In The Arms of St Agnes:
Zsófia Keresztes at König Galerie

For In Ethylene Arms, Zsófia Keresztes transforms the former nave of the church of St. Agnes in Berlin into a garden of earthly delights and suffering. Somehow here, it is both spring and autumn – apples bloom and rot, pain and joy are one and the same.

Usually, the sweet smell of rotting apples is something our nose picks up immediately, but it is soon repelled by a haunting smell of death. This is the smell of ethylene, a poisonous gas that is released when fruit rots. Resonant with Keresztes is the fact that this gas is actually «contagious», such that If an apple begins to rot among healthy ones, the ethylene it releases will infect others. It is this notion of sweet-morbid closeness and togetherness that underlies the entire exhibition.

Which comes first, the apple blossom or the rotting of the fruit? We cannot be sure what is a beginning and what is an end. The apple, in its various states of metamorphosis – from blossom to fruit – is the central image in Keresztes’ latest work, deftly employing biblical, semantic, and cultural-historical associations with the fruit. Above all, though, the apple becomes a sweetly painful metaphor for femininity, maturity, and motherhood, which are invariably linked to the search for balance between pleasure and pain, self and other.

Keresztes’ work has always been restless, woven by inner conflicts and tension, especially when it comes to femininity and the relation to others. But this new body of work puts the notion of maturity and motherhood in focus and creates profound moments of reconciliation.
At the entrance to the exhibition, the god Janus in an apple incarnation greets vistors. Janus is the Roman god of beginnings and endings, entrances and exits, and gates. He is a god who guards the thresholds between worlds. In this placement at the entrance to the “garden,” Janus marks the transition from the everyday into a new, surreal dimension.

Julien Pacaud: of gods and men

Shortly, a second transition follows – this time through a portal formed by the stamens of apple blossoms – where passing through the portal enacts a symbolic process of fertilisation and procreation, viewers becoming active participants who drive the dramaturgy of the exhibition.

This dramaturgical approach is also evident in the figure of the anti-hero: the worm (Pandemis cerasana), which can be found in the exhibition in states from larva to moth. In real life, it eats from the living flesh and painfully works its way through the fruit. One of the sculptures in the show represents an anthropomorphic apple blossom that steps on a worm with its foot. The gesture is borrowed from the traditional depiction of the Virgin Mary trampling the serpent, though here, the confrontation between apple and worm is devoid of the usual. Instead, life and death, joy, and pain take on greater symbolic character, part of a singular whole, much like the two faces of Janus.

The show’s central piece, positioned at the altar of the former St. Agnes church, can be seen as both a climax and denouement of the drama unfolding elsewhere, as two apples, entrapped in a web of worms, return to the impending threat of entrapment and suffocation. But above it all, there is tenderness and pleasure, if only for a moment, before we fall back into the arms of Ethylene.

Words by Fabzirio Mifsud Soler

Zsófia Keresztes IN ETHYLENE ARMS is on view until 11th November 2023 at König Galerie | St. Agnes, Berlin
Images: Roman März courtesy of the artist and König Galerie

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