Cell Project Space & Studio Headquarters, 258 Cambridge Heath Road, London E2 9DA

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Peles Empire: Formation
Cell Project Space
31 January - 17 March 2013
Review by Emily Burns

‘The concept of shift, in time but also in quality and materiality, is central to the Peles’ - Peles Empire

Tucked away in the Carpathian Mountains of Romania can be found Peles Castle, a 19th-century pastiche of an ‘ideal’ castle bursting with opulent interior decor ranging from Orientalism, Renaissance and Rococo styles to Art Deco. Since its founding in 2005 by German artists Katharina Stoever and Barbara Wolff (who was born in Romania), the Peles Empire collaboration project has taken the form of multiple reproductions of rooms from the castle. ‘Formation’, the newly commissioned work at Cell Project Space, takes the castle’s armoury room as its point of reference.

Having visited Peles and been enchanted by the unusual building and its diverse treasures, I was keen to visit the latest instalment of the Peles Empire project. However, I discovered an exhibition that was far from a straightforward, nostalgic picture postcard: in the place of the luxurious interiors I recalled was a whitewashed, starkly sky-lit space partitioned by two banners and a wall, inviting visitors to encounter and decipher the installation one cryptic chapter at a time.

The first segment features five scrambled black and white ceramic formations dotted in a line along the floor and flanked by the two digitally-printed paper hangings. As I searched for a visual point of reference to the armoury of my mind’s eye, the heavily pixellated montage revealed a jumble of metal armour motifs; the artists have reduced the 3D shining breastplates, scalloped joints and hinged arm pieces to flitting 2D shadows. The banners hang in the gallery space like enigmatic modern tapestries except that here, instead of a hunt or battle, the action depicted is the ironic fragmentation of the protective armour and the liberation of the ghost of the body once inside, along with its secrets.

The marbled rock-like sculptures on the floor bear no clear resemblance to armour or the castle’s sumptuous decoration, and yet the unusual combination of materials gives pause for thought: white, smooth and delicate qualities of porcelain are balanced against the black, rough and robust properties of the appropriately-named industrial material, grog. By combining these materials in small, contorted lumps, the artists create a kind of enforced harmony - a tension - that echoes the effect of the contrasting interior design of Peles Castle.

Past the second hanging and through a doorway, I was confronted by a display of spears mounted on the wall, made of the same porcelain and grog as before. Now associated with an identifiable object, the materials take on a more developed meaning: the dark, physical function of the spears is reflected in the black, durable and practical grog while porcelain, a material well known for its brittle qualities and ornamental usage, reflects the artists’ satirical comment on the real function of the spears. Their decorative arrangement on the gallery wall mirrors that in the castle’s armoury, where they represent a superficial showcase of the owner’s power and the castle’s authenticity. Thus, whereas Plato argued that art is in effect a copy of a copy (believing reality a reflection of metaphysical ideal Forms), and therefore three times removed from the Truth, Peles Empire has added a fourth dimension of removal by essentially faking the already faked with their imitation of the pastiche castle.

Turning round, I find the back of the partition wall is emblazoned with a giant grisaille collage made from thousands of photocopy paper cut-outs, its shallow, textured relief bridging the gap between two dimensions. A reversal has taken place: the sea of mass-produced pixellations is now hand-made rather than digitally generated. Rather than defining figurative content at a photographic degree of accuracy, identifiable forms are reduced and refined into abstraction until only cold colours remain to hint at the source of inspiration - the very tangible armour of the castle is reduced step by step to a buzzing memory.

‘Formation’ not only re-introduced me to an old friend, but revealed characteristics and hidden dimensions I had not discovered on our first meeting. Peles Empire exploits the tensions that exist between art, fakes and the historically and culturally authentic, thereby challenging the definitions of originality, reality and reproduction in a Post-modern world.

Catalogue, 2nd Issue, December 2009, http://www.cataloguemagazine.com/contemporary-art/magazine/article/peles-empire/

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