PRINT Summer 2012


Nairy Baghramian, “Formage de tête” (Gardemanger bleu), 2011, color photograph, metal, lacquer, glass, 31 7/8 x 25 3/4 x 1 1/2".

THE ORGANIC AND THE GEOMETRIC, the corporeal and the mechanical, the biomorphic and the technical: At first glance, Nairy Baghramian’s sculpture appears firmly grounded in these antinomies, inevitably recalling the decisive role played by such dualisms in the history of post-Minimalism and Arte Povera.¹ The Berlin-based artist’s invocation of this legacy is not aimed at posthistoire or pastiche, however. Rather, it serves to draw attention to those forces that today put the production and reception of aesthetic objects under permanent duress. At a time when much contemporary sculpture has replaced the traditional parameters of mass, volume, weight, scale, surface, and texture with either accumulations of readymades or the sprawling environments typical of installation art, Baghramian employs various counterstrategies in order to reflect on the conditions of current artistic practice and the possibilities of sculpture in particular within our global political economy of commodities, services, and goods. Encompassing art’s relations to interior design and the urban public sphere, her idiosyncratic and allegorical approach dialectically probes and materially articulates models for critically inhabiting the ideological spaces of art.

The group of works gathered under the title “Formage de tête”, 2011, encapsulates much of the prescience, conceptual acuity, and formal inventiveness of her oeuvre to date. Shown in two versions in 2011—first at Galerie Buchholz in Berlin and then at the Venice Biennale—the installation includes rectangular sheets of silicone resting on bases of lacquered gray steel that seem quite delicate by comparison. The soft, rubbery surfaces project over the metal structures that bear them, in some places drooping toward the floor. With unfinished and often frayed edges, these opaque surfaces are marked by gaping holes, cuts, indentations, splits, and impressions of varying forms and depths, which result in protuberances on their undersides. Large, shiny silver lids make up another part of the ensemble; they hang on crude hooks attached to thin gray poles, which are stuck in disproportionately small cast-iron pedestals. Dark brown silicone has dried into puddles on the bottom edge of each lid, and has sometimes splattered on the outside as well.

As art historian Manuela Ammer recently observed, the title “Formage de tête” suggests that “the tension between reflexive consciousness and neutral materials” forms the work’s central motif.² The French phrase literally means “molding of a head”: It is a pun on fromage de tête, or headcheese. In its gastronomic grotesquerie, the title draws attention to the conditions necessary for the conception and realization of artworks. The practice of cooking is proposed as an activity of plastic creation analogous to the making of postmodern sculpture. The sculptures reminiscent of tables are, moreover, subtitled Réchauds (after the pans that keep food warm in a buffet), while the hanging metal lids dressed with silicone are their corresponding Capots (French for “hoods” or “covers”).

In Venice, this culinary allegory was reinforced through additional elements. At the top of both entrances to the gallery housing the work in the Giardini’s Central Pavilion, the artist installed swinging doors with round windows, like those found in restaurant kitchens. The titles of the individual components, meanwhile, were listed in “Formage de tête” (Boîte à menu), 2011—a “menu” in a vitrine modeled on those outside restaurants, in this case the Venetian establishment Do Forni. At the bottom of this menu was a list that seemingly enumerated all the ingredients that had left their peculiar traces in the silicone on the tables yet remained absent from the installation: “Bent metal, mirrors, wooden boards, panes of glass, wooden beads, rubber, reflective film, cardboard, foil, foam, colored plexiglass, wire, plastic, tape, curved frosted glass, perforated sheet, stacks of paper, plaster, metal plates, neon lights, plastic mat, wooden pole.” Although these commodity objects and “common” materials were not present in the show, viewers of the Réchauds could easily surmise that they were being confronted with their negative forms.

The list only seemed to promise a solution to the riddle of the work, however. Put another way, as Ammer has pointed out, the artist is also presenting molds for the future production of a potentially infinite number of identical objects. In a reversal of Richard Serra’s programmatic Verb List, 1967–68, here the materials, not the sculptural procedures and their bodily enactment, are cited in relation to a past, future, or even perpetually deferred deployment. Post-Minimalism’s productivist ethos is suspended in favor of a temporal ambiguity that imbues the presence of the work with the gaping absence of the refined and definite sculptural product and that privileges morphological ambivalence over formal resolution. Pointedly, Baghramian’s list is a representative sampling of the elements on which sculpture of the past five decades—including her own—has fed. This idiosyncratic buffet—which couldn’t be further from the dinner parties of Daniel Spoerri or Dieter Roth—brings up broad questions about what factors and actors a work can yield, as well as what effects these results can have as latent repositories of future works. Crucially, “Formage de tête” thus suggests the ways in which a conception of sculpture as placeholder takes shape in Baghramian’s work.

Nairy Baghramian, Beliebte Stellen (Hot Spots)(detail), 2011, metal rods, lacquer, 19 5/8 x 23 5/8 x 4"

IF BAGHRAMIAN MAKES USE of the oppositions that inform postwar sculpture, she also upends them through tactics of withdrawal and displacement in order to address the larger apparatus that informs the production of contemporary art. In this regard, another artistic genealogy guides her exacting approaches and methods: Baghramian also engages the legacy of site-specific practices, working to expose and make manifest the symbolic and material conditions of a given place as an integral part of sculpture’s operation. She repeatedly accentuates, for example, the borders between the interior of an institution and its urban surroundings. For the Fifth Berlin Biennale, in 2008, the artist created La Colonne cassée, 1871 (The Broken Column, 1871), a sculpture composed of two lacquered black metal plates, each bent ninety degrees at the bottom and weighted with white steel blocks. The two forms were positioned on opposite sides of the glass facade of Mies van der Rohe’s Neue Nationalgalerie—one inside the building, the other on the plaza. Baghramian’s work straddled the normally invisible chasm between the museum and its immediate environment. As well as pointing to the ways in which the existence of such a chasm was either contested by the incursions of avant-garde sculpture or simply absorbed into corporate architecture itself, as in the baubles of so-called public art placed outside office buildings, La Colonne cassée answers its title’s invocation of the 1871 Paris Commune and its destruction of Napoleon’s column on the Place Vendôme with a whimsical Finish Fetish curve, thereby bringing the revolutionary desecration of a hieratic monument into piquant juxtaposition with the more modest claims of postwar sculpture and its objecthood.

In 2009, Baghramian again created a two-part sculpture, Aufbauhelfer (Construction Helper), for the exhibition “Utopie und Monument I,” curated by Sabine Breitwieser in Graz, Austria. One component, titled Plattform, was a rectangular sheet of rubber onto which additional layers of rubber had been poured. This part leaned limply against a column inside the glass and steel atrium of the Kunsthaus Graz. The second part, Gestell (Frame), stood outside the museum and comprised black and dark green lacquered-steel forms reminiscent of the biomorphic sculptures of Henry Moore or Eduardo Chillida. These objects were chained to the public benches at the Kunsthaus tram stop. Both parts of the arrangement proved dysfunctional: While the rubber mat seemed disqualified as an exhibit without a stand to display it, the outdoor constructions functioned more as decorative furniture than as critical interventions. The splitting of the work into two components and locations suggests that the dichotomy of public space and the art institution is an illusory and thus misleading one. The former is a chimera that cannot offer an escape from the allegedly suffocating logic of the latter, but neither can the gallery space function without public support and a sense of its social role.

ALONGSIDE HER EXPLORATION of contemporary sculpture’s modes of production and institutional display, Baghramian’s work enacts an equally probing reflection on the status and function of the artist. In 2009, while living in London, Baghramian mounted the exhibition “Butcher, Barber, Angler & others” at the city’s Studio Voltaire (several works from which are currently on view at the Kunsthalle Nürnberg). The central work, Butcher, Barber, Angler, 2009, again combines elements of metal and rubber, as well as a ham, and sausages that are suspended from a table. Over this table hangs a part-transparent, part-turquoise hood evocative of a dryer in a hair salon. It is supported by a bent black pole, whose other end forms one leg of a three-legged stool with a convex seat. The components of the work imply links to the specific trades named in its title, while other structures that were in the show look like benches and thus invoke leisure or the passive posture of waiting. All that was left here of the workers who were so often employed in twentieth-century realism to symbolically represent human labor as the preeminent provider of social identity were inflected figurations and interior furnishings. In view of Marx and Engels’s famous passage about hunting in the morning, fishing in the afternoon, and being a critic at night without becoming either hunter, fisherman, or critic, the show articulated the fate of utopian thought in post-Fordist capitalism. Appearing in the middle of a financial crisis,“Butcher, Barber, Angler & others” represented the effects of the economic imperative of flexibility. Today, precisely the opposite of Marx and Engels’s vision has come to pass: Occupations have lost their identity-shaping meaning just as the distinction between work and free time has become obsolete. Subjects do not follow a particular vocation, but rather are called on to adapt to prevailing conditions. What remain are unstable, hybrid identities. In both the London and Nuremberg exhibitions, the broader socioeconomic subtext was emphasized with the inclusion of Anzeigenformat (Advertising Format), 2009—a work comprising overlapping planes of blown glass and silicone, which Baghramian placed in sight of the benches, bringing to mind the notices found in job centers.

Nairy Baghramian, “Formage de tête” (detail), 2011, mixed media. Installation view, Galerie Buchholz, Berlin. Photo: Nick Ash.

The reflexive tendency of Baghramian’s practice also informs her activities as an author and public speaker. In a talk this past March at the Vera List Center for Art and Politics at the New School in New York, she discussed the ways in which curators and critics, responding to the displacement of institutions by large group exhibitions, increasingly elevate the autonomy of artworks in a way that constrains or even precludes artists’ own contributions to current discourse. Far from assuming that art’s claim to autonomy would today ipso facto be null and void, Baghramian saw its problematic resurgence in the multiplicity of “unpositioned, mystical art objects” called on to operate within the framework of almost siteless biennials, art fairs, and the like. She also lamented “the fashionability of work with a dubious formal resemblance to process-based art and Arte Povera.”³ Without specifically contrasting her own works to art that simplistically emulates such historical precursors, Baghramian continued:

What motivates this rapprochement is the fact [that] the only art statement being made by the artists here is the bare fact of their making or doing. The term process-based, however, to my mind thus loses the quality it had in the 1970s. Today, artists apparently can simply produce objects and images, without triggering cultural processes or political debates. The production process is what apparently matters and supplants the process of thinking and articulating.

In combative remarks like this one, Baghramian appears committed to an expanded notion of institutional critique along the lines of what Andrea Fraser defined as the “methodology of critically reflexive site-specificity.”⁴ Such an approach emerges literally on some occasions, as for example in Baghramian’s use of the architectural features of a room: Works such as Große Klappe 1, 2, 3 (Big Mouth 1, 2, 3) and Spanner (Stretcher-Loiterer), both 2008, are placed in doorframes or lean against walls, marking the thresholds, passages, and corners of an exhibition space, which usually escape a viewer’s attention. Still, her practice addresses not only the phenomenological horizon but also the institutional, historical, and social context of artistic labor. Baghramian’s oeuvre of the past ten years emphasizes a mnemonic dimension that, while articulating itself above all through the concrete process of making, does not regard sculptural procedures as self-sufficient. Nor does it restitute an obsolete, even regressive aesthetic of the handmade and craftlike in order to provide a compensatory aesthetic experience. Her works, particularly in the tactile quality of the materials, instead make various facets of production visible in the form of indexical traces, gauging and registering the historical transitions artistic practices and its contexts have been subjected to since the late 1960s. In this light, the morphology and conception of her works address the relationship between abstraction and allusion, so rancorous in the field of post-Minimalist sculpture, only to divert it toward questions of functionality and even figuration, as the example of “Formage de tête” makes particularly clear.

FROM THIS PERSPECTIVE, the multiple “Waste Baskets” Baghramian made from wire mesh and rubber in 2009–10 stress the attentiveness and effort required to maintain—or, more fundamentally, to establish—a self-conscious practice that does not relapse into models of production that today could only qualify as travesty or farce. The encroachment of interior design and the service industry into the realm of art is shown to have radically altered the status of the producer of art and the spaces, as well as the subject-object relations, of aesthetic contemplation. These changed circumstances are also reflected in the kinds of service professions that Baghramian evokes: They are related to the social sphere of contemporary art, yet cannot be identified with its traditional actors or role models. The Berlin installation of “Formage de tête” thus featured a fictive figure called Gardemanger—named after the person traditionally charged in French cuisine with the preparation of cold dishes—who was presented in a pair of photographs in the offices of Galerie Buchholz. The photographs (“Formage de tête” [Gardemanger rouge] and “Formage de tête” [Gardemanger bleu], both 2011) did not offer a portrait with individual characteristics, but rather showed a faceless figure composed of a chef’s neckerchief, toque, and jacket. This Gardemanger was thereby added to the arsenal of professionals embodied in Baghramian’s oeuvre, though he gets special status: He was also listed at the end of the press release for the show, as if he were its author. This statement, which was written by Baghramian, and is peppered with references to the likes of Deleuze and Guattari, Georges Didi-Huberman, and Henri Michaux, treats the Réchauds in particular as ciphers of an artistic production in which unformed matter is in continual conflict with attempts, consistent with the “economy of the auratic” or the “currency of critique,” to imbue this matter with meaning. The traces of absent objects on the one hand void the presence of the creator,6 which presumably underlies the claim that the “false cook” in this scenario is not operating as a stand-in for the artist, but rather “counterbalances the auratic moment of encounter entailed in production.” On the other hand, as the text states, each cast “makes a secret of its object and the reason for it.” What is more, “production and its cessation” may coincide in a body of work. This aporetic formulation makes clear that Baghramian is not claiming a standpoint outside the field of advanced sculpture. “Formage de tête” answers more with a strategy of withdrawal, which privileges “the poured casting of thoughts” over a “professional deformation,” as the press release puts it. The paradox of the work thus lies in the attempt to give form to the very disruption of the incessant cycle of aesthetic-object production.

Nairy Baghramian, Butcher, Barber, Angler, 2009, painted metal, fiberglass, rubber, ham, sausages. Installation view, Studio Voltaire, London.

Unlike in post-Minimalism, which resorts to the somatic in opposition to the technocratic leanings of Minimal art, it is not the body and its gestures that leave behind indexical imprints and clues in Baghramian’s work. Rather, sculptural production itself becomes the matrix: History, in other words, here literally serves as the mold that generates the medium’s current incarnations and at the same time delineates its contemporary space of possibility. Accordingly, the individual work of art does not act as a surrogate for the process of manufacture that is accompanied by a visceral promise of the experience of bodily plenitude. Nor is the work an anthropomorphic avatar that would, according to critic Isabelle Graw’s argument about the return of the human figure in contemporary art, claim a presence as a quasi subject.⁶ Indeed, Baghramian’s homage to Claes Oldenburg (DD 75, BH Mod. NB, Ref. CO, 2011) makes it clear that she follows an opposing strategy, one of the reduction of volume and the negation of gestalt. In this piece, the elements of Oldenburg’s famous Ghost Wardrobe (for M. M.), 1967–69, are further reduced, so that all that is left of the mass-media fabrication of Marilyn Monroe is a closet rod, fragmentary coat hangers made from concrete, and two rubber objects reminiscent of bras. This sculpture still—if barely—carries the expectation of a physical correlation between viewer and aesthetic object, but through the strategy of reduction, it defines itself as a fragment, as the product of an annihilation of matter or (as in the case of the Réchauds) as the residue of forms that have been taken away or subtracted from aesthetic experience. This emphasizes questions of placement and context, especially in light of Baghramian’s warning, in her New York lecture, about the danger of site-specific approaches being pushed into redundancy by the event-based structure of global mega-exhibitions.

If works such as “Formage de tête” throw many facets of (non)production into vibrant relief, Beliebte Stellen (Hot Spots), 2011, installed last year at the Temporary Stedelijk ² in Amsterdam, highlights modes of reception and presentation. In this work, Baghramian more specifically probes the lingering prominence of site-specific strategies that—in addition to having historically been privileged at the Stedelijk—have been formative for her own development. In this installation, metal rods that look like large, opened rings are attached to the walls and the floor. These forms are covered with several layers of color, applied so that drips of paint are visible as the result of the process—without, however, being necessarily recognizable as the traces of bodily activity. These bent rods are usually supported at only one or two points, in a way that keeps them at a slight distance from the walls, resulting in a tension between the lightness of the objects, as suggested by their form, color, and mounting, and their actual materiality. The status of these radically reduced sculptures remains suspended between the poles of genuine work and simple demarcation. Once again, they operate as placeholders. On the one hand, some objects are at eye level and others are sited on the floor, slightly displaced in relation to the entrance and exit of the gallery, marking the privileged points of a museum or gallery space traditionally used for the presentation of artworks. On the other hand, their nongeometric arrangement could be seen as a critical interaction with the conventions of display.

Baghramian explicitly includes herself in this reflection on site-specific methodologies, particularly given her repeated emphasis on insular spaces such as passageways or the margins of an exhibition parcours. Yet in this case, the association with decoration, ornament, and even jewelry, already clearly invoked, is amplified by the mint green, dark blue, navy, pink, and beige chosen for the paint—colors that seem to be taken from the spectrum of midcentury modern design.⁷ Raising the question of the added critical value that supposedly accompanies the accentuation of the specific places within a gallery where paintings or sculpture are usually displayed, Baghramian’s installation also answered it. It did so both tentatively and provocatively, with the insight that every artistic method that remains oblivious to its own automatisms or incapable of resisting its own conventionalization threatens to expose art as mere embellishment—and the artist as nothing more than a supplier of new products for the ineluctable mechanisms of global cultural consumption.

André Rottmann is an art historian and critic based in Berlin.

Nairy Baghramian, DD 75, BH Mod. NB, Ref. CO, 2011, stainless-steel tube, concrete, plaster, rigging thread, rubber, approx. 67 x 19 x 25".


1. On the antinomies of post-Minimalist sculpture, see James Meyer, “The Minimal Unconscious,” October 130 (Fall 2009): 174–76. For a discussion of that legacy’s impact on contemporary sculptural production, see Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Refuse and Refuge” (1993), in Gabriel Orozco, ed. Yve-Alain Bois (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009), 1–15.

2. Manuela Ammer, “Es ist angerichtet: Über Nairy Baghramian in der Galerie Daniel Buchholz,” Texte zur Kunst 21, no. 83 (September 2011): 261.

3. Nairy Baghramian, “Le Mépris: A Talk Without Image-Objects” (lecture, New School, New York, March 15, 2012).

4. Andrea Fraser, “What is Institutional Critique?,” in Institutional Critique and After, ed. John Welchman (Zurich: JRP | Ringier, 2006), 304–309: 305. Baghramian came of age as an artist in Berlin in the 1990s. Influential factors in her formation as an artist included so-called Context art (particularly the methods of Fraser, Christian Philipp Müller, Renée Green, and Fareed Armaly), as well as the debates about political art in self-organized exhibition spaces, the theater of Heiner Müller, which greatly influenced aesthetic debates of the time, and the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. See “Interview with Nairy Baghramian by Julia Peyton-Jones and Hans Ulrich Obrist,” in Nairy Baghramian, Phyllida Barlow, exh. cat., ed. Kathryn Rattee and Melissa Larner (London: Serpentine Gallery, 2010), 23–30.

5. See Rosalind E. Krauss, The Optical Unconscious (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993), 260.

6. Isabelle Graw, “Ecce Homo: Art and Subjecthood,” Artforum, November 2011, 240–47.

7. In this context, Baghramian’s collaboration with the Swiss designer Janette Laverrière, who died in 2011, as well as her interest in the works of Carlo Mollino, is pertinent. See Nairy Baghramian, “Ménage à trois, quatre, cinq . . .” in Entre deux actes—Loge de comedienne, ed. Karola Kraus (Baden-Baden, Germany: Staatliche Kunsthalle, Baden-Baden, 2009), 30.