BY Mark Pimlott in Reviews | 05 JAN 94
Featured in
Issue 14

Richard Artschwager

BY Mark Pimlott in Reviews | 05 JAN 94

At Museum Haus Lange in Krefeld this autumn, an exhibition by Richard Artschwager featured objects which could be seen as reappeaisals or quotations of his sculptural work of the 60s and 80s, and his paintings of the 70s. The familiar range of materials associated with that practice were deployed here: Formica (both plain and wood-grained), rubberised hair, paint on wood, chromed ironmongery, green baize. The suggestion of mass production evident in earlier work was incorporated into the new: all were multiples. Each work could be described as 'domestic', set out with great particularity in the museum (designed as a house by the architect Mies van der Rohe in the mid-30s) in ways that took advantage of this ever present double history and its inherent ambiguity.

The naturalness of the installation encouraged the sense that the buikding was working towards its original status as a home. One room contained a version of a shelf of books with two 'bookends'; another a 'picture' and a 'clock'; another a 'chair' and a 'mirror'. The first impression was close to encountering a set of modest rearrangements, of subtle jokes. For many, it would have seemed possible to leave the exhibition at this point. But upon this very point there was a sense of incompleteness, even of diappointment in this work, begging the question: 'Is that all?'

To begin to answer requires close attention, difficult at first because of the banality of the images presented and the material with which they are executed. One such piece, Door (1987), creates some unease from a distance, due to its scale and position on the wall, which is close to that of a picture or painting. Upon closer scrutiny, the object appears to be a small cabinet. It has features such as chromed hinges and a door pull which declare immediately that it is a domestic kitchen cupboard. But then the wood grained surface of the cabinet, similar to the fittings in the rest of the building, looks like iroko or some other exotic tropical hardwood, and sends it into the realm of luxury cabinet-work. We are, as visitors to Museum Haus Lange, aware that it had been designed as a house for very wealthy people. Luxury is the commonplace of this building. We can see Door retreating to this commonplace, as if it wished to become invisible, or an extension of the house's 'reality'. But on closer examination, the material employed is not that used in the house at all. It is Formica, a material which signals other kinds of places, other banalities. Formica isn't 'real', but a kind of simulated wood, whose closeness to the 'real' is secured through photographic processes. The object has turned on its heels, and has begun to lie to the viewer, who is now feeling self-conscious. Furthermore, the object has dimensions more common to a picture than any kind of cabinet. It is too small and too shallow to contain anything: another lie. On the point of a conundrum, the viewer is finally tempted to open the door, to use that which can no longer be a picture.

At this moment of passing from the status of viewer to user, one feels that the boundaries of both the work and the museum (suddenly no longer potentially a house) have been transgressed. This crossing vividly contains the possibility of knowledge for the viewer/user. Upon opening the door (which does open, fulfilling its promise), the anticipation of finding an interior is confused by a complex of contradictory signals. The interior has a depth, but no enclosure. There is no top or bottom to the interior, therefore no object could be contained within it. Yet, there is depth; and looking at the door one has just opened, one becomes aware that the volume of the 'interior' of the cupboard corresponds precisely with the volume of the door that previously sealed it. Imagining that door closed again, the 'interior' is squeezed out of existence. Looking again into the 'interior', one observes a 'volume' with two splayed sides, which resemble a perspective drawing: a picture of depth. Suddenly the question of the object that lies about itself arrives again, in yet another form. The door closed once more, this is a cabinet/anti-cabinet whose door conceals an image of its 'interior', of its own knowledge of itself.

At every stage of coming to know this object, one os aware of being involved in reading a complex of signals whic are all legible, but whose directions are by no means consistent. The search for knowing almost always leads to confusion. All of these conventions have been drawn into the scenario of seeing and usage by Artschwager to stand in for themselves, as representations of themselves. The experience of reading and using the work is one of sorting this out, a negotiation which is always transgressive, inconclusive, ever-expanding and circular. As the real and its representations collapse into each another, the implications of their hypothesised unity unfold. The knowledge one has relied upon for reading Door has come from the world that one knows and uses. This world has made space for Door as it slipped across the boundaries of the 'real'. AS those boundaries collapsed, one could have oserved a correlating slippage of the world across the boundaries of representation and its fictions. Works such as Door test these boundaries so profoundly as to question the whole idea of the unity of the world (a contemporary Western world of codes) and 'reality'. In the end, this question has no words, no object, no subject before it. Just Question itself.

On an adjacent wall, two objects are spaced about three metres apart, at eye-level. Precise constructions of Formica and paint, they clearly resemble quotation marks. The space between them is the gallery wall. Quotation marks are used to isolate words or phrases from their contaxts, to emphasize them. In this work, Quotation Marks 1980 it is impossible to unravel what is 'quoted'. Is it the objects? The gallery? Its 'texts'? Language? Representation? Where is the 'original'? The 'real'? Opposite this piece, another, Pregunta II 1983, hangs in the air. It is a fabricated question mark.