“Not touching but joined in astonishment as two cuts lie parallel in the same flesh,” writes Anne Carson in the 1998 novel, Autobiography of Red. Breathing new life, ripping parts apart—it’s the painful, heart-wrenching reality of being alive, of being absolutely anything at all. This is the work of Finnish artist Kristoffer Ala-Ketola, whose first U.S. solo show, “Dreams & Delusions,” was on display at the Hyde Park gallery 4th Ward Project Space through May 29.
In Autobiography of Red, Carson reimagines the ancient Greek mythological monster Geryon as a queer teenage photographer (who is also a monster, red with wings). The pieces in “Dreams & Delusions” nod toward the teen and some are even named after him. The sculptures are quite literally being torn apart, with bits of flesh, skin, and muscle exposed. Bone appears through the rips of red. “My Geryon is in turmoil but quite peacefully so,” said Ala-Ketola in an email interview.
Queerness and monsters have gone hand-in-hand for decades with society deeming the monster archetype as something “other,” something queer and not straight. The horror-film monster trope illustrates how queer folks are demonized and shamed, cast into isolation and ostracized.
Classic films and books like Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, or Dracula’s Daughter are queer-coded with themes of rejection, society’s anger, and the ultimate demise of many of these monster characters. The body, being torn and reimagined, reconstructed, stitched up, and tattered all resemble the monster—too horrible and terrifying for everyday life.
In Geryon, the top half of the body has red-stained bones that connect to a head with two horns. Credit: Courtesy Kristoffer Ala-Ketola
But being a monster is not such a terrible thing. “I believe the grotesque itself evokes both empathy and disgust. I hope once the possible initial shock wears off the stillness and calmness of the unmoving object asks the viewer to stay. I tried to underline this conflict with the fake eyelashes of Geryon and the facial expression that for me communicates awe or wonder,” said Ala-Ketola.
Autobiography of Red takes a mythical monster and the myth of Heracles (renamed Herakles for the book) and updates them into modern-day characters, with Herakles and Geryon recast as lovers (instead of enemies in ancient Greece). Ultimately, Herakles does not steal Geryon’s red cattle but instead steals his heart. Carson focuses on themes of trauma and learning to live in one’s body, even when someone you love discards it.
For Ala-Ketola, the work in “Dreams & Delusions” represents healing. In the piece Geryon we see a body—made of papier-mâché from pages of a book, modeling clay, and silicone—being separated in the center of the gallery. Black jeans cover some of the bottom half, with a demon-like phallus straight from Dante’s Inferno, and knobby demented feet sticking out of the bottom. The top half of the body, less than a foot away, has red-stained bones that connect to a head with two horns. Eyelashes and handsome features resemble a human, a look of awe appears on the sculpture’s silicone face. Ala-Ketola reminds the viewer that while being pulled apart, while overcoming violence or pain, a person can also get better.
“I see healing as something that isn’t always a straightforward, positive, and nice process,” said Ala-Ketola. “We need to break something to put ourselves back together whether it’s a synaptic connection in our brain to change the way we think or something in our appearance. I hope that in the sculpture’s world or inner logic the stillness makes it possible for the body to be both pulled apart as well as put back together.” If you’re going through hell, you have to—quite literally—keep on going.
It’s not easy to walk away from Ala-Ketola’s works. A set of wings without the feathers hangs on the gallery’s rear wall in a piece titled, Geryon’s wings. A bulbous hand hangs from the spine of the wings with a cross-like chain necklace dangling from a finger. In literature, Geryon is described as having three bodies or three heads and is often depicted as having humanoid features, such as wings. And he is known for his red-colored cattle. In the exhibition, the works represent various parts of Geryon: his wings, his separated body, images on the walls, and Orthrus, a serpent-tailed dog that guarded Geryon’s cattle. In the piece Grasp, the head of a dog-like creature rests on a pedestal—it confronts you as you walk into the gallery.
A set of wings without the feathers hangs on the gallery’s rear wall in a piece titled Geryon’s wings. Credit: Courtesy Kristoffer Ala-Ketola
Surrounding the sculptures are 2D works on the wall, pigment on paper, and a large print mounted on drywall—red-hued and veiny. It’s titled Erytheia, after the island where Geryon lives with his cattle.
The work is like dreaming. They are deluded scenes in the corners of your mind. I’m reminded of Titane, a 2021 body horror film that represents queerness and the violence of the binary. For Ala-Ketola, movies like Crash, Videodrome, and A History of Violence have been influential to him, but The Fly has been the most significant for the exhibition.
“I am interested in body horror, [the] grotesque, and I wanted to engage with these themes deeper with this show. I am drawn to semiotic opposition in order to create something new. I’m excited when a thing can be described as angry and calm, or funny and melancholic,” he said.
In Carson’s novel, she writes, “I will never know how you see red and you will never know how I see it,” which is a similar signal here in Ala-Ketola’s work. Something that may look vile and terrifying to one viewer may bring comfort and calmness to another. When the sculpture looks like it’s in pain, it’s actually healing. Geryon’s character quite literally chokes at the pain he feels. We will never know Geryon’s pain and he will never know ours. Carson’s queer romance represents the pain of being hurt by a loved one, and Ala-Ketola’s work displays the shambles of what remains. A visual representation of queer bodies and the absolute ache of recovery—from love, societal rejection, or body dysmorphia—are aligned here in Ala-Ketola’s retelling of Geryon.
The works are fantastical as they resemble monstrous characters that weave in and out of reality, in and out of the dimension of Carson’s text, Greek mythology, and the artist’s own interpretation.
All of them
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