Magazine article Artforum International

Nairy Baghramian: Stedelijk Museum Voor Actuele Kunst, Ghent, Belgium

Magazine article Artforum International

Nairy Baghramian: Stedelijk Museum Voor Actuele Kunst, Ghent, Belgium

Article excerpt

NAIRY BAGHRAMIAN gives her audience nothing less than an aesthetic reeducation. Her starting point is an academic understanding of sculpture as a modernist art medium--in other words, as an autonomous form, one that is by definition of no use. But she submits the well-worn modernist trope of medium specificity to a series of multifarious overextensions. Baghramian's work presents the notion of autonomy as a physical challenge, one that each sculpture has to meet individually. Rather than defying use per se, Baghramian's works ultimately defy us. Again and again, the artist alludes to braces, crutches, stabilizers, and spines, suggesting that the sculptures might gain a purpose precisely to the degree that they imply the impairment of our own bodies' functions. In this way, she traces the outlines of an alternative, twisted mode of sculptural practice--what we might call a prosthetic formalism.

In the artist's most recent show, the emblematically titled "Deformation Professionnelle" (Occupational Hazard), curated by Martin Germann and on view at the Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst this past winter, Baghramian added yet another layer of intensity to the physical challenges posed by her practice: She exhibited new work that consisted of nothing but transformations of older pieces, cannibalizing nearly two decades of her own artistic oeuvre and, fittingly, putting her earlier pieces to use. And so Baghramian turned what could have been a typical midcareer retrospective into an act of self-assertion. Instead of encountering a series of static objects that have already begun to accrue a stable art-historical meaning, viewers found themselves surrounded by items in the process of--to use Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari's phrase--"becoming-body."

Baghramian's efforts to continually surpass her own work recall earlier practices that strove to destabilize the medium of sculpture. From 1919 to 1922, for example, the Moscow-based OBMOKhu (Society of Young Artists) regularly showed the efforts of Constructivist laboratory experiments in ever-changing arrangements. But where OBMOKhu seemed broadly in sync with the milieu in which they were working, staging collective efforts to articulate a radically industrialized, functionalist notion of form amid an expanding socialism, Baghramian mounts an inverted relationship between art and its social context. Within the seemingly boundless conditions of contemporary capitalism, Baghramian offers a powerful repudiation of modernist formalism and radical functionalism alike. She does not present sculpture as a form of critical politics; she sculpts the critical politics of a disciplinary form called sculpture--the bodies of an "Occupational Hazard."

The first work to confront visitors to this exhibition was Peeper, 2016, an elongated sculpture that stretched more than forty-five feet from wall to wall across the entrance of the exhibition, blocking visitors' primary means of access. Cobbled together from a hodgepodge of steel cables, lacquered aluminum, and concrete, the object does in fact have an undeniable function: restriction. Through its placement at the exhibition entrance, Peeper positioned visitors themselves as the outer limit of institutionalized artistic form, as objects needing to be disciplined.

Three pieces dating from 2016 were installed in the show's second gallery: the large-scale sculpture Flat Spine, the ten-part photo work Portrait (The Concept-Artist Smoking Head, Stand-in), and Mooring (standing), one of a series of aluminum casts of the eponymous device normally used to secure boats in harbors. In different ways and to different degrees, these works are all self-referential, and together they laid out the range of the artist's self-representation in her own show, though Flat Spine surely took center stage. The photo "portraits," a sly play on a German saying that too much thinking makes one's head smoke, depict smoking industrial chimneys, likening the artist's notoriously conceptual approach to factory production. …

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