When they come into contact with water, the spider’s silk threads become shorter, thicker, and stronger. Perhaps the stiffening of the threads allows them to better withstand the weight of the morning dewdrops; or maybe the restructuring of the web serves to regenerate threads damaged by insect capture, in a self-repairing process. Whatever the explanation, we know for certain that the spider’s web changes its internal structure in response to the external forces and stresses to which it is subjected, reacting to stimuli from the surrounding environment.
Understanding how the structure of an object, a person, an architecture or a cultural construct works is a theme central to Sophie Hirsch’s research. With her solo exhibition Regroup, Retrace, Unfollow at Galleria Doris Ghetta, she takes her investigation a step further with a new series of sculptures and installations created for the occasion.
Conceived over the course of 2021, the exhibition is based on the observation that the past months have radically reconfigured the balances which we had become accustomed to; the systems that governed our lives have undergone a considerable impact, and from appearing stable and unchanging, they have now become uncertain, constantly shifting, in a state of flux. With Regroup, Retrace, Unfollow, Sophie Hirsch elects instability as a tool for exploring and understanding reality: not an imbalance of forces to be corrected, but a new relationship between opposing tensions to be integrated into our systems. Therefore, for the artist, instability is an attitude, a way of engaging with the world.
Hirsch’s research originates from the desire to create a sculpture that is not anchored to the ground: an interest that led her to study the posture of the human body to understand how the different blocks of the spinal column align one above the other to distribute weight and maintain balance. Like Jenga, the game where blocks are stacked on top of each other to form a tower and where the movement of each one makes the structure increasingly unstable, the body (or sculpture or architecture) is an organism that changes constantly as the context around it shifts. What effect does the displacement of one block have on the whole structure? How will its absence be balanced? Onto which blocks will the pressure be shifted? How many blocks can be moved before the tower collapses? How will the forces and tension within the structure be reconfigured?
Regroup, Retrace, Unfollow opens with a seating lounge consisting of a series of chairs, a sofa and table, all made of materials and devices usually used to modify posture: myofascial spheres, elastic bands, pillows and springs invite you to sit and feel how the weight of your body is distributed in different positions.
Perceiving that even in a state of rest the body is pierced by a series of active forces makes it easier to visualise the tension that runs through Side Twist (2021): a large brass sculpture that seems light, almost suspended in the air, as if the support on the base were accidental and unnecessary. Here too, Hirsch was inspired by her own body to work out which parts needed to be firmly anchored to the ground so that the others could move freely. The counterpart to Side Twist and Reach is Pomes (2021), in which a series of small brass pomegranates show the internal structure of the fruit that is normally invisible to the eye. Hirsch’s intention is once again to make visible what is usually hidden behind outer surface.
The internal tension running through a structure often creates a relationship of interdependence in which the actors involved hinge upon each other. In Untitled (2021) and Column (2021), the dynamic is evident: the twisted ropes need the twinwall polycarbonate sheets to maintain the composition, and in turn the transparent sheets need the force exerted by the ropes to keep them from falling to the ground. Made from recycled plastic packaging film, the ropes were created by Hirsch using a technique she learned in an indigenous village in the Peruvian Amazon, where thin string is created from palm fibres to create ropes for fishing, making hammocks or bags. Interested in how the awareness of your environment enables the discovery of the potential of materials, Hirsch expands this technique with one of the most common materials: plastic. Through the artist’s repeated action, layering and twisting the material, the flimsy plastic films are transformed into a strong and resistant ropes.
Research into materials is a central part of Hirsch’s artistic process: plastic, Thera-Band, papier-mâché or polycarbonate respond and react to the direct action of the artist, creating a dialogue with unpredictable results. Among the materials most frequently used by Hirsch is silicone (Bruising 1 and 2, 2021) which acts like a parasite: when combined with a fabric, it becomes a stronger and more durable material. In response, the fabric releases its colour into the silicone, which then takes on a purple hue reminiscent of bruising. Although this reaction is triggered by the artist, the result cannot be controlled or directed: it is the material itself that acts autonomously and uses external stimuli to balance its precariousness.
In Regroup, Retrace, Unfollow, Hirsch sets out to test the boundaries, to see how far a certain equilibrium can be pushed before a contrary action occurs, to test the state of tension and discover that opaque boundary between flexibility and rupture. Tension becomes an ambiguous force: it can paralyse and oppress movement, but it can also be vital, productive and take you out of your comfort zone. In other words, whether it is the posture of a human body, a sculpture, a building, a thought, or a psychological mechanism, understanding how this dynamic opposition between tension and balance works means rethinking vulnerability as an integral part of us and our systems.