Seven hundred years ago, Dante described his imaginary journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise in The Divine Comedy, praised as the “most precise piece of visionary writing in European literature.” Dante’s brilliant imagination detailing everything he “saw” whilst on his journey with the ancient poet Virgil inspired innumerable artists through centuries to express The Divine Comedy in visual form. Although Dante’s work is perceived as a primer on Christian morality, The Divine Comedy was inspired by his muse Beatrice, whom he loved and lost early in his life. Meeting Beatrice again becomes Dante’s sole motivation for surmounting the obstacles he encounters on his journey, and it’s Beatrice who enlists Virgil to accompany and help guide Dante.
In her multisensory installation “Beatrice,” which opened at New York’s Onishi Gallery this September, artist Suzy Kellems Dominik adapts The Divine Comedy‘s primarily male narrative into a female-centric journey that sets its protagonist Beatrice free from the hell that she’s stuck in. Integrating sculpture, sound, photographs, neon signage, written word and scent, Dominik envelops the audience in a temporal purgatory of her own making. The Seven Deadly Sins are inscribed individually in English and Latin on 14 images. In the center of the exhibit stands a nine-foot Lucite pyramid with phrases and word shapes enshrined within the pyramid. Beatrice, a sculptural goat, perches precariously on top, symbolizing her rise to freedom. The goat is an object Dominik found and covered in 75 sheets of gold leaf, then painted it with eyes that look exactly like her own.
In “Abandon Hope,” a photograph at the exhibit shows a sculpture of wood tearing through flesh. Striking a discord between the imaginary and the real, Dominik achieves an almost literal interpretation of “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,” the inscription written on the Gates of Hell as Dante passes through to meet souls of people he believes are spiritually stagnating. In a neon installation, the words “and with that he dragged her down into” are illuminated against a red background in an eerie reference to a female-centric version of Hell that her muse Beatrice, the goat, finally breaks through.
In “Exodus,” a photographic portrait of a woman screaming, her wrist inscribed with the word “hope,” grabs the goat’s legs as it floats against a painted backdrop of divine clouds dotted with Victorian roses. The imagery rises from within Dante’s Paradiso, “‘If you, free as you are of every weight had stayed below, then that would be as strange as living flame on earth remaining still,’ And then she turned her gaze up toward the heavens.”
In the final and perhaps most macabre of all her works, a bloodied arm stretches out toward the viewer holding a heart of flesh. Titled “Consumed Heart,” this is perhaps the most literal interpretation of Dante’s “In his arms, my lady lay asleep, wrapped in a veil. He woke her then and trembling and obedient she ate that burning heart out of his hand. Weeping I saw him then depart from me.”
Dominik accompanies each one of these installations with a soundtrack upon which she overlays her spoken word with songs. For the Beatrice soundtrack, the first song is “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns N’ Roses, with Dominik’s vocals about Beatrice being stuck in Hell and breaking free. In another track, Dominik speaks of being free and overcoming her battle.
“Beatrice is an emotional autobiography that tells a tale of audacious love through powerful imagery. It is a modern story with a historic soul, a tale of insufficient and selfish love. In this incarnation, only one will shed the invisible chains of hell and reach for the stars,” says Dominik.
The emotional and corporeal tugs of existence are themes that she also explores in her other works. In “Bear Attack–The Urban Bear,” she exhibits three large photographs titled “Long For Me,” “Desire Me” and “Pick Me” that, at first glance, seem to celebrate feminine beauty in a highly stylized art-fashion photography. Each photograph features a “catchy, upbeat, and sexual song” on headphones installed alongside each piece. The dark undertones of male/female relations “and the predators who walk among us” come through in the fourth piece titled “Avoid Me,” explicitly stating, “Be Alert, Make Noise, Carry Bear Spray, Avoid Hiking Alone, Do Not Run,” featuring a central glass case filled with black objects, including awards, an iPhone with sensual photos of females and the skin of a bear.
“The juxtaposition of these things inside the intimate setting creates a simultaneously sinister, beautiful, and oddly relatable atmosphere,” adds Dominik. “It is a metaphor for the societal condition of male supremacy; as a female, it presents a relatable situation: to want to be wanted, lusted after, but also not wanting it—the threat of attack and avoiding the bear is a constant and underlying fear that drives the day-to-day female reality.”
Dominik confronts some very dark undertones of existence through her fearless multisensory installation as she heightens the struggle of psyches by engaging with the audience through a range of tactile and sensory media, creating an otherworldliness in her works that’s both uncomfortable and evocative. Dominik’s installations challenge the viewer to explore unexpected alternatives to preconceived notions, and examine themes such as intent, desire, love and need. While dark and at times macabre, Dominik’s multimedia installation showcases the exciting possibilities of visual representation that merge traditional painting, sculpture, photography, sound and even scent to create an experience that stays with viewers long after they have stepped beyond the “purgatory” of the artist’s imagination.