A Spindly Institutional Being

Nairy Baghramian’s sculptural work at the National Gallery of Denmark is an eloquent image of institutional porosity in an age where the institutional is something performed.

Nairy Baghramian, Så længe det varer, 2017. Photo: Frida Gregersen.

Something is on its last legs according to the title of Nairy Baghramian’s exhibition at the National Gallery of Denmark. The title ‘Så længe det varer’ is – we understand from the texts accompanying the exhibition – a specific reference to a text-based work by Lawrence Weiner, As long as it lasts, made on a wall of the exhibition venue The Renaissance Society in Chicago in 1994.

The iconic Chicago venue also forms the starting point of Baghramian’s sculptural work for the National Gallery of Denmark’s x-rummet venue. A cast of a ceiling structure from the Renaissance Society balances precariously on tall, delicate metal legs – with a corporeality so fragile that just one clumsy movement from a visitor would probably make it collapse. Strangely poignant and affecting, the work only takes up one corner of the largely empty room with its spindly-legged presence. Besides the sculpture, the room also includes the self-portrait Smart Water (2017), which shows Baghramian drinking water from a fountain by Michael Asher in the gardens in front of the University of California in San Diego.

Baghramian, who was born in 1971 in Iran and now lives and works in Berlin, often deals with ‘supports’, with elements that hold and prop up other elements, such as the ceiling structure from Chicago. Transformed into sculpture, however, the structure seems incapable of holding anything. Instead it rests in the grip of small metal clamps that have been gently lined with rubber strips in natural colours. It is all very elegant and almost quite loving in a clinical way.

With ‘the supportive support’ as a sculptural element in its own right, Baghramian calls attention to art’s dependence on its context: its history, its institutional representation and its physical settings. This is interesting in relation to the self-instituting aspects that are very much associated with present-day art practices and with the increasingly prevalent discourses on ‘new institutionalism’ and the post-institutional. Moving forward from more established, conventional forms of institutional critique, this approach turns the institutional into something organic, less stiff, something performative – to use a concept that is ubiquitous these days.

It is true that artists such as Weiner and Asher are institutions in their own right, important ‘supports’ for a generation of post-conceptualists and ‘critical artists’, but the referential conversation with x-rummet on the nature of the art institution lacks the element of surprise that would render it truly seductive. Instead, it somewhat weighs down the aesthetic ethereality of the work, which actually comes across as a positive quality: in spite of its shaky spindliness, this is a full-bodied and indeed beautiful work that constitutes an eloquent image of institutional porosity in an age where artists send out newsletters and museums reinvent themselves to become performative.

Nairy Baghramian, Så længe det varer, 2017. Photo: Frida Gregersen.