Not Being, But Becoming

Fondation Cartier shows how artists today try to invent a personal visual language where theory and politics are latent and unfathomable.

Installation view from Metamorphosis. Art in Europe Now at Fondation Cartier. Works by Hendrickje Schimmel and Marion Verboom. Photo: Luc Boegly.

“The world of art is not a world of immortality but of metamorphosis,” claimed André Malraux, the father of the imaginary museum. And now, as Fondation Cartier opens an exhibition of new tendencies among the younger generation of artists in Europe, it is precisely metamorphosis that serves as the umbrella concept. Since Ovid, metamorphosis has symbolised human change and symbiotic coexistence with both animals and nature, as well as Zeus’s metaphorical rape of Leda or Daphne’s transition into a tree. During the Baroque period, metamorphosis became a symbol of freedom. The notorious hedonist Don Juan became seduced by affect – the main element of the Baroque – and he appreciated the variation of love presented as a constant metamorphosis.

It was with Franz Kafka that metamorphosis first gained an altogether negative valance, and Gregor Samsa’s beetle symbolises alienated man in capitalist society. Metamorposis remains an existential necessity, as Kafka himself advocates elsewhere: “Destroy yourself to feel safe. Construct yourself anew to surprise yourself. What is important is not being but becoming.”

One would be hard pressed to find a more fitting metaphor for man’s incessant changing, the constant mutation of affects and things. But what is the significance of becoming in a contemporary art world where everything floats, including capital, commodities, and humans?

Installation view from Metamorphosis. Art in Europe Now at Fondation Cartier. Photo: Luc Boegly.

New visual languages

According to curator Thomas Delamarre, the twenty or so artists that he has selected, after a year of research in twenty-nine European countries, work with fragments, hybrids, collage, archeology, folklore traditions, collective memory, reuse, and anything that allows for “a re-evaluation of identitarian constructions and natural heritage.” It is all, in other words, about the metamorphosis of identity. Considering our time’s fixation on identity, the concept appears promising. Yet, what happens with it in relation to the art itself? I would argue that the exhibition rather attempts to capture the latest trends of contemporary art, which range from highly technological post-internet art to a more handicraft oriented mysticism. Sometimes they overlap, other times not. 

The grand main gallery in Jean Nouvel’s postmodern crystal palace has been devoted to questions of architecture, the shared space of living between private and public. It may sound dry, yet it’s been a long time since I encountered so many new strong visual languages and such a well directed tension between bombastic works that scream for attention and a quiet, clinical minimalism that appears straight out of Kubrik’s futurist space odyssey. Straight away, I feel strongly attracted by Dutch artist Hendrickje Schimmel’s two faceless mannequins dressed in black and white clothes that suggest both straitjackets and Japanese martial arts; like contemporary reflections of Dürer’s melancholy angel, they sit listlessly on the floor and a stool. Schimmel has invented for his dialectical sculptures a fashionable concept that invokes both Adolf Loos’s and Walter Benjamin’s archeological reenchantment of modernist myths: “ornamental survivalism.” Ornaments are no longer a crime, but a salvation. But from what?

John Skoog, Federsee (still), 2013.

A morally challenging embrace of the ugly

Farther away, Schimmel comes into in dialogue with French artist Marion Verboom’s Achronies (2017) a pair of totemic, eclectically styled sculptures that tower up at one end of the room like leftovers from a heterochronic temple beyond time and space. Next to it, a work by Amsterdam-based duo Formafantasma is installed: recycled bureau furniture and a taxonomic 3D-animation that is presented as a metaphysical reading of the computer’s death and second life. It is formally elegant and completely de-subjectified, like most post-internet art today – art’s new lingua franca, for better or worse.

The heat is raised again by Greek designer Kosta Lambridis’s thrash-sublime reinterpretation of The Badminton Cabinet, the world’s most expensive piece of furniture. With wood constructions, ceramics, embroidery, plastic, and other ‘worthless’ materials, Lambridis’s work alters the vanity of the baroque theatrum mundi into an anarchist Rauschenberg-combine. I find this manic embrace of the ugly both aesthetically liberating and morally challenging in relation to the connection that has always existed between puritan formal restraint and xenophobia.

Installation view with works by Evgeny Antufiev, at Fondation Cartier. Photo: Thibaut Voisin.

Postapocalyptic chaos of form and ideas

On the wall opposite hangs Swedish artist Lap-See Lams Mothers Tongue (2018)a 3D tour through Stockholm’s Chinese restaurants, where artificial intelligence appears to have taken the place of humans and the struggle of classes and cultures, oddly enough, seems to keep on. It is as if Lam’s art is made for this postapocalyptic chaos of forms and ideas, where 3D scans and plaster modelling are recurring techniques. Piotr Lakomy’s organic industrial sculptures, Kris Lemsalu’s Giacometti-like figure, and Nika Hutateladze’s transfer of an abandoned home are interesting as well, although they do not quite work in the space. The same goes for the adjacent gallery, where only Kasper Bosman’s heraldic micropaintings about secret societies and power struggles come into their own.

On the bottom floor, the exhibition again picks up speed with the most bizarre paintings I have seen in a long time: British artist George Rouy’s sensually misty androgynous beings appear caught in a bittersweet purple-pink world with rules and codes of its own. Another highlight is Jonathan Vitel’s video Martin pleure (2016) which is based on the video game GTA. It tells the story of Martin, a lonely young man who wakes up one day to find his friends gone without a trace. Oscillating between anger and sadness, he sets out to find them. Vitel has injected a love story into an otherwise violent horror scenario. What is new about the film is that one not only sees people gunning each other down, but also how poorly they feel before or after. I hope to soon see more of this psychoanalytical immersion into the violent labyrinth of video games, which reflects on the art of living with our losses and broken dreams.

Installation view from Metamorphosis. Art in Europe Now at Fondation Cartier. Photo: Luc Boegly.

The exchange between the primitive and the future

Hanging next to Vitel’s video are a couple of extremely eerie works by Danish painter Magnus Andersen, who has reactualised Thomas Gainsborough’s pastoral landscapes via a rereading of John Locke’s social ideals. We see young people occupying important social positions and impersonal industrial cities blended with melancholy natural landscapes captioned with slogans such as “one for all, all for one.” The paintings are activated by a sound installation with campfire songs from postwar Europe. At a distance, it looks like familiar naïve painting, but up close one discovers a relief-esque 3D painting where every brush stroke is constructed like a piece of jewelry or a encapsulated tear.

In the farthest gallery, I encounter Russian artist Evgeny Antufiev’s gesamtkunstwerk based on a personal syncretic religion dressed up in primitive kindergarten aesthetics. Egyptian, Scythic, and Nordic elements are mixed with mystical games, dice and demons, knives, secret rites, urns, a king in a brown, foam rubber suit lying with a ghostly smile on a sarcophagus. It is like entering a nightmare version of King Arthur’s grave. I am greatly impressed by Antufiev’s ability to create a world that is sacred and funny – without these extremes erasing each other – and it is too bad the work did not get more room in the exhibition.

Close by is Federsee (2014), Swedish artist John Skoog’s fabulous video that renders the German carnival in Bad Buchau near Lake Federsee, where the inhabitants of the village greet spring by dressing in costumes and scary masks. The natural mystical rituals in the city and nocturnal walk to the lake are so seductively and hypnotically filmed that I forget for a while the reality of the super technological screen. Then I realize that Skoog’s film is the work in the exhibition that most ingeniously demonstrates how old traditions haunt the new hyperreality, how dependent the primitive and the future are on one another, at least in this moment. We are undoubtedly living in metamorphic times. Where are we headed? Only the algorithm gods would know.  

How representative is this exhibition of the young art being made today? Rather representative, I would say, because it points to what many young artists are trying to achieve: to invent a marked and personal visual language where theory and politics are latent and unfathomable, never manifest. These artists are often, ironically enough, the ones succeeding best in the art market, because they never put anything at risk. In this sense, the exhibition’s post-internet-go-with-the-flow art is rather harmless, all things considered. Not even the tribal mystique art is particularly revolutionary, no matter how formally interesting both these trends may be. I dream of a new artistic avant-garde that will succeed in altering the rules of forms as well as of ideas and art. At Fondation Cartier, the artists have succeeded at the former. And that is perhaps good enough.

Installation view from Metamorphosis. Art in Europe Now at Fondation Cartier. Photo: Thibaut Voisin.