Blue is more than colour. It’s more than a mood, a sensation, or the frequency at which we can see super-hot flame. It is a state of being. It “transcends the solemn geography of human limits” as the narrator of Derek Jarman’s film ‘Blue’ (1993) describes. It can be as violent as red, as morose and foreboding as black, or as pure as white. Blue, as a seemingly magical element, seems to inhabit a world of its own, through which we shift in and out. At Kunsthalle Wien, all of these potential territories are explored in ‘Blue Times’, curated by Amira Gad and the museum’s own Nicolaus Schafhausen.
The exhibition is an ambitious attempt to quantify the presence of blue in the world around us through a series of aesthetic gestures. Whether it is represented on film, swathed over canvas, expressed in fabric, or merely alluded to as a concept, ‘Blue Times’ goes the extra mile beyond tactile examples of the colour and its multitude of meanings.
Blue manifests in a range of volumes: screamingly loud (in the wall mural of Liam Gillick), a low tremulous rumble (Derek Jarman’s film), or almost inaudible in the conventional sense of the word (Ryan Gander’s fictitious ad campaign, ‘Imagineering’, 2013). The works that seem to do the colour (and its many inherent qualities) justice are the ones where the connection can actually be made to the colour whether by text or by pigment. Yves Klein’s historic ‘Monochrome Bleu’ (1961) is set against Gillick’s Greco-print blue and white mural ‘Renovation Filter Lobby’ (2000), in close proximity to Billy Apple’s clever ‘Blue Chip’ (2014) plinth topped with an empty plexiglass cube and just above it, Lawrence Wiener’s imposing vinyl lettering reading OUT OF THE BLUE (1999/2014) on the high concrete wall above). The more subtle, more subversive but no less effective aesthetic gestures, are put into rhetorical questions: Tobias Kaspar’s ‘Lumpy Blue Sweater’ (2010) installation riffs on the film ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ (2006) and the musings of critic André Cadere.
Jonathan Monk’s selection of international worker’s uniforms forces reconsideration of the colour’s association with compliance and compromise, and Walid Raad’s ‘Secrets in the Open Sea’ (1994-2004) tell the stories of forgotten casualties at sea through recovered prints in varying shades of blue.
Where the exhibition falters is in more tenuous stretches to relate to ‘blue’ as either colour, frequency, mood, or status. Prinz Gholam (Wolfgang Prinz and Michel Golam) created a film mounted inside the belly of a guitar, showing the artists in modes of intimate performance all while strumming on their own ‘Gitarre’ (2014). But the idea of ‘feeling’ or ‘playing the blues’ doesn’t register clearly, as ‘blues guitar’ is classified a distinctive American personality that is both instantly recognisable and wholly different from the proposal in the film. Possibly the most baffling curatorial choice is the De Rijke/De Rooj film ‘Orange’ (2004), consisting of an overlapping series of projected slides and dialogue. Neither the colour nor the emotional spectrums of blue are visible here, thus a result of either critical posturing or a sheer leap into aesthetic oblivion.
But all, repeat, all is forgiven with the presence of Jarman’s most triumphant film before his death in 1994 and the quirkiness of the ‘Blue Salon’ presenting all manner of objects from LPs to perfumes, to chemistry sets, to Smurf figurines.