BY Kito Nedo in Features | 01 MAY 12
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Issue 147

In Focus: Alicja Kwade

The language of cinema and the psychology of sculpture

BY Kito Nedo in Features | 01 MAY 12

When Christopher Nolan’s film Inception was released two years ago, its closing sequence – an ambiguous image of a spinning top – was the cause of much head-scratching among viewers. Had the dream infiltrator and master thief Dominic Cobb (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) found his way back to reality? Or had he descended deeper still into the realm of dreams? Would the top finally fall over or would it spin on forever? Rather than offering any clarification, Nolan ended the film on that shot, leaving the situation in a state of perpetual abeyance. 

This same sense of eternal irresolution radiates from a recent video work by Alicja Kwade, inspired by the film and exhibited for the first time this spring as part of her show ‘In Circles’ at Galerie Johann König in Berlin. In Kreisel (Inception) (Spinning Top [Inception], 2012), Kwade took the image of Nolan’s rotating totem and modified it. She slowed down the original filmed sequence 250 times and seamlessly edited it into a 2:20-minute loop, thereby making the top appear to spin endlessly. A soundtrack of dull rumbling and thumping, caused by the slowing-down process, adds to the detached, unreal quality of the piece.

Nissan (Parallelwelt 1+2) (Nissan [Parallel World 1+2]), installation view, 2009, two Nissan Micras. All images courtesy Johann König, Berlin. Photograph: Roman März

Like earlier art works – such as Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho (1993) or Christian Marclay’s Telephones (1995) – the works of the Berlin-based Polish artist refer directly to the language of cinema, but her approach to the material focuses on psy­chology. Since its early days, cinema has been described as a kind of ‘dream machine’ that has the ability to blur the boundaries of reality and imagination, extending the viewer’s realm of perception. The transference of this dreamlike cinematic quality onto sculptures and installations is a constant theme in Kwade’s work. She frequently stretches and contorts every day objects and materials into compositions in which the elements are juxtaposed or mirror one another, in installations that can provoke both feelings of awe and of constriction.

From the outset, Kwade has treated her objects and materials with the manipulative rigour of a scenographer. In an early group of works entitled Bordsteinjuwelen (Gutter Gems, 2008), for example, she took stones found on the streets in Berlin and had them cut like shiny jewels, exposing the contradiction between form and material. For Nissan (Parallelwelt 1 + 2) (Nissan [Parallel World 1 + 2], 2009), she turned a right-hand-drive Nissan Micra into a mirror-image copy of a dented but otherwise identical left-hand-drive version belonging to her partner, the artist Gregor Hildebrandt. Since then, these twin vehicles have been parked together in a variety of locations for exhibitions. 

Die Gesamtheit aller Orte (The Totality of All Places), installation view, 2012, mixed media. Photograph: Roman März

For the installation Andere Bedingung (Aggregatzustand 6) (Different Condition [State 6], 2009), rods of steel, copper and glass, together with a broom handle, an oval mirror and a length of sheet metal transcended their usual material properties and, having seemingly lost their rigidity, appeared to slide down the wall. Kwade subtly arranged the individual elements of the installation in what was as much a demonstration of a physical impossibility as it was a play on the disconcerting nature of such a sight. As in many of the artist’s works, the ordinarily applicable rules of materiality seem to be abolished for one extraordinary moment.

This intentional confusion caused by manipulations in material and form of everyday things recurs in Kwade’s large-scale installation Die Gesamtheit aller Orte (The Totality of All Places, 2012). The sprawling circular installation features more than 50 objects – including metal plates and pipes, wooden slats, mirrors, euro coins, sheets of glass and a racing bike – arranged in concentric circles, all curved around an invisible centre as if warped by a cinematic special effect. Although her objects are twisted, Kwade’s approach is straightforward: in a way that is both beautifully simple and complex, she reminds us that even the ordinary things we thought were solid may be more malleable than we originally believed possible. Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Alicja Kwade is an artist who lives and works in Berlin, Germany. She will be the subject of three solo shows later this year: at Harris Lieberman, New York, usa; Grieder Contemporary, Zurich, Switzerland; and Mother’s Tankstation, Dublin, Ireland. Her work is included in ‘Made in Germany Zwei’, which opens on 17 May at three institutions in Hanover, Germany.

Kito Nedo lives in Berlin where he works as contributing editor for frieze and as freelance journalist for several magazines and newspapers. In 2017, he won the ADKV-Art Cologne Award for Art Criticism.