Gladstone Gallery | February 28 – April 19, 2014
The Belgian-born artist Peter Buggenhout creates massive sculptures out of discarded manufacturing materials, covering them in hair, blood, and grimy layers of dust collected from vacuum cleaner bags. This exhibition consists of two dark, monumental constructions that look like the fused wreckage of a plane crash or collapsed building. With their recovered and assembled components of iron, aluminum, wood, and foam, the works function as gothic carcasses of industrial evolution. Their dirty, historical patina notes the redundancy of the past and, conversely, displays uncertainty over where such progress will lead. This concept is hinted at in the titles of both works, “The Blind Leading the Blind #66” and “The Blind Leading the Blind #67,” both 2014.
At the front of the gallery one sculpture rests on the floor and can be walked around entirely; the second touches the floor but is hoisted up against the back wall on metal struts. The latter’s elevation and relative inaccessibility lend it a defensive watchfulness in keeping with the thread of uneasiness that runs through Buggenhout’s oeuvre. Close up, the twisting masses of these sculptures possess a threatening mass as a result of the beams and panels that tower precariously over 20 feet above the spectator. It is the same sense of danger that accompanies entry into unsafe buildings, and yet these works are beguiling. They are built to afford visual access into—and from some angles right through—the interiors, allowing the viewer to trace the complex internal construction.
Standing back against the far left wall, one becomes aware of the work in relation to the space. Galleries are typically designed to avoid distraction and to focus attention on the art, which often means no windows, no noise, controlled lighting, and no sensorial pollution. The space is contrived to melt out of sight. Here the pristine white environment is drawn into the conversation for the stark contrast it provides against the moldering hulks of these sculptures. It frames them, sharpens them, and picks out the immense detail of their structure just as the works themselves defile the immaculate cleanliness of the space. The gallery then, becomes an active part of the viewing experience, if not the work itself, rather than the usual benign backdrop.
The contrast between gallery space and artworks also highlights a rather hackneyed concept—the beauty of decay—and yet it is undeniably and effectively at play here. The reflective floor buoys the great heft of the sculptures on shadowy mirror images, so that they appear to “float” on the glassy surface Marie Celeste-like, recalling certain titans of Romanticisim. William Turner’s “The Fighting ‘Téméraire’ tugged to her last berth to be broken up” (1838) and Casper David Friedrich’s “The Abbey in the Oakwood” (1809 – 10) are superlative examples of the lineage which Buggenhout can claim, both in ruined subject matter and sentiment. High above, the intricate metal beams of the Gladstone gallery’s roof express industrial design in prime condition, antithetical to the decrepit girders within the work below. These environmental interactions, whether accidental or not, speak to the social wistfulness that often accompanies the decline of heavy industry. It is an artistic notion that requires careful handling—exemplified by its current overuse in relation to cities like Detroit or Glasgow—however, the emotional tone and material grit of Buggenhaut’s structures smartly synthesize these concerns.
Looking up from certain positions, one can see the latticework of the roof directly through the broken ribs of the sculptures, placing these remarkable opposites in alignment. Such contrasts between the aesthetics of the new and obsolete speak to the architectural politics and value systems in the spaces of display that contextualize and therefore continue to shape a work of art after it leaves the studio.