Silvia Levenson | Focus

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ONCE UPON A TIME…

For many nostalgic people, fairy tales represent a sweet memory of their childhood, a moment of serenity and relaxation before sleep at the end of a day of play. Thanks to their ability to bathe the listener in a soft pink cloud, all daily worries seemed to recede, as did the most terrifying nightmares. More realistic and more analytical individuals, on the other hand, recognize in them ample metaphors for adult life, where the great universal values embodied by heroes and fairy helpers become so easily communicable to children, while the most difficult moments take on the guise of frightening monsters and fire-breathing dragons. In this case, fairy tales succeed in constructing an initial guideline that helps children from all around the world organize their own limited reality into categories. And so, they learn to juggle their daily lives according to the first imperative distinction between Good and Evil: what belongs to the first class is usually soft, fragrant, colorful, clean; to the second is attributable what is dirty, makes noise, cuts, bites and emits a bad smell. Every child knows that he must be attracted to what is good and stay away from what is bad if he does not want to be severely reprimanded. As he grows up, this well-marked boundary between good and bad becomes thinner and thinner, and what was once taken for granted becomes more and more blurred. In a posthumous analysis of one’s experience and childhood, what was once considered one’s safe environment may actually turn out to be full of daily pitfalls and tensions, and once the effect of the spell is over, it may quickly turn from an enchanted castle into a dark jungle. Consequenlty, it becomes necessary to construct an illusory reality in which to live, to proudly show off to those who are not part of it, as one does with a silver-framed family photo placed above the fireplace. All smiling in their most elegant dress, they take part in the momentary snap so as to fix in time a fleeting moment of fiction. The sham is carried on day after day in the eyes of outside viewers, but even dollhouses hide their own skeletons in their closets.

Away with all illusions, fairy tales constitute but a sedative against the most frightening episodes, those that characterize everyday life and are well hidden from prying eyes behind the walls of one’s home. Repeated violence and habitual abuse, especially when suffered at an early age, indelibly mark one’s experience, thus becoming constitutive traits of a person, reflecting in one’s actions and behavior. In such cases, the oppression suffered becomes undeniable and, slowly, increasingly evident and difficult to mask. It is thus necessary to run for cover, to rely on external supports, so that one’s facial expressions do not betray a deeper wound and the walls of one’s home do not become as transparent as glass.

Silvia Levenson tells us several stories through her biting narrative. Thanks to a large dose of irony, she unmasks the farce of everyday life and lays bare victims and perpetrators. In his works, in fact, through a few elements, the artist is able to construct fairy tales for adults, in which the sad ending is all too easily guessed. And so, in front of Until Death Do Us Part, we are not so surprised to find on the top floor of the glass wedding cake a pink hand grenade instead of the figurine with the two newlyweds. The allusion is immediately clear: married life, to which marriage introduces like a sweet endless honeymoon, sometimes becomes a cold war, a delicate situation to be handled with care. So, the newlyweds work assiduously as members of a bomb squad so as to prevent the disastrous explosion.

Beyond technical virtuosity, Levenson’s mastery consists in approaching extremely suffered themes in contemporary society in a cleverly veiled manner, yet at the same time as blunt and transparent as the material she uses. Her glass sculptures, in fact, deal with domestic abuse, to which the artist refers through razor blades, knives, and nails made familiar through association with everyday objects in soft pastel shades: a pinafore dress, an armchair, a pair of flip-flops.

These realities are sadly known to the artist, because of both personal episodes and the numerous crimes committed against women in her homeland: in Argentina, between 2015 and 2021, 1,717 lives were broken by the phenomenon of feminicide. One every 31 hours.

And so, captivated by the glittery reflective surfaces, we remain bewitched by the artist’s tale: once upon a time there was a princess, who, having made her debut in society, realized that reality was slightly different from what she had imagined. The bodice of her dress, which gives her that sharp waist so in vogue among the youngest girls, is distressingly tightened with sharp staples to the point it does not allow her to breathe. The skirt is wide, but inside it circles of barbed wire run, which injure her legs every step forward she makes. She finds herself forced into an imposed reality and is out of breath to call for help.

In this sharp contrast between everyday life and nightmare, Levenson is able to imbue her sculptures with a surreal aura, but one that sadly does not preclude us from recognizing objects as familiar ones. This sense is fueled by the artist herself, who gives her works ironic titles laden with meaning: the handbag that hides a cleaver inside it in I’m a lady, I am reflects the feminine need for protection arising from perceived fear outside the walls of one’s home.

What to do, however, if one’s home is the first place one experiences violence? In Everything is in Order, Dear, Silvia Levenson is adept at presenting this monstrous reality by arranging on a table a series of sharp objects (knives, scissors, and hammers), each with its own label, like many evidences found at the crime scene. The ironic title, which can be associated with the domestic environment ruled by smiling housewives propounded by the advertisements produced in the 1950s, is able to convey the subordination of the victim before his or her executioner, who has no choice but to choose the fatal weapon. The first violence, the psychological one, however, is already accomplished.

A similar scenario is proposed by the video “ Something wrong” produced by Silvia Levenson and Natalia Saurin in 2005: in a cute pink kitchen, a woman prepares the dough for cookies, helped by her partner. Among the main ingredients are a dozen pills of Prozac, a powerful antidepressant drug. Before long, however, the idyllic scene turns into a fight and, amid shoving and hand-wringing, the woman’s body soon ends up lifeless on the counter.

Benzodiazepines, used to combat anxiety and insomnia, constitute another of the main subjects of the artist’s narrative, who presents them as Life strategies. In the work of the same name, a white chair rests on many colored tiles, each of which has the name of a different drug on it, to form a solid base, to cope with everyday life, or even a thick carpet, under which to hide dirt.

Domestic violence is among the most dangerous ones because it involves both one’s body and one’s emotional sphere, hurting first and foremost the heart. The artist knows this and tells us about it through her works. Thus, the delicate red heart in Small Domestic Accidents presents, vividly in the center, a large laceration. To heal the wound (unsuccessfully), Levenson places a few rickety staples. Silvia Levenson’s fairy tales do not have happy endings and whisper in our ears facts we sadly already know, situations of repeated violence that all too often today culminate in crime-news tragedies, truths as sharp as glass grenade explosions.