Magazine article Artforum International

Ugo Rondinone: Whitechapel Art Gallery, London

Magazine article Artforum International

Ugo Rondinone: Whitechapel Art Gallery, London

Article excerpt

"Every day I set less store on intellect," writes Marcel Proust in the essay "Against Sainte-Beuve," privileging instinct and sensorial experience instead. In Ugo Rondinone's first major London show, he would seem to work in the same spirit, since the exhibition's melancholic title--"zero built a nest in my navel"--clearly speaks to gut feelings. Indeed, audiences at the Whitechapel Art Gallery initially have little else to go on, experiencing a considerable interlude of rebuffed quizzicality on first entering the galleries, followed by the realization that Rondinone's cryptic installation is aimed less at the mind than at the nervous system. The Swiss artist floods the first space with four bars of piano music--a few chords of Erik Satie-like anomie--endlessly looped. Then he ushers audiences into the disorienting Minimalist labyrinth of ALL THOSE DOORS, 2003, a pergola-like construction of glossy black plastic arcades and freestanding doorways. One winds through these structures toward a colossal white zero painted on a black wall at the end of the room, in the center of which is an aperture leading to a destination that could be anybody's guess.

One jumps through hoops in installations because the hoops are there, even while half-anticipating nothing in the way of an experiential payoff--rarely expecting the nothing to be the very something one is seeking. Here, from the outset, disenchantment blooms from emptiness and is evidently intended. An analogy between the exhibition and the tedium of quotidian domestic life is (literally) drawn on many of the black columns, which feature at their bases miniature sketches in white felt-tip of a beaked, anthropomorphic figure--the artist, we are told in a wall text, in the guise of a raven--ritualistically killing time with empty activity: ruminatively chewing cereal, smoking a cigarette, and staring at a mirror and a clock. Also keyed to the idea of time and anxiety are eleven oversize black polyurethane masks, based on designs by the Alaskan Yupik tribe, which merge animal and human features to generate an ambiguous malevolence. Collectively titled MOONRISE, 2004, each one is also subtitled with a different month. (Since there are only eleven, perhaps Rondinone decided that, under laboratory conditions, an inexorable series of cycles would instigate less anxiety than an incomplete rotation.) Amid the masks hang lengths of driftwood inscribed with short poetic statements that, again, often betoken an impossible wish to fuse with nature--to set aside human frailty, awareness of life's cyclical nature, and suspicions of its futility: IF I MESS UP I RUN TO THE WEST AND HIDE IN ITS SUNSET AND I WANT TO BE AIR OR WIND TO BE AT EASE IN OUTER SPACE BUT IN THE WORLD. Meanwhile, an oversize lightbulb in predominantly yellow wax, offering only a mean chimera of immense enlightenment, dangles from the ceiling, and a fake paper snowfall coughs intermittently from a vent. The atmosphere is torpid, yet consuming enough that one may not consider until afterward how loaded with art-historical references it is, from Minimalist and finish-fetish aesthetics to the psychologized wax heads and objects of Jasper Johns, turned into a concatenation of props that, in its theatrical solemnity, swings Rondinone weirdly close to Robert Gober. …

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