BY Dan Adler in Reviews | 03 JAN 14
Featured in
Issue 160


V&A Museum, London

BY Dan Adler in Reviews | 03 JAN 14

Berlin-based duo Hadley+Maxwell have lately been working with Cinefoil, a black aluminium material normally used for theatrical lighting. They get up-close and personal with monuments – engaging in unsanctioned encounters with outdoor statues in public settings, or officially arranged tactile trysts with collections of diverse artefacts – by pressing the foil into them, always preferring a partial impression of the thing at hand to the comprehensive collections of plaster casts, such as the sprawling gallery of 19th-century impressions of Italian monuments, housed at the V&A in London.

And yet Hadley+Maxwell’s impressive installation Graces and Exemplars (2013) came across as a systematically arranged conglomeration, albeit one composed of foil fragments, each held in place provisionally with a few miniscule magnets. Much of the work ran the length of an 11-metre-long gallery wall as a continuous frieze, divided into panels according to motifs. Sections were devoted to ears, expanses of drapery, classical columnar capitals, boots or assorted protuberances such as arms, mouths and penises. Particularly haunting was a portion portraying incomplete faces, perhaps referring to people that perform masquerades, adopting the appearance of a foreign Other as a means of protection. The fetishistic focus on body parts – here the result of caresses, rather than the cold snap of a camera’s shutter – competed here with modernist methods of scholarship, especially those devoted to long-term cultural memory, that subverted traditional ideas about context. One thinks especially of Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas (1924–29), which similarly presented non-precious reproductions on panels drawn from divergent sources, meant to investigate Pathosformel – expressive formulas of emotion and gesture that are either taken directly from ancient models or reappear as mnemonic traces in successive works. Like Warburg’s tacked-up photos, Hadley+Maxwell’s works swayed vulnerably in the breeze; they had fraying edges, the result of handling and wear. Gestures and bits of body were removed from their original contexts, incorporated into a new constellation that was speculative and resolutely not set in stone.

But the installation also featured three sculptures in the round, each composed of fragments fastened to a slender metal pole, placed precariously into a rough chunk of alabaster. If You Were Me, I Would Think Twice (2013) offered a striking mixture of multiple mouths and layerings of eyes and arms, along with a single set of buttocks. Seemingly drawing upon the frieze for material, this figure looked like a conglomeration of partial character qualities and gestures, suggesting a subversion of the coherent or centred self. Indeed, in this sense it was reminiscent of Hannah Höch’s series of collages ‘From an Ethnographic Museum’ (1925–30), which employed a similar strategy of juxtaposing fragmentary images from multiple monuments, bodies and genders within a single, problematic personage. As with Höch, these elements were positioned on a makeshift plinth in a manner that suggested an awareness of how an identity is continually changing, caught up in a state of flux, constantly on display for a public that seeks to typecast or label. Given the sense of disorientation or discomfort that comes from not being able to efficiently categorize a singular identity – a quality that is expressed, using different materials, in some recent projects by Geoffrey Farmer – one might unexpectedly feel a sense of sympathy, or at least empathy, for such a hybridized (anti-) character, pinned down on a pedestal, forced to play the immobile role of a statue. In intriguing and inventive ways, Hadley+Maxwell critique cultures of the monument, such as those of heroic statuary, but do so in a manner that is often surprisingly personal, cleverly combining references to private and public realms.

Dan Adler is an associate professor of art history at York University, Toronto.