Since 1986 the Dutch artist Mark Manders has been making a ‘self-portrait as a building’ – a declaration that seems uncharacteristic of the work for which he is best known: rough-hewn clay sculptures thick with symbolism and totemic meaning. His play with these two systems – rational constructions in space and resonant, quasi-mythic forms – suggests that he is trying to use the former to contain the latter, and much of his works’ bathos lies in his evident failure to do so.
For ‘Short Sad Thoughts’, his first solo show in the UK, Manders built a labyrinthine concrete structure that encased individual works: Nocturnal City Scene (1993–2006), a model of a town (or concentration camp) made out of bottles, forks, tin cups and other household objects, all painted black and set on dark, damp soil; Nocturnal Garden Scene (2005), a black cat bisected, it seems, by an overhanging wire stretched between two black bottles; and Staged Android (2005–6), a human-like figure constructed out of steel and papier mâché. A viewing platform on the floor above the gallery provided a god-like view into the structure, drawing a parallel between the miniature worlds that visitors looked onto and the world, equally made by Manders’ hand, that they stood within.
Outside the structure, one of Manders’ signature unfired clay figures was bisected with a wooden two-by-four block and mounted on ordinary desk chairs. He surrounded this kouros-like figure with rows of everyday bric-à-brac: tea bags, old cassette tapes, glue sticks. The border functions like a latter-day plinth, differentiating the ordinary space of the real world from the symbolically invested space of the art object. Meanwhile the mundane character of the dusty artefacts suggests they both constitute the border and are subject to its effect: they themselves are, and form, the boundary between everyday and metaphorical object. It’s a clever extension of the Russian-dolls effect of the larger installation, and one that is connected to Manders’ interest in separation and isolation – the idea of adjacent relationships that he seeks in many of his works. For example, a considerable difference in scale between the doll-like, fragile objects and the enshrined bulky figure marks the two elements of the ensemble as distinct from one another, separating them even in their shared space.
The binary of mythic/mundane is integral to Manders’ practice, which operates in two discursive registers: the Enlightenment project of linear rationalism and the Beuysian symbolism of the totemic object. On the one hand there is an emphasis on architectural structures, found books and magazines, glass vitrines of natural history museums and endless repetitions of model cities. On the other hand the clay figures that rise fully formed from the earth, from the water (Isolated Bathroom, 2005) or from the artist’s studio (Wednesday Box, 2002). Myths and myth-making abound: thick-breasted kouroi lie on their sides, transformed, as Laura Hoptman wrote in a catalogue essay for an earlier show, from hero to corpse. Blue ink drips into a bathtub of half-formed clay limbs; glum subtexts beg to be read. The visitor, meanwhile, can only peer into the tub; a rope physically keeps you from seeing the whole bathroom display. The rules of the museum effectively interfere and obstruct the completion of the narrative. Manders opposes the rational and the irrational, but keeps these two systems intact, letting each function with the logic appropriate to it. The building blocks of tea bags, bottles and tins combine into a relational language, where each is significant only in the context of the other elements in the chain. By contrast the clay figures stand elevated with self-sufficient, auratic meaning: Art, Myth, Man.
There is something touching about this conflict, which Manders makes readily visible. The vanity of the sculptures’ attempt to mark out space for themselves is played up by the fragility of the old and dusty odds and ends. Similarly, the transparency of the figures’ bid for mythic status makes the immaturity of the idea stand out. It’s like a general looking to conquer the world by launching paper clips from an air gun.
However, I suspect that Manders’ sympathies are with the general, and that he sees his practice as illustrating not the bathos of Beuysian mysticism but the tediousness of Enlightenment principles: his kouroi represent the instinctive and the innately intelligent hemmed in by rationalism, or, following the lead of the ‘self-portrait’, they suggest valuing one’s own madness over one’s ability to be ‘normal’. The imbalances of his own bias is where the work tends to falter; the two sides would be better left endlessly competing.