Lili Dujourie’s exhibition at Kohta briefly touches on three different decades of the Belgian artist’s career. Given the works generally subdued character and their limited number, they are remarkably cogent and confirm Dujourie’s intellectual restlessness. The selection here draws attention to Dujourie’s resolve to experiment and keep experimenting with different media and intellectual approaches. At Kohta, the proof of this encompasses a sculptural installation, a black and white video and a group of small paper-based sculptures.
The sculptural installation comprises two versions of ‘American Imperialism’ (1972/2020) that have been placed on alternate sides of a temporary wall in the centre of Kohta’s main space. This enables viewers to appreciate them separately or see them as a single piece. Viewers see the one comprised of an unpainted steel plate that leans against a green wall as soon as they enter the gallery. The pink-painted metal sheet of its counterpart, rests against a black wall on the partition’s flip side. The area immediately behind both metal sheets, though, is white.
Viewed straight on, they feel like monumental paintings, but from the side they are cast in another light. This changed perspective reveals a slender gap between the two elements, which proposes the question: are they paintings that want to be sculptures or sculptures that want to be paintings? Their configuration simultaneously recalls Richard Serra’s sculpture, minimalist painting and serial art. Early work by Frank Stella, who pushed abstract painting into the 3-dimensional realm, also comes to mind. He is known for stating: “what you see is what you see.” Dujourie’s carefully nuanced iterations, though, offer up a critique of minimalism by subtly contradicting its literalness. That gap between the wall and metal plates is a reply to Stella’s declaration. It’s her way of saying: “No, there is something more.”
Dujourie’s next step involved picking up a portapak – the earliest portable video recording system – to shoot video. Her alluring ‘Passion de l’été pour l’hiver (Summer’s Passion for Winter)’ (1981), seen here as a 2002 digitised version, shows the artist dithering before a sun-filled window that overlooks the sea. She moves hither and thither, frequently lingering, but never finding a comfortable stance. Her dog, who basks in the sun, cannot hide its concern. It circumspectly and regularly lifts its head to evaluate her state. The work, a silent performance, would be quite dull, if it were not for the emotion expressed through the artist’s body language and the dog’s actions. The ambiguous nature of the situation engrosses, temporarily arresting time’s passage.
In ‘Ballade’ (2011, enhanced with insect pins 2019), Dujourie has used papier-mâché and papier-déchiré (torn paper) to fabricate elegant sculptures depicting a selection of medicinal plants. Scientific names, such as Bellis perennis, Trifolium, Helleborus niger and Calendula, impart a sense of mystery or talismanic aura, and sharply contrast with the more common vocabulary of Daisy, Clover, Christmas Rose and Marigold. The works are based on images that the artist sourced from medieval manuscripts and old encyclopaedias, rather than direct observation. This latter fact suggests a source for the work’s otherwise elusive title and the lyrical spirit of its forms. It just may refer to ‘Ballades (forme fixe)’, a medieval and French Renaissance type of poetry.
The exhibition’s press release notes that “Dujourie takes professional pride in being ‘at the edge’ of creating meaning.” That aspect is confirmed by these selections, for her touches of vagueness never stymie the work’s allure. No matter which medium she chooses to use, the work demonstrates a sensibility and proficiency that combines with its elusiveness to generate wonderment and on-going debate.