‘A full collapse could only happen in the rupture of the ground itself, when the weakening wave got so strong that it carried along with it the very necessity for allthings to hold. He saw the possibility ofsuch an ungrounding of his world in the eventuality of his own thought withdrawing from the scene,’ wrote Fabien Giraud in The Stoning (2012), his text piece for the exhibition ‘Sinking Islands’, curated by Vincent Normand.
The title for the show – which included the work of Giraud, as well as Katinka Bock, Étienne Chambaud, Hernán Díaz, Karl Holmqvist, The Institute for Figuring and Nicholas Mangan – was a quote from Roberto Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas (1996), a work in which Bolaño invents a landscape and then excavates it, like an archeologist, unearthing fiction after fiction and fiction within fiction. In ‘Sinking Islands’ we travelled through a territory,a fictional island – perhaps, as viewers, we were like the two blind fish swimming in a perfect transparent cube in Chambaud’s Blind Box (2003) at the start of the show, trying to find our co-ordinates amongst the exhibited works. Thematically speaking, things were collapsing and sinking around us, but frozen in their descent. In Bock’s Atlantic Corners (2011), rectangular shadows made of sand on the wall marked the absent (human-sized) body in a corner, as if it had slid down the wall. Chambaud’s Lapidation Piece (2012) comprises 350 stones inscribed with the letters that make up its name, which had landed on the floor after they had each been smashed against the gallery wall.
The theme of sinking, touching rock bottom, was present in Giraud’s The Stoning, but also in Holmqvist’s Face Hug (2007), a concrete poem announcing the apocalypse yet holding it at bay in a vitrine, another aquarium of sorts. In his five string mandalas (all Untitled, 2006–08), Holmqvist seemed to hold together the gallery walls as if they would otherwise have shattered. If we think of islands as fragments of bigger land masses, then – echoing Carl Jung’s idea that mandalas are maps towards wholeness – the mandalas could also be seen as marking a pause in the islands sinking, as life lines stretched in the middle of the ocean.
The world in this exhibition kept disintegrating, sinking, but things may not have been as they first appeared, as a trio of works by Mangan revealed. Focused around zircon, a mineral that exists in sedimentary deposits and is used as a measure of the earth’s age, the first piece, A World Undone (Matter Over Mined) (2012), is a photograph that depicts a book being attacked by a chunk of zircon – or, depending on how you look at it, the mineral is being supported by the book. Then, in A World Undone (Protolith) (2012), zircon, the measuring instrument (and, by extension, the world) is made dust, held between two panes of glass, again, echoing the aquarium, or in this case terrarium: zircon captured. Finally, the exhibition’s pièce de resistance – literally, as it both illustrates this sinking and extends it endlessly over time – was the HD video, A World Undone (2012), in which we see a hyper-slow-motion and extreme-definition close-up sequence of fragments of zircon falling through the air. Time expands, matter becomes infinite or infinitesimal. Are we underwater, having finally sunk under a giant wave? Or have we soared into space to witness the Big Bang? Is it the end of the world, or is it its beginning?
A delicate balance between the materiality of the works and the abstract thought process bringing them together – books, string, fossils, fish – this un-grounding exhibition eroded the floor beneath our feet yet never collapsed.