BY Sophie Berrebi in Reviews | 10 SEP 03
Featured in
Issue 77

50th Venice Biennale

Various Venues

BY Sophie Berrebi in Reviews | 10 SEP 03

At the far end of the Arsenale a gathering of strange objects by Jean Luc Moulène lay scattered on the dusty floor between two doors. Although they were officially part of the section curated by Gabriel Orozco, 'The Everyday Altered', these clumsy sculptures looked as if they were about to sprawl into the neighbouring 'Utopia Station' on one side and merge with the rubbish baking in the sun outside the building on the other. But wherever they were, they couldn't possibly have been more out of place than they were here, a site so inconspicuous as to risk being completely overlooked. The objects included a row of shrunken plastic mineral water bottles (Standard Reduced on Sweet Open Fire, 2001), papier mâché potato shapes (Potatoes, 1997) and a bright green volumetric rendering of a 3D computer drawing Qu'est ce Caisse? (What is this Cash Register?, 1994). Most people either brushed past or stared blankly at them for a few minutes before moving on. When I first encountered them, they looked like a weird display of unintelligible objects, emanating an intriguing, alien quality that became more endearing after a sweaty crawl through the rest of the Arsenale. After a while their unsystematic nature and low-key presence began to modify my experience of the whole show. Seen next to the dreary dogmatic illustrations of consensual political statements that too many works embodied, they offered a resistance to visual apprehension that in turn provoked me to rethink the rest of the Arsenale's exhibits.

The fascination exerted by Moulène's sculptures (oddities in his almost exclusively photographic practice) stems both from their seemingly left-over quality and their apparent unrelatedness to one another. Scanning the area in which they were displayed, they appeared more as 'relative densities' in space, as Don DeLillo once described an odd group of people in a room, than as specific objects. Another way to put it would be identification through difference: of size, density and mode of production. A single wooden step, built to the legal height of each step in a staircase, Stair (bottom and balanced (1994), 'standard' plastic bottles and blue Gauloises cigarette packs, devoid of any inscription (Bleu Gauloises Bleues, 2000), fused industrial production with human intervention - the step was hand-painted yellow, the bottles shrunken, the logo on the Gauloises packet had been removed.

Some of the objects look like a visual inventory of moulded or DIY-type found objects. Bathtub (1995), for example, bears the traces of manual production, while the concrete cast of the inside of a motor-bike helmet (Vanity, 1996) has an eerie egg-like smoothness, and Fruit Bitt (1999) looks as if gravel and stones have contaminated an ordinary cement bollard. The sculptures are essentially unclassifiable, a quality that contrasts with many displays in the Arsenale (not to mention the 'Individual Systems' exhibition altogether). Apart from what could be interpreted as a critique of Formalist rigour, the works also explore economic and geopolitical issues, many of which echoed the work of other artists in the show. For example, the pack of Gauloises recalls Mircea Cantor's Double-head Matches (2002-3) in Francesco Bonami's section 'Clandestine', a film that documents the process of match production in an East European factory. From the absorbing depiction of the mix of heavy machine work and delicate manual handling emerge questions of creation, production and consumption. Another potent example is the proximity of Moulène's assemblage of uncut wooden planks, From Alexandria (2003) with works from the section 'The Structure of Survival'. The construction of From Alexandria derived from the principle of not wasting wood by not cutting the ends of wood planks, a practice visible on construction sites in poorer countries. The result, which resembled a cross between a utopian architectural model and a vernacular shambles, recalled the urban projects and utopian plans by Hélio Oiticica (Newyorkaises, Subterranean Tropicàlia Projects, 1971), Yona Friedman (The Castle of the Poor, 2003) and Marepe (Project for Embutido Reconcavo - Reconcavo Embutido, 2003) in Carlos Basualdo's section. But while these works functioned at the level of metaphor, From Alexandria seemed to make a more pointed comment on Third World economies of survival, showing a precise and complex connection between the production of a form and its intrinsic economic justification.