Disembodied Parts

The restless, ingenious Susana Mendes Silva has worked across many media, settling on none. She has made disturbing fused objects (a golden tampon in the shape of a bullet, a bar of soap implanted with a razorblade); she has done a witty and anxious private performance-on-demand ("Artphone: +351 91 7218012: Don't be afraid to ask anything you always wanted to know about contemporary art," she said on a flyer, and I assume the offer still stands); and she has taken disembodied photographs of her feet, with the camera taking a vagina's-eye-view down between the legs, as if both of these body parts somehow have minds and lives of their own. These images are characteristically cute and also rather lonely: the body is a delightful and perplexing encumbrance, a whole other country that never appears whole.

In "Life-Cage", Susana Mendes Silva has moved from the feet to the hands - not her own, but the learned hand of a harpist linked to a man's hand with tape and photographed in strange, experimental configurations. And in "Polaroid", we also see a face - eventually - for the first time in Susana Mendes Silva's work. It is the artist's face, and the eyes are resolutely shut.

The hands and the eyes are maybe the most intimate parts of the body, and also the most highly evolved. Jacques Derrida said that through the hands and the eyes we recognize the Other, but it is very difficult, or impossible, to see properly our own eyes and hands. We can easily look at ourselves in the mirror and have a pretty good idea of what we look like, but we can never see our own act of looking in the natural flow of life. This experience is reserved for the Other. In the same way, gesturing with the hands is an almost unconcsious act, a pure transcription of desire in which we reveal ourselves to the Other, but not to ourselves. The exhibition "Life-Cage" works with the hands and the eyes, but Susana Mendes Silva is typically evasive, concealing as much as she reveals: the eyes are closed, and it's deliciously uncertain whether the hands are having a conversation or an argument.

Like a tube of dead skin, a coiled length of translucent tape links two fingers around harp strings, trapping the hand in a cold, untouching embrace of the instrument. She - we assume a harpist to be a she, and the red nail varnish confirms this - is a slave to her instrument, but the bind could be broken easily. The hands are luxurious, but they also betray signs of labour. The first signs of ageing are palpable in tiny wrinkles, as if the muscle memory developed from years of practice has inscribed itself in the skin. Cultivating a skill also creates callouses. The harpist's handiwork - a most antiquated skill - is deeply impressive but also, Susana Mendes Silva seems to be saying, imprisoning. "Life-Cage" might be seen as a lament for lost craft, but also as an acknowledgement of the intimate, quiet pain that devotion to a craft represents.

In a work from 1998, "Why don't you go if you just can't move", Susana Mendes Silva filled fancy, aristocratic dolls' costumes with sand and arranged the flaccid shapes on a wooden staircase. They acted out a surreal courtly scene that culminated in a ball gown positioned on a stair so that it appeared to be reaching out desperately for a man's long suit jacket. Again, it was a disembodied drama: there were no figures inside the costumes, no limbs, no hands, and certainly no eyes.

In the next stream of images in "Life-Cage", we hear an echo of this plaintive detachment. The harpist's hand is cut free and joined by the same coil of sticky tape with another hand. This new hand is slightly rougher, with unvarnished nails, but still looks uncannily similar to the harpist's hand. The two hands - one male, one female - are locked together in an antagonistic and affectionate dance. As the fingers flex, curl, and fold, the hands work the tape into a loop, a little bridge, and, in one image, an umbilical cord apparently supplying nourishment to a lone middle finger.

The hands breathe with an intelligence, and perhaps with an intuitive, gestural understanding of each Other that comes before conscious thought. But it's not clear if the hands are thinking/acting together or in opposition to each other. Poised in promiscuous configurations, these hands are engaged in battle, forever undecided about whether they want to separate or consummate. But one gets the feeling that even a consummation would be a kind of vengeful annihilation of the Other.

The shapes the hands make exude an eroticism that borders on the obscene - obscene because we're not sure exactly how or why the images are erotic, and most of the story is literally out of the picture. Susana Mendes Silva's unsettling metonymy is again at work, with a melancholy part standing for the absent whole.

"Life-Cage" fills in some blanks but tantalizingly leaves some others. The short video work "Polaroid" moves Susana Mendes Silva's explorations from the realm of detachment and disembodiment to dematerialization. A figure gradually but inexorably emerges from the pure white void of a developing photograph. Susana Mendes Silva seems to bleed into being, and it happens almost too quickly to savour the gorgeous exposure of colour and texture. We are inescapably left a step behind, struggling to grasp the exact moment when the image first forms, when it seems to be fully formed, and when it actually is. At the end, we are denied eye contact with the figure, and, in a way, the void remains.

James Westcott