Sarah Grass: Unmanned
Grass veers through geologic time, biology, psychology, and digital privacy to explore how our urge to return to the sea is more cyborgian than sexual
New YorkDOPPELGÄNGER PROJECTS
March 17 – June 7, 2019
Every drawing in Unmanned, Sarah Grass’s first solo show, is a high-wire act of technical virtuosity. She uses no projectors, but instead copies her source pictures with a Micron pen by eye, combining them, as Grass put it in an interview: “…in a grey zone between image and text.” These improvisations evoke the feeling we are watching Grass’s dialectical thought process blossom on the page, as in Messenger (2018), where she riffs on carrier pigeons, the proverbial canary in the coal mine, and Big Bird to address ecological collapse. The very title of the show veers paradoxically between the definition of the word, a loss of virile qualities such as courage or self-control, and Grass’s stated vision of a feminist utopia, an “unmanned” world beyond the patriarchy, empowering not only the majority of the human race but non-humans as well.
While Grass has not acknowledged Timothy Morton (of Hyperobjects  fame) as an influence, her work relates to the idea of “veering” that he championed in his book Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence (2016):the conceiving of disparate scales, contexts, and disciplines simultaneously to develop new avenues of ecological thinking. As the example of Messenger shows, she swings in each drawing from one seemingly unrelated image to the next, proposing new contexts of meaning as they play off each other. While she has acknowledged the influence of women Surrealists in her practice, e.g. Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo, Grass owes more intellectually to Donna Haraway, Deleuze/Guattari, and Morton, than to Freud. Her feminist vision counters the pathologies not of the personal unconscious but of the cultural unconscious, in particular toxic masculinity’s denial of cooperation, empathy, and the dignity of the vulnerable. Grass’s drawings insist on featuring figures obscured by traditional master narratives: animals, children and childish figures, the insane, indigenous people, and so forth.
The show’s conceptual axis is the diptych Unmanned, XY (2017) and Unmanned, XX (2017) which take as their point of departure the German judge Daniel Paul Schreber’s Memoirs of my Nervous Illness(1903) that was subsequently analyzed by Freud. Her draftsmanship moves the viewer’s eye through complex pictorial statements and high contrasts of dark and light, making her jumps in content more legible. Of particular interest to Grass was Schreber’s belief that God was turning him into a woman in order to save the world. Unmanned XY presents the pre-transitional Schreber, and includes an image of a snarling wolf, among other symbols of unrestrained male aggression. Unmanned XX shows the post-transition Schreber, now looking decidedly female with the help of FaceApp, a digital tool that transforms the gender and age of faces. Surrounding the female Schreber are images of udders, phases of the moon, and other harbingers of feminine power. Freud believed that Schreber’s delusions stemmed from repressed homosexual impulses. Deleuze and Guattari in Anti-Oedipus criticized Freud’s interpretation on the grounds that it enforced the family unit’s traditional gender roles, which are essential to capitalism. Grass takes that argument a step further. In the text that accompanies the show’s catalog, she describes Schreber’s “unmanning” as a utopian metaphor substituting peaceful cooperation between humans and animals for the mindless competitiveness of capitalist systems, which threaten the existence of thousands of species including our own.
Thalassa (2018) is more visually restrained than the Unmanned diptych, but as broad in its conceptual reach. The title refers to the Hungarian psychoanalyst Sandor Ferenczi’s theory that the unconscious and regressive urge to return to the womb harkens to our watery origins. There are three main actors in Thalassa—a mudskipper, a platypus, and an extinct creature known as the Tiktaalik, studied as an example of a species with anatomical traits of both fish and tetrapods. Each of these animals lives between water and land, defying categories. There are also three “holes,” perhaps referencing the return to the womb, associated with the animals, one of which is the eye of a surveillance camera. In Thalassa, Grass veers through geologic time, biology, psychology, and digital privacy to explore, as she puts it “how our urge to return to the sea is more cyborgian than sexual.” In other words, this return is driven not from repressed urges, but from the desire to overcome boundaries between human, animal, and machine, as articulated by Donna Haraway in her Cyborg Manifesto, (1984). The composition is among the quietest in the show, and gives the impression of swimming underwater as our attention floats from one detail the next.
No Water, No Moon (2019) makes a poetic coda to Grass’s themes and variations on science, technology, and psychology. It shows three ducks: one flying, one floating on the water, and one diving. Much smaller than either the Unmanned diptych or Thalassa, its composition holds the page but doesn’t crowd it—a problem that crops up with some of the other smaller works. As with many of the other drawings, No Water, No Moon gives the impression of a diagram, with lines directing the movements of the parts. The flying duck appears to be gazing at the moon through a porthole. The floating duck, situated directly below the flying duck, seems serenely contained, except for the spirals surrounding it that threaten to pull it down into a whirlpool where we see the faintest outlines of the diving duck, plunging away. Each duck’s activity veers from the other two, pulling our attention in different directions. In the catalog, Grass calls this work a kōan, the Zen practice of deconditioning the mind by contemplating a seemingly nonsensical phrase. Perhaps in No Water, No Moon she is calling for new ways of thinking and feeling to achieve an “unmanned” world. The wild jumps of subject matter, disciplines, scale, and more that we see in Grass’s drawings are certainly pushing us in that direction.