With her installation Chicago Studies: Les étants donnés - SPACE THESIS (2003) Belgian artist Joëlle Tuerlinckx filled the gallery with a wide variety of surface supports: several large walls on small wheels, long tables, temporary enclosures, video monitors, plywood shelves and desks. All were custom-made for this newly commissioned work. Over these supports more surfaces were pinned, stacked, arranged and layered. Hand-painted slides of abstract shapes were projected on to walls, large sheets of coloured paper and posters were affixed to them, and videos of close-up pans over interior and exterior environments were thrown up high on a central span.
Tuerlinckx privileges the two-dimensional surface: how we perceive its flatness, how we differentiate between surfaces, and how we are prone arbitrarily to order and categorize our sense-perceptions of plane and colour. Her investigation is not scientific - rather, Tuerlinckx presents a finely tuned, highly strung, idiosyncratic concentration on the gaps between looking, perceiving and picturing.
In Chicago Studies she sets up a backdrop for this focus by painting almost every surface - which she covered with orange, shiny black and chalky white objects - a dull grey. Tuerlinckx made this decision after coming across a small square of what is named 'Kodak grey', used by photographers to measure relative light levels, and a visit to Paul Cézanne's studio in Aix-en-Provence, the walls of which were painted a similar hue.
Every day, within loose parameters set by Tuerlinckx, the walls of the gallery were moved around; various papers, maps and posters were put up, replaced, moved and removed; and video and slides were selected from a great number of choices. These ever-shifting 'factual' components intermingled with fluctuating light conditions: sweeping rectangles of sunlight streaming through windows became as palpable as a curling sheet of coloured paper. Each visit became a unique physical experience - each memory adding up like Claude Monet's shifting views of haystacks.
Chicago Studies was an experience created within a very specific context: an art gallery surrounded by classrooms in a prestigious university. As her compatriot Marcel Broodthaers so eloquently elucidated in his Musée d'Art Moderne, Département des Aigles (Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles) in 1972, Tuerlinckx's systems of classification are totally subjective. Lightly, but not ironically, she measured the length of a hallway by gingerly unravelling a roll of toilet paper borrowed from the women's lavatory. She took photos of 'while you were out' pink message slips, legal pads and yellow Post-it notes, and enlarged them into luscious laminated prints, like so many pieces of evidence. Classroom chairs were refitted with new misshapen desktops, painted Kodak grey. One videotape, also transcribed into a book of lists, is a close-up inventory of The Renaissance Society's offices: Tuerlinckx slowly pans across book spines, rows of old catalogues, tacked up personal notes and general office disarray. She often documents scenes holding a small flag or marker, or simply pointing with her finger in the frame, at arm's length from the camera. This device makes the moving two-dimensional images look scientific, as if a system was in place, while revealing the opposite. This 'measure' becomes a constant reminder of the arbitrary relationship between things and our perception of them. A poignant example is a photo of an item Tuerlinckx stumbled upon in the society's archive. A sad, beaten-up, scribbled-on, cardboard box is elevated to lofty significance by the words 'important book' inscribed across its face, underlined twice.
Tuerlinckx's output could be described as an accumulation of arbitrariness. One element of the installation that was not subject to constant change was a long grey table held up by sawhorses. Carefully arranged across its surface were items from previous shows: books from Documenta, a box left over from a Christian Boltanski show, abstracted movable turntables made to quell suggestions that Tuerlinckx hires DJs to spin at her openings. Mixed in were items that were already acting as memorabilia for this exhibition: a book on Chicago architecture a dealer had sent her, Solo-brand plastic cups, sticks used to stir cans of paint, rejected desk shapes, and small measuring flags. Tuerlinckx is delicately convincing, airily confident that the yawning gap between a thing, our perception of it and its picturing/naming is neither a Kosuth-like scourge nor a Broodthaers-like bemusement. Tuerlinckx instead offers an elegant subjectivity that can be shared, if only at arm's length.