A total of twenty-seven people live in the Japanese village of Nagaro. The prospects for children and growth are at best distant; the youngest inhabitant is 55 years old. While Nagaro awaits non-existence, Tsukimi Ayano populates it with dolls. Born in the village, she sews people who act as substitutes for lived lives in this steadily dying setting: pupils for the local school that had to close in 2012; workers taking breaks from the jobs the town can no longer offer. There is something sad and tender – and funny and creepy – about this simulated life somewhere in Japan, and I keep these moods in mind (and body) as I move among the dolls in SIGNA’s simultaneously overflowing and neat show The Market.
The quite new and still relatively unknown exhibition space Simian, a tightly white and concrete-saturated basement underneath the Ørestad metro station in Copenhagen, frames the first non-performance-based SIGNA project in several years. Here, the space is not alive; the theatre remains absent, and the scenography – the things themselves – comes to the fore. In that sense, The Market looks like a more traditional exhibition than those with which the now legendary SIGNA collective (founded and led by Signa and Arthur Köstler) is mostly associated – especially if by exhibition we first and foremost mean something that neither moves nor breathes.
Still, traditional is one of the last words that springs to mind when considering this grotesque fantasy that shoots up like a beautiful and infected underground marketplace (just opposite the Field’s shopping centre). Something intensely un-living is nesting in this place, even though pretty much everything has been lifted directly out of the buy-and-gulp-down life we know: sweets and wigs for sale; dresses and stockings; olives and bad necklaces.
There are also dolls in pastel outfits poised very precisely on the point between unwashed laziness and the hyper-conscious brand nostalgia practiced by the young creatives of the 2020s. These dolls are uncanny: bored and empty people grieving, working, and passing the time in ways that feel as dead as they are capitalist-alive. Below and around the six pavilions that have been erected in the cold cellar, the market spreads like that vile disease consumerism. But the formless discomfort emanating through the air and stinking it up is cut through by a certain beauty that sticks to my eyes over and over again.
The Market is an admirable abundance of tableaux, gizmos, and uselessness accumulated to a nauseating and wildly seductive extent. Its shapes are persistently more beauty-laden and more Baroque than their glittering, cheap surfaces might immediately merit or suggest.
Faux jewellery, acrylic nails, satin: a kind of distorted kink saturates all these dilapidated ornaments. The clever composition of objects, brands, and materials seems unimpressed with its own precision, making the totality more gloomy and sensitive than the confident mood-board vibes sometimes evoked by intelligent contemporary art with all its pop references in place. For example: that the dolls are dressed in clothes that have been stored in the Köstlers’ warehouse for decades (and in the meantime become intensely fashionable again) is less important than feeling how the frozen doll bodies gather in a silent and brutal hint at how money-making life quite literally makes people unconscious; that roses, soaps, and lace emphasise contemporary visual culture’s will to romantic sincerity is of less importance than surrendering to the scenography itself as a collection of bizarre altars of pleasure and doom. Do we find ourselves in a church or a ruin or an abyss?
Fortunately, there is no way of telling what the overall narrative in The Market wants to to be. The exhibition is free from all sense of specific direction and choreography. It seems obvious, however, that the scenography’s lack of performed life and clear voices is an act of trusting the viewer. It feels liberating, like breathing really deep near an ocean, to be released from any clear-cut narrative while having countless possibilities splashed in my face. Because all this market sells isstories – and reality. In one corner, I’m overwhelmed the feeling of plastic and grey-cold pinks from somewhere in Kiev; in another, the randomness of the shop selling hairpins, stilettos, nail polish, beads, and glitter looks like something I’ve stared at glassily in St. Petersburg or Neukölln. The faded colour scheme running through the exhibition feels like a bike ride through a Polish village.
Everything exists in some form already. This is also what the course of a life can feel like: everything has happened before and will be recirculated further on in the loop of beauty and violence that makes up the world. The Market feels like such a loop. Time and again it looks like a life and then no life at all. Time and again, I cannot tell whether the love of things or their misery holds sway – whether lust or disgust outline the clearest and most contagious traces through the space. But none of this is important.
The most incredible part of the experience is the sneaking suspicion that these lifeless parallel destinies in a basement in the Ørestad district come so close to the warm lives we carry out with a smug sense of entitlement. In other words, that the dolls might just as well be standing very still, holding their breath. Perhaps it is the sense of having the world pulled down in front of my face like a tight hat and having my gaze and my guts cut open by a haunted reality. Perhaps it is the desire to alternately possess this world and vomit it out that clings to my body long after I’ve left the basement. Like life itself, The Market resembles a declaration of love and a death sentence.