JOSS

2001
one-channel installation
13:54 min.
no sound

Joss is the name of the papers burned at burials in China. As lucky papers, they symbolize earthly goods, which, dissolved in hot air, the mourners hope will not be lacking in the next life. The butterfly, in turn, was in ancient times a symbol of the soul, which could not be destroyed by physical death. With its metamorphosis from egg through caterpillar and pupa, which is seemingly caught in rigor mortis, to the radiant flying creature, the butterfly – the Greek word for which is “psyche”, by the way – is an allegory of the ceaseless cycle of life, becoming, and perishing.
Maria Vedder’s loop shows a butterfly that has gotten caught behind a piece of joss paper. The butterfly flaps its wings and attempts to escape. Will it manage to come free? Are we watching its death struggle? Combining the two symbolic signs brings the two polar fields of meaning whose associations they call up into relation with each other and sets them in motion. It is a matter of life and death – and everything that happens between them and is caught in the beat of the butterfly’s wings. That the whole work does not swell up into a metaphysical parable weighing tons lies in the consciously laconic lack of staging and, not least, on the literally lightweight character of the motifs. The translucent joss paper and the gossamer wings of the butterfly cannot support moralizing exclamation points. There also lies the difference from the Christian “vanitas” topos, which Vedder’s staging does run in tangent to, but ultimately reinterprets. For unlike the Christian iconography, whose burning candles and skulls points to the finiteness of all earthly being, the butterfly and joss paper represent metamorphosis, ceaseless change as a constant of being. There is no beginning and no end: what medium could better represent such a symbolic time than video, especially in its looped form?

Anja Osswald