Ramaya Tegegne at Galerie Maria Bernheim, Zürich

By Aoife Rosenmeyer

Mullicans (detail), 2018, mirrors, sunlight, magnifying glass, tree leaf, dimensions variable. Photo: Annik Wetter. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Maria Bernheim, Zürich

Ramaya Tegegne’s publishing, curating, performance and exhibition projects address the economics of art production and display and how rumour operates and communities form, and often cite other artists and artworks to do so. Borrowing its title from Yvonne Rainer’s memoir, Feelings are Facts is the Swiss artist’s first solo show in a commercial gallery, and in it she toys with the implications of this new context. Hanging from the glass door of Galerie Maria Bernheim, Business Hours (all works 2018) shows the gallery’s opening times on a standard sign manufactured for that purpose, making clear that this is a shop like any other. Shermans, meanwhile, displays items including rainbow-coloured combs, lipsticks and disposable razors fanned out on a trestle table in the manner of a low-rent retailer or beauty parlour. This inventory of the props used by Stuart Sherman in his 1994 performance Queer Spectacle seems to await reactivation by the American artist but, given that he died in 2001, must remain in limbo. Is the raw material still more than the sum of its parts today?

Mullicans consists of mirrors propped against walls around the gallery, mimicking Matt Mullican’s Bringing the light into a windowless room and burning a leaf (1973). Where the original was situated in a dark room and used a series of mirrors to focus light on a leaf and burn it, Tegegne is working in a window-walled gallery in wintertime Zürich. Piercing rays of sunlight are rare here, and so the shrivelled leaf outside the gallery’s bathroom, where the chain ends, remains unsinged and almost overlooked. Our Bodies Ourselves, a frieze from pages of the eponymous publication first produced in 1971 to promote women’s knowledge of, and consequent power over, their own bodies, occupies one corner of the gallery. Browned pages from an early edition contrast with others from a 1998 reissue to form a narrative that starts with a woman’s investigation of her own body, continues through relationships, sex, pregnancy, childbirth, childrearing and ageing, and culminates by addressing sexual politics and women’s rights. In isolation, the work illustrates Tegegne’s engagement with an evolving history of gender politics – seen in her reference to Sherman’s work – though not much more.

Tegegne’s strategy is to decode the DNA of recent art history and weave its strands into new combinations. In the context of an exhibition, the works cross-fertilise. Here, the propped mirrors of Mullicans chime with the image of a woman examining her vagina using a mirror in the pages of Our Bodies…: visitors end up literally and metaphorically scrutinising themselves, forced to consider their part in this scenario. By referencing Mullican, Sherman, Gran Fury and General Idea in a site where art history, art present and economics intersect, she reminds us of how contemporary galleries have taken to mining the saleable past.

Tegegne also proves that it takes time and effort to generate the social or emotional value associated with an artist’s work, and that this cannot be conjured merely by namechecking. Is the excerpt from Jean Carlomusto’s film L is for the Way You Look (1991) – in which a group of lesbians discuss spotting Dolly Parton – a masterclass in how ephemeral value might be produced? As the women describe, discuss, joke and fantasise about what they experienced, a narrative is constructed. It’s a shared narrative, an emotional and cultural fabric that binds the speakers together. Shermans reads as both a yawning absence – the artist died too young and his work was little documented – and the spark to light a rumour about something worth reviving.

Ramaya Tegegne: Feelings are Facts at Galerie Maria Bernheim, Zürich, 19 January – 10 March 2018

From the April 2018 issue of ArtReview