PRINT May 1989


THE LANDSCAPE, THE TERRITORY, the earth, like a plane always extending beyond view, offer up to us an infinite and variegated expanse: a universe studded with infinite dispersed points. Or something like one of those great ancient narratives, in which each individual tale is a small precious stone mounted in a large piece of jewelry; or a vast library composed of many, many volumes, some of which contain secret knowledge and others exquisite delights—in the end, the book of the world, in which everything is written and in which no word is ever the last word. Therefore, it will always be a question of going back to look, to rearrange, or just to find that crucial connection—that brief instant—between an individual, or a work, and the event that corresponds to its manifestation. And that instant will be less like an accumulation of energy, and more like an interlacing of light through which energy passes, like an ephemeral spiderweb glinting in the moonlight. It will be an emblem of mystery, the allegorical power of which resists the moment of its appearance, with every thread of its discourse continuing to cling, in the dazzling light of day, to the darkness from which it emerged.

This has been, and continues to be, what the work of Fortuyn/O’Brien suggests to me, since the first time I saw it in the “Kunst” exhibition at Y.Y.Z. in Toronto in 1985. (Irene Fortuyn and Robert O’Brien had formed their partnership two years earlier, a partnership sustained until O’Brien’s death in 1988.) I remember that winter in Ontario as one of the coldest I had ever known; snow everywhere, imparting to everything an aspect of precious fragility. The softness of a glance or the sweetness of a taste—motifs from other climates, other times, other places—brought consolation to the mind, just as the pleasant warmth of interiors, after the rigors of the cold, offered relief for the body. The works of Fortuyn/ O’Brien were inscribed with the same precious fragility that characterized that dazzling and inhospitable wintry city. Works like Black Look, 1984, and Black Lily and The Queen of Sheba, both 1985, were like small private theaters in which the transparency of surfaces revealed, without negating, the intimate effect of the bourgeois decor being addressed and ironically mimicked—just as an elegant filigree of ice simultaneously reworks and reveals that which lies beneath it. Yet, like grids across a void that threatens to swallow up all the redundant abundance of decoration in the world, these icons’ illusions offered neither escape, nor cumbersome comfort, but rather fragile plots for fortuitous and magically inevitable encounters. Sculptures and gardens.

The sculpture then, and from the beginning: I can mention some Dutch sculptors with whom Fortuyn/O’Brien have affinities. There is, first of all, Henk Visch, whose work precedes theirs by some years, and resembles theirs in the slenderness of the layout; the recourse to materials such as wood, fabric, and paper; and the post-Modernist use of metal outlines and veneers—more figural, ironic, and encyclopedic in Visch’s case, more abstract, playful, and concise in the case of Fortuyn/O’Brien. There is also their contemporary Niek Kemps, with his work’s similar luminosity and transparency—but in a more abstract layout than Visch, and without Fortuyn/O’Brien’s stagey grandiloquence and visual and objective aggressiveness. But Fortuyn/O’Brien’s place in the tradition of sculpture can best be charted in the broader context of the countries along the North Sea, for example in England, where we can trace a 20-year vitality in the medium of sculpture from Anthony Caro to Richard Deacon, including the foreign variants of Anish Kapoor and Shirazeh Houshiary; and in Belgium, where, especially through the work of Jan Vercruysse and Lili Dujourie, we have seen painting itself acquire body through a three-dimensional layout that invades space, opening and closing it in elaborations somewhat less material than the work of the English, somewhat more rhetorical and less membranelike than that of the Dutch.

In the particular case of Fortuyn/O’Brien (with Robert O’Brien, of Irish origin, born in England, and Irene Fortuyn, born in Holland), sculpture becomes an axis of the primary relationship between man-as-measure-of-all-things (the fascination of Mediterranean origins, pre-Socratic Greek thought and mythology, the Italian Renaissance in its primitive version, all Italy as a place of eternal engagement between nature and culture) and the world itself. Thus their sculpture crosses through the fundamental Renaissance and post-Renaissance categories, as articulated not only in that period’s works themselves, but also in its writing, from the texts of Alberti to Cellini to Bernini. Thus, Fortuyn/O’Brien, making no distinction between Mannerism and the Baroque, just as they make no distinction between Minimalism and post- Modern design, play freely with and between a highly rational, conceptual structuring impulse and a spectacular—almost grandiose—focus on surface. Through perspective, and through theories of proportion, their work becomes an exquisite balancing act between the human being and the world, between the earthly and the cosmic: the expression of an individual sensibility, rather than a tool for conditioning others’ sensibilities. Finally, by crossing through both the corruption and alienation of 19th- and 20th-century bourgeois interior design, it ends up questioning Modernity in all its forms: the autonomy of art and its privileged spaces; the positivist nature of planning (architecture and design); the balanced opposition between rationality and irrationality, between what is openly declared and what is kept secret, between what is transparent and what is hidden, between significance and form. Yet, given all this, they do not get mixed up, as Paul Groot has properly emphasized, with Post-Modern “props,” which are a response, at the same time trivial and spectacular, to the very same range of problems. Fortuyn/O’Brien’s work reflects a separate, distant stance, expressed through stylistic motifs in dissonance with the familiar imagery of the present. The results, then—even as they stem from a precise analysis of both the current situation and history—are strange and eccentric. Just as Alice behaved according to the Victorian norms of good sense when faced with the bizarre reality of Wonderland, so too do the works of Fortuyn/O’Brien behave in the face of the equally bizarre reality of contemporary life.

Then the garden. The garden was already implicit as a horizon in certain of their 1983 pieces. In Cemeterio d’Historia (Cemetery of history), for example, four fragments emerge from a pool like some precious ruins from a vanished civilization (in fact they are polystyrene, partially coated in glass mosaic), or like excrescences simultaneously produced by the mirror of water and reabsorbed into it: sculptural narcissi. Or, in Diamonds are Forever, two pillars of brick, plaster, and granite—both shaped like the electrical transformers typical of Dutch cities—seem to grow out of an urban meadow in Dordrecht; faceless Greek herms, where, in the place one would find the phallus, a vertical cleft opens up through which one can glimpse a diamond within (in fact, a shard of black graphite). The garden became fundamental in two pieces created in Arnhem in 1986: It’s 10 o’clock, do you know where your children are?, in the park of Sonsbeek (for “Sonsbeek ’86”), and The owl and the pussycat went to see, for the Gemeentemuseum. The former consisted of two slender, gatelike trellises of enameled iron facing one another across a tree-lined path; each framing an oval-shaped “window” of clear Plexiglas, and each window surface incised with another, smaller cut-out oval. In the latter work for the Gemeentemuseum, the artists installed an archlike trellis of enameled blue iron between two sturdy trees. In the arch-shaped “window” of clear Plexiglas that the trellis contains, the window appears again, etched into the Plexiglas in a smaller outlined version, and in foreshortened perspective. The fine line between transparency and reflection, between the reality and the illusion of our earthly garden, is dealt with even more openly in Fortuyn/O’Brien’s The Twenty-Four Men in White, 1988, for the garden of the Maison de la Culture et de la Communication in Saint-Etienne. There, the three components were rather different in a formal sense, but together epitomized the artists’ intentions: a small wood hut with a blind window; two Carrara marble chairs placed next to one another; and an arched trellis of white-enamel iron. Moving through the rising terrain of the park, one passed from the hut, both primary and picturesque, through the topological presence of the chairs, to the arched trellis; simultaneously, then, one traveled from the fact of an earthly house (though this house offers no means of access, not even for the eye), and through that site of observation and reflection—the two chairs—into the idea of theater and image. And those seats, whether abandoned by former occupants or awaiting future ones, thus became both deserted thrones and double tombs. If in If you go down in the woods today, 1988, we are once again brought within an interior, we know that the garden is already there, evoked and present. In each of two tall arched trellises of enameled iron, two arched doors/windows of Plexiglas have been inserted, framed once again in painted wood. In one structure, Fortuyn/O’Brien have etched the shape of a tall, narrow vase on the closer surface of Plexiglas; on the farther surface, the shadowlike shape of a large flower. Is this the vase of Ettore Spalletti? Is this the fabric flower of Jannis Kounellis? Perhaps this phantasm of a cut flower in a vase is an affectionate remembrance of recent Italian art. But perhaps it is something more as well: the two arches are surrounded by a number of tall shrubs potted in vases, potted shrubs making their first appearance in this piece for the Galerie Joost Declercq in Gent, a vast, bare, hangarlike space. Whether indoors or outdoors, Fortuyn/O’Brien present us with the garden as an imitation of the world and of the garden that the world evokes: that site where we attempt to frame unruly reality; and in which some aspects of reality can only be reflected, in which still others can filter through, and yet without ever being decisively captured in the trap of the image. For all their exactitude and rigidity, Fortuyn/O’Brien’s measures of “containment” never interrupt the flow of experience, never let us rest contented in either the Albertian intersection of the visual pyramid or in the grid of Dürer, for their measures are not ultimately intended to send back any sort of fixed image. In Fortuyn/O’Brien’s work, both the wonder of the world (The owl and the pussycat went to see is more than a title) and its disquieting uncertainty (It’s 10 o’clock, do you know where your children are?) remain intact, and their frank invitation (If you go down in the woods today) continues to win us over.

Archipallo and Archipallo’—these are ideolectic deformations of the Italian arcipelago (archipelago)—offer similar invitations. Archipallo, 1988, arranged along the narrower back wall of the long gallery space of Locus Solus in Genoa, is a large door/grillework in ocher-enameled iron, the same color as the gallery floor. In front of the grillework, two box trees, pruned to cone shapes, stand in vases. As in Dürer’s famous woodcut of a draftsman drawing a portrait, ca. 1525, then, we see again a grid and a small pyramidal obelisk—but here there is no figure or landscape beyond the door/grillework, only the emptiness of the white wall of the gallery. Archipallo’ was situated on the opposite wall, very far away; it would take many presences to interrupt one’s view, to disrupt the relationship between the grillework door and its two potted box trees and this painted wood frame hanging on the far wall (with eight layers of different colors applied, one on top of another, and then successively erased, so that the different tones irregularly and casually come to the surface, for the effect of marble, of alabaster, of semiprecious stone). The frame encloses a sheet of clear Plexiglas etched with an elliptically shaped hole. But it is only the pristine white surface of the gallery wall that fills that hole; so that emptiness shines through both ways. In front, in a vase, is a box tree pruned to a ball shape. We stand, enchanted, between ideal forms of both nature and culture, enticed by both but offered escape through neither. We, the viewers, poised between these structures of polished perfect clarity, become part of that clarity: diamonds are forever.

Pier Luigi Tazzi is a writer who lives in Florence. He contributes regularly to Artforum.

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.