Review by Freddy Syborn
The danger with John Baldessari is knowing when to stop. Interested in linguistic as well as visual tricks, his titles lead us on: I found myself repeating Ear Sofa Nose Sconces with Flowers (in Stage Setting) to myself quickly, slowly, liltingly, stiltedly, and then in an assortment of bad accents, hoping to detect some verbal clue as to what his new installation is. Is it (as people like to say) ‘literally’ an ear, a sofa, a nose, some sconces with flowers, in a setting constructed by a production designer from Hollywood’
The tableau vivant was developed as part of Baldessari’s takeover of Mies van der Rohe‘s Haus Lange and Haus Esters in Krefeld. Baldessari described his installations in those buildings as ‘contra-Mies’, and amongst them were the ear sofa and upturned nose sconces now in Sprüth Magers. As part of perhaps his most playful and successful bit of contra-Miesian activity, Baldessari covered the windows of Haus Lange with paper decorated with images of the same bricks the house is built from. Mies’ long, lateral windows - designed to achieve maximum permeability - are blocked up: the building is blind to both inside and out. But Baldessari also covered all of the walls inside the house with the same brick wallpaper. The interior becomes as naked as the exterior is covered up. A new kind of permeability is achieved, one which both defies and assists the architect.
At once austere (depriving of natural light) and light-hearted (stage setting), Baldessari’s installation in Germany suggests more immediately some of the ideas behind his new installation in London. Both remind me of Magritte. As the easel and window blur in La condition humaine, so too do Mies’ design and Baldessari’s subversion; as in Le Viol, the human body becomes a framing device for itself, in miniature, inextricable and apart. So too a playfulness that occasionally borders on the whimsical. So too the sinister.
The windows of Sprüth Magers are covered not in bricks but silk, pulled to breaking point. The effect is to polarise the light a little. We see, indistinctly, a woman, slowly carrying out directions. We enter the gallery. Her shoes slide off; she turns her head. She’s performing for us, but there is a third, invisible presence, a director whose absence leaves the performance unsettling. As the press release says, there is ‘the allusion to (or illusion of) Hollywood’s Art Deco glamour’ and something colder, too, something to do with the voyeurism of making women be watched. The model has all she needs - Vogue, chocolate, a ridiculous dog - and it is all immaculate. Indeed, there is in the uniform whiteness an immaculacy which borders on the divine. But it seems to be a heaven invented between male ears, in a head whose eyes we become.
Then there are the noses. They aren’t just flowers stuck (stuck, again, with a playful side) in the sconces’ nostrils. The purity of the colour code reflects itself in their nature: they’re lilies. The air is full of an allegorical death.
Poodles look unnatural because we suspect they could not survive in nature. They are animals cultivated into aesthetic objects. Similarly, the woman is surrounded by material wealth, an expensive-looking dress and expensive-looking shoes sourced from expensive-looking vintage magazines. The emptiness of the space between the viewer and her, however, coupled with the surreal set, make these signifiers feel as insufficient as they look unattainable. They are dwarfed by the senses. Again, we smell a kind of death.
Baldessari in effect repeats his contra-Miesian permeability. The formality of his living installation makes us feel separate from its glacial glamour. This beauty is inaccessible, but - because it derives from the mass media (our perceptivity to which is suggested by the ear, in which the model has been planted, like a lily) - it is also cheap, and cheaply familiar. The hard distance the installation presents becomes as thinly two-dimensional as the interior of Haus Lange.
So what does Ear Sofa Nose Sconces with Flowers (in Stage Setting) mean’ It might mean that what we’ve confused for the divine is really a deathly and hollow reflection of life. It might mean I really hate that dog.