As a Walker gallery attendant, writer and musician Will Fraser has spent more time than just about anyone else with the artworks in Nairy Baghramian: Déformation Professionnelle. As the exhibition draws to a close, we invited him to share insights based on hundreds of hours spent in the exhibition over its five-month run.
Sitting on the Walker’s Upper Garden and overlooking the entire campus, the site-specificity of Nairy Baghramian’s Privileged Points lends a most literal meaning to the three-part sculpture’s title. But its engagement with the landscape is of course not acutely topographical; indeed, our cultural climate reckons much with “privilege,” namely the “white privilege” often sorely taken for granted and ripe for critique in its near ubiquity. However, the work’s privileged vantage point serves as a broad, conceptual frame for the artist’s incisive, self-reflexive critique inside the museum. Indeed, these wormy forms on the hillside are fossil-like, hardened, negative, but they drip.
In Deformation Professionelle, Iranian-born, Berlin-based artist Baghramian enacts a retrospective of her career, but one that deconstructs where it might usually celebrate, gouges open rather than neatly historicizes, responds to its site instead of situating itself objectively. Here instead we find molds, wax casts, seeming “leftovers,” literal “left-outs” (the Stay Downers)—these are the dialectically negative structures which support, shape, give form to, Baghramian’s artistic profession. Furthermore, and more daringly, these are the kinds of structures upon which History sits, which underlie the modern subject, crawl beneath institutions, and contrive privilege. Working mostly in sculpture, Baghramian’s forms are not unlike the anonymous materials, the holes, in Reza Negarestani’s ( )hole complex:
[They unfold] holes as ambiguous entities—oscillating between surface and depth—within solid matrices, fundamentally the latter’s consolidation and wholeness through perforations and terminal porosities. For a solid body, the vermiculation of holes undermines the coherency between the circumferential surfaces and its solidity.1
In a contemporary art world where, as Baghramian herself notes, “works are now treated like quasi-subjects capable of their autonomous thinking … releasing artists from their responsibility to contribute to discourse,” this survey seeks to dissect the apparent command of and reverence for the art object, in effect activating the artist and re-blurring subject-object distinctions to reveal the permeability undergirding institutionalized polarities and the expectations of a globalized art market.2 Here are the ambiguous, disavowed entities lurking in the shadows, writhing all around us, holding wholes together, and always digging more holes.
Upon entering, Peeper lies on the ground, relaxed but still charged, with the potentiality of a skipping rope, maybe. Exhibited elsewhere stretched taut between two walls, the reimagined work here becomes a kind of leash, setting a tone for the exhibition: the institution here is at the artist’s command. Peeper exemplifies the artwork as walker, it walks the institution, it walks you in. In fact, the entire show, spanning three ascending galleries, literally advances through gallery walls, as seen with Flat Spine, a curved ambulatory of molds that continues through to the next gallery. Reminiscent perhaps of church pews, those holy containers, Baghramian’s sculptures seem to pose the question: What happens when negative structures penetrate through institutional walls?
The Stay Downers, also permeating a wall, form a counterpoint to Class Reunion (2008), instead presenting those students held back a year—those schizophrenic uncategorizables who prove institutionalized educational regimes fallible. These sculptures might reflect the backdoor aesthetic of late capitalism, representing those subjects who give form to new potential realities instead of gobbling down and guzzling out prefigured forms of techno-linguistics. After all, aren’t artists exactly these types?
Baghramian conceptualizes those forms which, while disavowed, paradoxically hold dominant ideologies together. Adjacently, a collection of wax casts (casts of Jupon Réassemblé in the previous gallery) entitled Jupon Suspendu hang like still wind chimes from the ceiling, or like phones that are off the hook. Indeed, the negative holds us, like phones keep us on hold. Negative structures can be relentlessly loyal, continuous, like a dial tone.
This isn’t to say their loyalty is necessarily one-sided. Scruff of the Neck recalls orthodontic wirings, abject forms meant to shape your future, to mold a desired smile. But so too, History is like orthodontics: we all oblige it and give ourselves over to its will, but we really don’t know what’s going on, and it costs us so much.
And yet, support structures function in a way that disobeys our objective conception of them. Jupon Réassemblé exemplifies their skeletal mobility, uncanny in its rigid fragility, appearing to be about to crawl, crab-like, in any direction. Support structures are non-localizable, atomized, disseminated ubiquitously, unknowingly. We are now their unknowing producers, and, we are incessantly walking them into place. Baghramian’s work walks itself through institutional walls, mimicking us, becoming-us, becoming-walker: control must now be walked. Indeed, are we—from clientele to curators to critics—not now the vitality that carries institutions, produces their generalized signification, walks them into the spotlight?
Baghramian dares to be self-critical, blowing open the contemporary “retrospective” to reveal the uncanny structures it would have to disguise. Egg Caul represents Deleuzo-Guattarian bodies without organs, Promethean forms marking the uncanny ambiguity of the Anthropocene. Neither translucent nor opaque, object nor container, relaxed nor flexed, wet/oceanic nor arid/mountainous, slithery/reptilian nor mammalian/landlike, here are the kinds of bodies around, on top of, with which we build our languages, our subjectivities, our professions. Perhaps if we all self-reflexively revealed ourselves among others, we’d be able to explore more of this strange terrain, this flux, which, ultimately, is life itself.
On a certain level this show is about gallery guards, it is about me. I too am a kind of anonymous material: anonymously authoritative, I am necessary and irremovable, a ghostly support structure, a subtle shaper of the institutional Zeitgeist, simultaneously ignored but in control. Phantom spine, I too walk the clientele, as the work walks them and the institution too. Perhaps we could go so far as to say Baghramian’s work walks the institution through its clientele, forcing the subject to confront their constructed history of institutional crutches, or otherwise comfortably disengage. Profession deforms life, which is always already uncanny.
1 Reza Negarestani, Cyclonopedia, Melbourne: re.press, 2008, pg. 43.
2 “Subjective Histories of Sculpture: Nairy Baghramian,” YouTube video (42:25), SculptureCenter, December 17, 2012.