Ian Kiaer: Tooth House

This preview of Ian Kiaer’s “Tooth House” at the Henry Moore Institute appeared in Mousse magazine:

Courtesy Private Collection, Paris, Marcelle Alix Galerie, Paris and Alison Jacques Gallery, London
Photo: Aurélien Mole

In a famous episode of François Rabelais’ Pantagruel (c. 1532), the narrator Alcofribas boldly ventures into the eponymous giant’s mouth by climbing up his tongue. He begins his vivid account of the “new world” he finds therein by likening the lofty interior to Hagia Sophia, which had made a deep impression on Renaissance travellers: “I walked there as they do in Sophia (at) Constantinople, and saw there great rocks, like the mountains in Denmark – I believe that those were his teeth.”

Destabilizing shifts of perspective and scale, from the micro- to the macroscopic, characterize Ian Kiaer’s precarious arrangements of seemingly disparate objects, hovering between painting and sculpture. A selection of works made by the London-based artist since 2005, some old, some new, are brought together at the Henry Moore Institute – a space dedicated to the expanded field of sculpture – in a solo exhibition that will tour to Focal Point Gallery in Southend-on-Sea later in the summer.

Like Kiaer’s Endless Theatre Project before it, the show is named after one of architect and designer Frederick Kiesler’s unrealized visionary projects, a housing unit shaped like a tooth holding many cavities, rapidly sketched out in a series of drawings made around 1948-50. Fraught with literary, architectural and scientific allusions, the mystifying but seductive titles of individual works on view take some unpacking. The 2013 a. r. nef, sol, for instance, references the theories of the Italian architect Aldo Rossi, as well as indicating the work’s placement since sol is French for “ground” (ironically, the work will be installed high up on the wall at the Henry Moore Institute), whereas the German compound word Erdrindenbau in one of the project titles translates as something like “building fashioned from the earth’s crust”. While each offers a point of entry and generates possible meanings for the work, ultimately they run the risk of deflecting attention from the artworks themselves.

Spread over three gallery spaces with ceilings of different heights, Kiaer’s works roughly fall into three groups corresponding to different or entwined series. Gallery 1 contains the earliest pieces on display, the two-part 2005 Grey Cloth project: Glashaus and several works from the 2006 Erdrindenbau project. In both, delicate works on paper transcribe into flattened out, spherical shapes equally frail, three-dimensional architectural objects or models (a miniature version of Bruno Taut’s Glass Pavilion, designed with the German writer and architectural critic Paul Scheerbart for the 1914 Deutscher Werkbund Exhibition in Cologne, and a translucent fan-powered inflatable); the muted pink in a detail of the one – the taffeta deer straddling the floor and the board leaning against the wall in Erdindenbau project: Scheerbart picture (pink deer) – contrasts with the acid yellow and green touches in the other.

Color is also used sparely but effectively in Gallery 2, which spans works made between 2009 and 2014, mainly from the eclectic “Black tulip” series, whose title references Alexandre Dumas’ novel of the same name. These share the space with two large-scale a. r. nef, sol pieces, hung on the wall dividing the first two galleries, next to the entrance, and four new works belonging to the 2014 “Tooth House” series, which spills over into Gallery 3, housing a moving image projection titled Tooth House, companion and a vast site-specific ceiling piece. The odd bright orange accents of the latter series are a counterpoint to the black floor pieces and the use of materials essentially void of colour, such as plastic, foil, polystyrene, and bubble-wrap (here and there soiled with coffee and tea stains in the case of Black tulip, offset, stain of 2012), or aluminium and silver leaf for the two a.r. nef, sol pieces, made using a frottage technique, their bristly silver-foil surface flaking off in places.

Carefully positioned in relation to each other, individual pieces and ensembles of two- and three-dimensional objects subtly reconfigure the spatial boundaries of the exhibition rooms they inhabit. The spindly, six-metre tall Offset/black tulip (frame), which dates to 2009, spans the height of the room, connecting up the floor and the ceiling, just as the silver-foil flakes fallen to the ground in a.r. nef, sol enfold the floor within the work’s sphere. Elements of architecture singled out in the titles of the Tooth House series (“wall”, “floor”, “plinth”, “line”, “shadow”, “corner”, “ceiling”), in an anatomy of sorts, are less discrete and more continuous than would appear at first, in keeping with Kiesler’s magical conception of architecture. In an unfinished essay on the subject (“Magic Architecture: Origin and Future – The Story of Human Housing”), Kiesler insists that magic architecture is “not dream-architecture, like temples or castles; it is an architecture of every-day, every-moment reality, an implement of contact.”


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