In our new global order, as in the Modernism that preceded it, the term ‘nation building’ conjures both ideological posturing and positioning and a kind of architectonic sculpting. In these two words, the Western imagination envisions a new state arising (solid yet shimmering) from the desert of disorder, primitivism, insignificance and exoticism. It’s also with these two words – and their problematic meanings – that I see the disparate formal and material threads of Vanessa Safavi’s artistic practice cohering. Taken together, her objects and installations weirdly if elegantly comprise both the speculative making of a world and the ways in which we represent it, as well as the act of looking back from some future moment at that relic-strewn landscape. The works of the artist – born in Lausanne and living between Basel and Berlin – insistently straddle time: its vistas and vicissitudes, its ideologies and iconographies, its ever-mutable movements.
To that end, Safavi’s practice employs both the clean, Modernist idiom of geometric abstraction and the fluorescent-flavoured vernacular of contemporary pop culture, delineating a landscape where both languages are spoken fluently. See her two recent installations literally grounded by sand, spreading like deserts through their respective white cubes. If Real Life is Elsewhere (2011), at Kunsthaus Glarus, offered ‘primitivist’ and less-than-legible handmade objects scattered about their sand-topped topography, the equally arid Plenty of None (2010), at Chert, Berlin (where Safavi will have a solo show in 2013), presented its own sandy expanse punctuated by discarded exercise clothes – bright, stretchy, synthetic fabrics preserved in resin that arose like a logo-emblazoned archipelago.
Was the sportif clothing the relics of migrants and/or a constellation crafted from the generic daywear of the global consumer-citizen? Were the sand-and-clay tools – or bones? – from some distant, disappeared society? Safavi’s point appeared to be one of equivalence and equivocation: sportswear might be our new ethnographic reliquary, the map of fading cultures, as ‘primitivist’ objects were previously. Yet both installations could be emblems of our need to construct meaning, so that clothing becomes symbol, objects become signs, and landscape becomes metaphor. The word desert emerges from the ecclesiastical Latin desertum, ‘an abandoned place’. Like Safavi’s sandy installations, the Latin definition depends on the spectres of human presence (those who once wore the clothes; those who once wielded the tools) that litter that desert’s emptiness.
But Safavi’s oeuvre can also be more pointedly formalist. See Les Figures Autonomes (The Autonomous Figures, 2011), her series of lean, attenuated metal sculptures in willowy form that play on Russian Constructivism, Art Deco and Zurich Concrete. Or her various untitled graphic collages of leather and Plexiglas, which explore surface and materiality, hitting tones of Modernism (à la Hans Arp) and referencing more contemporary artists dealing with ‘surface affect’. Earlier this year Safavi created: After the Monument Comes the People (2012), a temporary public work for Kunsthalle Basel’s rear exterior wall. Playing on Les Figures Autonomes, the 23 vertical sculptural shapes – white-painted steel frames attended to by circular brass-ring ‘faces’ – lined the wall like the most elegant of scaffolding. If the work evoked the human form, it was in its most reduced, stylized and geometric equivalence.
This sculpture suggested the Utopian monuments of a mostly forsaken ideology of communism, as well as the more recent iconography of health and fitness (the Olympics, health-insurance insignias), yet the expected didacticism of After the Monument Comes the People was absent. In place of ideology was a celebration of the forms that hope and social commitment have taken; with the ideology gone (but not the problems that begat it), these relics are all that remain. Nevertheless, Safavi’s party line is not always so clean, nor are her intentions so transparent. I Wish Blue Could Be Water, her 2012 exhibition at CRAC Alsace in Altkirch, featured a more oblique constellation of installations, including the affecting Each Colour is a Gift for You (2012), with its 17 taxidermied exotic birds in brilliant plumage – red, yellow, blue, green – lying along the perimeter of a room.
In taxidermy, such animals are posed to simulate life. But not here: the dead birds are scattered on their small backs over the gallery floor. Nearby, two-dimensional monochromes comprised of brightly coloured silicone behind Plexiglas – which reflected the rooms and windows in front of them – stood like pools of tropical or chlorinated turquoise water. In the larger context of Safavi’s oeuvre, the simulacra at hand – and their exotic, dead or artificial palette – seem to point to a world where what is built and what is unbuilt has achieved the same character. We can’t quite tell the difference between our taste for the exotic and our wish to ‘help’ a nation, as we can’t quite parse the change between life and death. So it is temporality again – with its relic-like release and speculative tenor – that rears its bright, beautiful, terrible head