Could conceptual art be the doomed romance that we’ve never quite got over? It’s been suggested that conceptualism was the rift on which the shaky house of contemporary art was built. The crack widens, and everything rushes in, so long as it can explain itself. And so we are left staring at press releases. Something here rings true, and might go a way towards explaining the impetus for ‘Decartes’ Daughter’, curated by Swiss Institute’s Piper Marshall, which explored Cartesian dualism – here configured artistically as the space between the conceptual (mind) and the expressive (body). This exhibition might have seemed as though it is trying to muddy waters which have already been convincingly muddied by writers, scientists, philosophers, even pop psychologists (just stick a pencil between your teeth for five minutes and feel your smile muscles change your mood).
The exhibition title refers to both the philosopher’s beloved child Francine, who died aged four, and an apocryphal story regarding an automata of her likeness found in his trunk at sea, a doll apparently made in mourning by the philosopher, which was tossed overboard by the horrified sailors who discovered it. Representing what is termed by the exhibition materials an ‘ontological hiccup’, the Francine doll is a complex object, an artificial body that might undo the mind/body dualism.
‘Decartes’ Daughter’ was elegantly installed around two axes which crossed through the main space from corner to corner. The first was Sergei Tcherepnin’s Stereo Ear Tone Mirrors (2013), two security mirrors used as speakers to project glittery sounds, but then occasionally burst into a shrill alarm-like composition that worked on the inner ear, and so was altered, amplified and deepened when hands were cupped around the ears. In the other corners were two parts of a well-deployed Hanne Darboven work Urzeit/Uhrzeit, Fische und Vogel, Ia, Ib (Prehistoric/Time, Fish and Bird, 1986), sheets of time cards marking the hours according to the artist’s own handwritten visualization of time, and occasionally punctuated by a repeated photographic image – a taxidermied bird in one corner and an ugly preserved trophy fish in the other. Like a flash of bittersweet memory, these keepsakes fail to be assimilated into the systematic process of Darboven’s project, and suggest the trappings of nostalgic sentiment, both repulsive and appealing.
The exhibition hit its stride when it touched on the way that the mess of the body gets all over ideas. In Rachel Harrison’s photograph Untitled (Perth Amboy) (2001), fingerprints on the window of a New Jersey home – where the face of the Virgin Mary had supposedly appeared – create a glimmering dark screen of smeared gold: religion as pure idea, pawed at by human hands. Elsewhere, Jason Loebs’s Anthropomemoria (2013) presented laptops as both warm prostheses and containers of personal information, by using iridescent purple and rose-gold fingerprints of security ink (used to print money) to subtly disturb the clean minimalism of matte-black MacBook batteries.
Capital, too, is given a human body and voice in Melanie Gilligan’s series ‘Self Capital’ (2009), in which a female character named Global Economy is put through intense therapy, after suffering a public meltdown, acting out a body pushed to its limits – first hungry, then vomiting words. It is bodies, after all, that will feel the effects of economic ideas, and the abstract language of the economy – read here as a form of deeply
disordered thinking – simply represses problems that will resurface later.
The exhibition’s central premise ran aground, however, when it came to the paintings of Charline von Heyl, or the pleasingly reflective enamel paintings of Ulrike Müller. At this stage, the suggestion that the presence of any human touch (emotional) into abstraction (cerebral) might upset the balance of such divisions, thereby presenting an oversimplified way of thinking about the traditions of gesture and abstraction. And it was unclear what was being contributed by a large work by John Chamberlain, Untitled (2007), in which a number of bulky objects covered in silvery nylon sheeting sat domineeringly in the space. Like the Francine doll in her sea-ravaged boat, ‘Descartes’ Daughter’ was caught on tides pulling in many directions at once, leaving it foundering. But when it was on course, it seemed to suggest an increasing suspicion of any kind of pure conceptual idea, and that the measure of critique we have been looking for is located in the imperfect messes of human bodies. It’s perhaps a sign that we might finally be getting over the great romance of conceptualism, and its retreats from objects and bodies, though we might always be marked by this transformative, idealistic affair.