Formato Comodo, Madrid | September 11 – December 9, 2014
Halfway through last year’s memorial service for Nelson Mandela, the official sign language interpreter, Thamsanqa Jantjie, started to deviate from what the world leaders standing next to him were saying. His signing slowly devolved into intermittent nonsensical gestures and phrases. He later claimed to have lost control of his hands due to a schizophrenic attack during which he believed he saw angels flying into the stadium. The episode was an embarrassment for the African National Congress government, which had hoped to use the event as a platform to demonstrate South Africa’s post-Apartheid functionality. It also served as a strange disruption to the carefully scripted spectacle of diplomatic pageantry.
In her current solo show Foreign Office (Oficina de Asuntos Exteriores), Spanish artist Teresa Solar Abboud takes this deviation of language and spectacle as a point of departure for new work. Using traditional ceramic techniques, she has attempted to “engrave” Jantjie’s erratic gestures into pottery, pushing his hand-signs into spinning clay. The resulting objects look like glazed funnel cakes, imbued with the motion of hands. One piece spins slowly and silently of its own accord next to a stationary twin in the corner of the gallery. Both are lustrous white, and Abboud named them after interpretations of Jantjie’s gestures she found on the Internet—“F A F A F A” and “R U N R U N” respectively. In the center of the room, two more ceramic pieces sit on a skeletal bench made of unfinished wood and raw upholstery foam, acting as the show’s focal point. These works are shorter, rounded as if folded in on themselves, and glazed deep maroon. A similar ceramic piece rotates on an ancient potter’s wheel set on top a matching base covered in carpeting, the machine’s mechanical vibrations echoing throughout the gallery. Against the walls, thick candy-colored twists hang from telephone cables bound tightly around their midsection. These pieces trace Jantjie’s signs into lines in the air using swimming tubes glazed in sparkling pink by an auto-body specialist. Like the ceramic pieces, they have the quality of gestural motions frozen in space.
Despite the very tactile nature of the show, the interplay between concept and materials is paramount. In the vein of Carl Andre, Abboud employs artisanal and industrial materials to transliterate a complex network of language and ideas. A map of her process hangs prominently at the galley entrance, as if inviting the viewer behind the scenes of her experimentation. It is a large piece of paper with folds that create a grid over which ideas, phrases, and textures are scribbled out in little bubbles connected by lines. A photo of Abboud’s fingers running through clay is pinned to the map next to a photo of cacti, the stems of which resemble contorted hands.
This summer, Abboud completed and exhibited a feature-length video piece entitled “All the things that aren’t there (Las cosas que no están)” in Madrid’s Matadero Contemporary Art Center. The video follows Abboud as she drifts from the Eastern United States to the Nevada desert, tracing the history of Harold Eugene Edgerton, a photographer and inventor who worked on photographing tests of atomic weapons. The film is a documentary of sorts but also a meditation on how photography allows us to look at the world, essentially how it reveals the world as material to be used and exploited. In the video, and in Abboud’s earlier work, she toys with the idea that documentation (film, photos, mapping, etc.) is more than just a technological process, and always goes hand in hand with the colonial transformation of lands, narratives, and people. She implicates the role of art in this as well, restructuring and reenacting films and histories in order to reveal these transformations.
Because so much of Abboud’s previous work has used photography and film, this collection of pieces reads as an attempt to translate her themes into sculpture. Foreign Office uses conceptual objects to follow these themes into the realm of language, especially the official dialect of state functions where every word and gesture carries a coded meaning. At Mandela’s memorial, much was made of Obama’s handshake with Cuban president Raúl Castro, as well as the selfie he took with David Cameron and Helle Thorning-Schmidt. These performative and deviant gestures, along with Jantjie’s invented language, were mined afterwards for political and social meaning. Slavoj iek even went as far as to write in an op-ed for the Guardian that, “through his fake translation, Jantjie rendered palpable the fake of the entire ceremony.” Abboud hasn’t tried to instill meaning into these lapses in speech and gestural decorum—she has simply translated them into an aesthetic, material language. The results are startlingly simple and yet intellectually complex, bypassing the officialdom of diplomatic speech to approach a kind of ceramic poetry.
MICHAEL MCCANNE is a writer and editor at Lightful Press. He lives and works in Brooklyn.