Although Barcelona has many commercial galleries, only a few are known for showing contemporary work by emerging artists. Among them is Galeria Toni Tàpies, whose exhibition ‘Manoeuvres/Maniobres’ was devoted to a group of eight Canadian artists, all using handmade materials or recycled products to re-imagine and recast the familiar contours of their surroundings. The strongest pieces on view revealed, in their stubbornly manual construction, the neglected role of the individual labourer in an age of inescapable mass production.
Despite the show’s somewhat chaotic results – on an organizational level, it strained to encapsulate too many divergent ideas – the viewing experience was engaging, as many of the works were amusingly surreal. Dominating the far end of the second floor, Escultura amb perxell (Sculpture with Perxell, 2009) by the group BGL (composed of the artists Jasmin Bilodeau, Sébastien Giguère and Nicolas Laverdière), is a tree made of plywood and plastic leaves. Its top branch spins, rather than waves, blowing in a breeze from fans housed in wall-mounted audio speakers. Though obviously fabricated, Escultura amb perxell managed to look pathetically alive in this manipulated environment where everything was wrong – the speakers didn’t even emit sound.
Nearby, Jana Sterbak played with the idea of homemaking in Cake Stool (1999), a metal kitchen stool whose seat appears to be made of decaying rubber; upon closer examination, the cushion reveals itself to be a sponge cake that through a special preservation process still smells disarmingly sweet, ten years on. The piece is a reminder of how much iconic symbols of comfort and home depend on a stable context; it also, more complexly, references the multiple meanings of labour – countless hours of research and experimentation went into perfecting a cake that could function in the same way as a mass-produced rubber cushion, made in minutes.
The strongest works, which helped to unify the show, were by the Montreal-based artist Michel de Broin, whose self-contained sculptures slyly reference our prodigious waste of natural resources. In Fuite (Leak, 2009) water spouts from an electrical socket and into a metal grate on the floor, a simple mechanism that connects our incessant and extravagant use of energy and water. Dead Star (2008) is a large, rock-like form made from disposable batteries; the cases and positive charge nubs give it a delightfully bumpy, multi-coloured surface. This clever piece at once suggests the sheer mass of a product that now seems rather antiquated, having littered our environment with its toxic waste. Yet Dead Star also reminds us how easy batteries once were to market. On a visceral level, they are very appealing – curious little cylinders, sweetly heavy in the palm, that can make things work.
In an ingenious installation decision, De Broin’s sculptures were placed near a series of comical, nightmarish drawings by Ed Pien: ‘Strange Creatures, The Bride, The Imposter, The Progeny’ (2009). A Toronto-based artist born in Taiwan in the late 1950s, Pien was one of the older artists included in a show where the majority were in their 30s. Skilfully using negative space, he created a tangle of bodies with swollen craniums, open mouths in the process of speech or consumption, and distended, ineffectual feet. These disturbing creatures can be read, somewhat uncomfortably, as a mirror of our best intentions gone awry.
The coupling of De Broin’s and Pien’s works was a reminder of the psychology involved in our cultural dependence on mass-produced goods. We have a conflicted, yet deep-seated attraction to the churn of tempting commercial products, and an environmentally untenable economic structure that is built precariously on large-scale manufacture. While this isn’t a new topic by any means, it will remain an important one until a sustainable method of resolving it can be found. The artists in ‘Manoeuvres/Maniobres’ were clearly highlighting the problem; in demonstrating the individual effectiveness of reconfiguring materials scrounged from our readymade culture, they may have also been showing us a solution.
By Jessica Lott, winner of the Frieze Writer’s Prize 2009