‘Threshold’ was jam-packed. With works by 20 international artists in two rooms, it was close quarters, but the crowding seemed carefully planned. The show proposed a knowingly absurd scenario: an exhibition in duplicate. Each of the works in the first room was seemingly matched with one in the second; some matches were nearly identical and others less so, giving an underlying impression of subtle change rather than exact doubling.
A threshold is the point where a new experience begins, or the level at which a psychological or physiological effect starts. The first definition is what the Marx Brothers get at in their masterpiece Duck Soup (1933), from which a classic sequence provided the seed for this show. Harpo dresses in the same night-shirt as Groucho and performs an increasingly elaborate mime of him; Groucho mistakenly thinks he’s looking in a mirror. The film satirizes blundering dictators and authoritarian regimes: anti-propagandist songs such as ‘The Country’s Going to War’ caused Mussolini to ban it, and in 1986 Woody Allen paid homage to it in a key scene in Hannah and Her Sisters. The Marx Brothers’ slapstick comedy mirrored the absurd political situation of the 1930s, and it was this that made ‘Threshold’ relevant. Their sketch was a microcosm of the show: as you crossed from one room into its doppelgänger, the unfulfilled expectation of reliving a slightly altered ‘same’ while expecting a ‘new’ was a disorienting and puzzling experience.
Markus Schinwald’s subtly unnerving photograph Contortionists (Daniela) (2005) most closely resembles the Marx Brothers’ scene, and was the only obvious nod to the film in the gallery. In a neutral hotel room a mirror reflects the image of Daniela contorted on the floor. She’s leaning against a bed with one leg extended, one twisted behind her, and her arm unnaturally reaching back. The gap of wall between the mirror and Daniela bisects her image from her reflection. Superficially neutral, the scene is disconcerting. Both her extension and the mirror’s placement make the room seem slightly askew.
While Schinwald’s gap provided a link (it was hung so that the separation in the photo aligned with the partition wall that bisects the gallery, bridging the two rooms), Mauricio Guillen played on a divide. His text piece Reconciliation (2005) made literal the simultaneous nearness and opposition along a division with a simple representation developed from a dictionary definition of the word ‘cleave’ (meaning both ‘to stick, to cling’ or ‘to split, to divide’). His other work, Interval (2005), emphasized the tension between the two spaces. Two nails of the same length were hammered into the partition wall at opposite sides, positioned so that further hammering of one dislodged the other.
In an exhibition that takes doppelgängers as its starting-point Gregor Schneider was an obvious choice, following last year’s The Family Schneider (2004), which saw him rework the interiors of two adjacent houses in London’s East End to become twinned, but not quite identical, domestic installations (complete with sets of twins inhabiting the houses). Schneider’s work here – six small black and white photographs and a sculpture of concrete dumb-bells from his work in progress Haus ur (1996–ongoing), his reworked family home in Rheydt-Monchengladbach – is a stark reminder of his compulsive practice. Schneider is an obsessive artist, consumed by revisiting minute details of his projects. His older work was tweaked a little to fit the curatorial concept of doubling (two older pieces were positioned in the corner of the second room only), but since small differences that arise from reworking a concept appear throughout the show, it seemed appropriate.
In Hannah and Her Sisters a character comments that the absurdity of the Holocaust is not that it could happen once, but that it doesn’t happen more often. The resolution is that atrocities do occur more frequently, but with decreasing attention. A timely use of the doppelgänger to comment on politics – colonialism parading under new guises of democratic imperialism, for example – is to hold up a madhouse mirror to the erroneous belief in starting anew, while reliving essentially the same thing – an absurd, circuitous cycle.
The press release for ‘Threshold’ stated that the selected works ‘break the rules of imitation’. I’m not sure what exactly those ‘rules’ are, but the disorientation that comes from seeing what you think is a duplication and then realizing it’s not allows works grouped together to develop narratives in the space between them.