Letter from BERLINby David Rhodes
ESTHER SCHIPPER, BERLIN | JUNE 9 – JULY 30, 2011
This is the Pakistani-born, London-raised, and Berlin-based artist’s third solo exhibition with Esther Schipper, and the first at the gallery’s new location on Schöneberger Ufer. Again, Ceal Floyer’s simple and direct strategy of inversion and displacement make for a subtle encounter of surprise, absurdity, and wit. Working with both the aural and visual (the artist has used recordings, sculpture, drawing, video, and photography), each piece is succinct rather than reductive; Floyer successfully avoids banality through carefully deployed intelligence, humor, and lightness of touch.
What is evident from Floyer’s solo shows is that the number of works presented is crucial; too many can sometimes exhaust interest, as with her recent Kunst-Werk Berlin exhibition in 2009. Individually, the concision with which each idea is released is low key and often amusing, though the amusement soon turns to unease, since the very precision of execution is always cut with absurdity, as in the tradition of Samuel Beckett (1906 – 1989) and Buster Keaton (1895 – 1966).
Appropriately, in 2007, Floyer was included in the Kunsthaus Baselland’s The Art of Failure, curated by Sabine Schaschl and Claudia Spinelli. The notion of failure cited in the title and theme of this exhibition, so important to much art of recent years, must take its lead from Beckett’s work, and Floyer’s restless turning from one object or image to another, without a hint of completion or closure, could be summed up in the words of Beckett himself, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Humor is rarely manifested so provocatively, and among the few artists who, like Floyer, can be counted as taking this path, successful in their failure, are Fischli and Weiss and Roman Signer. Significantly these artists also willfully adjust and misuse a range of familiar objects to undermine our sense of reality, capsizing with ease so many received ideas and rational perceptions.
With Floyer’s work what you see is in fact, what you get, but what is it you get, why, and what for? In “Viewer”(2011), a standard metal peephole is installed not in a door, but in a window, facing outside into the street. It is placed at the usual height that would in normal circumstances allow a view of what is beyond and hidden, here it performs its optical function only, allowing a difference in perception of an already viewable exterior, its use rendered poetic and useless. It is both beautiful and slight, a thought-provoking moment. Simultaneously it raises a smile and a hint of disquiet; it succeeds as more than a banal one-liner exactly because of its effortless ambiguity.
The tone of the exhibition is set right at the get-go, as a readymade welcome mat, “Welcome”(2011), placed just inside the entrance of the gallery, reads upside down, welcoming the visitor upon leaving the gallery, imaginatively fast-forwarding past the experience of the exhibition before the experience has begun. It engages ideas of memory and projection without skipping a beat from the humdrum habits we cannot avoid. The pathos, elegance, and deadpanning would not be out of place in the long-past comedy of the silent movie, when a punning visual wit and productive nonsense was paramount.
One of the gallery rooms features a stack of paper that forms a minimalist column and an aluminum ladder minus all but the top and bottom rung. The adjusted ladder, “Ladder”(2010), takes another household object and renders it poignant.
Some years ago in east London, at the entrance to an Underground Station, I saw a man standing on his coat smoking a pipe; next to him was a busker playing a guitar. He was on day release from a local institution that cared for people with different ideas of reality from most of us. Though he had substituted the busker’s guitar playing with pipe smoking, it didn’t prevent travellers from placing coins appreciatively onto his coat. It’s often when our perception of something as normal is modified that we wake up to our countless presumptions about reality.
The column, “Page 8680 of 8680” (2010), is a stack of A4-sized sheets of paper, each sheet identically printed with “Page 8680 of 8680” confounding expectations of sequence and seriality. There is no doubt that one way or another, the many accumulations that make up life result in shapes or structures that are often the product of so much hapless repetition. The negotiation of this blunt fact is on occasion made possible through the unexpected beauty and humor of what is sometimes called art.