Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady graced the invitation card, the latter’s head slanted in a gesture that seemed both awkward and effortless. It was the first of many objects in Gert Robijns’ exhibition set at a tilt. In the gallery space a metal shelving unit was propped against a wall so that it rested on only two of its four feet. Next to this were further items methodically placed at odd angles against the same wall: a long-handled squeegee, a bucket filled with water, a half-full water bottle, a stool and two chairs. All of these were part of a subtle composition in which the usually invisible undersides of everyday objects came into full view. The angles and lines in the cross-hatching of a chair’s cushion bottom or underneath an industrial shelf met with the rounded curves of elements situated in that triangle of space between wall and floor – a red matchbox car, pencil, hanging plastic bag weighed down by its contents, soccer ball, lemon. Propped on top of the disoriented shelving unit and arching as it touched the wall, a schoolchild’s transparent template of different-sized ovals invited connections between the geometries in the space and more formal, mathematical ones. A single pink paper folder and a pile of dog-eared paperback books balanced on the shelf below. Kerouac’s On the Road (1957), from whose cover the image on the invitation was taken, and French book titles describing parties in Venice and gentlemen thieves could be read as cryptic clues or elements in Robijns’ brand of installation poetry. Below them, another shelf slyly held tape, tacks and a box of UHU glue – products meant to hold things firmly in place. The irony of it couldn’t be missed, for everything seemed at once immovable and yet held by nothing more than the goodwill of gravity. Even Ademhalen (Inhale, 2005), which also gave the exhibition its name, made such immaterial things as balance and gravity, and architectural solids (walls, corners, floor) as much a part of the work as the smaller portable objects that made up the installation. The result was both awkward and effortlessly elegant, a bit like Cassady’s handsome, cocked head.
In two black and white photographs Links/Rechts (Left/Right, 2004), a child bends his neck and squints through first his left eye, then his right. Playfully, the images seem to ask you to do the same, to tilt your own head and experience an altered perspective. To do so was to notice that perfectly aligned with the top of the opposite wall was a set of cheap, assembled kitchen cabinets, Van boven (From Above, 2005). As these were as white as the wall, it would have been easy to miss them. Yet these shop-bought cabinets honoured and mocked the monochromes of Kasimir Malevich and Robert Ryman in the same breath. Suspended beyond reach or use, they played with the conventions of painting and space. Any gap below or between things mattered. Like earlier works by Robijns, for example Red Eye Movement (2001–4), a video installation housed in a combination of chain-link fence, basketball court markings and a carefully constructed garage door, the pieces comprising ‘Inhale’ suggested a distinctly spatial preoccupation; the way a barrier can determine our movements, how massive structures can be both all-present and seem to dissolve,or the perception of a space can be shaped by a tilt of a head or object.
The exhibition could easily be dismissed as insubstantial were it not so precise and formally compelling. It might even be likened to other artists’ work (Gabriel Orozco or Richard Wentworth came to mind), were there not something particular about the mood the show provokes. To be in the gallery space was to feel as one does at dusk or in the instant after breathing in, during those ambiguous, expectant moments when two possibilities are held in perfect tension, when things are between.