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A Future in the Light of Darkness review: Imagined engines of desire

Modern Art Oxford’s exhibit Frieda Toranzo Jaeger: A future in the light of darkness counters the potential for automated vehicles and social media algorithms to consume our future reality. With her work Toranzer Jaeger creates a space where one can explore and affirm an alternative future in which Audis, Teslas, and Rolls Royces should be split, overwhelmed, and destroyed by the forces of floral imagery and female indigenous power. 

Toranzo Jaeger titles one of her central pieces If the future is full of death, the past is the only alternative source of inspiration to the traditions and memories of a zombified world, which responds to the subtitle of this exhibition. How can we find a future in the seemingly oxymoronic light of darkness? Perhaps in the dark void of the future, with the death and zombification of human agency in the age of driverless cars, there is no choice but to dive into a surreal and uninhibited imagination. The negative space of the future can be filled with re-imagined pasts to create new worlds. 

Toranzo Jaeger derives her imagination from the pasts of Western Art History and Pre-Colombian Mexican embroidery techniques, passed down by generations of women. Specifically, Toranzo Jaeger reimagines Western art, such as Cranach’s desolate The Fountain of Youth (which depicts men guiding women into a rejuvenating fountain as part of an initiation into the pleasures of male company and feasting), into a painted image of queer paradise surrounded by lush nature (End of Capitalism, the Fountain), Among Toranzo Jaeger’s embroidered figures, men are notably absent. While in Cranach’s painting the bathed women enter a red curtained tent to prepare for the indulgence of masculine pleasure, Toranzo Jaeger’s red curtains lead nowhere, their creases reminding us of the walls of the endometrium. In this paradise, the pleasure of the fountain does not require masculine undertones. The womb is the alternative engine for human life and floral fertility, rather than the fragmented and burning remains of phallic rockets and satellites. In the subversion of heterosexual desire through imagery, and the canonical artistry of painting with indigenous embroidery (which is often depreciated as a “woman’s craft”), Toranzo Jaeger thus meshes the Western signifiers of artistic prestige with her own cultural practices to reconstruct an alternative vision for the future. 

Toranzo Jaeger considers the present day  in her 2023 work Open your heart and everything will change— a heart-shaped piece suspended in the air. In Exhibition Notes, Toranzo Jaeger recognises a connection between the hearts that dominate the exhibition and the ‘Like”/”Heart’ button on social media, which she calls the “machine of endless desire.” Toranzo Jaeger encourages us to reconsider social media as an insatiable machine that desires for hearts of validation. As users of social media, we become addicted to an engineered desire, which feeds on our instinctive urge to connect with people and reconfigures the way we interact in real life (does the phone really need to eat first?). Perhaps this addiction slowly deprives us of meaningful connections to others’ hearts.

One side of the heart is pastel pink and ‘held’ together in the centre with corset-like, uniformly intertwined threads; it depicts an ambiguous conglomeration of machinery parts that resemble a distorted female face, and is decorated in bows. On the other side is lush greenery with criss-crossed details of embroidered thick yarn. Toranzo Jaeger calls for us to reassess our everyday interactions with desire and notions of feminised beauty which are promoted by capitalist technology. If we cut away the corset and wires which suspend the heart, it will fall and break apart. Only after the forced destruction of social media algorithms and “likes” as forms of interactions which are constrained by programmed systems, can our desires be enhanced and identity be embodied. Technology has, as of yet, failed to deliver this.   

However, Toranzo Jaeger does not completely reject the role of  technology in our lives; she encourages its reassessment. In the passageway between the two main exhibition rooms, visitors are met with a whirring sound of four small installations that open and close, akin to blooming flowers. The movements of these installations, which are painted with the same floral imagery continuous throughout the exhibition, are animated by motors and springs. Toranzo Jaeger reminds us that we should be able to integrate our desires for a thriving natural power with the machinery of the modern world. We should not be complacent and allow technology to reinforce the status quo through its monopolisation by a select few; technology has the infinite capacity to imagine another world. 

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