The Contemporary Pacific 16.1 (2004) 225-229
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Gauguin's Zombie, an installation by Debra Drexler at the Honolulu Academy of Arts, 5 September-27 October 2002, and at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center's Shaefer International Gallery, 3 May-15 June 2003.
The life of artist Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) retains a mythic quality, though its once-scandalous aspects now seem only draped with a certain late-nineteenth-century nostalgia. The early life of Gauguin, born in Paris, included years living in South America and working as a seaman. He settled in Paris as a stockbroker's agent, became a friend of several of the Impressionist painters and began to paint on his own, first exhibiting with the group in 1881. He left his family and struggled to make a living as a full-time artist, eventually settling in an artist's colony in Brittany in 1887. The changes in his style, from a more subdued palette to one enriched with color, from naturalism to symbolism, may be seen to parallel an increasingly intense search for an anchor of spirituality, which he sought first among the Breton folk, and later among the natives of Tahiti, the French colony he first visited in 1891 in his quest to be free of the bonds of civilization. He returned to Paris in 1893, enjoying the celebrity following the publication of his diary Noa Noa, but returned in 1895 to the South Seas where he lived out his life on increasingly remote islands, fretful at the relentless encroachment of European influence. Reading this life, set in an era of emergent modernity, from the perspective of the intervening century, we may appreciate its poignancy, but we are also inclined to see in Gauguin [End Page 225] an emblem of the very process of westernization against which he railed, including the deleterious effects of colonization and, in particular, the eroticization of native life.
Gauguin's own sense of self-transformation, expressed in Noa Noa, his illustrated memoir of life in a Tahitian paradise, was hopeful, transcendent: "Wholly destroyed, finished, dead, is from now on the old civilization within me. I was reborn; or rather another man, purer and stronger, came to life within me." Debra Drexler, associate professor of art at the University of Hawai'i, Manoa, wants us to see it another way. Drexler's project Gauguin's Zombie is most definitely a darker, more satirical vision of the life-after-death of one of modernism's most celebrated artists.
Drexler has constructed a complicated narrative in which the corpse of Gauguin is brought back to unexpected life in a strange new existence—not only postmodern, but post-mortal as well—and embarks on a new journey that creates an uncanny and inverse echo of the journey that took him away from Europe to Tahiti. In Gauguin's escape to Polynesia, the artist considered that he could "end my days in peace and freedom, without thought of tomorrow and this eternal struggle against idiots." As Drexler's fantasy plays out, Gauguin's zombie makes a rather ignoble return to Paris and to a strange new phase of the painting life.
Drexler's complex installation includes seven large oil paintings (done in a neoprimitive style clearly meant to evoke and emulate that of Gauguin) supplemented by a number of corollary works—small oil sketches, pages from a journal, woodcuts—that parallel Gauguin's historical output. One of the most elegant components is a carved wood frame Drexler has created for the gallery doorway, like Gauguin's own doorway for his Tahitian house/studio "Maison du Jouir" (House of Pleasure.) In Drexler's visual narrative, the figure of Gauguin's zombie is a recurrent presence, sallow skinned (very much like Gauguin's painting "Yellow Christ" of 1889) and accompanied by a dark-robed crone (from "The Spirit of the Dead Watching" of 1892).
Included too are documents that provide more of the back-story for the existence of Gauguin's zombie: from his strange revival at an ethnographic museum (he is still filled with libidinous desire, despite the fragile condition...