BY Matthew McLean in Features | 10 MAR 16
Featured in
Issue 23

Shape Shifting

The migrating forms of Thea Djordjadze

BY Matthew McLean in Features | 10 MAR 16

Untitled, 2013, Steel, paint, magnets, 180 x 62 46 cm, photograph: Roberto Marossi, courtesy: the artist & kaufmann repetto, Milan/New York

When considering Thea Djordjadze’s oeuvre, I am reminded of the late Surrealist Dorothea Tanning’s description of her hometown of Galesburg, Illinois, as a place ‘where nothing happens but the wallpaper’. Even while evoking and ridiculing the monotony of this bleak midwestern US town, Tanning establishes the wallpaper as a site of activity, interest, event or even promise. Lost Promise in a Room was indeed the title of Djordjadze’s 2011 exhibition at the Common Guild, Glasgow. This sense of strangeness lurking amidst the stark blankness of a quiet landscape is present in Djordjadze’s installations: an air of the domestic blows through them, but unquietly. It would be an exaggeration to call these quasi-spaces haunted houses, but the works of the Georgian-born, Berlin-based sculptor are often unheimlich, and very rarely at rest.

Instead, her objects and installations have a feeling of eerie activity, of being unsettlingly ‘alive’, though this too is not quite the right word to describe her sculptural constructs. The word ‘quick’ might be better: the old, part-Sanskrit, part-Germanic, part-Latinate term distinguishes living from dead – and gives its names in English to the first movement of a foetus (‘quickening’), and to the membrane over the sensitive join between the fingernail and the fingertip (the ‘quick’). It is these kinds of awkward, intimate abuttals and vivifications that Djordjadze frequently attends to in her installations. Her 2015 exhibition Ma Sa i a ly e a se – de at the South London Gallery, for example, displayed a low wooden platform that ran 20 some metres along one wall: at one end, where the platform met the wall, an elongated narrow tubular cushion was laid between the platform and the wall – too thin and low to provide lumbar support to any creature taller than a mouse.

Spoons are different
Installation view
Sprüth Magers London
Courtesy: Sprüth Magers Berlin,
Thea Djordjadze

You didn’t have to know that the structure was based on the raised, balcony-like area which is a feature of a traditional west Georgian style of cottage to detect something barnyard-like in the creaky structure. On the wall in a corner above the platform hung five, roughly square geometric compositions of shallow wooden shelves  or slats, like a crate that had been dis- and re-assembled. Something about the height at which Djordjadze installed these collages vaguely suggested a parade of icons in an Eastern church. It was as if Malevich’s translation of Orthodox spirituality into Suprematism had been converted back again into rustic craft, and, in the process, produced a different language altogether – one simultaneously new and ancient.

Such acts of translation dot Djordjadze’s oeuvre. Among the installation of neat, wire grid benches that formed the main part of her exhibition Oxymoron Grey (2013) at Milan’s Kaufmann Repetto sat large wedges of pale yellow cushioning foam. Another bit of improbable upholstery – occupying the whole depth of the seat, they would have made sitting uncomfortable if not impossible – each wedge looked like the triangular slab of fat that sits atop Joseph Beuys’s Fettstuhl (1963) as though re-inserted by a devotee of De Stijl. The sculptural installation that is the last item on this list: a glass of anger (2015) in the Arsenale at the 2015 Biennale  di Venezia, featured a wide slanting shape, a wedge of sorts composed of a sheet of transparent Perspex. As these examples might suggest, Djordjadze’s work has figured a not uncomplicated dialogue with the tropes and ‘look’ of modernism – whether in the heroic artistic mode of Malevich and Beuys or in the design vernacular of the International Style. One striking element of Deaf and Dumb Universe (Regis) (2008), an installation in the ground-floor lobby of the Neue Nationalgalerie which was the artist’s contribution  to the 5th Berlin Biennale, was her smearing  a single pane of the building’s glass curtain wall with streaks of grey and black inks (Djordjadze trained in Tbilisi as a painter). There is a note of transgression – even  a muted aggression – in this gesture (at a glance, the window simply looked unwashed). Yet neither does Djordjadze want to rough  up the masculine canon of modernism  any more than she simply wants to merely bear witness to it. It is instead a question  of balance – of mutual dependence between the rationalist and the raw, of a recherché elegance and an altogether more chthonic texture. At the Kunsthalle Basel in 2009, for instance, the artist presented geometric sculptures that appeared drawn from elements of Bauhaus product design, some of them presented on earthy green and beige rugs.

Olinka Or Where the Movement is Created, 2012, Installation view, Museo Tamayo, Mexico City, courtesy: Sprüth Magers, Thea Djordjadze

While the duality in installations such as these is in the conjunction among objects, over time it has come to manifest itself  more as a tension withinforms themselves. Djordjadze’s taut sculptures often resemble familiar objects and design elements – domestic furnishings, construction materials, Bauhaus products – that have been warped, distorted, crippled. You might say they  had been ‘bent out of shape’, as if insulted  or injured. Indeed, the faint suggestion of violence, or sacrificial repurposing, which the image-object has been subjected to and  survives, even absorbs, is perhaps one trace of Djordjadze’s study under Rosemarie Trockel at the Kunstakademie Dusseldorf. When the two artists collaborated on an exhibition for Monika Sprüth Philomene Magers, Munich, in 2008, they fabricated and then burned a series of humanoid sculptures on the banks of the Rhine, exhibiting some of the resultant ashes in urns as part of  the display in the gallery after burying the remainder in Kassel.

The title of that exhibition, Un soir, j’ai assis la beauté sur mes genoux. And I found her bitter and I hurt her, half-translated from Arthur Rimbaud’s Un saison en enfer (1873), allows for a reading of the artwork as a stand-in for a human subject – as victim (and perhaps a specifically female one), a status not unrelated to the quotation’s merging of idealized abstraction and a kind of dumb concreteness (a beauty, in Rimbaud’s words, which can be sat on the knees). That said, Djordjadze’s attendance to life’s slings and arrows is rarely maudlin: the title of a 2012 sculpture, displayed last year at MIT List Visual Arts Center, comprising a large green foam lozenge adjoined a narrow black steel structure on four slim legs, sliding onto one edge of  the foam, like an ant tackling a leaf, is a more representative manifesto: She didn’t have friends, children, sex, religion, marriage, success, a salary or a fear of death. She worked. Yet the anthropomorphic and zoomorphic quality of many of these sculptures is hard to ignore, not least those in recent years that have four supports or extremities – two arms, two legs. The awkward bolster pillow at the South London Gallery intimates the floppy fleshiness of the human body (in Vietnam, bolster pillows are called ‘goi ôm’, meaning ‘hugging pillow’ – they keep their owners company at night), even as its bizarre proportions thwart palpable use. On the floor of the Arsenale, meanwhile, was a long rectangle on four stubby legs, piled with three layers of peach and yellow upholstery: an object that begged to be read as a stretcher or a bed, but, again, in its elongation was more fit for a worm. It was echoed, in this respect, by the low platform in London. In the Georgian cottage the work recalled, such a space would  be busy with life; displaced from such context, this drastically bare platform invited no particular activity, like an empty stage. Like much of Djordjadze’s work, its achievement was to put its surrounding space into question – eliciting refrains familiar to exhibition-goers for the last 100 years, but no less intractable for all that: ‘What is this place?’ or ‘What’s going on here?’

Untitled (detail)
Mixed Media
240 x 400 x 70 cm

This sense of something ‘going on’ – of being a site, like Tanning’s wallpaper, of something happening – is part of  Djordjadze’s installations’ quivering, ani-mated quality. This is yielded from a syntax of remnants of seeming ritual activity  (the artist scattered salt across the floor  of London’s Studio Voltaire for Possibility Nansen in 2007); sometimes of rhythmic relations between elements or the use of subtle sequence: one wall at the South London  Gallery featured wooden planks arranged like shelves in steps, gradually descending toward the floor. In large part, it’s to do with the elongation and distortion of the sculptural elements themselves: an otherwise straightforwardly elegant table from the exhibition at MIT List, Untitled (2013), sports a cluster of additional legs, and a long spindly hook atop it, as if it had been sprouting; while one of the aforementioned shelves at South London Gallery sported a single, bent leg propped between the plank and the floor, both crutch and tendril.

When someone is accused of trying to force an interpretation unsupported by events, they’re told: ‘You’re reaching’. In moments, Djordjadze’s sculptures seem to be reaching too – out, downwards, along, grasping after a sense that isn’t there: the sheet of copper positioned off-centre within the vitrine-like mesh cabinets at the artist’s 2014 show at Meyer Kainer in Vienna looked like something temporarily frozen mid-scuttle. Following the A guide on wrong path of the exhibi‑ tion’s title, it attempted to find a way out of the universe deaf and dumb (the title of Ma Sa i a ly e a se – de, like As Sagas Sa, 2012, her installation at dOCUMENTA(13), fell just short of sense). 

The fundamental urge of Djordjadze’s works to traverse, to span, to move was revealed in her commission for Frieze Projects in 2015, in which huge cheese plants (an homage to late Matisse, for whom the overlapping of the domestic interior and the sphere of art was necessitated by his physical incapacity) were installed around the busy art fair – near a corridor, a corner by the cloakroom and, most beautifully, in patched plastic sacks suspended from wire strung between trees outside the entrance. Overnight, the artist arranged for the sculptures to be moved, so come morning, they seemed to have subtly migrated, shifting a few metres here, a few there, of their own accord; delighting fairgoers and creeping-out some unsuspecting gallerists.

Ma Sa i a ly e a se - de, 2015, Installation view, South London Gallery, photograph: Andy Stagg, courtesy: the artist, South London Gallery & Sprüth Magers

Of her Kunsthalle Basel exhibition, the artist reported ‘people were displacing the objects — moving them 20 cm to the left or right’ and wondered if ‘something in the work made them feel invited to do this’.1 It’s a series of small imperceptible steps, I think, from here to the plants that literally move around. Such portability, migration and agility are embedded in Djordjadze’s forms. Just as the word ‘translation’ itself derives from the Latin term meaning ‘to carry over’, so that a sense of movement and displacement inheres even in the material transformations (fat into foam, etc) that Djordjadze effects. Djordjadze often brings elements from one installation into another. Indeed Djordjadze’s habit of devising installations in situ, or, in the case of Ma Sa i a ly e a se – de, from materials sourced from the site itself, is another way of keeping her practice mobile and transplantable (for all the ‘site-specificity’ of the ensuing installation).

As long ago as 1903, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in his essay on Auguste Rodin that, without its places on pedestals in temples and sanctuaries, sculpture had become ‘homeless’, ‘in space’, ‘abandoned’, ‘no longer to be held in check by any building‘2 –  indeed, that homelessness was a condition  of modernity. ‘And we are a wandering people, all of us’, he wrote ‘not on account of the fact that none of us has a home, where we stay and which we care for, but because we no longer have a common home. Because we also forever have to carry around our greatness with us’. The compression of space and time found in Djordjadze’s work (not for nothing have her installations been likened to unfinished archaeological digs) finds articulation in fin-de-siècle literature as well as contemporary theory. But the artist doesn’t seem to mind what terrain she roams; the only thing is to get going, to continue reaching. To stay, as Rilke says elsewhere, is to be nowhere at all. 

Matthew McLean is creative director at Frieze Studios. He lives in London, UK.