Few surpass Matias Faldbakken as far as titles are concerned. With his Europe Is Balding, at Paula Cooper Gallery in New York, he puts himself in the very top range, even within his own oeuvre. At first, the materials used in this exhibition seem less than inspired. As ever, we find objects that point towards storage and transport: two dashboards from cars, a muffler from an exhaust pipe, a wooden pallet, a wheelbarrow tray, and a media shelf unit. All have been partially covered in glazed bathroom tiles in various colours. The tiling is not exactly up to applicable building standards. In several places the grouting has seeped out between the haphazardly mounted tiles, setting in amorphous shapes.
Despite the shoddy craftsmanship, the objects are almost beautiful as they lie on the floor and lean up against the wall, forming an elegant and airy arrangement. Faldbakken’s recent exhibitions have been characterized by just this type of formal aestheticism. The arrangements of coloured gas cylinders seen at his latest exhibition at Standard (Oslo) were so picturesque that they could easily have been the subjects of a Giorgio Morandi painting. However, the objects chosen by Faldbakken are far too rich in connotations to settle for mere decorative tasks. At the same time they are so generic in nature that attempts at assigning them a precise meaning tend to fizzle out along the way.
The tiling of the metre-long media shelf unit is more meticulous than on the rest of the objects. A flat-screen TV, mounted in the middle of this piece of furniture, shows a range of images and video clips taken from the Internet. The stream of images seems to be anchored by the narrator, a man whose face has been made into a darkened silhouette and voice distorted. The technique is reminiscent of that used to protect the anonymity of witnesses in news reports. Here, however, it has been taken so far that not only has the person’s identity been camouflaged, his narration has also been reduced to a series of inarticulate grunts. We cannot even identify the language being spoken. “This is significance gone bald”, as one of Faldbakken’s previous exhibitions announced.
As illustrations for an incomprehensible testimony, the sequence of images in Europe Is Balding is released from any narrative syntax. Yet they are not quite as meaningless – “a bewildering non sequiteur of incongruous imagery” – as the gallery makes out. Many of the clips show slate quarries, wall mosaics, sculptors carving out statues, workers laying ceiling tiles, and other activities that can quite obviously be linked to the exhibition’s tiled objects. Other images point in entirely different directions: the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, horses, early animation films, computer games, groups of hooligans and men who have fallen asleep at parties and had scribbles drawn on their faces.
The key to it all is a newsreel clip dated “London, 1913”, which shows a suffragette being led away by the police. This establishes a contrast that makes it clear that almost all of the visuals jump from one masculine sphere to the next, from industrial and building work to skinheads itching for a fight and fraternity pranks. This also applies to the tiled objects with their associations to cars and manual labour.
Such a reading adds resonance to the metaphor chosen for the title. Even if baldness is used as a metaphor for decline, a continental symptom of ageing, it still denotate a specifically male form of decay. Europe is in the grips of long-term economic recession, and even though that crisis can hardly be compared to the personal crisis of hair loss, the potential responses are comparable: you either treat the condition with costly procedures and cures, or you let the decay take its course.
Europe Is Balding has a counterpart in the makeshift publication Øyde til Øyde that Faldbakken, together with Leander Djønne, printed in a few dozen copies of in connection with last year’s Sculpture Biennial in Oslo. Here, a selection of different images downloaded from the Internet accompanied an essay rich in association; a text that was reminiscent of the genre-defying pieces Faldbakken wrote for various occasions in the early 2000s, and which were collected in Snort Stories in 2005.
Øyde til Øyde constituted a cross between the narrative excesses of his early writings and the processing of media images seen in his later art. Europe Is Balding follows up on its predecessor in a rather more cautious manner by inverting the relationship between text and image: The video’s anonymity filters cancel out the oral narrative, but this only makes the stream of images all the more expansively communicative and digressive. One can only hope that this heralds the reintroduction of a more talkative Faldbakken – he has been sorely missed.