Shows: Chloé Quenum
Sculpture inhabits a precarious position in the genre-bending inclusiveness of contemporary art, which, encouraged by the digital turn of culture at large, lately prizes ephemerality at the expense of monumentality and a cartoonish or kitsch grotesque in lieu of ‘process’: Carsten Höller’s groovy tube slides descending from Richard Serra’s massive rolls of steel via Dan Graham’s playfully reflexive pavilions. The need for statuary or commemoration in the 21st century feels equally superfluous amongst artists of the younger generation, after Jeff Koons, so sculpture slips into a liminal space somewhere between image and environment, drifting far from figurative aesthetic notions of representation and beauty toward the anti-humanist installation, complete with a post-Duchampian fetish for the consumer object despite any art historian’s theories of dematerialization.
The young French artist Chloé Quenum’s recent work addresses a less sensational, still somewhat tongue-in-cheek legacy of Modernism; that of post-Minimalism. On a relatively intimate scale, which stretches or contracts according to the space of the gallery, Quenum installs her arrangements of folding furniture and other moderately functional props: a collapsible chair, plywood, mirror plates, cord, poster tube and paper rolls change entropically over the duration of their exhibition, as if engaged in a fantastical after-office-hours dance. The result is a quasi-theatrical time-based mise en scene with only notionally perceptible actors – the viewer not necessarily amongst them. One could imagine the familiar figure of the artist-lecturer as crazed agent armed with Quenum’s readymade and other ‘professional’ materials, perhaps spinning slowly in a circle and reciting isolated lines from Jacques Derrida; or rather conceive of her collection of equipment as the contents of a menacing Ikea flatpack crate filled with all the wrong parts and no instructions for assembly – a middle-class creative nightmare.
Despite the punchy, machine-made origin of her constituent materials, the balletic gesture of Quenum’s compositions escaped the expressionism of any Utopian desire in a manner both casual and direct; producing a heightened awareness of our bodily alienation from manufacturing processes and indeed, manual labor. Through repositioning, there was a loose feeling of molecular chaos despite sharp edges and matte surface finishes. Yet Quenum’s treatment of the object is ultimately unspecific – one could perhaps describe it as de-skilled – motivated by an indifferent if spontaneous rationale for spatial organization, despite the best subordinating efforts of ‘universal’ design.
In comparison, choreographer Simone Forti wrote about the interchangeability of objects when describing communal life in upstate New York, from Handbook in Motion (1974): ‘Objects, though moved by people, seemed to follow their own paths, to be part of the flow. Coats would come and go, there always seemed to be one when you needed it. But if you set down a book or a tool and just wanted to leave it there for a while, you’d place it in a manner expressive of your intentions. I always enjoyed straightening up. Each decision of what to move and just where to put it refined the discourse of how we were to live. If I was uncertain about a certain object, I would move it into an ambiguous alignment and go back the next day to find my answer.’
Forti’s stripped-down relationship to things draws more attention to the action or performance of the task than the particularity of any object. Yet for the similarity – one might read Quenum’s choreography as a delayed pantomime of Forti’s endlessly optimistic ‘ambiguous alignment’ – the tools of trade are somewhat changed today. If Quenum’s sculpture makes no bald allusions to global-technological society, the material nature of her everyday assembled objects embodies the fact regardless; momentary incursions of disorder disturb the liquid flow of inkjet plotters and air-transit carriers and homogeneity, perhaps more sinister than the communitarian effects of LSD.
By continuously foregrounding the item of repurposed furniture as art object, Quenum reinforces the primacy of the language of sculpture, even more than any mode of installation, within her practice. Her solo exhibition ‘Intervalle’ at Galerie Joseph Tang consisted of three structurally stabilized components: an upholstered wooden-panel screen, a series of five wall-mounted A1 metal frames and a double-wide aquarium filled with a standard selection of tropical fish. The narrow confines of the gallery limited the motion of these somewhat arcane fittings; yet here Quenum perpetuated rearrangement on a molecular level, a mild material destruction, through the application of chlorine-bleach. Jet-black fabric aged prematurely to a shade of cement dust and her empty frames embraced probable abstract oils bleeding through with aquamarine. The formalism of the pieces resisted the immediate recognition of their denatured state, rather presenting a scene of domestic neo-romanticism, a sensuous mistake of over-exuberance. The scale of her performance reduced to chemical agents, the fish in Quenum’s continuously pumping aquarium system were as unconscious of the hygienic treatments to their environment as the viewer was to the objects in the gallery, and by extension, the perceived comforts of the sitting room. Turning endlessly round and peering every so often through the glass tank display, we rest easily thinking we have seen the world. If there are objects – sculptures – to hold onto, they are also always slipping away.Kari Rittenbach