In his current exhibition at Kunsthalle Zurich, Colombian artist Gabriel Sierra has constructed three all but identical spaces, scattered or inset with vaguely architectural elements that repeat and echo each other’s presence throughout. Aoife Rosenmeyer takes a journey through the installation, dazzled by lights and crouching to crawl through rabbit-like holes along the way, and finds work that raises interesting questions about time, remembrance and forgetting – in space.
It starts with brainwashing: a small bank of white lights - Untitled (How to forget that the moonlight comes from the sun), 2015 – greets the visitor to Gabriel Serra’s exhibition. This is described on the list of works as “light intentionally placed at the height of the eyes of the visitor to erase the images on the retina…”, and will apparently adjust in relation to the phases of the moon. At the Kunsthalle Zurich, this Colombian artist is experimenting with structural repetition and enclosure. Literally so. His exhibition Before Present consists of seven works, large and small, each iterated several times within and around three adjoining spaces.
So with freshly blitzed eyes you enter the first gallery through the first work, Structure for Transition #18, (Détournement), 2008-15, a passage of grey-painted MDF which should we are told function like “brackets in a text”. Inside the gallery, three elements are initially discernible: on the ground a stack of huge tray-like forms in white laminated MDF, while inserted in the far wall, are two kinds of wooden grille. The first work is Untitled (E,n,d), 2015, with the shapes of the nesting group of trays apparently describing the letters of the title, but looking more like templates for measuring sheets of something. The grille works are Untitled (Collision of Views 1&2), 2013. The first sits above eye level: a rectangular area of the wall chamfering inwards to form a small window opening covered with wooden batons. The second is formed of four open pigeonholes through to the next space, set at an angle roughly at hip level. Go through another passage, like an airlock between the spaces, and the next gallery has the same elements, though there are two additional yellow-stained wooden planks installed horizontally, one long, one short, flush with the wall. Through another arch the scene is the same yet again. At first glance there are no perceptible differences, beyond there being one less grille in the last space. A final arch leads to another bright light, and, temporarily dazed again, you stumble back to retrace your steps.
Sierra’s training is in industrial design, though for several years he has investigated how architecture forms us and influences our behaviour and outlook, employing reduced means to articulate enclosures or elevations to illuminate transitions or generate new ones. He also works with architectural intervention, sculptural readymades and brings dynamic elements into play as well; his exhibition at the Renaissance Society in Chicago earlier in 2015 had eight different titles, with the title changing every hour. So what is he demonstrating with Before Present? He riffs on the regularity of the Kunsthalle gallery, one side of which is a continuous stretch of metal-framed windows with horizontal radiator pipes marking the lower edge. There are oversized and intimate parts to the show. The style is vaguely ecclesiastical, with the simple carpentry of the grilles echoing a confessional, the repetition a cloister; it suggests that meditation might be appropriate. You stop, and try to slow down time in the space. There being nowhere to sit, you lean on a radiator; but meditation doesn’t come easy, and you get distracted by the list of works in your hand.
This list doesn’t follow conventions, describing intentions rather than specifying media or dimensions. It does reveal that there’s more in the exhibition than is immediately apparent. For, hiding in plain sight, a watch is strapped around a radiator pipe in each room. The artist’s proposal is that in the first room the watch lags an hour behind; in the middle space it is on time; while in the final watch runs an hour fast. Another hidden element is behind the yellow planks inset in the walls, each of which is actually are actually a swing door. Through each of these portals, one low enough to force the visitor to crouch on passing through, you gain access to one of two small chambers, each finished in bare plasterboard, with a floor 10 cm higher than that of the gallery outside. These low-key rabbit holes inject a hidden charge into the rest of the exhibition space.
While in the past, Sierra has experimented with space, sounding out dimensions and borders invoking ideas of slapstick or play, here for the first time he is engaging physically with time and memory. Time is a dimension that cannot be corralled or demarcated in the same fashion as space, certainly not easily in an art gallery where a visitor’s presence is spontaneous and unpredictable, with no set duration. Nonetheless there is food for thought in this investigation: How does space change between its imagining and its remembrance? Is memory linear or oblique? And what role has what we forget in how we think of architecture?
– Aoife Rosenmeyer is a critic and translator based in Zurich. In 2008 she founded the itinerant debate series art+argument. @artandargument
Gabriel Sierra: Before Present
Until February 7, 2016