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Galerie Alice Mogabgab, Beirut
The Beautiful Agony of Survival
India Stoughton, The Daily Star

A brace of pheasants hangs from two thick leather straps, fastened around the birds’ necks. Their heads, which protrude from above the nooses, loll lifelessly, their curved beaks ajar. This marriage of beauty and death is one of 20 sculptures by British artist Emma Rodgers currently on show at Galerie Alice Mogabgab in Ashrafieh. In “Spiritus,” Rodgers uses the eternal archetypes and ideas encapsulated in Greek mythology as the basis for a series of works that explore the struggle of human and animal alike to survive against all the odds, and to struggle against pain or injustice.

“Spiritus,” the artist explains in her statement, means breathing, spirit or ghost, energy, and pride or arrogance – fitting words for an exhibition that features sculptures with such raw, disturbing power.

Working in a wide variety of media including ceramics, metal, wood, shells and feathers, Rodgers succeeds in conveying not just bodies but the life force that animates them. They may be crafted using a similar technique and materials, but there is a world of difference between the frantic nightingale and swallow, about to be torn apart by a bird of prey in Rodgers’ dark interpretation of a myth of Philomena, and the hanging forms of the two pheasants, empty shells from which all life has departed.

The sculptures directly inspired by Greek mythology include a vision of Sisyphus, his distorted, sickly body naked and vulnerable, dwarfed by the enormous black rock he is doomed to roll forever uphill. Icarus seals his doom with two spindly wings, lethal looking shards of wood like arrows, each wrapped in fabric and ornamented with a single white feather.

Beroe, the daughter of Venus and Adonis said to be born on the coast of Lebanon, is captured naked, save for a long white veil that falls from her shoulders to her feet. This delicate symbol of her intended marriage to Poseidon is offset by the pair of silver arrows that protrude from her breast, the violent expression of Eros’ claim to her heart.

The remaining works on show dwell on the will to survive, capturing animals and human alike engaged in a struggle against invisible forces – death, confinement, sickness and age. A dismembered bear appear to trundle onward, even as its body falls to pieces.

Crafted from bronze finished in a gorgeous array of rusts, greys and green verdigris, the animal is both beautiful and pitiful, its body cracked, its back legs messing, its front right paw lying detached from its body on the ground.

A hare, its body wasted, its ears laid back to its head in panic, is caught hunched, mid leap. Its ceramic face is a skull, its eye sockets empty and blind. The twist of the animal’s body and the rich gold details that decorate the fine edges of its ears again create a tension between the beauty of Rodgers’ work and then agony of her mutilated subject.

In a side room, lit by spotlights, a series of human figures on tiny podiums struggle to escape from the confines of nets, stretched tightly over their wasted forms. Pinched faces, bony limbs and spread-eagled fingers protrude from the fabric, stretching it into peaks and troughs.

These figures don’t share the sense of panic or raw emotional intensity of Rodgers’ animal forms but their claustrophobic composition links back to centuries-old imagery depicting figures trapped in purgatory, eternally doomed to struggle for an unattainable freedom.

Rodgers’ work, with its focus on life and death, struggle, survival and forward motion, may not appeal to everyone.

It packs a powerful emotional punch, however, and the artist’s sensitive, balanced compositions coupled with her eye for arresting texture and subtle colour render her work undeniably beautiful to beyond.

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