in Features | 05 MAY 04
Featured in
Issue 83

Only Connect

Gabriel Kuri

in Features | 05 MAY 04

There's a tree next to a bus stop somewhere in Mexico City. Once, a waiting passenger stuck a ball of their spent chewing gum on its gnarled trunk, and this was soon joined by another, and then another. Now, studded all over with colourful pellets, the effect is as distinctive as a festive decoration. Gabriel Kuri took a photograph of it, drawn to the unpretentiousness of the materials and the effortlessness of its fabrication. It is an involuntary sculpture, commemorating not some extraordinary deed but the unremarkable flow of daily existence: a monument not to a special moment but to the time of life as generally experienced in the unavoidable, endless wait for a bus.

Time, and how the physical objects of sculpture can both mark and incarnate it, is a recurrent theme in Kuri's art. Characteristic too is its sociability - its sense of the art work not as some self-sufficient artefact, conducting its own interior monologue (as typical of the Modernist object), but one that is generated in the midst of social activity. Per Favore, Per Favore, Per Favore (2003), for example, is a sculpture involving 100,000 plastic carrier bags printed with the word 'please', 20 Venetian shopkeepers and the population of summertime's most swollen city, whose daily acts of consumption unwittingly released the sculpture into the streets. Kuri also encourages exchange: his contribution to the Tirana Biennale in 2001 was a floral sculpture which says 'Hello' in Albanian.

Kuri's recent exhibition 'Start to Stop Stopping' at Antwerp's MuHKA unfolded in the form of a meandering conversation between very diverse objects. Invited both to intervene in the presentation of the museum's collection and to create a solo exhibition, he responded by filling four galleries and a long wall. Rather than juxtaposing his show alongside, but separate from a selection of museum highlights, he chose instead to orchestrate art works, everyday objects and his own contributions into whole arrangements, so that each element resonated with the others, thereby refusing any hierarchy between the stuff of every day and the stuff of art. One element of Kuri's project was to superimpose two separate spheres of museum activity on to one another: its function of preservation and display, on the one hand, and the regime of daily cleaning which sustains that function, on the other. For at the same time as museums maintain things - objects, artefacts - they themselves are being continually maintained. Thus, in the third room, Bruce Nauman's two-monitor piece Good Boy Bad Boy (1985) was next to five photographs by the now forgotten 1970s Conceptualist Michael Druks, and an element created by Kuri which incorporated a cleaner's cupboard stuffed with bottles and products found in the service areas and moved temporarily to the gallery.

What links these wildly dissimilar things is a reflection on temporality and its registration by physical objects, as well as themes of synchronicity and de-sychronicity: between objects, and between objects and subjects. Druks' photographs capture the artist's attempt to cause real time to coincide with televisual time. In a series of playful scenarios figures on television are made to appear as if they are interacting with real objects in Druks' living-room - he shares a glass of wine and a cigar with a celebrity; in another a TV personality appears to be peeping from behind his bookcase. In Nauman's piece a white woman and a black man deliver a litany of staccato phrases, acting more and more angry as they repeat the sequence five times. Their scripts are identical, but gradually the woman, who takes more time to express her rage, gets left behind by the man and their voices fall out of synch. The structure of Good Boy Bad Boy - rapid-fire utterances, encased within an infinitely protracted whole (the video runs and runs) - is beautifully mirrored in Kuri's own contribution. He filled the cleaning cabinet with products and materials that tend to be used in small quantities over time, such as ant powder, lawn fertilizer and floor polish. Thus, in continual use by the cleaning staff, it changed, excruciatingly slowly, throughout the exhibition. Inside the cupboard Kuri positioned three strobe-lit light-boxes that flashed, at lightning speed and in entirely random sequence and delay, the words 'Why', 'Not', and 'Now'. You could wait hours, or seconds, to see a word appear: it happened simultaneously or at isolated intervals. It was a sculpture in which the imperceptibly fast collided with the interminably slow, one whose lack of internal synchronicity could be read as a larger metaphor for a question that has consistently preoccupied Kuri - the question of 'synchronicity' between art object and viewer. As the artist expresses it: 'when does the aesthetic moment - the exchange - actually happen?'

In a second room at the MuKHA show was Joseph Kosuth's The World As I Found It (1989), a wall piece that recapitulates a passage from Ludwig Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922). This was juxtaposed with what, at rapid glance, appeared to be another graphic Conceptual work but was actually the cleaner's monthly work schedule, carefully scaled-up, painted directly on the wall and still put to daily use. Opposite was a functioning sink strung round with buckets and cleaning cloths depending on the time of day. And, lastly, there was again Kuri's contribution, a sequence of wall-hung tapestries that, like the Kosuth work, convert pieces of found textual information into art. But if Kosuth finds his world in a philosophical text grappling with language's representational capacities, then the world that Kuri finds is articulated by a more modest linguistic order: a world maintained by daily rituals - eating, drinking, reading the newspaper, shopping, working, cleaning - and built on fragile economies. Till receipts, supermarket coupons, cheap flyers and newspaper ads: Kuri is repeatedly drawn to the ephemeral by-products of low-level commerce, to the bits of paper that clog purses and doorsteps, reminding us what we've bought or might be entreated to buy, the documentary proof of all those transactions that continuously fill a life. Kuri commissions a group of Mexican craftsman who practise the highly skilled and rapidly disappearing 'Gobelin' method of knotted tapestry, to copy such ephemera in minute detail on a grand scale.

A flyer from a local chemist, Capuchi-nas, detailed ten-cent discounts on a range of useful goods, from Pepto-Bismol to incontinence pads. Every printed pixel, every smudge and shadow and see-through on the cheaply printed original, was arduously and exactly transposed into a surface of exquisitely knotted threads. It's a 'sculpture' that elongates time, as it stretches value - or, as Kuri puts it: 'Two and a half months to express a fortnight expressed in a piece of paper.' Capuchinas' offers last two weeks, the craftsman's labour for two and a half months, the tapestry for hundreds of years. A slip of paper promising the barest of savings on the most basic of goods metamorphizes into a breathtakingly rarefied, prohibitively expensive art work beyond the reach of all but the richest individuals and most powerful museums. Where - to cite an obvious comparison - Alighiero e Boetti's Peshawar-woven tapestries were made in large quantities (there are some 1,000 still in existence) so as to include as many people as possible in their production and consumption, Kuri's will always be strictly limited in edition. Whereas Boetti's works synthesize the meeting of two incompatible cultures, the artistic tension in Kuri's tapestries derives from the clash of different economies. Beyond the immediate contrast of impoverished original and opulent copy, these works set in flow a rich meditation on the status of object, work and commodity. Here the marketing detritus of modern consumer capitalism - of little aesthetic value - transmogrifies into an object of beauty and worth. Yet the tapestry makers, instructed to copy the original print in as mechanical a manner as possible, bring no aesthetic discrimination to their task: the value of the finished product is purely exponential to the arduousness of their labour, in inverse relation to the worthlessness of the original. Thus these works offer neither a simple critique of mass-market consumerism nor a romantic appeal to pre-capitalist modes of hand-crafted production, but rather set both on a poetically inclined collision course in order to question where value, both aesthetic and monetary, ultimately lies. 'My work is about having a critical viewpoint on the act of making', Kuri says.

Fresh Epigraphs, the piece with which Kuri participated in Sonsbeek in 2001, was also predicated on a dissonance between technology and content, between the slow labour of an anachronistic method and the rapid flow of contemporary information. Every day for a period of three months a local mason chiselled inscriptions on to 18 boulders and rocks strewn through the wooded Sonsbeek park. He carved not edifying mottoes or commemorative legends but headlines and facts extracted by Kuri from that morning's papers: dramatic international news (the murder of the king and queen of Nepal), or basic local information (the weather forecast, share prices, classified ads, the lottery draw). Whether unrepeatable event or regular report, each text communicates a fact that will never occur again in the same form. But here, committed to stone, temporary truth is made permanent, the everyday is historicized, and fleeting data is transposed into enduring object. Before mass-circulation printing, before Gutenberg and his press, the dissemination and sharing of ideas and information were generally dependent on some spatial proximity between subject and event. In contemporary times our lives are flooded with material about events that we consume instantly but rarely touch: we exist as perpetually distanced witnesses.

The Sonsbeek piece, staged in the form of a sculpture trail through the woods activated by the daily presence of the working mason, emphasized the physical participation of the viewer as a component of the work. In so doing, it touched on one of Kuri's recurring themes: the physical and temporal coincidence, or lack of coincidence, between subjects and objects, viewers and art works, as a metaphor for the indefinable timing of aesthetic experience. For when does art happen? When is the 'aesthetic' moment? When we're standing in front of an art work? When we're thinking about it later? Does it endure after the 'event', or is it defined purely in the presence of an audience? Like the tree at the Mexico City bus stop, a form in endless process, Kuri's art maps time as duration rather than as discrete moments, while it proposes an art poetically sublated in the praxis of the everyday.