PRINT November 1998


In his 1960 novel, La noia (Boredom), Alberto Moravia blamed the existential ennui of postwar Europe on a reality that had grown patently absurd. For Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone, too, reality’s failings are at the heart of our present-day malaise, which he wholeheartedly accepts as an aspect of the human condition. Taking this premise as his point of departure, Rondinone creates mixed-media installations that run the gamut of artistic genres and techniques—including landscape drawing, abstract painting, photographic portraiture, realist sculpture, and video—and reflect the belief that the artist’s role is to reinvent reality rather than just mediate it. To this end, he often takes his own subjectivity as an artist as a starting point, in part embracing, in part resisting bourgeois notions about the artist as clown/entertainer, as marginalized visionary, or as conduit for the sublime. In his installations, he exposes the mechanisms of style, technical bravado, and presentation as aesthetic contrivances, which, like language for Samuel Beckett, may be worn-out and trite but remain the artist’s only means of coming to terms with the alienating forces of our technology-driven times.

For his first one-man show at the Galerie Walcheturm in Zurich, in 1991, Rondinone made a series of sketches of the Swiss countryside in an idealized style reminiscent of early nineteenth-century plein-air painting. He then enlarged the notebook-size originals to a monumental scale by projecting a photographic negative of each drawing onto a huge sheet of paper and copying, in ink, the negative image. Before hanging the enormous, framed landscapes, Rondinone covered the gallery’s large picture window with whitewashed planks, which blocked out most of the natural light, exaggerating the artificiality of the environment and heightening the contrast between his highly stylized depictions of nature and their “true-to-life” scale.

Rondinone’s interest in provoking confrontations between the real and the artificial also informs his more complex installations, which owe much to the artist’s early dabbling in performance art. (Before he began his studies at Vienna’s Hochschule für angewandte Kunst in 1986, he did a short stint working with Hermann Nitsch and his Orgies Mystery Theater.) The influence of performance was most apparent in one of Rondinone’s first institutional exhibitions (“dog days are over”), in 1996, at Zurich’s Museum für Gegenwartskunst, where he created an installation that brought together live actors, sound, painting, and video and took the figure of the clown as its centerpiece. At the show’s opening, several paunchy, middle-aged men made up as clowns lounged lazily on the floor of one of the museum’s galleries, moving only to change position or to yawn. Fits of hysterical laughter could be heard from hidden speakers activated by sensors whenever a visitor entered. (For the rest of the exhibition’s run, the clowns were replaced by their videotaped likenesses on monitors set up precisely where each clown had sat.) On the walls behind the clowns, Rondinone spray-painted huge blurry “targets,” series of concentric circles that were color-coded to match the giddy combinations of blue, orange, brown, green, and yellow used in the clown’s costumes and makeup.

If the ensemble’s initial effect was carnivalesque, with time, a creeping sense of unanswered expectations, boredom, and emptiness took over. This was due partly to the fact that the clowns never performed (they barely moved) and partly to their pathetic appearance. Rondinone’s buffoon is a tragic everyman caught between the banality of his own life and his job of making us forget the banality of ours; a role, one senses, that Rondinone identifies with. In a later version of the same installation, done for a show in 1997 at Le Consortium in Dijon, Rondinone worked on a grander scale, now presenting the videos as gigantic wall projections. He also included a selection of photographs from a series he had begun in 1995, titled “I don’t live here anymore.” In these, Rondinone used digital imaging to superimpose his face onto photographs of the lithe, childlike bodies of female models taken from fashion magazines. Leaving traces of five o’clock shadow on his face, he called attention to the fact that the photographs had been manipulated. Seemingly unrelated, these two sets of images—of dejected, marginal men and idealized feminine beauties—are manifestations of the artist’s conflicted nature, his internal anxieties and desires writ large—a public offering of an intensely subjective alternative “reality.”

Lately, Rondinone has turned to translating his psychological states into environments that are intended to provoke a corresponding mood in the viewer. For his contribution to the group show “An Unrestricted View of the Mediterranean” at the Kunsthaus Zürich last June, Rondinone took three stones found in a country stream as models, from which he made enlarged plaster replicas; he coated them with a shiny lacquer and embedded several audio speakers into their surfaces. The plaster “stones” were then suspended in the center of a white room with harsh yellow trim which the artist flooded with fluorescent light. An almost despondent voice endlessly droned from the speakers, “What could be better? Nothing is better.” Hanging near the stones, placed in such a way that the viewer could only see one at a time, four white video monitors each played a continuous loop—of car lights approaching in a snowstorm, a man opening and closing a door, a half-naked pushing up a crumbling back-drop, or a man floating underwater with his eyes open—that had been isolated from a film (Antonioni’s are a favorite source) and then slowed down and repeated. By disrupting normal filmic progression, Rondinone created a sense of suspended, cyclical time, which became the installation’s dominant motif. This state of suspension, echoed by the floating rocks (symbolic of the weightiness of time), worked in combination with the installation’s hot light and color, its meaningless, incantatory sound and pointless imagery, to evoke an undeniable feeling of hopelessness and alienation, and to create an unexpectedly austere and eerie beauty.

If Rondinone’s art seems elusive, it is perhaps because the forms he uses, culled from both high art and popular culture, meld into a composite vision that, like reality itself, is increasingly difficult to grasp as a whole. Rather than concoct a strategy to critique the complexities and contradictions of life, Rondinone offers instead a highly personal, parallel reality, which—filled with fantasy, angst, monotony, and despair—may be closer to the truth than we’d care to admit.

Elizabeth Janus is a frequent contributor to Artforum.