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“Every Loft Needs a Sink” at Vleeshal, Middelburg

by Francesco Tenaglia

 

A former town hall containing five modular wooden units that imitate the same number of attics is a witty display that protects the artistic language and regulates enjoyment of the works filling the tiny maisons—partly by modulating spectators’ access to each mini-pavilion, partly by shielding the singular “grammars” from too much influence from the ambience of the venue: a huge, humbling, empty gothic palace hall. Doubling as a cryptically autobiographical sculptural installation, it evokes the Amsterdam penthouse in which the artistic-curatorial collective Root Canal lived during their residency at the independent art school De Ateliers, and it provided a stunning backdrop for an opening-night performance by the New York–based designer-artist Susan Cianciolo.

 

In the performance, a group of women wearing Cianciolo’s unmistakable creations sat in a circle for an indefinite time, almost motionless, eyes closed, absorbed in silence. Their collective semi-telepathic focus enhanced some kind of ESP energy or a moment of quiescence of vital energies: traces of gradual mineralization, the mutation of performers into unfathomable mannequins. More likely it was a solitary sinking into memories and intimate sensations—an introspection publicly experienced that wonderfully mirrored the fictional domestic environments arranged just so in a space that, before being assigned to other purposes, designated and ordered the civic behavior of the city. The press release references the French epistemologist Gaston Bachelard’s essential treatise The Poetics of Space (1958), which analyzes architecture through subjective points of view, emotional reactions, and the sedimentation of memories, identifying in the vertical development of private houses a polarization between the rationality of the attic and the cellar as the “dark entity,” the place in which subterranean forces pulsate, eluding rationalization.

Subdivisions into two extremes, however, crumble in Every Loft Needs at Sink. The stairs ascending to the lofts do not correspond at all to a passage from the “hidden” to the “clear.” So let’s proceed in sequence from the entrance and start with the only externally colored house, by Manuela Gernedel and Fiona Mackay. It simulates an earth-colored brick interior inhabited by a kind of 1970s gay comic version of Antonio Canova’s Pauline Bonaparte as Venus Victrix (1804–8). Hypermasculine and amused, he appears to divide his time between contemplating a notebook full of licentious sketches and smirking at the occasional visitor.

The second building hosts Lauri Ainala and his Unien Savonlinna (2010), a wavy and lopsided film about the Finnish band Paavoharju (of which the director was a member) briefly somewhat known—along with other bands orbiting the record label Fonal—by the specialized, hippie-ish magazine Arthur and its music writers Byron Coley and Thurston Moore as the European response to the U.S. weird-folk movement. The unadorned and peripheral setting, the nostalgic and elegiac tone, the formal and narrative recklessness that balances the register as a personal diary, all give the film—oblique in treating the musical subject as a pretext at least as much as One Plus One (1968), a folie by Jean-Luc Godard that treats the Rolling Stones as raw filmic material—a psychedelic and candid flavor.

The following building houses, like a wardrobe room, clothes made by Susan Cianciolo for a recent performance at South London Gallery. Jacob Dwyer maintains a low profile with a new sound piece that should be experienced with headphones inside the structure, visually tamed by the homogeneous light gray walls. The artist recites the text of a hip-hop song that soon becomes, thanks to the pressing intention of the voice, a disturbing inner dialogue verging on madness.

In the last room, Root Canal has assembled a caricature of the domestic: Hanna-Maria Hammari invents dogs whose heads are photographs of far more patrician muzzles; Niklas Taleb’s photos serve as trompe l’oeil furniture; and Catharine Czudej contributes one of the most subtly ironic works of the lot, a perfectly functioning table lamp whose body is a baroquely convoluted pretzel. The mimesis of domestic life continues in the video Game (2015) by Keren Cytter, in which two couples play a society game: the conversation that comes out of it is full of changes in register, thundering laughter alternating with snaking animosity. Flagrant Delit (1979) is a delicious animation by Madelon Vriesendorp—an evolution of an illustration made for the cover of Delirious New York (1978) by Rem Koolhaas in which an affair between anthropomorphic versions of the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building is discovered, as in a surreal soap opera, from the Rockefeller Center.

One of the subthemes of the exhibition is the association between lofts and gentrification: historically linked to the bohemian (think of The Poor Poet made by the Bavarian painter Carl Spitzweg in 1839), the urban loft gradually became a signifier of the pleasures of solitary life, an aspirational and casual shelter for the bourgeois that takes pleasure from proximity to the “creative class” (in the tragically obsolescent definition-promise of Richard Florida) and thereby the cycle of symbolic and speculative valorization of metropolitan areas weakened by the traits that initially made them sexy. Every Loft Needs a Sink is a sophisticated exhibition, accessible and extraordinarily articulated, replete with countercultural hints, un-pompous explorations outside the visual arts field, and suggestions of reverence toward previous generations. A sense of vital precariousness within a perfectly coherent and self-contained equilibrium is a promising signal that the programmatically bombastic simplifications, the chromed infographics and hashtags, the doodles of high-definition signifiers with which these same issues would have been treated only five years ago are firmly off the radar for this new wave of young curators. Inevitably the members of Root Canal will move to different cities across Europe and North America: we cannot know how any future collaborations will take shape, and frankly it does not matter. I leave Vleeshal with the impression that I will continue to stumble across them, as a group or as individuals.

 

at Vleeshal, Middelburg
until 15 September 2019

 

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