A stack of paper sits opposite a roll of green felt in a Zurich restaurant. Between the two objects are a couple of glasses of local beer. Elsewhere a steel support sharesa table with some amorphous lumps of clay, a ball speckled like an ostrich egg lolls opposite an erect umbrella and a glass of red wine sits poised across from a folded removal blanket. The customers’ beer slowly disappears from their glasses via a hidden mechanism and refills are discretely provided by a uniformed waiter. If you ask the waiter for a beer, they will tell you that unfortunately the tables are fully occupied. If you ask the waiter who their favourite guests are, they will say ‘the ones who drink the most.’
Brazilian artist Laura Lima’s installation Bar Restaurant had an earlier iteration at Art Basel Miami in 2010, but reinstalling up the street from where Max Bill had once been professor seems to be carefully calculated. The Swiss artist and designer Max Bill has often been described as a Promethean figure for Brazilian art – bringing the cold fire of concrete art to their decadent syncretic traditions. The exhibition of his work in São Paulo in the early 1950s was credited with galvanising a generation of artists, who went forth and galvanised a hell of a lot of sheet metal. ‘Neo-’ in front of the name of a movement normally indicates a homage, or at the very least, a kind of peaceful succession. In the case of Neo-Concrete, however, it’s more like organ rejection. By the end of the 1950s younger artists – most notoriously Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica – just couldn’t take it any more. They took the visual language of Concrete art and messed with it, disrupting all the perfect fields of crystalline form with their messy corporeal presence. Lima’s dipsomaniac geometric forms continue this tradition.
Although the set-up seems like a joke (a Euclidian triangle walks into a bar…), Bar Restaurant is witty rather than funny, which amounts to calling it ‘interesting’. ‘Interesting’ is meant here in the way that theorist Sianne Ngai uses it – as a low affect and non-committal aesthetic judgement one small step away from being ‘boring’.
Caring about these objects and their relationships requires emotional effort on the part of the viewer, which is reinforced by a sense of empathy with the boredom of the waiters. The waiters (who are actually museum guards dragooned into performing) display faultless manners. They go on filling up the glasses of their absurd clients and repeating the same few sentences to the same few questions, but they have a hollow, disenchanted look in their eyes. Though Bar Restaurant seems at first to be a work of relational aesthetics (a restaurant, beer, furniture, no captions), it is actually something more sadistic. It is a work that undermines whatever dignity of purpose is attached to the work of a museum guard. Although the references in the catalogue are to Neo-Concretism, this art is also a little closer to Santiago Sierra’s calculated abuse of casual labour than it might be entirely comfortable to admit.
Leading off from the bar is a long anonymous corridor. Open any door and you enter into a kind of hamster’s nest; a dense labyrinth of chandeliers and broken chairs, workbenches and half used materials. After the controlled anti-climax of Bar Restaurant, this chaotic enclosed space is a pleasure. On the tables, houses of cards rise up, books lie about with geometric forms cut into the pages, and carefully labelled bottles containing locks of human hair sit stacked. The entire space is cluttered with half-finished pottery, masquerade costumes, taxidermy and voodoo dolls. Within this space, quietly working and sometimes sleeping, is a magician. He seems unperturbed by the visitors, and will briefly answer questions, but mostly seems occupied preparing props for tricks that are unlikely to work.
In this iteration of The Naked Magician (two others were in 2008 and 2010), the role of the magician is performed by a local artist who has been hired to lummox in the gallery. However Laura Lima left very few instructions regarding what ‘the magician’ is to do. It is not a theatre director’s script they are enacting, or even the fantasies of a philistine public, but their own. Quite spontaneously, the artist goes about producing small, animist objects or conducting pseudo-scientific experiments. Freed from the obligation to be critical, or clever, or even to believe in what he is doing, the artist starts to become a shaman again.