The lacklustre title ‘Objet à Part’ belied the complexity of this spare and meditative show. The exhibition was the result of the decision by La Galerie, Centre of Contemporary Art, to invite foreign curators – in this case, Berlin-based Bettina Klein – to import the work of artists not often seen in France. Klein did just that, exhibiting works by a good range of non-French, European artists and grouping them together under the rather clinical conceit of ‘objectality’ (not to be confused with ‘object-hood’). According to the press release, her show took as its point of departure a focus on the object in its ‘essence, in its nakedness’. Deliberately engaging the site – an edifice built by the local notary in 1880, which has since served as a military hospital and a library – Klein sought to evoke a domestic waiting-room setting. But this nondescript atmosphere gradually disclosed itself to be a subtly charged space of discursive objects.
Upon entering the centre I was greeted by Albrecht Schäfer’s Weltempfänger (World Receiver, 2006), a run-of-the-mill, black short-wave radio. Schäfer rewired the radio so that it received seven stations at once (which in reality amounted to an undulating cacophony as the stations competed with one another). The high-sounding hubris of the work’s title – apparently archaic German for ‘radio’ – created a comic contrast with the runtish, ineffectual object itself, foreshadowing the self-effacing mood of the other works to come.
Further on in the main space, works primarily proceeded in pairings, the most effective of which was a group of six black and white photos surrounding a bouquet of flowers in the centre of the room. The photos were from Florian Slotawa’s series ‘Mannheimer Bestandsaufnahme’ (Inventory of Mannheim, 2002–4), a photographic inventory of everything the artist owns, which he has often combined and recombined to make his sculptural installations. Portrayed with a grey, unsentimental chilliness, the objects in his photos were grouped by theme (e.g., bookshelves with bookshelves, sleeping bags with other camping equipment etc.). Slotowa’s portrait-like presentation of his possessions invested them with an anthropomorphic presence, reinforced by their acrobatic status as performers, so to speak, in Slotowa’s practice. This droll anthropomorphism was contagious, strangely animating the rest of the objects present in the show.
The bouquet of flowers placed near the centre of the room on a flower stand was Maria M. Loboda’s A Guide to Insults and Misanthropy (2006). Each flower in the arrangement referred to some coded epithet in 19th-century England (for example, sunflower: arrogance; carnation: disdain; iris: horror). Loboda’s bellicose bouquet brought into play a current that ran throughout the show: the way the majority of these objects traded on the history of the ready-made while generously managing to avoid their status as such. Many of them also possessed a rich ‘back story’ that referred back to life, and not necessarily to the closed circuit of other art objects. One such example was Simon Starling’s Plecnik, Union (2000), a two-part sculpture placed at head height on two white pedestals, consisting of a shattered but reconstructed glass parking-light cover (designed by the celebrated Slovenian designer Joze Plecnik), which the artist found on the ground in Ljubljana, mixed with the broken remains of a local-brand beer bottle. Recuperating the two objects, Starling literally put them back together in an act of ‘counter-entropy’.
Of all the works on display, however, it was Alexander Gutke’s Exploded View (2005) that most thwarted easy assimilation and added to the discursive tension that wove the show together. Isolated in a room by itself, Exploded View consisted of a Kodak slide projector that progressively projected 81 images of its own systematically photographed interior. Gutke apparently had the projector opened up and each slide slot incised, photographing each empty slot as the cutting progressed. The literal, deadpan inexorability of this piece had a troubling, cumulative effect. Its self-reflexivity rendered it virtually inscrutable, in the sense that it achieved an almost hermetic autonomy. And yet it brought under scrutiny the curator’s claim to consider the object in its ‘essence, in its nakedness’; despite its taut, tail-chasing absurdity, this piece seemed to deny the possibility of having an essence, as its exposed viscera told us nothing but the frank, phenomenological facts.