Parasol unit foundation for contemporary art
Is memory embedded in place? Can a room hold vestiges of trauma? Heidi Bucher’s eerily beautiful latex casts of doors, window casings, and rooms pose such questions. A recent survey of the Swiss artist, who was born in 1926, traced her practice from the 1970s until her death in 1993, spanning sculptures, frottage works (paper prints) of female clothing, and architectural latex impressions that Bucher called Häutungen or “skinnings.” Indeed, the violent physicality of her process recalls flaying. She would cover a surface with gauze and apply layers of liquid latex; once it dried, she would peel, rip, and tug the skin away in a series of strenuous actions. Viewed together, these works demonstrate her vision of the body as an architectural space and, equally, of architecture as an extension of the body. Bucher spent formative time in New York, Canada, and California with her husband and children, but her most complex works were made after her return to Switzerland in 1973.
The architectural skinnings were spectacularly displayed in one room, like tantalizing portals to other worlds—the balcony of a palace, the parquet floor of a study, a wide open window—conjuring the ghosts of past lives and prompting associations with personal and social histories. Borg (1976), Bucher’s first Hautraum (“roomskin”), was cast from the cold store of a butcher’s shop, which Bucher used as a studio; it aptly called to mind an animal hide with its iridescent pinkish hue. Bucher’s skin works form an ephemeral counterpart to Rachel Whiteread’s solid casts of negative space honoring overlooked pockets of human existence. Kleines Glasportal, Bellevue Kreuzlingen (1988), undoubtedly the most dramatic skinning in the exhibition, hung in the middle of the space. A particularly effective receptacle for human biographies, it was taken from a three-paneled glass portal at Bellevue Sanatorium in Switzerland, where Sigmund Freud sent affluent patients. The expansive leathery membrane seems to sag under the weight of emotional turmoil, its surface illuminated from behind by an ethereal light that remains forever inaccessible. A short film on the making of this work shows Bucher fiercely wrenching the skin away from the building and then cloaking herself in it, dragging it behind her like a train as she proceeds through the corridors of the former hospital.
There is optimism in Bucher’s skins, too. In a mesmerizing 1981 film, a roomskin billows and floats in a clear azure sky, liberated from its foundations like a gigantic balloon. Two additional films emphasized the performative nature of Bucher’s work: in one, she and others inhabit foam sculptures she called “Bodyshells”; the second shows her making a latex cast of a prison uniform worn by a live model for Der Schlüpfakt der Parkettlibelle (The hatching of the parquet dragonfly) (1983). The transformed uniform was exhibited alongside Libellenkleid (1976), a latex dragonfly costume. Bucher was fascinated with ideas of metamorphosis and of domestic space as a wearable shell or chrysalis. Small maquettes of uneven white structures composed of glue reinforced the interconnections linking house, cocoon, apparel, and body, while sculptures depicting flowing water reflected her preoccupation with change and fluidity.
Bucher’s early frottage and latex experiments with mother-of-pearl pigment on domestic objects—an apron, a nightgown, a bed—conjure spectral, feminine apparitions that feel intimate and timeless. They also underscore an inventive experimentation with materials. Bucher’s flat vertical bed may recall Robert Rauschenberg’s 1955 assemblage Bed, but her sparse, poetic works have more in common with the organic forms of Eva Hesse. Bucher’s tactile, visceral sculptures exude a powerful corporeal presence, suggesting that the captivating histories they contain refuse to abide by the rules of human mortality.