanent (“dewy” being the direct German to English translation of Taufrische).
Toporski’s use of the Buddha, wood and Buddha-wood combination imagery should then be viewed through the framework provided by these writings. She states, “The pieces examine the simultaneous existence of a cultural object from the past, a material object associated with remembrance, and a transitional object arrested in changing form from one into the other”. Toporski aims to simultaneously examine time and history while also readily acknowledging that this process is entirely subjected to personal biases.

Katja Toporski, Works from the Unpredictable Ending of the Taufrische "Nu".
Photo by Robert Batey Photography.

The Cosmic Buddha (the cultural object) exists readily available for anyone with internet access to study. In 2016 the statue was 3-D scanned by the Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office allowing detail of its surface design to be fully captured without any risk to the artifact. If the possibility to experience and understand this treasure exists readily at one’s fingertips, it cannot be overlooked that time falls between its conception and now. The wood, in this case, is the material object tied to remembrance; just as a simple sight, smell or sound can easily trigger a memory, these seemingly nondescript and non-important elements truly bring oneself to stare down the past. Through Toporski’s newly created transitional object of the Buddha and wood hybrid, formed by the artist’s own iteration and relationship to both objects, the viewer more clearly sees a physical embodiment of the personal interpretation of time.
Perceivable between both bodies of work is an indisputable dissonance between oneself and the other. The limitations of one’s own capacity of perception inhibits the full blending of personal identity into humanity. Yet, through some need one longs for connection: connection with those present, a concern and sense of responsibility for that which is yet to come and a curiosity, fascination and respect for that which came before.

Furthermore, all individuals share an inherent searching and wondering. Whether it be through science or a system of beliefs, one strives to find answers to the biggest questions: who are we and from where did we come? Where are we going? What makes humanity? While these are such easily dismissible questions as one has heard them countless times, they remain wildly unanswered and at the foundation of work for poets, scholars and artists alike. The journey through time and physical space is simultaneously linear, sequential and predictable but also unboundedly limitless and fluid.

Katja Toporski, SpaceTime exhibition view.
Photo by Robert Batey Photography.

What influence do these works gain by their potential to be worn on the body? How is their existence, and perhaps ultimately importance, questioned by being purposely considered in relation to oneself?  Like quilts, chairs, and vessels, jewelry as a subject maintains a conversation of purpose and functionality (even if the intention is to challenge these concepts and notions). It is this complex relationship between cultural object context and object-body negotiation of contact that one finds perhaps most interesting about contemporary jewelry.
In considering Toporski’s works from about 2013 and before, they offer a much more poignant object(jewelry)-body relationship to examine in the context of time. One approach depicts the use of materials that are shaped by the body over time as in Flux 9 in which a necklace made of red wine and gelatin is subjected to the body’s warmth throughout a time lapse video. Other works modify the body by leaving behind impressions or marks, as in Flux 4, where the skin’s reaction to gelatin is documented. These results are fleeting and would not persist without the ability to capture a single moment in history. And other approaches can be found in works that suggest the physical quality of the body through its materiality and impermanence, as well as necklaces that allude to culturally and religiously significant objects worn in contemplation and ceremonies. In the 2012 Eulogia series foreign forms invite meditation and introspection similar to that which prayer beads and other powerfully imbued objects elicit; an invitation to spend time.
The source material for the two newest bodies of work inhabit clear, distinctive spaces in time. They have played an important role in the history of humanity, as either contemporary or past endeavors. But one must consider if a symbol can be as indicative of an actual thing as the thing itself. Toporski’s previous works explore time more in its physical state as the jewelry or its relationship to the body or space physically embodies time in that it requires actual time. In regard to the two newer bodies of work - as much as an hourglass is a symbol or representation of time, without a trickle of sand it does not mean the same.
Perhaps Toporski’s works on view in SpaceTime are more similarly in line with the Eulogia work. Like totems, amulets or talismans, the jewelry works appear to exist imbued with a sense of unknown but perceivable history or importance. It is through this associated object-body relationship that, as jewelry, Toporski’s works bring together the contemporary world as well as acknowledgments of humanity's histories. Like things from another time or place brought into new light to be examined and seen in new contexts, these works cyclically negotiate with the body; between the body and the everyday, between human past, future and now.

About the author

Emily Culver is an object maker originally from rural Pennsylvania, USA. She attended Tyler School of Art, Temple University in Philadelphia where she received her Bachelor's of Fine Art in Metals/Jewelry/CAD-CAM in 2012. In 2017, she received her Masters of Fine Art in Metalsmithing from Cranbrook Academy of Art. 
Culver’s work has been exhibited in solo and group exhibitions in North America and Europe. In 2017 she was the recipient of a Toby Devan Lewis Fellowship and an Artist-in-Residence position at Arrowmont for the 2017-2018 calendar year. 

Instagram: emily.culver

Portrait Credit: PD Rearick