Catharsis in Concrete

Posted June 24, 2018 8:54 p.m. EDT
Updated June 24, 2018 9:00 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — For the past two years or so, artist Prune Nourry has thought of herself as a sculpture. Nourry, who is French and splits her time between Brooklyn and Paris, learned she had breast cancer in 2016. As she went through treatment, including chemotherapy and reconstructive surgery, she thought of her doctors as the sculptors and herself as the material they were fashioning. Now, Nourry, 33, has created her own work in response to that experience, as a tribute to breast cancer survivors everywhere.

“The Amazon” is a 13-foot-tall concrete sculpture of a female warrior, with bared breasts, her torso and head pierced by thousands of joss sticks, jutting out like arrow shafts. It was modeled after the life-size marble statue of a wounded Amazon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Nourry’s version weighs nearly 2 tons, and has lifelike hazel-brown eyes, made from handblown glass. It had a public debut last week, in a plaza outside the Standard Hotel in the meatpacking district of Manhattan, where it will be on view into July. (The hotel owns the space and offers it to artists; painter José Parla and pop artist KAWS have exhibited there.) In a private performance, Nourry will eventually chisel away one of the Amazon’s breasts.

“It’s really, for me, a catharsis sculpture,” she said, in a recent interview at a studio in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where she and a few helpers created the work. She added that the artwork, and the medical process that led to it, also re-contextualized all her projects that came before, among them “Terracotta Daughters,” a riff on the sculpted Chinese army from the 3rd century B.C. In Nourry’s 2012 version, her 108 clay soldiers are girls, based on real-life orphans, as a commentary on the gender imbalance in China’s culture, where boys are traditionally more prized. It has been exhibited in North America, Europe and China.

Nourry, a multimedia artist who often works in sculpture and performance, frequently deals with gender, reproduction and bioethics; an early piece, “The Spermbar,” repurposed a New York food cart, and allowed visitors to create a beverage by choosing the traits they would want in a sperm donor, questioning the pre-selection of human embryos. In The New York Times, critic Gia Kourlas called it “a witty, disturbing project.”

Nourry had planned to remove one of her Amazon’s breasts in public, but at the last moment decided that was best done in a more intimate setting. She also wanted to extend the timeline of the project, because “healing is a long process, too,” she said. So when her sculpture first went on display, she focused on another performance that connected both her earlier work and her life as a patient: She covered her statue with about 6,000 red Chinese incense sticks, symbolic of the acupuncture treatment she underwent as part of her medical care. (Her series “Imbalance,” which she prepared and exhibited while undergoing chemo, also uses acupuncture needles.)

Nourry, who is in remission, managed to keep up her exhibition schedule, which included a show at Musée National des Arts Asiatiques in Paris, through her hospital stays. “I felt lucky that I had all the work that I was passionate about,” she said. “I didn’t want to stop. But also the fact of being able to create something out of it is helpful, too.”

On the summer solstice, last Thursday, as the sky flicked from hot pink to lavender to dusk, a small, fashionable crowd surrounded the Amazon. Among those gathering were boldfaced names, friends of Nourry and her husband, artist JR, including Jennifer Lawrence, Grace Hightower De Niro, director David O. Russell and graphic novelist Art Spiegelman. Jon Batiste, the musician and bandleader for “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” began the event by improvising on a melodica.

As he sat down to play keys, Nourry’s assistants, clad in medical white, joined the artist, who was in a lab coat. Slowly, methodically, they lit the incense; soon the sturdy warrior, with her sheath of protective quills, had a halo of wispy, fragrant smoke. Ash began to cover the ground as Batiste played his closing song, requested by Nourry, called “Don’t Stop.” “It’s a very uplifting song, but it’s also a song about death and mortality,” he said.

“She really knows how to tap into the human experience in the most immediate way,” Batiste added of Nourry, a longtime friend and, more recently, a collaborator on projects that unite his music and her visuals. “It’s like a musician who knows how to play one note to make you cry,” he said. “And you can’t explain why. It’s just when you look at the sculpture, you feel something, whoever you are.” The story of Amazon women — that they made up a tribe of powerful and skilled fighters who, it was sometimes said, cut off their right breasts to better their archery — remains mostly the domain of Greek myth, although some research by Jeannine Davis-Kimball, an archaeologist from the University of California, Berkeley, found evidence of a class of warrior women in the Eurasian steppe. Nourry did not delve deeply into what was fact or legend. “I like this gray area,” she said.

As the incense on her sculpture burned, it left in its place seeping red dots. “It looks like she is bleeding,” Nourry said, contentedly. Passers-by snapped photos from atop the High Line. The sculpture will remain on view for several weeks, at least, and will later be sold, with some proceeds going to cancer charities.

“The sculpture is not especially for me only,” Nourry said. It was meant to honor all sorts of female warriors, she said. She will replace the incense, but, she added, “I would love if women can come and light their own, as a symbolic gesture for themselves.”