Sometimes experience walks backwards. Consider Marguerite Duras’ lines in The Lover (1984) about the pre-adolescent girl’s face (the author’s) that was already riddled with the sexual damage that would come later. Or the infamous Carl Jung analysis, taken up by Samuel Beckett, about an unhappy patient who, as an infant, had never been properly born. Likewise, sometimes a drawing of a man sleeping occasions that man to go to sleep, which, in turn, occasions an exhibition that features that drawing, and that sleeping, and the objects and dreams that result. Temporality is not always linear, experience and architecture not uniquely progressive. At least such was the case with Mandla Reuter’s recent show at Kunsthalle Basel, where the South African-born German artist, now based in Switzerland, turned time and space into something kaleidoscopic, multi-dimensional, lucid and ecstatic.
The exhibition began, in fact, with a drawing the artist’s friend made of a man sleeping. ‘That’s Mandla,’ the friend’s partner pointed out. So it was. After receiving word of the drawing, Reuter rented a room at the Trois Rois, a five-star Basel hotel that glitters above the banks of the Rhine, where he went to sleep in Swiss luxury. Gina M. Folly, the photographer that he asked to enter the room and photograph him while he was sleeping, did so. That image, a small black and white print, was stuck behind a much larger framed offset monochrome print on one of the Kunsthalle’s walls (Untitled, 2013). The show that opened around it also felt like a dream, its logic strange and associative and backwards and very, very right. The first galleries were nearly bare and appeared cool to the touch. Stolid soda machines, sheltering grids of bright, illuminated plastic bottles, stood upright on the wooden floors (Both, 2013). Fluorescent lights, odd in the neoclassical rooms, went bright and dark at turns. An enormous rock rested nearby, its symbolist title the dryly grandiose The Gate (2012). Two rooms further featured expensively plush white carpeting streaked with dirt that Reuter had brought from a parcel of land he owns in Los Angeles. An inky blue diazotype of that lot and a piece of mail addressed to it by the artist himself – accompanied by a stamp from the post office reading ‘No Such Address’ – hung on the walls (No Such St., 2012).
On this Kafkaesque piece of postage the exhibition seemed to stop. The galleries beyond were closed off. To access them, one had to leave the building and walk around the corner to the administration offices. There, a new doorbell had been installed. It read ‘MANDLA REUTER’. On pushing it, visitors were buzzed in, then made their way up the stairs, through the library, and into the last two galleries. Here, Reuter’s dreamlike, alternative universe was not cool but flush and warm and surreally furnished. A back room, a speakeasy, an afterparty, an after-hours club – all colloquial names for provisional spaces erected for pleasure were equally evoked. Fluorescent lights continued to rise and fall. A string of multicoloured Chinese lanterns, bought in LA, looped under the ceiling (N Broadway, 2013). Steel beams, vertical and horizontal, sketched out the room like the armature of a building project or a corporate sculpture (Cervino, 2013). An elevator sat, enormous, on a plinth. Prospect 330, E Waldon Pl (2011), a series of 14 gorgeous, upside-down images of LA twilight, taken from the artist’s land, hung like a horizon across one wall, their palm-tree silhouettes blushing deeper and deeper as the lights in the room darkened.
A constellation of industrial materials placed in the corners (concrete plinths, enormous water pipes, scaffolding, those steel beams) played against the beauty of these photographs, as well as against a Modernist daybed, a small bronze sculpture (Souvenir, 2009), and a projected 35mm film offering the image of a scallop shell – a replica of the Trevi Fountain in Las Vegas – as it changes colour via the lights that continually illuminate the casino fountain (The Shell, 2011). Each of these images and objects had a discursive story that limned displacement, artificiality and the simulation of object, place and sentiment. In other words, they were about feeling, real or counterfeit. The steel I-beams referenced Walt Disney’s 1959 rollercoaster approximation of the Matterhorn at Disneyland; the amusement park’s artificial Swiss mountain is supported by a steel structure similar to Reuter’s. The bronze sculpture is a miniature replica of a bronze by the GDR-era sculptor Senta Baldamus. And so on. Yet, uniquely, these stories didn’t supply their attendant works with their meaning – that came from other things: placement, proximity, visual narrative, a kind of fiction that feels truer than life in the way that a dream might. That an empty plot of land in Los Angeles – La La land, city of angels and sunshine noir – grounded the exhibition also felt accurate. Beautiful sunsets and orchestrated stage sets (places for dreaming and time-suspending) collided here with a kind of European industriousness. Time and space collapsed in a series of rooms that held stories and feelings that spanned decades and continents. One doesn’t like to reduce attitude to geography, but sometimes a surprisingly sublime sensibility, ecstatic and studious at once, encourages such recklessness.