It’s not uncommon for art or exhibitions to draw upon philosophical or literary sources for inspiration. The 56th International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale in 2015 staged daily readings of Marx’s ‘Das Kapital’ (1867); the seed for Cally Spooner’s performance at the New Museum, New York in 2016 ‘On False Tears and Outsourcing’ was a scene from Flaubert’s ‘Madame Bovary’ (1856); and Tai Shani’s presentation at the 2019 Turner Prize was based on a 1405 text by poet Christine de Pizan. Hence, ‘Transparent Things’ at Goldsmiths CCA is not unusual in taking its title and theme from the 1972 novel of the same name by Vladimir Nabokov. What is surprising is that it’s not only Nabokov’s ideas the exhibition draws upon - it’s everything about the novel, including its author and its genre as a piece of fiction. This makes for a broad and wide-ranging exhibition that successfully shoehorns in everyone who’s anyone in contemporary sculpture right now.
Throughout the novel ‘Transparent Things’ Nabokov talks about objects being anchors for memories. When concentrating on an object, he says, ‘the very act of attention may lead to our involuntarily sinking into the history of that object.’ Accordingly, an aspect of the exhibition concentrates on the personal histories of objects, exploring their physical composition as well as their supposed performativity or agency. Some works are quite literally made using everyday items: Michael Dean’s whitewashed windows were painted with a paperback book; David Hammond’s drawing ‘Untitled (Basketball drawing + stone)’ (2006) was made by repeatedly bouncing a charcoal-covered basketball on a sheet of paper; and Marie Lund constructed her work ‘Stills’ (2014) by spreading found curtains over canvas stretchers. Others depict personal possessions: Gareth Cadwallader’s painting ‘Coffee’ (2018-19) is an intimate portrait of a coffee percolator and its owner, while Lucy Skaer’s photograph ‘Blue Window’ (2017) memorialises the sash window in Skaer’s childhood bedroom (the window itself is included as a sculpture later in the show). The works that anthropomorphise objects—Renee So’s benches with machine-knitted eyes or Carlotta Bailly-Borg’s grimacing pots—feel the most at odds with the exhibition’s object-centric view. Surely in mimicking humans, the artworks undermine the supposed agency of the objects themselves?
While there’s plenty to think about in Nabokov’s discussion on material history, the exhibition goes beyond the content of the book’s pages to explore Nabokov himself as a writer. Greeting you on the ground floor of the gallery are reproductions of the writer’s drawings of butterfly wing structures (as well as being a novelist, Nabokov was also an entomologist, obsessively collecting and studying butterflies). At a push, one could say the wings are objects, and the drawings thus, depictions of objects. Or one could say that by meticulously drawing the specimens, Nabokov re-enacts the actions of his protagonist, ‘revelling with childish abandon’ in recreating their individual characteristics. This feels overly generous though. It seems more likely that the drawings are included because they are artworks by Nabokov, and by following this logic there might as well be a copy of his other masterpiece ‘Lolita’ (1955) on display (it’s an object after all). In an effort to connect the drawings with the wider exhibition, several other works reference butterflies. The palette of Michael Dean’s concrete-coloured sculptures is derived from tiger moth wings, and Kerry Tribe’s 16mm film ‘Parnassius Mnemosyne’ (2010) features an animated image of a Parnassius Mnemosyne butterfly wing as seen under a microscope (Mnemosyne was the goddess of memory in Greek mythology). Nostalgia is obviously a topic Nabokov was interested in but exploring the unreliability of memory on top of everything else feels overly ambitious. Instead of each artwork adding to and expanding on the ideas prompted by the last, they each contribute something new, leading to an ultimately puzzling gallery experience.
The underlying problem with ‘Transparent Things’ as an exhibition, is its all-encompassing nature. By taking such freedoms with the theme, it stops being a theme at all. A narrower reading of Nabokov’s text would justify the selection of works and sustain interest and narrative throughout. While well-presented and an exciting number of new commissions on display—this exhibition would perhaps feel more appropriately labelled as a survey of contemporary sculpture.