Benign bulges gather in the hall of Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof for Devouring Lovers, the exhibition of works by Barcelona-born artist Eva Fàbregas (on view until January 14, 2024). The exhibition, curated by Anna-Catharina Gebbers, collects flesh-like Lycra fabric sewn around bulbous, swelling knots – stuffed but never wrinkled; perfectly taut. Wiggling in shape, pet-like, and humorous in scale, these synthetic jumbles of limb-like mutations mechanically shift and breathworming around the museum’s steel support beams, dangling downwards and interlocking on the floor. Vibrating ever-so-slightly in their bathing suit fabric, the installation mimics a machine, or an organism, with a sensual ferocity that intervenes in the museum's architecture.
The title “Devouring Lovers” is affectionately biopsied from Glasgow-based writer Daisy Lafarge’s recently-released book Lovebug (Peninsula Press, October 2023). Gorging itself with mutualistic properties of language, pathogens, and parasites, Lafarge’s research finds a commonality with Fàbregas’s installation in the exploration and crossing of the self’s slippery boundaries as one fuses with the lovebug, defined in the book as a guest presence such a virus, pathogen, parasite, or illness. What begins with two prose poems leads into chapters covering subjects connected to love, death, devourment, science, and class at the interface of nonhuman species, which arose from Lafarge’s initial study into zoonoses, the diseases that can be transmitted between animals and humans. Sharp and critical, Lovebug mirrors gossip in syntax and subject – reveling in the regularity of change within scientific stances and sources, as well as the innate contradictions and plateaus of the hypothetical hearsay of theory and collective affirmation.
What the book requires, though, is an open reading, referencing Donna Haraway’s philosophy of the “window of vulnerability,” which observes all living organisms as exposed to a wide definition of influences and intrusions. This vulnerability is crucial, an open portal into the microscopic details that have contributed to evolution.
Fàbregas’s large-scale installation tickles and winces in candy-colored pinks, reds, and ochres within the grand hall, quivering with an abundance of energy like the splitting tension of asexual reproduction or immense hunger. Looking towards a fat yellow chain, one of us visitors convinces the rest, “Some people must have touched it. Right?” The voice echoes my own desire to touch these makeshift morphologies. Loveable and parasitic, they cross over our path in sex for sex’s sake – a yearning connection.
Intimacy becomes a devotional topic in Lovebug, which contemplates love for the undesirable, openly considering the language of affection as a way to describe closeness with parasites and other nonhuman intruders to our bodies. Including fragments from conferences on the military metaphor of illness, religious custom, and scientific studies, and interjecting these with personal experiences that test the genre of memoir, Lafarge uses critical theory to read amorous relationships through the lens of the viral, bacterial, and parasitic behaviors within a host body. For example, the book looks at the language we use to describe the microscopic, dissecting how we animate illness through words equivalent to war, invasion, and other forms of militarism. Lovebug, wrapping itself around Susan Sontag's Illness as Metaphor, an analysis of metaphoric language as a potential threat to the body of writing vis-à-vis the patient, Lafarge widens the many crevices of human vulnerability and places them under a magnifying glass to engage with our sense of self when confronted by an intrusion. Referencing the virus that led to the synthesis of proteins responsible for the placenta’s ability to bridge two mammalian bodies in utero, Lafarge dutifully explains the many ways parasitic entities have become part of our own anatomy. As a reader, this information is absorbed like a spike of oxytocin, a chemical bond experienced by the reader through the author’s cunning insights and conversational structure designed for us to “acknowledge our own latent monstrosities,” as Lafarge states.
Lovebug and Eva Fàbregas’s installations mirror one another in their affection for the humor and playfulness within inter-species relationships. Latched onto the definition of love as neither human nor bug, but a closeness that is cross-species and -form, both book and installation emphasize and facilitate an emotive connection beyond the human. Fàbregas uses scale to achieve this effect – quieting visual associations of intestines, tumors, or giant placentas for genuine awe and amazement in her macro-sized sculptures. Still, the sculpture borders on a kind of exaggerated body horror due to a cultural fear of the unknown guest, which makes itself known inside a vulnerable body.
Fàbreges’s and Lafarge’s work, although expressed through two vastly different mediums, complement each other, with Lovebug presenting a theoretical framework to analyze the exhibition Devouring Lovers. To do this, we must extend metaphorical language to how visitors in Hamburger Bahnhof’s entry space evoke microbes; cellular responders to Fàbreges’ possibly-toxic bodies.
In the context of the museum, Devouring Lovers is introduced as a corporeal object that confuses boundaries between the organic and inorganic, the reflexive and the technical, the human and the nonhuman. And this substance, too – lending itself so easily to an active and animated language – seems to both live in and change the atmosphere of the Hamburger Bahnhof. This recalls the notion of Lafarge’s observation of the parasite: having the potential to be altered and to effect change. Questioning the relationship between parasite and host and how certain cells and cultures co-conspire, Lafarge acknowledges that the proximity to parasites, bacteria, bugs, viruses, and the like, opens a landscape of two-directional influence. As between lovers, fluids are shared, bacteria are passed, habits and phrases are adopted; the human/host metamorphosizes with the parasites until it tips over into something toxic, harmful, or dangerous. While Fàbreges's sculptures can be understood as a physical animation of the very language Lafarge explores in her book – pulsing, moving, and exercising – Lovebug also suggests that the installation opens the exhibition space up to harm, becoming vulnerable, too.
But is the installation a toxic love, or is it still masked by the cover of perfect symbiosis?
I argue neither, and that it is instead one of the occurrences of beneficial or evolutionary parasitic change.
The evidence of this can best be seen in the audience gathering around the sculptures. We, visitors, giggle, gossip, shout, pose for pictures, even kiss under the Lycra installation. Fàbregas’s work stirs something within us, resulting overwhelmingly in general enthusiasm and excitement despite the work evading categorization in its abstract nature. “I bet they’re filled with laughing gas or something,” I hear, and phrases like it, passing through the crowd as we collectively decide what to make of Devouring Lovers.
Meanwhile, in Lovebug, Lafarge makes an interesting connection – that even the smallest parts of our bodies and their origins come from devouring lovers. It is hypothesized that life on Earth can be traced to a single, starving cell that, in search of survival, attempts to eat its sibling. This act resembles something closer to sex than cannibalism, bringing forth sexual reproduction and genetic differences, as opposed to the mitosis of a single cell splitting into more versions of itself. To this end, Lafarge writes, “Love is mixed in with death, the eater rises out of the eaten.”
She goes on to suggest that our love for the metaphor of devourment might stem from these simple cells that broke off from asexual reproduction. We are perhaps, she writes, “voicing ancestral muscle-memory, ventriloquised by the biological unconscious.” This suggests that Fàbreges's title, Devouring Lovers, comes from a similar notion: while parasites can and do cause harm when they latch onto a host, not all acts of devouring lead to a harmful result. Devouring Lovers is instead like the viral protein chain that made the placenta, the lover that took a bite and bred evolution to bring forth change.
Leaving the central hall of the Hamburger Bahnhof, more often than not, visitors seem to exit more bubbly and light than how they arrive, a consensus of general affection for Fàbregas’s unfamiliar guests in the museum’s entry exhibition space. With a deeper understanding that we always remain open to grand and small vulnerabilities, perhaps we can view our other lovebugs with more multiplicity than just fear or fright. In Devouring Lovers, life continues in the museum space, its round Lycra tentacles balancing in the homeostasis of art and architecture.
- IMAGE CREDITS
Cover, fig. 1, fig. 2, fig. 3, fig. 4: Ausstellungsansicht "Eva Fàbgregas. Devouring Lovers", Hamburger Bahnhof - Nationalgalerie der Gegenwart, 6.7.2023-7.1.2024 Courtesy Eva Fàbregas, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Hamburger Bahnhof – Nationalgalerie der Gegenwart / Foto: Jacopo La Forgia.