Monthly Archives: May 2014

Subodh Gupta

This review of Subodh Gupta’s ‘Everything Is Inside’ at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi appeared in frieze:

Subodh Gupta

Subodh Gupta, Ray, 2012, stainless steel and stainless-steel utensils, 6 × 4 × 4 m

Curated by Germano Celant (with input from Delhi-based gallerist Peter Nagy) ‘Everything is Inside’, Subodh Gupta’s recent retrospective actually began outside of the museum with a monumental installation pointing the way to Jaipur House, the more remarkable of the two buildings in which the exhibition was housed. A cascade of gleaming pots and pans, tiffin boxes and jugs tumbling down from a stainless-steel bucket seemingly suspended in the air, Ray (2012) is Gupta’s vernacular take on the horn of plenty.

Everything Is Inside (2004) – a sculpture inspired by the tightly wrapped parcels tied up with string that migrant Indian workers seeking their fortunes overseas traditionally send back home – gave the show its title. Cast in bronze (hardly a poor material), two such bundles are hoisted onto the roof of a black-and-yellow Mumbai taxi that’s been spliced up, as if sinking into the ground under their weight.

Most of the 50 works – which span the last two decades of Gupta’s career – have not been exhibited in India before. For a mid-career survey show, a disproportionate amount of space was dedicated to art works made in the last two or three years; those dated from the 1990s were few and far between. Starting with Untitled (1995), a set of five stools (a familiar sight in India) were painted with the artist’s signature motifs, such as a bucket and a self-portrait. The earliest works included in ‘Everything Is Inside’ amounted to more literal self-portraits alluding to Gupta’s humble origins and family life. These early pieces build up a vocabulary of common objects and materials, such as cow dung, or gobar, a purifying substance that Gupta puts to a variety of uses, from daubing on his body in Pure (1999), a performance documented on video, to constructing the circular hut in My Mother and Me (1997), made with pungent cow dung cakes that serve as fuel in rural areas, much like the ones his mother made when he was a child.

Eschewing any chronological or thematic groupings, the works were arranged according to size and used the contrasting scale of the two spaces in which they were displayed to great effect. Large pieces, such as All in the Same Boat (2012–13), a Keralan fishing boat packed full of old kitchenware and electric fans, or the skull-shaped Mind Shuts Down (2008) – a scaled-down version of the sculpture displayed outside the Palazzo Grassi in Venice – took over NGMA’s capacious, rather nondescript modern extension. Smaller sculptures and installations, as well as the diminutive, ornately framed still life paintings of emptied plates smeared with leftovers in the recent series ‘Note to Self’ (2013), based on photographs that the artist views as a diary of sorts recording his eating habits, made the most of the more intimate setting of Jaipur House – a repurposed palace, albeit a modern one. (It was built in 1936 for the Maharaja of Jaipur.)

Even as it encouraged visitors to draw their own connections, Gupta’s fondness for doubling effects, recurring motifs and paired objects played havoc with the symmetrical layout of the palace, built around a central circular room. Like a cross between a Sol LeWitt sculpture and a Donald Judd, the two-tiered tiffin carriers carved out of white marble in Twins (2010) inevitably evoked the Twin Towers in a way that felt heavy-handed, for all the work’s finish and minimalist associations. The double sinks and toilets in the 2008 series ‘There Is Always Cinema’ – which also included bronze casts of film projectors and movie reels that Gupta found in an old cinema in San Gimignano, Italy – were shown in two different spaces some distance apart, resulting in a sense of déjà-vu.

Enlivened by the odd surrealist touch such as a spliced taxi and electric fans in a boat, the show ended as it had begun, with another massive outdoor sculpture, in this case of a banyan tree, titled Dada (2010-14). The word ‘dada’ translates as ‘grandfather’ in Hindi. The steel sculpture was so heavy as to warrant special cross-beams to redistribute its weight lest it fall through into the underground parking lot beneath the museum grounds. Gupta’s shiny reinterpretation of India’s national tree mirrored the size of the show’s ambitions: bigger and more important than any of the artist’s exhibitions to date and, unusually, happening on his own turf.


L’Heure des sorcières

This review of “L’Heure des sorcières” at Quimper’s Le Quartier appeared on

Spread throughout four rooms, this thematic group exhibition takes as its starting point Breton myths and legends as portrayed by nineteenth-century French artists in works borrowed from the local Musée des Beaux Arts. Drawing on traditional basket-weaving techniques, ethnographic approaches, and oral histories, Paris-based artist Marie Preston’s sculpture piece Barque sorcière (Witch Boat), 2014, and accompanying fictional dialogue involving four characters—a druidess, a painter, a widow, and a washerwoman—specifically address the lore of female seaweed harvesters on the nearby Île de Sein and in particular the witch-boat legend about a mysterious woman who would go out to sea at night in a wicker basket used to collect seaweed.

Mixing painting, sculpture, video, photography, installation, textile- and text-based pieces, “L’Heure des sorcières” (The Witching Hour) places works by contemporary French and British artists in dialogue with such iconic pieces as Mary Wigman’s 1926 Witch Dance, here reinterpreted by choreographer Latifa Laâbissi, who sees the original’s expressionism as “a form of savagery both assumed and contained.” Ana Mendieta’s photographs from the “Silhuetas” series, date, are presented alongside three videos—among them is Untitled (Chicken Piece), 1972, in which the artist holds a freshly decapitated, blood-spewing white hen to her body—and a faithful reconstruction, complete with a fire ladder occasionally set aflame, of Mary Beth Edelson’s 1977 installation Proposals for: Memorials to 9,000,000 Women Burned as Witches in the Christian Era, which was originally presented at A.I.R. gallery in New York.

Witches, fairies, and earth goddesses are only ostensibly the subject matter of this wide-ranging show curated by Anna Colin, who has been researching the topic for a number of years. Repugnant and fascinating in equal measure, the reclusive figure of the witch has been eagerly seized upon by feminists, queer activists, and proponents of alternative living (Radical Faeries, Wiccans, and the like), who see her as a potent symbol of their own struggles and aspirations. Ultimately, “L’Heure des sorcières” has perhaps more to tell us about them than about those they claim as their “sisters.”

Performa Through the Senses

A review of Performa13:

It’s not every day you get to see a saxophone being deep-fried on the High Line. The deed was done when I got there, but the smell of it lingered in the air. (A deep-fried saxophone smells much like anything deep-fried, only more so.) A friend gave me a blow-by-blow account of Jamal Cyrus’s Texas Fried Tenor, borne out by photographic evidence showing the crowd’s reaction to this jaw-dropping event brought to us by Performa, jointly with NYU’s Grey Art Gallery and The Studio Museum in Harlem (as part of the controversial Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art exhibition).

After this, Patterson’s simple interactive piece felt a tad underwhelming. With a playful literal-mindedness typical of Fluxus, the movement he was associated with from its inception until the mid-1960s, the artist offered to buy old thoughts written out on a piece of paper – a penny a throw – and trade these for ‘new’ ones, in the shape of a crown fashioned out of shredded newspapers. More engaging, though making greater demands on the participants, was the revival of Patterson’s Pond, a Fluxus-style game that called on volunteers from the audience to set off wound-up mechanical frogs on a grid drawn on the floor of the Grey Art Gallery. Depending on where their frogs alighted, the participants had to carry on repeating short statements of their own choosing – such as ‘Will we kiss?’, ‘Indeed’, or ‘I can’t’ – in the questioning, affirmative or exclamatory mode, until the game reached an end point. The resulting ‘chorus’ sounded remarkably like croaking frogs.

Voice being one of the research themes privileged in this edition of Performa, choruses featured prominently in the work of several biennial artists, Alexandre Singh’s The Humans and Rosa Barba’s Subconscious Society – Live among them. One straightforwardly a play, modelled on Aristophanes and Greek theatre (with some Shakespeare, Molière and Milton thrown in), the other a piece of ‘performed cinema’ attempting to do something new within the confines of a traditional movie theatre, these works shared some thematic overlaps, warranting the presence of the chorus.  

The chorus in Singh’s alternative creation myth consisted in the eponymous ‘humans’ fashioned by an all-mighty and humourless demiurge, named Charles Ray after the Los Angeles-based sculptor, whose lifelike human effigies recall Greek and Roman statuary. The pallid human beings move and sound like automata to begin with, mindlessly uttering statements whose rhythm and intonation, if not the actual wording, conjure up the liturgy of the Roman Catholic mass. Then comes the fall, prompted by Pantalingua, the daughter of a Dionysian, rabbit-resembling creature, who embodies unbridled sensuality (and spends her time purposefully defecating in an outhouse), and her helpmate Tophole, Charles Ray’s son, cajoled into thwarting his Apollonian father’s designs.

The original sin according to Singh involved defecating. One by one, the chorus members emerged from the outhouse, the rabbit-creature’s domain, donning grotesque commedia masks specially-designed by Singh – who simultaneously wrote, directed and conceived the sculptural sets for the play – to convey their corrupted and fallible nature. We got to see one of the humans shit on stage, though it came out as a piece of cloth, unlike in Romeo Castellucci’s more realistic scatological tale On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God (2008), which mounted an assault on the audience’s sense of smell.

Whereas The Humans took us back to the dawn of time, Subconscious Society – Live spanned the last moments of the industrial age. The 2013 film, commissioned by Cornerhouse in Manchester and Turner Contemporary in Margate, had been shown earlier this year at both institutions, as had some of the sculptures displayed at the Anthology Film Archives alongside multiple screens and projectors. But this was the first time that Subconscious Society was performed ‘live’, that’s to say to a live score by Jan St. Werner (one half of the German electronic music duo Mouse on Mars), based on field recordings by Barba, and accompanied by voiceover actors forming a chorus of sorts. Its members would stand up in turn to read out their texts amid the seated audience in the movie theatre.

Considerably less polished than Singh’s theatrical production, in a good way, Barba’s at times confusing multimedia display, which placed sounds and images into dialogue, had obvious affinities with Joan Jonas’s Reanimation. The latter started life as a 20-minute visual representation of a text – the 1968 novel Under the Glacier by the Icelandic author Halldór Laxness – presented as a performance at MIT in 2010, and then as an installation comprising video elements, sundry objects and props at dOCUMENTA (13). For Performa, Jonas wove performance and installation together into a complex, layered whole. Not unlike Barba’s piece, Jonas’s work in its Performa incarnation was a conversation with jazz musician Jason Moran: Jonas would herself respond to the improvised music and sounds that Moran created on the synthesizer in response to the piece. The two have worked collaboratively for 8 years, since The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things (2005-2006) performed at Dia: Beacon.

Recorded during a stay in Norway’s Lofoten Islands that lie within the Arctic Circle, images of snowy landscapes and drifting ice projected onto a large screen (flanked by an easel and a workbench fitted with a camera that fed additional, live images onto the main screen) had an otherworldly quality akin to Barba’s colour-steeped bird’s-eye views of Kent estuaries filmed during a residency in Margate. Sporting an elfish white outfit, Jonas moved back and forth between the easel, the main screen and the workbench, shaking bells and maracas, drawing animal effigies on sheets of paper held up against her body, pushing marbles around a black-board in a sequence of simple actions and mysterious rituals that conferred a tactile dimension on the performance.           

Jonas has likened combining the different elements that make up her performances to cooking a meal. Food preparation/consumption as a species of performance art has some important precedents in, say, Linda Montano’s Identical Lunch (1969-1973), Gordon Matta-Clark’s restaurant Food (1971), or Rikrit Tiravanija’s ubiquitous Thai curry, a staple of relational aesthetics. Ben Kinmont’s An Exhibition in Your Mouth, presented at Performa11, took the form of an exquisite six-course dinner based on artist-signed recipes by, among other, Louise Bourgeois, Marcel Duchamp, Matta-Clark and Dali. Sampling the different dishes on the menu, which came with a detailed mode d’emploi, turned out to be a multi-sensory aesthetic experience.

Commissioned for this edition of Performa, Subodh Gupta’s Celebration, a series of six-course communal meals inspired by Indian feasts, was nothing like as (conceptually) elaborate but it had simplicity going for it. Upon arrival, the dinner guests had their wrists sprinkled with rose water and rubbed with sandalwood paste, before being ushered into the dining area bedecked for the occasion with one of Gupta’s sculptural installations made up of steel tiffin boxes, thali pans, milk pails, and a string of light-bulbs, cascading down from the ceiling in the centre of the room. The meal consisted of simple Indian fare, from lentil soup to prawn curry and banana yogurt with saffron, served on wooden tables strewn with rose petals. Prepared by the artist himself with the help of some volunteers, at the Old Bowery Station (currently home to a Lebanese restaurant), catering for up to 70 people on eight consecutive evenings, it certainly was a cooking marathon, or a ‘durational performance’, as RoseLee Goldberg put it (but wouldn’t that make performance artists of all chefs?).

Perhaps the most sensual and testing of all the Performa offerings that I got to see – or experience through the senses rather – this time, came in the shape of Rashid Johnson’s restaging of the 1964 play Dutchman by LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka)at the Russian and Turkish baths in the East Village. An allegory of American race relations from the author of the Black Dada manifesto, the play about a white woman (Lula) who sets out to seduce a black man (Clay) on a subway train was first performed at the height of the civil rights unrests and recently revived at the Cherry Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village, where Johnson saw it in 2007.

For their collaborative work Seven,made in the context of the last Performa biennial, Mika Rottenberg and Jon Kessler had transformed Nicole Klagsburn Project Space into a chakra sauna, where the audience would sit and watch the seven performers as they took turns sweating it out in a glass cubicle. In Johnson’s Dutchman, they got to do some of the sweating and experience a degree of physical discomfort themselves. Wearing revealing black robes and sandals, the spectators followed the two actors from a hot, steamy room to a cooler passageway to the sultry, oppressively hot ‘Russian room’ fit to be the scene of a crime. The palpable variations in temperature between the three acts conveyed the rising sexual tension and violence of the play more keenly than the acting. On its merits alone, without the trappings of the baths, Johnson’s Dutchman may have been just an average theatrical production, an orthodox one at that, illustrating the surprising drift towards mainstream theatre in what is, after all, a performance-art biennial.


Exit Ghosts

This feature on Agnieszka Kurant appeared in frieze

imageEmergency Exit, 2010, (collaboration with the architect Aleksandra Wasilkowska), fog machines, metal, fans, neons, dimensions variable. Courtesy: National Art Gallery Zacheta, Warsaw; photograph: Maciej Landsberg

‘How does it feel to write about a person of the same name?’ curator Raimundas Malašauskas asked me after I’d complimented him on his idio­syncratic contribution to Agnieszka Kurant’s monograph, Unknown Unknown (2008), which took the form of an interview with a fictional artist also called Agnieszka Kurant. (In fact, Malašauskas has been known to use the name ‘Agnieszka Kurant’ as a pseudonym on occasion.) I related how I was once mistakenly given a key to Kurant’s room in a hotel in Utrecht. The same group show, in which Kurant had a work and that I was going to write about, had brought us both there. The receptionist was so adamant I must be Kurant that, although I didn’t quite doubt my own identity, I felt like a character in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s 1991 film The Double Life of Véronique or, worse still, the distraught hero of Roman Polanski’s 1976 psychological thriller The Tenant, who throws himself out of a window after suspecting that his neighbours are trying to convince him he is the suicidal former tenant. As Malašauskas puts it in his interview with Kurant, invoking drug-addled psychonaut Terence McKenna: ‘We are all movies.’

Kieślowski and Polanski are among the star alumni of the renowned film school in Kurant’s hometown of Łódź. Kurant herself studied photography there, in the cinematography department, while simultaneously reading for a degree in art history at the University of Łódź. Photography at Łódź Film School was taught from the vantage point of cinema, and seen as a good foundation for those intending to go on to study cinematography. Kurant was supervised by artist and filmmaker Jósef Robakowski, one of the founders of the avant-garde Film Form Workshop (WFF), a group of structural filmmakers and artists active at the school in the 1970s, who represented the institution’s more experimental leanings. The WFF contested the notion of singular authorship, for instance, in the realms of visual arts and cinematography. In his ‘assembling films’, Robakowski would invite authors to make short films, contenting himself with initiating and overseeing the entire process.

When I point out that photography as a medium barely features in her work, Kurant tells me that her decision to study it was chiefly guided by practical concerns. Having been brought up in a modest way, Kurant did not at that stage dream of becoming an artist. Her parents encouraged her to turn what had been a hobby into a useful trade, one that could be combined with theoretical pursuits. Photography was a more creative way of earning a living than the other options open to her then. ‘If I had to use photography in my work now,’ she explains, ‘I would probably not do it myself. I haven’t got the time nor the money to buy the right equipment; I would hire somebody to do it.’

Much of Kurant’s work as an artist – a role it took her a while to grow into but that she now fully assumes – consists precisely in identifying, tracking down and ‘hiring’ experts with the technical know-how and apparatus that she herself lacks to help her realize whatever she dreams up. Ideas are Kurant’s business; she leaves to others their execution. Working on next to no budget more often than not, but armed with what she calls an ‘economy of enthusiasm’, pluck, seductive proposals backed by research, as well as a certain doggedness in the pursuit of her goals and ambitions, Kurant has succeeded in enlisting the support and collaboration of the best people working in a given field, many of whom are prepared to offer their services for a token fee or free of charge.

imageCutaways, 2013, starring Charlotte Rampling, video still. Courtesy: Anna Lena Films, Paris, Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York, and Galeria Fortes Vilaça, São Paulo

She recently drafted in the Academy Award-winning film editor and sound designer Walter Murch – who did the sound mixing and design for several Francis Ford Coppola films, including The Godfather (1972), The Conversation (1974) and Apocalypse Now (1979) – to assist her with the editing of Cutaways (2013). Kurant’s new film, starring Charlotte Rampling, held pride of place in the artist’s recent solo exhibitions, presented concurrently at the Sculpture­Center, New York, and at Stroom den Haag in the Netherlands. In conversation with curator Chris Fitzpatrick at the opening of the latter, Kurant confided that she had tried to approach Murch through the official channels and failed. Then, a few months later, she got wind of the fact that he was doing some editing work on 27th Street in New York, just down the road from where she lived at the time. She took that to be a sign and emailed him directly. He replied within 24 hours.

Besides collaborating with artist–filmmaker Charles de Meaux on two trailers for non-existent films, projected between corporate ads on the main Panasonic Screen in New York’s Times Square in 2006, as well as with other members of the French production company Anna Lena Films, including Pierre Huyghe, Kurant has independently made a number of conceptual short films and videos in the last few years, including Chinese (2009), Apocalypse Now (2010–11) and One Minute Empire (2011). Chinese was a trailer for Jean-Luc Godard’s 1967 film La Chinoise that the artist had dubbed into Polish by left-wing intellectuals active at the time of the original’s release. The resulting footage and recording is played backwards to disconcerting effect. Referencing Andy Warhol’s Empire (1964), the black and white One Minute Empire is a mere snippet of a film at only 90 seconds that condenses the footage from a seven-hour shoot of the Palace of Culture, Warsaw’s equivalent of the Empire State Building, for the duration of which Kurant arranged for the clocks on the tower to run backwards.

imageCutaways, 2013, starring Abe Vigoda and Dick Miller, video still. Courtesy: Anna Lena Films, Paris, Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York, and Galeria Fortes Vilaça, São Paulo

Though not much longer than any of these works, Cutaways styles itself as a mini-Hollywood production: a fragment of ‘Hollywood’s economy’, conjuring up the world of professional film that is its object of scrutiny. The film brings together, in a densely allusive plot, three minor characters who, for one reason or another, were edited-out from the final versions of Richard C. Sarafian’s Vanishing Point (1971), Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) and Coppola’s The Conversation, a film edited by Murch himself. What’s more, these characters – a hitchhiker, a lawyer and a junkyard owner, originally incarnated by Rampling, Dick Miller and Abe Vigoda respectively – are re-interpreted by those same actors, decades later and aged accordingly.

The three characters stand in for the scores of others whose phantom presence hovers over the films from which they have been excised due to editorial decisions. To the audiences who see only the final version of a film, they remain ‘unknown unknowns’, to use Donald Rumsfeld’s phrase, or ‘things we do not know we don’t know’. In the course of her investigations, Kurant has uncovered around 200 such ghost figures, all of whom are listed in the protracted credits, which purposely last twice as long as the eight-minute film itself. Assisted by graphic designer Will Holder, Kurant has identified many of the original disparate typefaces and used them for the 200 actors’ names that appear and fade out of view in the way they would have done in their respective films’ credits.

The unauthorized appropriation of typefaces amounts to a theft of sorts, as the artist readily admits. The same may be said for the three phantom characters that she has selected to feature in the film at least partly because each has a different story to tell about copyright issues. Whereas Coppola, owing to Murch’s intercession, granted the artist leave to do what she pleased with Vigoda’s character from The Conversation, Kurant is still waiting to hear from Tarantino’s team and, following Sarafian’s death, she was denied the right to use Rampling’s hitchhiker, although she chose to do so regardless. Should someone decide to take her to court, Kurant could claim ‘fair use’ of these materials – an exception to the exclusive right granted to the author of a creative work in copyright and intellectual property law – for critical commentary and intellectual reflection­­.

Such issues get to the heart of what the artist refers to as ‘phantom capital’. Insubstantial outputs of ‘immaterial labour’ – a concept that she borrows from Italian philosophers Paolo Virno and Maurizio Lazzarato – including patents, copyrights and other intellectual property, are the stuff of cognitive capitalism. Kurant sees giving papers, interviews and other research activities as an integral part of her practice and she was among the organizers of ‘The Labour of the Multitude? The Political Economy of Social Creativity’ conference at the Free/Slow University of Warsaw in October 2011, which addressed some of these topics (cognitive capitalism, immaterial labour, surplus value and the like), notably in the keynote lecture by the French sociologist Luc Boltanski, co-author of The New Spirit of Capitalism (2005).

imagePhantom Estate, 2013, installation view at SculptureCenter, New York. Courtesy: SculptureCenter, New York; photograph: Jason Mandella

This informs some of the thinking behind Kurant’s ‘Phantom Capital’ cycle, which the artist has been working on for the last three and a half years. Besides Cutaways, the series comprises Phantom Estate (2013), 103.1 mhz (title variable) (2012), Minus One Dollar (2012), Phantom Library (2011–12) and Map of Phantom Islands (2011). All but the last piece – a sculpture which consists of 3,000 coins imitating the quarter dollar but inscribed with the words ‘minus one dollar’ – were featured in the artist’s ‘exformation’ shows at the SculptureCenter and Stroom den Haag.

Kurant conceived her new solo exhibition as a variation on the theme of ‘exformation’, one of these ugly neologisms that never quite took hold, coined in the 1990s by Danish popular science author Tor Nørretranders. The term refers to ‘explicitly discarded information’ or, as Kurant puts it, ‘the negatives of information’: what gets left out or condensed to make the information clearer and more straightforward. The artist is interested in editing as a creative process, one that presents obvious affinities with curating, since both involve decisions about what stays in and what is left out. Kurant’s artistic career grew out of curatorial ventures such as 2005’s ‘Snow Black’, at Yvon Lambert in New York, which showcased 50 invisible works by artists with conceptual leanings (Huyghe, Art & Language and Gino de Dominicis amongst them), and ‘L’Exposition qui n’existe pas’, a parasitic exhibition in the form of a Super-8 projection of Kazimir Malevich’s 1920 White Suprematist Cross onto other art works in the collection at MAMCO, Geneva, in 2006, after she completed an MA in ‘Creative Curating’ at Goldsmiths in 2003.

Taking her cue from Heinrich Böll’s short story Murke’s Collected Silences (1955), about a radio editor who hoarded recordings of silence, Kurant has painstakingly collected and spliced together silent pauses that she takes to be a constitutive part of public speech as well as an instance of ‘exformation’. The title of this two-part sculptural installation varies depending on the frequency of the location where the piece is broadcast via transmitter – it was called 103.1 mhz at the SculptureCenter but 88.2 mhz at Stroom den Haag and at Objectif Exhibitions Antwerp, where the work was first shown in 2012. The subtle differences in these silences relate to the size and shape of the rooms in which they were recorded; in a sense, the piece could be seen as a negative sound sculpture.

imageMap of Phantom Islands, 2011, thermochromic pigment on archival paper, 76 × 114 cm. Courtesy: Galeria Fortes Vilaça, São Paulo, and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York; photograph: Eduardo Ortega

Another sculptural installation inspired by literary works – above all, Stanisław Lem’s Perfect Vacuum (1971), a mock-critical anthology of non-existent books – Phantom Library is made up of ‘phantom books’ based on passing mentions and descriptions culled from fictive accounts by the likes of J.G. Ballard, Roberto Bolaño, and Jorge Luis Borges, as well as Lem himself. A neat row of volumes of different colours and sizes rests atop a single wooden shelf, suggesting a library. Produced to Kurant’s specifications by printers in Warsaw and Łódź, each book is a ‘unique multiple’: a singular, customized object made using techniques designed for the economy of mass-production. The artist acquired barcodes and ISBN numbers for the books to endow them with an economic identity and, consequently, the National Library of Poland owns a set. Though blank inside, they exist as titles and blurbs (the publishing world’s equivalent of film trailers) in different typefaces created for the unknown content. Kurant has also invited writers to devise plots for them with the intention of one day filling the books’ pages.

In so far as it trades in immaterial products, from copyrights to real estate ‘air rights’ – which target the empty spaces above properties; effectively, the negative of space – late capitalism succeeds, for Kurant, where conceptual art failed in its supposed ‘dematerialization’ of the work of art. To her mind, it simply replaced art works with certificates and ephemera that became objects of trade and fetishism in their turn. Designed to demonstrate that in late capitalism everything and anything can be sold, even inchoate ideas, Phantom Estate takes as its starting point the dealings of artist estates, in particular those of conceptual artists whose works are in short supply and who are important to Kurant’s own practice. Phantom Estate looks at works that were rumoured to exist or remained unrealized at the time of an artist’s death. Kurant first became interested in the subject when she heard how, following Marcel Broodthaers’s death, his widow and daughter allegedly fabricated objects based on ephemera which they would release onto the market as authentic works by him.

imageEndless Second, 2009, electromagnets, foam, wood, metal, powdered stone, 30 × 30 cm. Courtesy: the artist

Far from collectively indicting artist estates, however, Kurant’s Phantom Estate pays tribute to the often-unacknowledged input of partners, friends and studio assistants in the creation of art works, which tend to be attributed to only one person. Kurant’s own highly collaborative practice is predicated upon the notion of ‘shared authorship’, which goes hand in hand with the rejection of the (modernist) myth of the singular author, proposing an alternative to it in the shape of artist collectives such as the Paris-based Claire Fontaine or Anna Sanders Films or, closer to the artist’s current home in New York, Reena Spaulings. To make a point about just how many people it takes to come up with an idea, Kurant scrupulously credits all those who in any way contributed to the making of Phantom Estate, from the artist estate representatives she interviewed – who related to her the ideas, rumours and overheard conversations from which she fashioned the ‘phantom works’ – to the architects of the automated display unit designed to hold the changing exhibits, and even those who helped her with the research.

Phantom Estate as a whole illustrates the gap that often exists between ideas and their physical realization. Attributed to Broodthaers, De Domenicis, Alighiero e Boetti and others, the ‘phantom works’ are displayed on a mobile plinth that doubles as a museum vitrine, conceived by architect Didier Faustino. They seem but shadows of ideas, ideas that have descended into the realm of imperfection, imitations of an imitation. The paltry paper and wood model of a Venetian palazzo, attached to the plinth with transparent thread, may be a faithful replica of De Domenicis’s house in Venice but it falls short of the artist’s original ‘idea of making a sculpture of a floating or levitating house based on his own house in Venice’ that arose from a private conversation. The same holds true of Faustino’s ‘intelligent museum’ itself, which took some coercion from the artist to start to move, at least on the two occasions when I was there to witness these acts of non-compliance, ironically illustrating the concept of authorial loss of control that Kurant seeks to explore with this work.

Occasional glitches do not make Kurant’s proposal for a new type of mobile museum any less appealing. When it so pleases, Phantom Estate roams about in all directions across the exhibition space, seemingly of its own accord, though attributing an agency to what is, after all, an inanimate object as opposed to a living organism amounts to magical thinking. (‘Object-oriented ontology’ has a lot to answer for.) Equipped with sensors, it reacts to walls and to people approaching, stumbles upon and sometimes damages other art works, or stops short in its tracks obstructing the passage of visitors, not unlike the artist’s parasitic ‘virus-exhibitions’ that prey on other works. As Kurant says: ‘The whole space of the exhibition rests upon its central architectural el­ement: a mobile institution that carves up the space in different ways as it moves around.’ Phantom Estate folds the gallery space into its sphere and turns a modest proposal into a Gesamtkunstwerk, realizing its author’s ambitions
for an exhibition that counts as a work of art in its own right.