Monday, February 15, 2010

Monumental Humanity

Entering the Grand Palais in Paris the word grand doesn’t do the space justice, it is a huge unwieldy piece of palatial architecture that dominates you the moment you step inside, to ask an artist to fill this space with one unique installation is a tough ask. Christian Boltanski, however is one artist that can take on a space such as this and claim it as his own. This huge public building is the scene once more of Monumenta, each year an artist is asked to create a work for the space and this year Boltanski is the invited artist.

Arriving inside the space one is confronted by a huge wall constructed from rusting metal boxes, each box is individually numbered, the accumulation of numbered, ageing boxes suggests the contents are the personal effects of now unnamed and unknown thousands. It is a quietly ominous introduction to an experience that does not scare but quietly unsettles and pervades the huge space with ghosts of memories that one can feel but not know. Beyond the wall the large space contains a sea of clothing, hundreds if not thousands of various jackets, jumpers, shirts and coats placed in large rectangular patterns across the floor. They fill the floor from one side of the space to the other like the apocalyptic scattered remnants of passing humanity, a discarded sea of lost souls. At each corner sits a speaker emitting the sound of an individual heartbeat, pulsing in its own unique way it is the fingerprint in sound of a chosen soul. At the far side of the space is a mechanical hand plucking more clothing from a mountain of heaped clothes, dropping slowly it hovers at the peak, picks a handful raises it slowly skywards and then opens dropping the selected rags back onto the heap. Bodies of jackets and arms of shirts flutter as they drop and rest once more at the top of the mass, the selected appear at the mercy of a hand of fate choosing at random and then discarding once more to the unknown masses below.

Underlying this spectacle is the thunderous echoing regular pulse of collected heart beats, moving beyond audible sound to actually send vibrations through the room, this soundscape which is constantly being added to by the collecting of volunteers of visitors heartbeats it beats an ominous rhythm, a regular sonic wave like monstrous footsteps or an intermittent but never ending thunderclap rumble.

The environment Boltanski creates is unsettling and might suggest a future after humanity but also celebrates all individuals and their uniqueness and the beauty of our collective existence. To this viewer it appeared as some melancholic poem to our souls, a bizarre monument to humanities passing yet to happen but foretelling that point when the last human is lost to the earth and a warning against complacent assumptions of mortality both individual and collective.

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Friday, February 05, 2010

Lurking in the Background

The title of Magali Reus’s exhibition “Background” at ibid projects says it all really, initially the viewer might question exactly what these suite of works is really all about. It is when you take the time to step back from the work and observe the environment of the gallery rather than just focus all your attention on the works that Reus’s intentions seem much more clear. The work is ambiguous, frustratingly so perhaps, too pared down and simple, but after some time there is some charm in the quiet works present in the gallery. It is when the works are viewed as the background to a much larger environment that they become more readable and enjoyable to be around. In the video piece that gives its title to the exhibition we see a group of men in a desolately sparse landscape with nothing more than flat gravelly earth and heaps of sand. Dressed in army styled clothing they perform a series of stilted, choreographed activities like some form of choreographed physical training exercises. Occasionally the film switches to sculptural elements that have been placed around the set, the film briefly focuses our attention away from the group to a flash of sunlight on some small sheets of metal placed on the ground. The camera fixes on detailed shots of the movement of the feet of the players as they ascend the heaps of sand, we notice the scars in sand from their movements. Man, the environment and the materials we construct around appear as nothing more than a choreography. The contrived, measured performances seem somewhere between directed and improvised but somehow free as well. We might imagine that in their place in the group we are part of a play of the world in which the seemingly individual responses and freedoms are in fact determined and controlled by others.

The largest of Reus’s sculptures on show is composed of two green rectangular blocks on an aluminium frame set into and spanning between two walls, the paintwork on the blocks looks impeccably and cleanly finished but on second glance this appears to be a falsehood in our understanding of the scene that this sculptural piece sets. Propped against and extending away from the wall and the frame the blocks project into the gallery space with a large overhang, the blocks appear to bow under their own weight and this clean, simple construction no longer appears as robust and immaculate as first thought.

All of the sculptural works begin to unfold in the same manner, simple clean objects are assembled and finished in a quiet manner but despite the varying materials all these assemblages give a very strong initial impression of solidity. The eye is always drawn finally to the spaces around, beneath or adjacent to the sculpture itself. Two punched aluminium sheets are secured to the wall by a single screw at the top, however the eye casts downwards to the bottom of the sheets as they warp and bow from the wall creating shadows. In another piece one painted piece of board sits propped against the wall with another resting on it inset in the top right hand corner. The large bottom sheet is light green and the top is dark, reflective like a mirror, the large sheet is bowed, it appears fragile but also solid.

There are two further sculptures in this suite of works and they too create seemingly coincidental insights into the environment around the works, all works are very static however they imply strongly movement, transition. Those that appear solid are warping and bowing at the extremities of the piece and the eye shifts away from these sculptural forms to the multiple shadows cast across the galleries walls and floor. They appear ambiguous but also suggest very personal assumptions and responses by the viewer.

Leaving Reus’s work one begins to question the environment around us. We might ask whether what appears around us is “real”. Reus perhaps suggests that all is posed, contrived, choreographed and that our sense of control of our lives is in truth at the mercy of forces and influences that we can barely see or feel.

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