Gedi Sibony’s recent participation in the New Museum’s re-opening exhibition posed something of a challenge for the young New York-based sculptor. Indeed, the curators’ requirement that the objects be freestanding opposed the basic logic of his work, which employs crude materials such as industrial carpeting, hollow-core doors, cardboard boxes, vinyl window shades and plywood, typically shown propped against the wall and each other. Sibony’s first solo outing, at Canada in New York in 2004, set the stage with its provocative title ‘The Qualities Depend on Other Qualities’: a proclamation against singularity that subsequent exhibitions have borne out. Consider It Can Happen Because Everything Else (2007), the artist’s contribution to a group show at Greene Naftali, New York, which consisted of a makeshift curtain located in the gallery’s entrance corridor and pinned back to permit access to the exhibition inside.
Yet Sibony’s New Museum outing gave him the opportunity to explore a related concern: the impulse to reach across distances by experiencing and interacting with things that remain fundamentally themselves. The installation comprised five objects placed in an area off the main gallery space. First, a dilapidated cardboard box topped with vinyl window shades, which, opened out and suffering under the weight of its own lid, inclined ever so slightly towards the back wall. There stood its majestic other: a stoically upright plywood structure that nonetheless hid a tattered posterior of stretched and torn window shades. Between these two, a cascade of plastic gently covered the ground that the box could not traverse. To the side, an off-kilter, plywood post-and-lintel, its left foot nearly flush with the back wall, stepped out with its right foot towards a corridor inhabited by another artist’s work. Back inside Sibony’s space the momentum stilled before a white hollow-core door placed facing the side wall. A kind of ghostly presence, its utility denied even as it echoed the corridor opening to its left and the closed door to its right, this door cast a quiet shadow on the wall. The entire assemblage bore the title The Circumstance, The Illusion, and Light Absorbed as Light (2007).
Sibony’s impoverished objects have frequently drawn comparison to Arte Povera, the 1960s’ Italian movement that is typically understood as embracing a kind of anti-interventionist return-to-nature agenda. But there is a profounder relationship between the two bodies of work, rooted in a shared respect for the integrity of the object that yet refuses an essentialist attitude. In Sibony’s installations, as in the assemblages of the Italian artists, elements are placed on view largely unaltered. However, in being so placed, they are subsequently challenged via their interaction with countering materials or gestures, including those proposed by the architectural space itself. For example, at Sibony’s recent three-room solo exhibition at the Kunsthalle St Gallen, Switzerland, the artist gave new life to an open, curving structure of glued-together sticks (a sculpture he had executed several years before) by positioning it next to a rectangular white column that interrupted the front gallery. Inclining upwards, the fragile sticks appeared to seek the column’s strength and stability while in turn lending a certain vitality to its unyielding frame. The sticks were just one piece of a larger installation that included typically modest fare: five rectangular pedestals left over from an exhibition of David Lamelas’ work that had preceded Sibony’s at the Kunsthalle; a tiny frame placed on the wall, its content removed save for green-stained poster backing; and a sheet of plastic covering the side window (Revealing Itself with Subtle Attributes/With Nine F, 2007). Open forms paired with closed ones, solid materials with transparent, all gathered together as though playing their respective parts in a yet-to-be-resolved scene.
Much has been made of the anthropomorphic aspect of Sibony’s work, but rarely have critics discussed the theatrical impulse that governs his objects and installations. This theatricality has something to do with the look of the work: the fact that it employs plywood and cardboard, that it has an unfinished appearance, that the objects are so placed in relationship to each other as to constitute an ensemble. But beyond this, it relates to the fact that Sibony’s unassuming stage-prop-like objects don’t look like they belong here, in the space of the gallery or museum. Instead they appear here, taken out of their everyday place in the workshop, studio and real world, and forced to put on a good show, which they do, however uncomfortably. They are, according to the title of Sibony’s 2005 installation at PS1, New York, Disguised as their Material Properties, both cardboard and more than cardboard, activated by the artist and forced out of inertia but, like all actors, unable to fully coincide with the roles they assume. Which is perhaps why Sibony’s installations are ultimately so moving – because we all play parts, taking distance from who we are in order to show the world what we want or are expected to be.
At times this sense of distance achieves an almost spiritual dimension. For example, in I Stay Joined/We Approve (2007), located in the final gallery at St Gallen, Sibony placed a hanging rug and standing white door on either side of an arched window in a small area outlined by pre-existing marks on the floor. According to Sibony, the piece needed a ‘halo’, which he supplied by suspending above the door an open rectangle of thin white pipes that he found in the storage room. Providing a kind of declarative emphasis to the quietly solid door situated just a few inches in front of the back wall, this ‘halo’ further directed the viewer to look up and away from the demarcated space, as if to say these things are here, but only by the grace of the artist’s subtle intervention; the objects are real, but reality itself is uncontainable, shifting and elusive.