Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, UK
Walking through this first survey exhibition in the UK of Spanish artist Cristina Iglesias was like getting lost in an elaborate maze. Iglesias is interested not in the truth of materials but in ‘materials that lie’; appearance that speaks of the skin of things. Coming from a generation that shares a debt to sculptural and Minimalist practices of the 1960s, yet developing over the last two decades to show a concern for the autonomous art object within a fragmented form of installation, Iglesias’ oeuvre is as clear as it is evasive.
In the main ground-floor gallery Untitled (Tilted Hanging Ceiling) (1997) - a large flatbed construction containing a repeated cast from filaments on the underside of large fungi - was hung just above head height. Tilted and inverted, it aimed to disorientate the senses by flipping our perception of space and location. Reminiscent of a section of seabed but actually a straightforward construction of resin, iron and stone powder, it was encircled by a huge series of monochromatic prints on copper sheet. The original models for these works, roughly hewn from cardboard like a shanty town of empty Rioja boxes placed in sand, were photographed and transferred through silkscreen.
Of these prints, Untitled (Polyptych II) and Untitled (Polyptych III) (both 1999) contained myriad passages with a single opening on to dense forest. This evocation of escape and enclosure was reminiscent of ruins in a post-apocalyptic desert landscape or of labyrinthine arcades. At once we had war-torn architecture and disinterested urban drift in a garden of merchandise and desire. The clarity of the deliberately layered artifice of these rooms and corridors played with brand names, logos, tape and other detritus as graffiti and interior décor and alluded to a multiple and impossible urban geography, leaving us in a no man’s land between actual and imaginary space.
In the back room intricate wooden latticework incorporated fragmented descriptions of imaginary places in Raymond Roussel’s Impressions d’Afrique (Impressions of Africa, 1910). Here language engendered certainty and confusion. The titles of Untitled (Jealousy I) (1997) and Untitled (Jealousy VII) (2002) refer to the linguistic word play of jalousie and celosia, both ‘jealousy’ and ‘screen’: a blind or ‘shuttered’ emotion, or in Spanish, ‘a wall that deals with vision’. Like Roussel’s text, these are literary sculptures without origin, passages or veils, and an appropriation of Moorish and Arabic architecture where Spanish culture inhabits a meeting point between Europe and the Middle East.
A similar labyrinthine structure was visible in Behuliphruen (2003), which was built in an old corner shop on nearby Brune Street. (The title takes it name from a description of by Roussel of an imaginary garden.) Entering it was like being simultaneously trapped and transported. This space also contained examples of Iglesias’ bas-reliefs or ‘vegetation rooms’ - more of which were installed in the main gallery at the Whitechapel. Containing casts of twigs, orchid-like foliage, and even octopus tentacles in the frozen and corporeal Untitled (Vegetation Room X) (2002), these caves and passageways used trompe l’œil and the upstairs corridor to good effect, acting like rooms within a room or tricky Chinese boxes.
This tension between artifice and transformation revealed itself fully in Untitled (Venice I) (1993) and Untitled (1993-7), wall-based surfaces of glass and aluminium placed opposite tapestries fixed in the act of peeling - phantasmic reflections that deliberately skewed Iglesias’ Minimalist phenomenology. With the tapestries representing both nature and an imitation of nature, they prioritize neither the ‘original’ print nor its reflection or ‘imprint’.
Untitled (Passage I) (2002) was situated upstairs in the Whitechapel and comprised a number of spot-lit raffia mats. Like a spinning dream machine it created a sublime palimpsest and passage through the gallery. As a result of projected text from Vathek (1786), William Beckford’s Gothic novel being woven into its structure, it by turns refracted shadows around the gallery. Given that Iglesias describes her approach as ‘multiple points of view that conjugate a place of impossible vision’, this exhibition fortunately stopped short of the theatrical, the stage set or the cinematic.
There is a danger that Iglesias’ work could become what it purports to disrupt - a form of authenticity that transforms its effect into a cosy and romantic indeterminacy. Luckily her play with materials succeeded here in serving to pull the rug firmly from under our feet.