David Roberts Art Foundation, London
20 September - 14 December 2013
Review by Daniel Barnes
The story of Orpheus and Eurydice reminds us how suddenly that which we hold dear can vanish; it reminds us that, in an instant, a single error can carve a great wound in our lives that will never heal. An exhibition with this gruesome existential insight at its heart sounds like a very serious ordeal, and in some ways it is, but sometimes it does no harm for art to remind us that it is in fact a deeply serious pursuit.
Felix Gonzalez-Torres, whose ‘Untitled (Orpheus, Twice)’ (1991) forms the centrepiece of the show, is a master of seriousness. Not because his work is grim or inscrutable, but because he eloquently captures a sense of loss and uncertainty with a flourish of good humour which reminds us that life goes on regardless of the damage done by fate. Gonzalez-Torres made ‘Untitled (Orpheus, Twice)’ after the death of his long term partner: recalling the myth which separates two lovers, the two mirrors which comprise the work are set into the wall and spaced a few centimetres apart, creating doorways to another realm, reflecting an unfurling void and only able to reflect a single figure.
It is a ghostly work that stuns the viewer into a cold silence as they peer into its depths and try vainly to see their reflection in both mirrors at once. The humour here is in the game of cat and mouse one plays with oneself and the mirrors, chasing one’s own reflection, failing to capture it until eventually it all collapses into an unbearable emptiness. For its minimal simplicity, intellectual starkness and playful engagement with the viewer, this is one of the greatest artworks of the last century, and here in this exhibition it sets the scene perfectly.
The exhibition focuses on this theme of loss and extrapolates it through works which investigate image and absence. The curation is impeccable in the way that while every single work adheres to this programme, there is no repetition or tenuous intellectual conceit; every work fits together as if they are all parts of the jigsaw of which Gonzalez-Torres is the radiant centre. The works explore the idea of temporal ambiguity, where the present is necessarily infused with the past, blurring the distinction between them. Another central theme is the ambiguity of the object which is always suspected to be something other than it seems or claims to be. The entire exhibition is a philosophical meditation, immaculately expressed in carefully chosen artworks, that, unusually perhaps, never falters into obscurity simply because the show has such a lucid narrative flow.
The idea of a dark, crushing loss is expressed early on in the exhibition by Jason Dodge’s ‘Darkness falls on a house in Ci’iunai village, Auk’tadvaris subdistrict, Lithuania’ (2011). It is a haphazard collection of light bulbs and other objects which produce light taken from a dead man’s house and arranged in a corner of the gallery. Perhaps its abstraction from its original context is what produces the feeling of loss, or perhaps it is the literal extinguishing of light as the metaphorical end of life. Either way, you have the sense of something unfinished, or something which, worse still, did not even start.
Danh Vo’s ‘We the People’ (2010) is a 1:1 scale reconstruction of the Statue of Liberty in copper, except that the iconic statue is fragmented into parts which are redistributed across museums throughout the world. The work plays on your deeply ingrained sense of the image of the Statue of Liberty and asks you to reconstruct that against the background of the absence of its other parts. It has an apocalyptic air to it, as if you are suddenly faced with the remnants of some dark catastrophe, asking you to piece together in the present a monument of the past. The pieces themselves, strewn around the gallery space, act as their own narrative but also as a means of drawing attention to the other pieces in the room, with the effect that mere objects - and in some cases unrelated objects - are the fragments of a story.
This idea of the fragmentation of time and space, embroiled in an ambiguous battle with history is also expressed in a work by David Maljkovic. ‘Recalling Frames’ (2010) superimposes modern-day photographs of the locations used in Orson Wells’ film ‘The Trial’ upon stills from the film. The remarkable, convoluted resemblance between the main actor Anthony Perkins, the fictional Josef K and the real Franz Kafka on which the film hinges is rendered all the more unsettling in this work. A fictional world is imposed on the real world, and the past and present collide in a series of pictures which meld presence and absence to a point of critical mass. At this point in the exhibition’s narrative, you begin to think about how many times Orpheus must have wept and wished time could be reversed in the seamless way that Maljkovic manages in these images.
The ideas that inform the works of the separate artists are genealogically related enough to enable you to make sense of the show without even reading the curator’s essay. Consequently, the conceptual high-mindedness of this show is outstripped by the sheer quality of the work on display: although it remains a serious meditation on difficult themes, it is also realised through some profound works that in themselves are a joy to see.