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Issue 18

Displacement Activity

Following the restless sculptures of Nairy Baghramian

BY Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith in Features | 19 FEB 15

Installation view 54th Venice Biennale 2011 (All images courtesy: Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne, except where stated)

The opening of Nairy Baghramian’s recent exhibition at Neuer Berliner Kunstverein (n.b.k.) was crowded and the artist arrived late. She zigzagged swiftly through the throng, stopping here and there for a quick chat, a passing quip, a warmly pressed shoulder, before vanishing into another room. The works on display, despite their ostensibly static nature as sculptural objects, seemed intended to be as resistant as their maker to anything but momentary arrest. As if to insist that they, too, had already been places. They, too, had other things to do.

The exhibition’s briskly self-deprecating title was Von der Stange/ Off the Rack, its whiff of the fashion industry consistent with Baghramian’s previous invocations of the cognate worlds of design, décor and high-end luxury goods. The most comprehensive presentation of her work in print, after all, takes the form of a glossy magazine promoting expensive yachts, interspersed with selected images and a critical exegesis of her oeuvre.1 Baghramian’s sculptural grammar is one of alternately spiky and droopy forms, protuberances and cavities, sinuous lines and stark transitions, inchoate lumps and molten spills. It speaks of glancing touches, cautious or compromised contact and precarious stability. Previous critics have noted that the contrastive dualism of Baghramian’s work. Its accommodation of oppositions between ‘the corporeal and the mechanical, the biomorphic and the technical’, has precedents in the histories of Arte Povera and post-Minimalism.2

Installation view, Fluffing the Pillows, Galerie Buchholz, Cologne, 2012

In fact, one of the signal strengths of her work has been its capacity to draw together so many disparate strands from the art that informs it. Over the past year or so this has included an intensification of her dialogue with Claes Oldenburg, an increasingly significant precursor of hers, on a tangle of concerns including scale and public sculpture, hardness/softness, indoor/outdoor, bodily prosthesis and architectural augmentation. This was reflected in Cold Shoulder, 2014, a large four-part outdoor sculpture in fleshy hues, derived from the shoulder pads of a tailored jacket, which was designed for Serralves Park in Porto, home to Oldenburg and Coosje Van Bruggen’s iconic Plantoir, 2001. It also prompted the disconcerting intimations of Brobdingnagian dentistry in her multi-part sculptures French Curve/Slip of the Tongue and RETAINER (both 2014), the first pair produced in site-specific response to a terrace at the Art Institute of Chicago and the second for a solo show at the SculptureCenter in New York.

While acknowledging such antecedents – addressing their work in various talks and interviews over the years – Baghramian can seem wary of pseudo-morphological com­parisons with sculptures which might be superficially similar in form. Such comparisons can indeed be countered by emphasizing instead her affinity with the critical practices of artists such as Christian Philip Muller, Renée Green and Andrea Fraser.3 As a artist of Iranian-Armenian provenance, who has lived in Berlin for decades, and whose social activism has included working with homeless women since her late teens, Baghramian has strong opinions on the relation between art and politics. She views as a problem the rejection of ‘art in pictorial or sculptural form’ in favour of ‘social or political activity as a substitute for art’ (emphasis added).4 Emblematic of her commitment to a communitarian aesthetics is a notable propensity for collaboration, which over the years has included joint exhibitions with artists of earlier generations such as the British sculptor Phyllida Barlow (Serpentine Gallery, London, 2010) and the pioneering Swiss designer Janette Laverrière (Schinkel Pavilion, Berlin 2008), who died in 2011 at the age of 101. The most recent realization of her blueprint for a radical overhauling of the traditional group show is Open Dress, a mutating presentation of work by Lukas Duwenhögger, Danh Vo and Lutz Bacher alongside that of Baghramian at Museum Abteiberg, Mönchengladbach.

Cold Shoulder, 2014 (one of four elements), Installation view, Serralves Foundation Museum of Contemporary Art Porto

The n.b.k. show was composed of two distinct but conceptually interlocking works, or, more accurately, aggregates of work. This conceptual relation was materially heralded by their joint representation in the gallery’s entrance area, which effectively functions as a shop window advertising the institution’s activities and wares. (This nexus between engagement and production remains crucial to Baghramian.) It was sub­sequently confirmed by a significant degree of spatial overlap between the two more expansive, ground-floor exhibition spaces. The formal thematization of liminality has long been typical of Baghramian’s sculpture, with its pronounced affinity for spaces facilitating transition (entrances, doorways, arches, apertures) or obstacles blocking it (barriers, internal walls, plate-glass windows). The exhibition title derived in particular from one of its two constituent works, Von der Stange (Handlauf)/ Off the Rack (Handrail), 2014. This was a rail made up of gapped, tubular lengths of chromed brass through which was threaded a seemingly continuous tube of cement. The rail was attached to the gallery walls by intermittently spaced but identical, artfully misshapen aluminium fixtures, uniformly spray-painted a metallic blue. Unique and site-specific, it was nevertheless an elaboration of a previously existing work – an artist’s edition produced in 2012 for the Gesellschaft für Moderne Kunst at Museum Ludwig in Cologne, comprising a short length of handrail with one fixture – which viewers had already encountered in a display case at the exhibition’s entrance.

Placed just a little too high to suggest practical use, the rail began abruptly towards a far corner of the first room, then jinked around a short dividing wall into the back room before tracking around the edges of that otherwise empty space. This gesture, whereby the viewer’s attention is drawn to the frequently overlooked incidentals of a gallery’s architecture, is not without precedent in Baghramian’s work. Two precursors, both from 2008, are worth noting: her contribution to the 5th Berlin Biennale, La Colonne Cassée (1871), which affected to make a glass sandwich of a vast curtain wall at Mies van der Rohe’s Neue Nationalgalerie, and Spanner (Stretcher/Loiterer) (2008) a taut line drawn between two facing gallery walls with the aid of some chromed brass piping, a stretcher, rubber wire rope and painted metal rings, a work that has to date been installed at several different venues.

Von der Stange (Handlauf) / Off the Rail (Handrail), 2014, Installation view, Neuer Berliner Kunstverein 2014, (courtesy: © Neuer Berliner Kunstverein / Jens Ziehe)

Viewed in primarily formal terms – a perspective with which the strenuously discursive Baghramian has expressed little sympathy over the years – the enigmatic exercise in potentially endless linear protraction that is Von der Stange (Handlauf) provided a neat counterpoint to its companion, Beliebte Stellen (variously rendered in English as ‘Privileged Points’, ‘Popular Places’ and ‘Hot Spots’, 2011). Both works seemed at once scrupulously site-responsive and constitutionally provisional. The latter work, however, rather than take one line for a meandering walk, opted instead to put a bunch of disparate lines nimbly through their paces. Each of Beliebte Stellen’s assortment of differently hued, uniquely shaped sculptures or sculptural elements – thin, bent rods of metal, thickly coated with multiple layers of resin and paint – took the form of a roughly described open hoop. Delicately affixed here and there to wall or floor, at one or two points of contact, they shared the inclination of Baghramian’s more spindly freestanding sculptures to be light on their toes, as if fearful of getting too comfortable in one place. At first sight these rudiment­ary swirls appeared to be exemplifications of the most elementary, irreducible form of mark-making imaginable, a kind of Ur-drawing. Yet on closer inspection of certain individual pieces, the division of their exiguous but continuous surfaces into differentiated quadrants of colour suggested that they might equally be read as extremely attenu­ated, but nonetheless ‘compositional’ paintings. Improbable though such a reading might seem, it was facilitated by the prominent ridge of dried droplets of resin and paint that featured on most of these twisting arcs – to seemingly gravity-defying effect in many instances, depending on individual placement and orientation.
The work’s title Beliebte Stellen suggested that the dispersal of these hybrid drawing/painting/sculptures was intended to correspond with those key positions for placing works in a given gallery space to which any seasoned exhibition-maker would be drawn. It even might be argued that both works staged a perverse pantomime of characteristic modes of navigating two contrasting categories of exhibition display: (a) the predetermined shuffle around the ‘gallery’s periphery traditionally solicited by an exhibition of modestly scaled wall-hung images, and (b) the more free-form, criss-crossing traversal of gallery spaces prompted by a typical orchestration of disparate works of ‘post-medium’ contemporary art.

News Rack (Boat Magazine), 2012, Metal, lacquer, screws and maga (courtesy: © 2013 SculptureCenter, New York; photograph: Jason Mandella)

Beliebte Stellen (2011) was not specifically devised for n.b.k. It was originally exhibited at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 2012, where it accommodated itself with comparable grace to an art institution of a different order that at the time was itself temporarily displaced. The common denominator between both spaces was the archetypal setting of the modernist white cube, on which the figure-ground dynamics of Beliebte Stellen largely depend, and by which its mischievous attitude to medium-specificity is amplified. Von der Stange (Handlauf), too, trailed a specific institutional past. But in this case the work’s history was more complex, and the perverse nature of its evolution clearly supplied the raison d’être for the exhibition in the first place. As already noted, this work originated as a modest artist’s edition of the kind frequently commissioned by public institutions for the purpose of garnering badly-needed additional funding. A presentation of such multiples occupied much of the upper floor of n.b.k. during the course of Baghramian’s exhibition. Beliebte Stellen’s accentuation of the gallery’s architecture, and its exposure of habitual modes of negotiating it, derive from a tradition of institutional critique whose roots lie in the work of Daniel Buren, Michael Asher and others in the late 1960s, a tradition to which Baghramian’s fellow-travellers Muller, Green and Fraser have also contributed.

Spanner (Stretcher/Loiterer), Installation view, Mitchell Library, Glasgow International 2012

Von der Stange, on the other hand, effectively inverts the conventional relationship between the unique, original work of art and the limited edition (often derivative) multiple, as established and consolidated most particularly by Joseph Beuys from the mid-1960s on. Baghramian’s contrarian decision to generate a unique, site-specific work of art from a commonplace collectible, however desirable, adds a piquant twist to Buren’s famous comments, in his 1971 essay on The Function of the Studio, regarding ‘the unspeakable compromise of the portable work’: ‘Expelled from the ivory tower of its production, the work ends up in another … The alignment of works on museum walls gives the impression of a cemetery: whatever they say, wherever they come from, whatever their meanings may be, this is where they all arrive in the end, where they are lost.’5 Through her persistent harrying of inherited convention and her dynamic approach to aesthetic agency Nairy Baghramian has already added much to this evolving history of displacement.

1 Boats Magazine – Limited Edition. Special Art Issue: Nairy Baghramian, Fluffing the Pillows, 2012 (Kunsthalle Mannheim, Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg Berlin) 2 See, for instance, André Rottmann, Trace Elements: the Art of Nairy Baghramian, Artforum, Summer 2012, p. 290 3 Much of the foregoing is implicit, for instance, in the polemical lecture Baghramian delivered in January 2012 at the Vera List Center for Art and Politics at the New School in New York, published as Le Mépris in Texte zur Kunst, Issue No. 87, September 2012, pp. 111–121 4 Room to Live, Interview with Jörg Heiser, frieze, May 2010, Issue 131, p. 109 5 Daniel Buren, The Function of the Studio, reprinted in October, Fall 1979, No. 10, pp. 51–58

Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith is a critic and occasional curator who teaches at University College Dublin, Ireland.