What would everyday life be like if we couldn’t count on the certainty of categories or determined boundaries? If a bird perches on my shoulder I remain human and it remains a bird. If I eat an apple or a steak, I don’t expect my arms to be transformed into branches, or my voice to turn into the lowing of a cow. If I cut my skin I know I will see muscles and blood there, and beneath them, bones.
This does not happen in Roberto Kusterle’s world. A world where no detail is anything other than a faithful copy of a natural object. A world inhabited by figures that remind us only too well of real men and women, but one that shatters any boundaries upon which we base our daily life.
Shattering boundaries doesn’t mean confusion, a chaotic tangle of elements. In these images the boundaries are shattered one at a time, each time dragging the viewer towards a subject that appears to offer certainties, but which then reveals a shattering of boundaries which is both enthralling and disorientating.
The basic element of this crossing of boundaries is the contrast between a living, humanoid exterior, and a dry, vegetable interior. It is an element which is so characteristic of Kusterle’s work as to be almost one of those “diagnostic features” that a naturalist would consider to identify the species. As soon as the viewer goes beyond the skin, this contrast leaves them unsteady on their feet. Beneath the skin there are no muscles, no bowels, no blood, instead there is a thick bundle of dried up branches where there can be no trace of human life. It is a space where a bird can make its nest, or where a small mammal can make its burrow. This is only the first step in the unrelenting shattering of boundaries by the artist. The next step is the bursting out from the apparent boundaries of the human shape, offshoots emerging from that barren inner world, dried branches, long enough for a bird to perch on. A bird that remains distinct from what is left of a man.
This is true of the second stage of this unsettling process. In the third stage, however, the artist’s hatchet falls on the material boundaries between man and animals, with their feathers or fur. It is almost too simple to substitute a part of the human body with the form of a bird, a mammal or a shell. Indeed Kusterle’s sophisticated approach finds other, more elegant, ways of eliminating the boundaries. An example is Night Flight, where the man and the nocturnal bird in his hands maintain their own distinct identities, apart from the thick coat of feathers which extends to cover the entire human figure with extraordinary naturalness.
In another series of images, where the idea of the double becomes the dominant theme, Kusterle strictly respects a fundamental law of human and animal teratology: the mirror symmetry that gives monsters an unexpected element of legitimacy. However in The White Mask the mirror image of the human head takes on the appearance of a ram’s skull: here there is not only an intermingling of species but also a more painful one between that which is alive and that which is dead, standing next to each other like symmetrical parts of the whole.
On the subject of symmetry Kusterle shows us a range of ideas, which are less disturbing, but which are much richer in geometric evocations, such as the double symmetry of Meeting in the Woods or the expanding spiral of Wedding Dance, where the winding together of human forms mingles with the spiralling spikes of the two large sea snails which blend with their hair.
There are three works (Fear of Seduction and the two versions of Holy/sacred? Wedding) where the boundaries between species is negated, but without calling into question the identities and distinct roles of male and female. As such there is at least one boundary which Kusterle refuses to eliminate: the boundary between man and woman, or at least what is left behind of a man or a woman after so many other boundaries have been broken.