Through the Looking Glass
Olga Ziemska’s art reflects on life at MOCA
The universe is a hall of mirrors. Principles of reflection and symmetry in general are at
the core of mathematics, physics, biology -- and also aesthetics. Art in particular has
always played with notions of identity and doubleness, conjuring worlds and personae that
reflect, reproduce, or run parallel to daily life, reprising the selves we glimpse otherwise
only as fugitive shapes moving darkly in the eyes of others.
Olga Ziemska’s show Mirror Matter on display at MOCA borrows a theoretical term from
the richly metaphoric, quasi-mystical realm of cutting edge physics, and runs with it. The
2007 recipient of the Wendy L. Moore Emerging Artist Series exhibition, awarded annually
to a young women artist based in Northeast Ohio, riffs on a concept that some physicists
(the theory in its present form dates from the Australian Robert Foot’s 1991 publication
on the subject) have proposed as a candidate for the “dark matter” thought to account for
much of the mass of the universe. If it exists (and that has yet to be unequivocally
demonstrated) mirror matter could explain a number of anomalies in current theory. And
while it doesn’t imply anything quite so neat or science-fiction-like as an exact inverted
replica of the visible universe, it does have enormous potential beyond mere poetry,
sketching the possibility of an immense untapped resource.
Ziemska’s four visual essays use this topic as a pretext to explore ideas about presence
and absence and the flickering forces that connect all things visible and invisible alike,
alluding to universal patterns found at every scale, from the micro- to the macro-cosmic.
Transparency, the power of fundamental forces like magnetism, and the geometric
replication of crystalline structures are all put to use as part of four essential scenarios
installed at the gallery. Like last year’s Wendy L. Moore recipient Sarah Kabot (Free
Times 6/14/06), Ziemska‘s site-specific works use the unique configuration of MOCA’s
partially glass-enclosed Ginn Gallery to make their points. Kabot, too, played with aspects
of reflection in terms of reversal and reproduction, making a full-scale, inverted model of
the gallery’s ceiling and placing it at viewer’s feet. That work blocked the space, forcing
visitors to view it from a narrow threshold at one of the openings in the gallery’s glass wall.
Ziemska chooses instead tp open the place up, using the glass wall as a transitional
surface between the corridor and interior space, rather than as a barrier. Standing inside
the Ginn Gllery visitors see a mountain-like formation built as a mosaic from many shards
of glass, slowly rising against a vista visible above it on the corridor wall outside.
Resembling the curling clouds typical of many traditional Eastern schools of depiction,
that work is constructed of several thousand coin-sized glass hemispheres, backed with
tiny black and white illustrations. On close examination visitors find themselves peering
into miniature landscapes, or at birds, or portraits, or portions of text, or even single words
like “other.” Taken as a whole this glass bead game, which is titled A Collection of
Accident and Circumstance, rises along the wall to eye level as if by some intellectual
process of evaporation -- condensing to rain down again on the observant eye.
Ziemska’s mountain, called Chiromancy Point (for Giuseppe) rises to a central peak, and
the whole is composed of hundreds of geological-looking layers of mirror tile and glass
fragments treated with ink and glued to the permanent glass wall. The various large and
small shards are imprinted with transparent photographs, including landscapes and
animal, astronomical vistas and microscopic structures, suggesting a view that includes
literally everything, including ourselves, floating ghostlike as a reflective layer.
Bough, installed on the gallery’s far wall looks pretty much like a tree branch in the
process of budding. It would resemble a pussy willow, except that the “buds” turn out to be
iron filings stuck to plaster casts of human finger tips, which are in turn imbedded with
miniature magnets. The intimacy of touch is both buried and expressed, portrayed as a
simultaneously “strong” and “weak” force by Ziemska’s branch configuration and the
subtle conformity of iron filings to the underlying whorls of a magnetic field, echoed in turn
by the maze-like form of human fingerprints.
Another of Ziemska’s works dealing with the complexity of natural forms and transitions
between organic and inorganic is the large, tumbleweed-like Spur, mounted on the floor
near the gallery’s entrance. Incorporating such elements as actual bleached white sticks,
it also includes bones and stones encased in clear resin at its joints. Spur evokes
obstruction and transformation, and perhaps pain. The overlapping, intersecting sticks
add up to a sort of 3D abstract drawing composed of squiggly lines interrupted or
connected by the enclosed joint-lumps, something like a winding road, perhaps, with
roadside shrines, or an elaborate reliquary preserving essential examples of theory’s
incarnation in the real world.
Toward the far end of MOCA’s Ginn Gallery hangs a curtain of three or four inch letters
strung together in rows and stretching most of the way from floor to ceiling. Made from
dark chenille pipe cleaners, each letter has been used as a micro-habitat for salt crystals,
as if the whole had been splashed by sea water over a long period of time. Titled Octavio,
the work is in fact a transcription or embodiment of 1990 Nobel Prize winning Mexican poet
Octavio Paz’ poem Sight and Touch (for Balthus). The poem itself is difficult, perhaps
impossible to read in this format, but if you can find the text it’s a marvelous meditation on
light and force, aptly articulating Ziemska’s intentions here. In Eliot Weinberger’s 1987
translation its concluding lines read:
The light goes off through a path of reflections
And comes back to itself:
A hand that invents itself, an eye
That sees itself in its own inventions.
Light is time thinking about itself.
Ziemska’s works wind through the fingers and away from the individual hand, envisioning
the ever-expanding, branching structures of the whole universe as longer arguments for
the essence of each intimate thing. Everywhere this artist invokes the invisible, petitioning
structure for clues to the elusive relations between self and other, questioning the weak
and strong forces that bind us, ultimately asking about choice and will, appearance and
[Free Times 7/18/07]