After her orderly, light-flooded exhibition at the Kunsthalle Bern in 2013, French artist Isabelle Cornaro’s recent show in Zürich came as a surprise. Visitors to Galerie Francesca Pia were plunged into a dark room full of competing, urgent filmic impressions from 1941 to 1969 in the midst of which were three works by Cornaro herself. The films not by Cornaro – all but one from a programme curated in collaboration with Jonathan Pouthier and recently screened at the Centre Pompidou, Paris – were from the American cinematic and artistic avant-gardes that reflect the artist’s own interests. For example, Jack Smith’s Song for Rent (1969), in which a figure in a wheelchair, in drag, leafs through a scrapbook filled with Sarah Bernhardt clippings to the tune of ‘God Bless America’, or a 1949 reel demonstrating how Technicolor films illustrate goods like foodstuffs or carpets. Each of these films operates in relation and counterpoint to cinematic norms – mocking, disrupting or, as in the case of the Technicolor reel, using saturated colour to render its content almost unrecognizable. Francis Lee’s 1941 (1941) has the most in common with Cornaro’s films visually. In the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor – before he could have known its consequences – Lee filmed streaming red, white and blue paint, broken light bulbs and flames: minor events made catastrophic in close-up. A similar drama takes place in Cornaro’s Choses (Things, 2014) in which a collage of spray-painted objects is engulfed by dripping viscous white, black and yellow pigment.
All three of Cornaro’s looped films shown here are less than two and a half minutes long. Like Choses, Figures (2011) and Amplifications (2014) focus on small objects in close up and convey the artist’s ambivalence to her found media. Figures pans and cuts over a selection of bric-a-brac: buttons, lighters, compacts, jewellery and torn money lined up on a grey surface. Occasionally these objects are bathed in bright, unseen lights; some of them are also subjected to an unexplained shaking. Amplifications features cut-glass ornaments and bangles lit by a range of filters, turning them blue, red and purple. In both films, Cornaro uses colour as an oppressive mask; the lighting rendering the objects even less comprehensible. In place of the repetition of sculptural casting she is best known for, duplication here comes via the looping of the films, an endless circuit petrifying them just as readily.
Sculpture also featured in the exhibition, with Cornaro using a rarely used, low-ceilinged space in the building to show eight black reliefs. Made in coloured elastomer, a rubber-like substance, from three casts, the works employed the artist’s customary technique of creating a mould from assorted objects: the portrait format ‘Orgon Door I’ series (2013) showed petrified ropes, chains, coins and wooden battens; the landscape format ‘Orgon Door III’ series (2014) featured horizontally arranged lines of rope and chain and ‘Orgon Door IV’ (2014) was a baroque frieze of jewellery, stones, printing blocks and trinkets that looked like beetles and rulers. ‘Orgone energy’ – a pseudoscience developed in the 1930s by Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich – is supposedly a life force that can be harvested in ‘accumulators’. Cornaro’s accumulation of junk into the language of decoration, in a material that renders it sumptuous, suggests her faith in the innate, extraordinary power of things to endure and withstand the vagaries of how we look and see.