Have you seen ‘The Twilight Saga’ (2008–12)? Me neither. But, like you, I know who Robert Pattinson is. For a spell last year, the vampire movies’ British star seemed to be everywhere, the dramas of his private and professional life broadcast on all channels of the news media. Perhaps it should have come as no surprise to find him framed, glowering through darkened glass, in Lutz Bacher’s exhibition at Ratio 3, the first at the gallery’s new premises in San Francisco’s Mission District. But it was a surprise, nevertheless, despite Bacher’s reputation as one of the most consistently surprising artists working in the US today. Dissonance, elision and confusion have been her stock-in-trade since her career began in the 1970s. Even Lutz Bacher is reportedly a pseudonym.
Two serial works dominated the exhibition, spreading to fill the gallery like a gas. The first was the scatter piece Stress Balls (2012), hundreds of squishy black balls strewn across the floor, an installation comparable to Bacher’s Baseballs II (2011–12) which was recently shown as part of the 2012 Whitney Biennial. The second was an arrayed selection of 18 prints from The Celestial Handbook (2011), also included (in a different configuration) at the Whitney. Framed pages, cut from an old book on astronomy, feature black and white offset illustrations of extravagant cosmic formations accompanied by sometimes factual, often hyperbolic captions.
These two works, taken together, address the hopeless shortcomings of language and metaphor when confronted by the very grandest of grand conceptions. The black balls are, of course, a pathetic analogy for floating planetary (or molecular) bodies, even lamer than the motifs of sand and smoke that the artist has deployed in past works. Bacher knows – must know – that these are howling clichés. Appropriating ready-cooked meanings is part of her strategy. To me, this collision of references is deliberately humorous: I imagine a Gumby-ish thinker, squeezing foam balls with both hands, trying to wrap his head around the vastness of space and his own insignificance within it.
The startling thing about the pictures of The Celestial Handbook is how deficient they seem, printed only in black and white. We’re so used to NASA’s vibrantly (and arbitrarily) coloured photographs of complex nebulae that in monochrome these pictures appear cloddish and antique. A moment’s reflection tells us that all visions of the universe – from crescent moons to long-expired stars – are illusory and partial, however beautiful.
Darkness features in Bacher’s art as a metaphor for intellectual incapacity, and for unbridgeable gaps in meaning. But it also invokes a sexy netherworld of fantasy and disguise. Enter Edward (2012), Pattinson’s vampire character pictured here in a framed publicity poster. The heavily tinted Perspex, almost entirely obscuring its text, brings depth (both visual and conceptual) to the work. The paradox of the heartthrob whose personal life is so public, who is famous for playing a teenager with a secret double life, resonates with Bacher’s own role as a pseudonymous artist who refuses to be constrained by an identifiable style but whose concerns have been characterised, historically at least, as being to do with identity, desire, gender and the body.
One gets the feeling that Bacher herself would not welcome too literal a reading of her exhibition. She evades not in order to get caught, but to lure viewers into doing some intellectual legwork of their own. Who knows what they might find on the way? The show concluded (the last work arrived at, although you could hear it from the entrance) with an audio recording titled Puck (2012). ‘If we shadows have offended / Think but this, and all is mended’ reads a voice, over and over, each time trying different emphases and struggling through pronunciations. It sounds like the reader is not as familiar with the lines as most of us – spoken, of course, by the character Puck at the conclusion of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1590–96). Puck’s speech is the classic compositional disclaimer: Don’t worry, it was all a dream, he says.
Was it, though? There is an aspect of Bacher’s exhibition that is very real, squarely grounded in the here and now. However inadequate our visualizations of the universe, it is an unnerving truth that our planet is surrounded by miles and miles of nothingness punctuated with clusters of burning gas and rock. Pattinson is not a figment of fiction but a real person, alive right now and going about his business. Bacher’s Puck is, I am told, in fact a man with Down’s Syndrome. What to do with that information? It feels very real to me, far from a ‘weak and idle theme’, in Shakespeare’s self-effacing words. But then, Bacher’s evacuated signifiers and promiscuously coupling references would not amount to anything if they were not also, at the same time, brimming with personal and philosophical significance.