COMA, Berlin, Germany
The voyage of the object through postmodern philosophy, from Jean Baudrillard and Roland Barthes’ semiotics through to the more recent contributions of the rising Bruno Latour and his Egyptian-stamped epigone Graham Harman, has been accompanied at every stage of its journey by a series of trusty artistic companions. Marcel Duchamp – whose work only started to become known outside of art circles in the late 1950s – was the first to offer an interpretation of the Sancho Panza role. After him, came Marcel Broodthaers, followed by Fischli and Weiss. The work of the Belgian artist Guillaume Bijl is located along this same highway. Bijl delights in objects, their oddities and animisms, their hauntings and quirks, their strange correspondences. His new show at Berlin’s Centre for Opinions in Music and Art (COMA), consisting of three installations – one in the window and one in the back, with a series of assemblages placed between – takes its leave from the mysteries of indexes, classifications and assemblages, and their connections to ready-mades.
Visible from the street, the installation displayed in the window, Himalaya Fabrics (2009), presents three brightly dressed female mannequins looking out on Charlottenstrasse. The effect is slyly destabilizing: when I walked past these figures a couple of weeks ago, never having been to COMA before, I initially thought it must have be some sort of shop. Which of course it is.
The back-room installation is the most fully-realized of the works on display. Souvenirs of the Twentieth Century (2007) is a kind of cabinet of curios planted under a blocked-out skylight and shrouded in dusty light. Four pot plants stand at each corner of a tasteful blue cube, framing three glass display cases – two vertical, facing each other, and one horizontal, facing the doorway. Inside the cases, Bijl has arranged a series of signature objects, representing some of the iconic figures of the twentieth century. Some of these are prosaic, like Gandhi’s little round spectacles. Others are more imaginative: Stalin is represented by a formidable-looking black telephone, after Nikolai Bukharin’s famous ‘Genghis Khan with a Telephone’ quip. The game-playing Duchamp is four chess pieces. Albert Speer is a mighty-looking Nazi lighter.
Bijl uses his cabinets to set up relationships. Orson Welles and Rainer Werner Fassbinder are contrasted in terms of two different models of cameras. Marlon Brando is a big black hip flask, whereas Sinatra is a slenderer silver one. And then Bijl’s careful arrangement imply some strange bedfellows: Peggy Guggenheim’s champagne bucket entreats George Orwell’s typewriter to what feels like evening cocktails. Meanwhile Stalin, flanked by two dames (Marilyn Monroe’s stiletto to his right, Audrey Hepburn’s pump to his left) faces Albert Einstein’s dignified pipe and Sugar Ray Robinson’s boxing trophy.
Each of the objects is shown next to a small, typed label, makes this system of objects possible to decode, if haphazardly. Lacking an equivalent index, the work in the main room – collectively titled Composition Trouvée (2009) – appears more gnomic.
What to make of a big pair of new Thinsulate boots, still bearing their tags, placed square on a doormat? The boots stand under a shelf, garlanded with a black, yellow and red trims, and occupied by a white piston. What is the significance of 16 kitschy clocks, printed with tacky images, arranged in the form of a rectangle nearby? Or the tiny arrangement contained in the plastic cube on the plinth – a rose-tinted assemblage comprising a little gold pencil, a pink ceramic heart and a plastic bouquet of pink roseheads?
Elsewhere, busts square-up to masks – brass and marble against a pyramid of sculpted plastic horror faces shown in wooden boxes. A female mannequin in fetish gear – a leather skirt, a riding-crop – covered in chicken-pox-like stickers stands at the head of a goon squad of torsos. A couple of slogans in Flemish and French: Foire du Tapas an 4eme Etage; Den Draver d’j Elza. Plastic-cast busts, like the kind sold at garden centres: Napoleon, Elvis, Marilyn, Nefertiti, some Doric columns, a nose…
It is tempting to read in this a theory of history – postmodernism as the historical consciousness of an age which has forgotten how to think historically, that kind of thing. The prevailing kitchiness of Composition Trouvée seems to support this hypothesis, even as the presence of a big wooden ladder lying on a floor near the wall provokes the perennial question: is this meant to be here?
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