In his most recent book, The Vertigo of Lists (2009), Umberto Eco includes an inventory by Roland Barthes, who claimed to like salad, cinnamon, cheese and spices, and to dislike bikers, women in long trousers, geraniums, strawberries and harpsichords – a deadpan triomphe of arbitrary aesthetic judgements. During the preparation of his third exhibition at Pinksummer, the Portuguese artist Sancho Silva announced that he would bring some ‘simple industrial objects like a broom, but also abstract objects like a number, and perhaps also an art object.’ He did.
The gallery, located in the courtyard of the medieval Palazzo Ducale, in the heart of Genoa, contained six works: all new, unique and metamorphosed versions of the ready-made. To show them, Silva built a series of plywood vitrines and pedestals representing classical museological displays. All of them had the same minimal, DIY aesthetic that is typical of Silva’s projects, evoking scientific experiments on the trickery of perception carried out in a low-tech laboratory: electric cables run on the floor; kinesis is induced by tiny handmade motors; lighting is provided by basic sources such as flashlights or desk-lamps.
Silva’s objects themselves struggle to escape the impassiveness of the cultural artefact, as much as they elude classification. Some move, swirl, dangle and twist, as if the artist takes their détournement quite literally and ironically. The checklist included an Instable Spoon (2009), hysterically revolving around its handle with a purring buzz; a shaking Nervous Broom (2009), which seemed suspended in midair above a table; and the thoroughly enjoyable The Miracle of the Hovering Cow (2009), which, with the help of a bi-convex lens and a spotlight mounted on a tripod, sent a small clay cow hanging upside-down from the ceiling flying over an Old Master painting of a naval battle and shipwreck, like a fata morgana or the epiphany of a merciful divinity in an ex-voto. Like a flying pig or donkey, it’s also an adynaton, a hyperbolic figure of speech, suggesting a visual and semantic riddle. Two smaller vitrines enclosed Hybrid Object (2009), a chance meeting of a straw hat and a little broom, and 3 (2009), a rebus made of three metal cups, three stones and three crumpled balls of paper. Fragment (2009) is an indeterminate blue-grey plastic component, resembling the jaw of a prehistoric animal, bathed in full light like a precious relic of the industrial age.
In the long text accompanying the exhibition, titled ‘Remarks on Functions and Objects’ (posted on the gallery’s website), Silva deployed his scholarly background in pure mathematics and the philosophy of language to put forward a personal hypothesis on the specificity of the aesthetic object, in tune with the current wave of ‘thing theory’. He affirmed that by displacing their functionality to the background, museums can turn tools and even refuse into ‘unqualified aesthetic objects’, which Silva defines as ‘fleeting paradoxical entities’ that ‘must have a location, a shape, a size, a colour, etc. But yet they cannot be taken as representations of any of these attributes.’ According to Silva, ‘they have no functions’ and they are not ‘encompassed by the “retinal”’. All the way back to Marcel Duchamp’s bottle racks, then? In his constant attempt to deconstruct, question and perturb our ways of seeing, Silva asks his viewers to witness the ‘miracle’ of the ‘decomposition of the instrumental approach’ by subtly and successfully putting them under the spell of wonder – as if in a séance of rational mesmerism. In 1980 Barthes wrote that ‘the object possesses a profound or proximate space through which its appearance can propagate vibrations of meaning’. The essay had a telling title: ‘That Old Thing, Art’.