PRINT December 2013

Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev

Adrián Villar Rojas, Today We Reboot the Planet, 2013, unfired clay, mixed media. Installation view, Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London. Photo: Jörg Baumann.

ADRIÁN VILLAR ROJAS’S ANTIMONUMENTS seem always to exist in the aftermath of catastrophe, conjuring a sense of dark ecology and yet also of lively, vibrant matter. They evince a cosmic expansiveness of vision, such that distinctions between institutions and places cease to seem germane. Perhaps this is why I find it impossible to discuss one of Villar Rojas’s exhibitions—his recent show in London at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery—without first discussing another.

At MoMA PS1 in New York this past summer, as part of “Expo 1: New York” (a multivenue project loosely organized around ecological themes), Villar Rojas proposed La inocencia de los animales, a sculptural-architectural intervention that suggested an ancient amphitheater, a chimera, a fusion of antique ruin and twentieth-century institutional architecture. The interpenetration of structures and temporalities appeared to be the consequence of a geological cataclysm: Broken-down columns of unfired grayish clay had been left in dark recesses, as they might have fallen during an earthquake or a typhoon. And this structural hybridity was accompanied by a temporal one. Trauma and collapse felt as if they had occurred not yesterday but sometime in modernity’s past; the twentieth century paradoxically felt like a long-gone age, while we, the visitors, might have been beings from the late twenty-first century or beyond. Whispering and talking, the denizens of multiple epochs sat on the steps of the old arena teaching one another lessons: an ancient university of the future. It was like a scene from a story set in Giorgio Agamben’s “time that remains,” and reminded me of the “time after time” or “messianic time” to which Agamben refers, in his essay on Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans, as being the time left for “us” between the revelation and the Last Judgment. In this interval, all is repeated; there is a double sense of being in linear time and existing after time’s end, in a state of waiting.

This past fall, at the Serpentine’s new gallery—a renovated Georgian gunpowder repository in Kensington Gardens—the sense of a time after the end of time was amplified by Villar Rojas’s Today We Reboot the Planet, an installation curated by Sophie O’Brien. For security purposes, the repository was designed in 1805 as a brick storage chamber surrounded by a perimeter wall, so that when visitors enter the building, they step into a moat-like corridor that wraps around the central structure. The repository’s Neoclassical facade, facing Hyde Park, gives no hint of the fortified warehouse within. Villar Rojas’s main architectural intervention was to double that facade by adding a second, apparently identical one inside, along the front brick wall of the internal gunpowder-storage space. He thus created a new “outside” within the building. This space within space also corresponded to a form of time travel. Entering the gallery, visitors encountered an unfired clay elephant, seemingly petrified, reminiscent of the figures in Pompeii—frozen in time, and in the act of trying to push its way into the (interior) facade. The enormous figure remains in my mind as an embodied memory of animality and of urban zoo culture—and of an unknown cataclysm that may have encouraged the pachyderm’s attempt to find refuge indoors, to save himself. And the space to which this creature sought access, the bifurcated storage chamber at the core of the building, appeared to be a museum-fortress that had been overwhelmed by unknown events that shut it down, walled it up, forced it to withdraw into its own silent world of fired handmade red brick and assemblages of unfired, cracking gray clay, found objects, and plants. This hermetic archive housed a large collection of objects arrayed on shelves. They had been placed there, it seemed, as witnesses from an era long past; an era that was in fact 2013, the current cusp of the digital age, with its fear of losing embodied materialities; an era that the artist seemed to ask us to regard from a great distance in time and space, as if through a telescope that captures light from ancient stars. Old shoes, bottles, shards of glass, parts of tools, the flotsam of daily life: It was as if some future archaeologist, long after our “real” present but already dead and long gone by the time we stepped into the repository and into Villar Rojas’s science-fiction future, had obsessively collected these artifacts from the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, had tried to reconstruct various missing parts with clay, and had carefully archived the items on the shelves of this bunker-museum, in an embodied memorial created through collecting the material objects of our times. The entire space was also covered with a redbrick floor, in yet another transformation of soil. And “outside” the chamber-archive, along the narrow corridor between the real facade and the internal facade where the elephant sought to push its way in, visitors were allowed to walk. There, they came across monumental round shapes reminiscent of water tanks. It was a very narrow path, where ultimate access was both given and denied, where life had once been, where water had once been.

Adrián Villar Rojas, Today We Reboot the Planet (detail), 2013, unfired clay, mixed media. Installation view, Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London. Photo: Jörg Baumann.

In many ways, though, Villar Rojas’s sci-fi scenarios are hymns to life, even as they appear post-apocalyptic. The artist celebrates the vibrancy of ostensibly inanimate materials and shows us how matter actually matters by incarnating different temporalities and stories, by animistically becoming the space of magic once again, the space of enchantment, speculation, and fabulation. A networked society such as ours is not only an immaterial world where data is ceaselessly and effortlessly transmitted, mined, and surveilled, apparently in a black box. It is also an exoteric world, a world of leaks and disclosures. Such externality, all too obviously, does not produce transparency, nor does it beat back the stealthy advance of authoritarianism—it merely produces a state of out-there-ness. As such, what was once esoteric, magic, secret, withdrawn, hidden, unpublic, may actually have become—through resistance to the instrumentalization of knowledge in the service of the ethos of transactions—the space of possible freedom and of a renewed publicness. For today, paradoxically, a thing may be truly public, political, part of the res publica, only to the extent that it may be hidden from what passes for public but is actually only spectacle. If it was once possible to make a clear distinction between agora and inner sanctum, public and private, in Villar Rojas’s work we see these social-architectural-historical formations constantly crumbling and reconstituting themselves as unstable palimpsests—or rather, not just crumbling and reconstituting themselves of their own accord, but being unbuilt and rebuilt, for good and ill, by agents, by subjects. That is, they are created and destroyed by creatures who themselves are stuck in history like microorganisms fossilized in clay—synecdoche for materiality itself, that matrix that entraps us but that also enables the very possibility of our agency, intersubjectivity, imaginary projections through time, and public-private ethics. And in particular, the material we call clay, its forms registering the encounter of human agency (the gesture of molding) with the “actancy” of the material itself (because it was made by the intentionality and capacity of nonhuman elements, specifically from erosion by water), has a multiple connotation: It is able to endure the ages when fired and turned into ceramic, yet by that same act of firing it is rendered tremendously fragile; if left unfired, it dries, cracks, and lives a worldly, temporal life, both breaking and returning to dust. Unfired clay fills the museum with particles of the earth’s crust, with matter symbiotically alive with bacteria, with cells, with composted stories. And you cannot upload all that clay to any cloud or server—it resists the transactions of knowledge and the false public space of the digital world.

Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev is a curator and visiting professor in the department of art theory and practice at Northwestern University, Evanston, Il.