John M Armleder
Langlands & Bell
Pascale Marthine Tayou
Spring sequence 2013. Mamco presents a series of monographic and group exhibitions. Each in their various ways, and to various degrees, they reflect the overall tone of the exhibition - a wish to get as much colour out of the museum as possible.
Alighiero Boetti, Il muro et autres œuvres
Julius Kaesdorf, Angels
Richard Nonas, Riverrun (from Swerve to Bend)
Sarkis, The 42 Hours of the Wolf
Aldo Walker, Logotyp
Retour du monde
Publicly commissioned art on a Paris tram route
Pierre Alferi, Pierre Ardouvin, John M Armleder, Sylvie Auvray, Katinka Bock, Mohamed Bourouissa, Rodolphe Burger, Olivier Cadiot, Michel Corajoud et Yannick Salliot, Group8, Mark Handforth, Hippolyte Hentgen, Chourouk Hriech, Langlands & Bell, Lu Hao, Peter Kogler, Anita Molinero, Didier Marcel, Pascal Pinaud, Nancy Rubins, Yvan Salomone, Pascale Marthine Tayou, Bert Theis
A cabinet of curiosities in Geneva
Biens communs III
Works of Pierre-Olivier Arnaud, Michel Grillet, Thomas Huber
and other recent acquisitions
Partage de minuit
An exhibition in the collection
Alighiero Boetti, Il Muro et autres œuvres
In 1973 Alighiero Boetti began hanging pictures, drawings of friends, photographs, calendar pages and found objects on a wall of his apartment in Rome’s Trastevere district. Over the years this domestic ‘work in progress’, which he took with him wherever he lived, became Il Muro (The Wall) - a kind of personal poetic constellation, a metaphor for a human journey, an intimate place for reflection on the world.
With its unusual combination of a poem, a parchment, a Persian screen print, a photograph of his son in Kabul, a sketch, a calligraphy, a note, a collage by his daughter, a letter, a page from a diary, The Wall is a series of encounters — contagious contacts that can yield unexpected meanings. The positions of the items in the constellation varied, some becoming central, others being relegated to the periphery or in some cases becoming works in their own right.
Alighiero Boetti always called himself a painter, even though at the age of 22 he gave up painting to make greater use of other techniques and materials (collage, spray painting, stencilling, stamping, decalcomania, frottage, calligraphy and so on). Having embarked on his artistic career in Turin in the mid-1960s as part of the Arte Povera movement, he soon parted company with it, even though he had been one of its leading proponents: ‘We’d gone too far in our focus on materials ... we were getting to be more like druggists than artists. That’s why I quit my studio in 1969 ... I left it all behind, and started from scratch with a pencil and a sheet of paper. The result was called Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’invenzione [‘The endeavour of harmony and invention’]. It was made up of small squares. That’s what starting all over again meant to me.’ Henceforth a major medium in his work, sheets of (often squared) paper allowed him to develop all kinds of visual conceptual processes, from simple geometric forms to exploration of language.
Boetti’s interest in linguistic form was never exhausted, whether it was letters, words, figures, numbers, sentences, codes or dates he was dealing with. Words, and their alpha- betical configuration, had a poetic potential that Boetti explored by envisaging every possible way of transcrib- ing them: choosing a word and redistributing its letters in alphabetical order, phonetically transcribing a word spelled in Italian, suggesting a word by means of commas arranged according to invisible coordinates, one being the alpha- bet, the other the direction of reading. The words became abstract images through the interplay of commas, each of which stood for a letter. These ballpoint calligraphies on paper, doodles which Boetti delegated to often anonymous artists, caused signs to emerge in white against a coloured — black, blue, red or green — background. Another way of exploring language, for which Boetti preferred coloured embroidery to paper, was to insert words in a square grid. In Ordine e disordine (‘Order and Disorder’ 1973), the words were inscribed on a hundred square embroideries, all of them divided into sixteen sections containing just one letter each. This ‘order’ was contradicted by the permutations of the sixteen letters on each embroidery.
During his second trip to Kabul in 1971, the nomadically-minded Boetti had his first Mappa — a map on which the territories of the various countries were filled with the coloured patterns of their national flags — produced by Afghan embroiderers. Over the next twenty years more than a hundred and fifty Mappe, in a variety of colours and sizes, were embroidered on the basis of his drawings, shaping his image of the world and showing the passage of time and the political changes that were taking place. The Mappa on show at Mamco is one of the first produced in Kabul, between 1971 and 1973.
The exhibition includes Boetti’s set of drums. Coming from a family that listened to and played music, Boetti – although he never became the conductor he had dreamed of being as a child – played drums, because ‘the drum is the only instrument used by shamans and “medicine men” all over the world, because its rhythms can put you into a trance. Sometimes when you’re playing you find yourself levitating a metre off the ground.’
Julius Kaesdorf, Angels
Julius Kaesdorf was born in Hungary, and in 1950 he emigrated to Biberach in Germany, where he made a name for himself as a lawyer and a painter. In 1953 he married Romane Holderried, whose graphic work was presented at Mamco in 2012. Whereas her drawings revealed an impatient creative impulse, her husband’s paintings displayed restraint and concentration. Although the couple discussed the progress of their work, their artistic worlds barely overlapped. The Julius Kaesdorf exhibition, totalling some fifty paintings, covers almost half a century of solitary endeavour.
Although a self-taught artist, Kaesdorf was eclectic. He enjoyed the landscapes of Guardi, Turner, Morandi (some of whose original works he was able to see), Giacometti and Jawlensky; and even though Mondrian’s work often remained beyond his grasp, he appreciated its abstract compositions. He was familiar with Modigliani, Soutine, Renoir, Rousseau and Utrillo, the artists of the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris. As for sculpture, he liked Greek and Roman statuary and adored the decadence of the Roman Empire, untiringly wandering the Louvre until closing time in order to absorb these works.
Working as a lawyer to keep his father happy and his fam ily alive, Julius Kaesdorf was a weekend painter, and this could have made him a ‘Sunday painter’ but for the ability of his work to catch the visitor’s eye — for instance Joseph Beuys was charmed by the paintings of the man he called the ‘little master’ — no mean compliment coming from him.
Kaesdorf painted what was within range of his eye; it was his wife-to-be Romane Holderried who encouraged him to go ahead and paint whatever he could from his window. His first paintings were stylised, naïve, sensitive. Around 1960, seeking a visual language of his own, he produced geometric compositions into which he inserted figures that gradually became anecdotal in space. What was impressive about his pictures was not their size, or their style, but the ambiguity of his figures – weird faces with blurred, truncated features diluted into the faded fields of their clothes and backgrounds. The features were reduced to weaving lines, coloured squiggles and dots in which the features were hinted at rather than seen. These subtly executed oil portraits were devoid of individualism — almost archetypes.
Like Morandi, Julius Kaesdorf adopted a reduced visual field. His formal world was confined to the study of a small number of motifs. His lean, silent painting was misted over with a subtle interplay of browns, ochres, greys and whites. Over the years his palette of muted tones brightened to the point where figure and background merged in thickly applied outpourings, in which the trace of movements that were no longer restrained can still be detected. Ironically, the public discovered his sombre paintings just as he was developing a predilection for brighter tones. Aside from this change in style, the human figures that had occupied most of his 1960s canvases would make way for large patches of colour that dominated the backgrounds, as the figures diminished in size. Yet Kaesdorf never ceased to be a figurative painter. His canvases were small, and had to be completed in just two days. They remained small even after he retired, for any change would have involved a way of thinking and doing things that was quite alien to him. The paintings he produced during the weekend were put into a satchel and taken to a completely empty room at his lawyer’s office to be assessed after the event.
Julius Kaesdorf was a daydreamer who loved telling stories that were a blend of personal experience and invention. Just like his stories, his pictorial world was full of recurring elements: angels, architecture, landscapes, portraits that flirted with abstraction. His most accomplished canvases were the ones produced after 1990. Figures returned in force, easily filling up the available space. Angels spread their wings before being blown away in a fanciful blur. The angel figures in Kaesdorf’s latest paintings were portraits of saints produced from memory after visiting the Baroque churches of southern Germany. They summed up the artist’s ideas about painting in general, and his own painting, as expressed in a text entitled Damals im Barock (‘In the days of the Baroque’).
Sarkis, The 42 Hours of the Wolf
When the major exhibition Hotel Sarkis — containing almost three hundred of what Sarkis calls ‘conversations’, each the result of an encounter with another creative artist’s pictorial, poetic, architectural, philosophical, musical or cinematographic work — opened at Mamco in February 2011, one emblematic work, The 42 Hoursof the Wolf, was missing. At Sarkis’s request, this work, now presented on forty-two lecterns, will remain on display at Mamco for almost a year, in the Atelier depuis 19380, thus continuing the dialogue between external works and the works in the Atelier.
Designed between Strasbourg and Paris, in the manner of a private diary, during the autumn of 1985, just as night was about to give way to the first glimmers of dawn, The 42 Hours of the Wolf (French title Les 42 heures du loup), painted in oil on metal holders for glass photographic plates, shine like forty-two oxymorons of the black sun of nostalgia. In his preface to the catalogue on the work published by the Nantes Museum of Fine Arts in 1989, Henry-Claude Cousseau describes them as ‘exploring and summoning up other nights, those within the memory, other spaces where darkness also reigns: the spaces of remembrance, of nostalgia, of lost distances like those of the camera obscura of the cinema auditorium.’
Like the characters in Ingmar Bergman’s film Hour of the Wolf, the time ‘when most people die, when most children are born, when the sleepless are haunted by their deepest fear’, Sarkis’s figures rise up against black backgrounds.‘Calcined’ images then appear on the surface of the glass,‘what is left when everything is over’, images in which we find the coloured counterpoints that recur throughout the work, the blazing red and the green, the deep blue of moonless nights and the yellow, to which are added the grey of‘Gramsci’s ashes’ and the gold of the ‘Museo del Oro’, set in impastos that ‘waver like flames’.
From Giorgione’s The Tempestto Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead, from Alban Berg’s Lulu to Webern and Schönberg, Sarkis recalls his work, stretching time and space as he so often does. In these miniatures that are a blend of painting, photography and cinematographic image, the artist’s doppelgangers The Blacksmith and Captain Sarkis, familiar as they are with those outer reaches where the spirit of the living rubs shoulders with the souls of the dead, board a vessel that could be Charon’s ferry and set out to meet the universal or private myths underlying Sarkis’s work. The 42 Hours of the Wolf also conjure up the countless Kriegsschatz (treasures of war) that are also Leidschatz (treasures of suffering), cohorts of works or objects ‘endowed with the memory of their origins and the symbolic changes they may have undergone during their successive appropriations.’ What we see in Sarkis’s work is an equilibrium between life and death, day and night, harmony and chaos. Nothing is conceivable without its opposite; and it is this tension between opposites that reveals the strength of the work.
As in ancient poetry, the paintings are accompanied by a prolonged chant of fragmentary, syncopated titles, summoning up other worlds and naming the images in Sarkis’s very own style.
Aldo Walker, Logotyp
Aldo Walker who would have celebrated his 75th birthday this year, is one of the great Swiss conceptual artists, and one whose significance has not yet been fully appreciated. His œuvre was essentially divided into two maingroups: object-like experimental arrangements called logotyp, and figurative line pictures called pictograms. Today, impressively autonomous in their conception, expression and execution, these are among the undiscovered high points of 1970s and 1980s international art.
From the very outset Walker examined how the work and the viewer influence once another in a visual process of perception. For example, his early object Tisch 2 (‘Table 2’, 1965, Museum of Art Lucerne) consists of a table with a mattress that is pulled over the table top like a condom and is also bulging. Taking his cue from Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel, Walker could be said to have linked an object from the culture of eating (a table) to an object from the culture of sleeping (a mattress), filling it with stuffing and so producing a metaphorical representation of gluttony. But the table could also be said to function as a mattress, a pillow, a bed and hence to symbolise sleep or its corollary — sex. The bloated appearance of the object suggests physical, animal urges .... Walker’s early works are essentially simple, metaphorical experimental arrangements taken from real life. In AW(1970, destroyed), for instance, he ‘hangs’ his initials on the wall, using electric wire heated up to his body temperature. The work is first of all a direct reference to him; it questions the author (who originally worked as an electrician) with the initials AW. But if we enter this process from the outside, it automatically becomes an issue between the work and the viewer. The letters AW, even though they are the artist’s initials, may also stand for thousands of other people (and things). In this way a biographical note becomes a work and, as a work, a generally available sign or symbol for existence. This markedly cerebral approach to art was radicalised by Walker in the early 1970s when he set out to eliminate traditional metaphorical patterns of relationship between the individual elements of his work and design his experimental arrangements so that it was up to the viewer to decide what their content might be. Among the initial high points, in 1975, were his logotyp. Logotyp, ‘as I understand them, have no meaning in themselves; they only create a meaning with, and through, the viewer.’
The best-known of the 25 logotyp is Logotyp VII (1976, Aargauer Kunsthaus collection). What we initially see is a dog, sawn or stamped from a piece of wood. According to Walker, it is a stylised fox terrier ‘sitting up and begging’ in front of a food bowl made of iron. Because of this familiar ‘literary’ scene, the object makes an immediate visual impression on us as viewers. We can communicate with it directly, for we think we know what we are seeing. But as soon as we engage in this dialogue, we are also confronted with the strange iron framework in which the wooden dog is confined. One of the metal tubes actually passes through its body, so that there is only way it can move: an up-and-down sliding motion that is quite absurd for a dog sitting up and begging. As viewers, we involuntarily begin to bring metaphorical elements into play. And so the framework, which prevents the dog from reaching the empty food bowl, could also be read as a sadistic gesture. Why should the fox terrier care about an empty food bowl? And why is the bowl made of heavy, cold iron rather than pottery or plastic....? Finally, around 1981, Aldo Walker again radicalised the path he had taken by paradoxically harking back to the ‘classic’ panel painting and starting to draw lines on canvases primed in a single colour, but without painting. The point here is not just whether Walker’s panel paintings are paintings or drawings, intermolecular pictograms or brush-drawn line pictures, but also his effort to trigger a cerebral process of perception through a signal-like craft activity, meanwhile exposing meaning as a perpetual construct of our own imaginations. The works by Walker are one great school of thought where we can learn how to read and are able to read with the eye and the mind, beyond traditional conventions, as a major aesthetic experience and an epistemological, practical adventure.
Retour du monde
Publicly commissioned art on a Paris tram route
Pierre Alferi, Pierre Ardouvin, John M Armleder, Sylvie Auvray, Katinka Bock,
Mohamed Bourouissa, Rodolphe Burger, Olivier Cadiot, Michel Corajoud et Yannick Salliot,
Group8, Mark Handforth, Hippolyte Hentgen, Chourouk Hriech, Langlands & Bell, Lu Hao,
Peter Kogler, Anita Molinero, Didier Marcel, Pascal Pinaud, Nancy Rubins, Yvan Salomone,
Pascale Marthine Tayou, Bert Theis
The exhibition Publicly commissioned art on a Paris tram route along the Boulevards des Maréchaux in the east of Paris (from Porte d’Ivry to Porte de La Chapelle) were submitted by Mamco. It covers all these projects, including ones that were eventually rejected. It is a combination of original works, many of them relating directly to the construction sites, sketches, scale models and documentary records. Just like urban space, it offers the visitor a multifaceted route spanning imagination and feasibility, project and reality.
Seven comments on public art:
1. Public space — however, and however broadly, the notion may be interpreted — is now largely privatised, mainly by commerce and the advertising on which it relies for its development.
2. In public space, the installation of a contemporary work of art is widely perceived as unnecessary public expenditure that deprives users of more urgent, and above all more useful, investment. Even when it is acknowledged as legitimate, it is felt to be inappropriate.
3. In public space, works of art, even when they are perceived as art, are often considered out of place, eccentric, condescending or downright weird — in other words, as unacceptable privatisation of public space.
4. In public space, contemporary works of art are often not even perceived, let alone acknowledged, as such. Thus, if they are recognised at all, it is not necessarily as works of art, but rather as things with no status, authority or raison d’être — in short, as encumbrances.
5. Urban space is full of violence, and objects installed there must be designed to withstand this. Installing works of art in public space is therefore a very expensive exercise in terms of both production and maintenance. In the absence of suitable funding, installing works of art in urban space is counterproductive for both artists and cities.
6. Whether we like it or not, users of public space are entitled to judge whatever the authorities put there. In advance of this democratic assessment, publicly commissioned art goes through numerous stages of appraisal at which the various parties express views that have little to do with artistic judgement. The main criteria used to appraise works of art in public space are unconnected with their artistic worth. Hence, for both artists and curators, public art commissions are a gruelling assault course full of rejection and disappointment. And yet, for denizens of the art community, this may be their only direct experience of the real world.
7. Having had to deal with all this for many years, I have drawn up a five-point plan which I believe can help tackle some of the main problems associated with publicly commissioned art:
(a) Choose sites according to how strongly they motivate and challenge the artist, then look for an artist who is best able to rise to the challenges and work on the basis of what is revealed by an analysis of the site.
(b) Ask for drawings, don’t hesitate to ask for more, and don’t be afraid to say no, or to look for another artist, unless you are completely convinced. Don’t get trapped in the legal-bureaucratic straitjacket of tenders and competitions.
(c) Give preference to works that do not assume prior knowledge of contemporary art, and hence to ones whose value does not depend on their being thought of as ‘art’.
(d) Avoid works that arrogantly confront the user with their impenetrable authority. But don’t be afraid of works with, say, a sense of humour.
(e) Finally, give preference to works that include an element of practical use. Replace the notion of art in public space with that of art in public use.
A cabinet of curiosities in Geneva
As he disposed of the remarkable collection of objects from ‘an artist’s house’, Edmond de Goncourt stated that he wanted the works he and his brother had so patiently selected to be spared ‘the cold tomb of a museum and the coarse gaze of the indifferent passer-by.’ Aside from the disdainful aristocratic posture and already threadbare clichés about museums and the people who went there, the writer was drawing attention to two paradoxical limitations on exhibited works of art: the museum as an institution, and its public.
Where do works of art ‘happen’? No doubt wherever they are presented, and wherever the conditions for their reception — their perception and comprehension — are met. Works of art are always encounters between a place, a time, the content of the work and someone whose attention is drawn to it; in this sense, the museum is a place of rendezvous where works of art wait for the encounters that will bring them to life. Yet nothing — be it exhibition in a museum, or prior knowledge — can guarantee that they will actually happen.
Our perception of works of art is too often distorted by guesswork, misunderstandings, red herrings and fantasies of all kinds; and indifferent gazes are all too common in museums. Yet whenever we are there we long to experience that unplanned spark of encounter, that sense of sudden intimacy and shared understanding.
There are still collectors who do not seek to emulate museums and do not treat works of art as status symbols, but instead live close to the objects with which they have steadily filled up their private worlds. Art defines their whole way of living, their sensibility of thought; and daily contact with their collections keeps them in constant aesthetic and moral dialogue — the very antithesis of art-as-asset, art-as-spectacle, the ‘bottom line’.
Claudine and Sven Widgren’s collection is a textbook example. The conscientiousness, patience, generosity, discretion and care that have gone into it make this a quite outstanding private collection, passionate and shrewd, designed for private space and for private use. The modest size of the objects reflects the collectors’ intentions, as well as the space available in their apartment. The patchwork of paintings and drawings on the walls suggests a community of artists, a community born of artistic endeavour — a democratic banquet at which the hosts and their friends are the guests. The studiolo or contemporary cabinet of curiosities that the Widgrens’ home has become is entirely in keeping with their outlook. Displayed in such close proximity, the exhibits trigger unexpected dialogues, and a warm, gentle undertone of visual and intellectual encounters can be heard as the visitor moves from room to room. In the words of Gregory of Nyssa, ‘the silent painting speaks on the wall....’.
Two works by the French artist Pierre-Olivier Arnaud that date from 2007 and are part of the Mamco collection are exhibited in this new edition of Common goods. The first, Untitled (new horizons II), a set of five images exhibited in a precise arrangement, and the second, Untitled (starstack), with a similarly unusual presentation, both explore unspectacular thresholds of visibility – for, as the artist says, ‘spectacle is blinding’.
To Pierre-Olivier Arnaud, seeing is something very different from the (invariably passive) reception of spectacle. Seeing involves actual work: the presentation of a series of faded images whose motifs are erased — indeed almost vanish — as they are displayed, revealing their precarious identity, their near-ghostliness. This may be why the artist says ‘I don’t think of myself as a photographer, even though photography has given me a way to work on issues of image that interest me.’ No doubt photographers still firmly believe in the power, truth and reality of the image as such. But Arnaud only uses images because he believes his work is all about unfulfilled vision, visibility in crisis, the non-obviousness of what is visible and supposed depictions of it. His elimination of the visual and the ‘pure’ gaze results in a set of views that are almost always black-and-white, in fact grey — which is why any encounter with Arnaud’s work is a confrontation with a mass of greyness. This seems to desublimate what is exhibited, a process that initially reduces the impact of the motif but then brings us closer to it and helps us see it in detail. There is no charm here; in fact, its very absence may lead to a kind of lucidity. Arnaud’s two works from the Mamco collection are no exception. Untitled (new horizons II) consists of five offset or screen-printed images that are pasted to the wall like posters in city streets. Each poster is printed in a hundred copies, so that the work can be exhibited a hundred times. Once the supply is exhausted, the work no longer exists as an exhibit. Thus, as Untitled (new horizons II) is displayed, it is gradually used up and finally vanishes. All that remains of the process is a documentary record, with dates and places, of the various exhibitions where it has been on show. This allegory of the precariousness of images links the possibility of seeing to that of actual disappearance — the visible as an inflection of the invisible. And, as in one of the images in this series, a photograph of a billboard announcing a programme that is merely a blank sheet, here there is often a saving — order as well as scarcity — of things that compels discretion, erasure.
Untitled (starstack) presents a quite different set of reproductions: seventeen black-and-white photocopies in one or more piles, or pasted straight onto the floor, as strewn images. Once again these are images of images, in which all the motifs are stars taken from advertisements, posters, leaflets or magazines. Everyone is free to take or leave these piled-up reproductions — the artist allows visitors to respond as they see fit. And, if they take the photocopies away, he does not care what they do with them. This unauthoritarian, unstable work makes what is visible truly accessible — democratic — and constantly plays with the deceptive identity of the object (the photocopies on display are small, A4-size), forcing our eyes to work. The visions Pierre-Olivier Arnaud offers us are sombre, unemotional, chilly, detailed reproductions, whose sole purpose is to show us that seeing is by no means self-evident, and does not always involve flashy celebration of charming mirages.
A few very simple words suffice to describe the whole of Michel Grillet’s work: he paints landscapes and skies. Yet such apparent clarity can hardly disguise the awkwardness of a question that may at first seem just as simple. How can landscapes be painted at the turn of the twenty-first century? Or, to put it another way, how can the artist be of his time and yet make his work fit into the tradition of a subject that has been explored so often?
To Grillet, being of his time means shifting back and forth between historical time and a personal, private, indeed intimate temporality. He develops his method by confronting earlier specimens of landscape painting. Rather than make erudite allusions to art history, he takes particular mechanisms and reinvents them.
Thus, for example, he focuses on the meditative aspects of Far Eastern landscape painting, from musings on extended spaces to the fascination of the cosmos. From his Geneva roots he takes the tradition of miniatures, with its aporetic fondness for capturing the broadest of horizons within the narrowest of frames. As far as Grillet is concerned, a watercolour cake could usefully replace the mobile phone interface through which we nowadays swap our photographic memories. His own memories are of cloudless nights in the mountains when the only television screen was the sky. This is personal time: Michel Grillet’s landscapes link back to childhood reminiscences, romping around the Swiss Alps. In this library of memory he stores away old postcards — superannuated snapshots that are sometimes blurred by the filter of memory, like a coat of arms seen from behind. Finally, perhaps the most private aspect of his time is painting. Like many contemporary artists, Grillet attaches great importance to his working process. Yet this is not some fixed concept, but a series of movements that reveal a truly painterly discipline. For example, his Water — Sky horizons are the outcome of several dozen watercolours with imperceptibly shifting tones. This focus on the tiniest movements often gives Michel Grillet a clue to where his work is heading. Thus a mountain motif is suggested by messy brushstrokes that have ‘overflowed’ beyond the boundaries of Water — Sky. The mountains are painted as an imaginary range. Not memory, but evocation — or rather, the memory of movements made. ‘Looking at each of my Mountains — Sky,’ says Grillet,‘I can tell just when I painted them, as though I were reading a logbook of my technique.’
Closely attached though he may be to his time, the painter is more wary of the age he lives in. In particular, Grillet’s concentration on painting is a reaction to the virtuality of dematerialised images. His love of this medium is constantly reinforced by semantics: the tautology of painting on a watercolour cake, the oxymoron of drawing on an eraser. As his Buddha makes clear, Michel Grillet’s meditative, fragile painting is a small vehicle on the road to contemplation.
Thomas Huber, Big Bank Model, 1991
Thomas Huber’s installation Big Bank Model (original German title Grosses Bankmodell ) consists of a scale model of a building and various objects. It brings together many features of Huber’s world, such as the importance he attaches to polychrome and figuration. But the title also refers to a talk (The bank: a representation of value) that the artist usually gives in front of his installation, providing words to accompany its plastic forms — for forms and signs coexist here.
Created in 1991, Big Bank Model is a kind of visual and written parable on the place of art and the artist in society, as well as the role of money, power and value in general in today’s world. It is a scale model of a huge building — a bank — standing on a table. The tall, openwork, roofless building recalls the visible architecture in De Chirico’s paintings. It welcomes the artist and his tools, for the painter is going to work at the bank. As Huber sees it, bankers and artists are ‘magicians of appearance: the creators and administrators of the binding values of our times’, which is why the latter can work in the same places as the former. What is more, ‘the new markets for capital are open in the paintings’, which thereby become the heart of banking activity. But how does the artist-banker furnish his studio? He starts by bringing in his animals: a fish, three snakes, seven ravens, two lambs, a calf, a shoebill and a lion. He thus recreates a kind of modest Noah’s Ark, as if the painter were also dealing with the zoological diversity of the world, which he records to preserve its appearances and memory (in his talk, Huber even explains that each species should have its own display case). At the same time, this bestiary provides an array of the materials available on earth: the fish is made from mercury, the snakes from lead, the ravens from tin, the lambs from silver, the calf from copper, the shoebill from iron and the lion from pure gold. Once again, this small materialistic encyclopaedia turns the studio-bank into a conservatory. Is this why ‘the animals and the artist feel at home in the bank’? Also part of this utopian architecture are a bar of soap and the bank’s safe. The safe is on fire, heating four large burners that form a platform. ‘The bank is a fireplace. The bank is a stove. It is the sacrificial stone in the midst of the city.’ The value that is produced — by art, by the financial system — is mere illusion, evaporation of the things deemed most precious, transformation of what seeks to last into a pathetic mist hanging over the spectacle of things. The fact that the finest building in the city is also the place of sacrifice and celebration of a central void at the heart of human society makes clear that, lurking mutely beneath the vivid, cheerful colours of Big Bank Model, there is a barely expressed drama, rephrased by Huber in rather humorous terms that save it from an utterly dreadful fate: ‘the burning bank, the smoke constantly rising from its roof, are the poetry of money.’ The installation is accompanied by an oil painting and a watercolour depicting curls of smoke; if value goes up in smoke, it is the task of painting — no doubt a sign of its unrivalled status, and perhaps of its ultimately resilient value — to record this ‘atomisation’ of the world (the embers of the burning safe allow the painter to heat up his pigments and produce images, for destruction is the other name for creation). An ironic, poetic fable, Big Bank Model provides a powerful image of Thomas Huber’s world. His rigour and absurdity, the extreme care with which he works, the fantasy of the forms he thinks up, his use of polychrome in space and the twilight tonality of so many of his philosophical statements all contribute to an utterly personal outlook that gives Huber a very special place in today’s art scene. And the fact that Big Bank Model is on show in one of today’s leading centres of capitalism, at a museum whose very creation depended on funding by some of Geneva’s leading bankers, is just one more way for Huber — and the museum — to thumb their noses at the established order.
Press: Sophie Eigenmann
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Mamco | Musée d¹art moderne et contemporain
10 rue des Vieux-Grenadiers Genève
Open Thuesday through Friday from noon to 6 p.m., the first Wednesday of the month until 9 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Closed Mondays as well as Friday 6 April, Sunday 27 and Monday 28 May 2012.
Regular admission CHF 8, reduced admission CHF 6, group admission CHF 4