Ugo Rondinone

“My wallet’s stuffed with paper napkins with names and phone numbers of the people I’ll never call.” “Frank Sinatra’s ‘Summer Wind’ is quietly playing on the radio. I light a cigarette, take a few drags and again exhale.” Sentences like these crop up in Ugo Rondinone’s notebooks or appear painted directly on the wall in thick chocolate brown. This practice reflects Rondinone’s continual search for a means of conveying melancholy without nostalgia or false pathos. His spaces, in which various works relate to each other in some obscure mise-en-scène, constitute a realm infused with a lighthearted ambivalence toward existence.

In his most recent show, raw wood planks were installed in the gallery, transforming the split-level space into one of uniform height that opened onto the outside world only at one end. Silently, as though in an aquarium, daily life could be observed through the window as if one were sitting in front of a small movie screen. Viewed through a wooden frame from the sidewalk outside, the space seemed strangely remote, and a seated figure dressed in an open shirt and baggy trousers could be glimpsed leaning against a wall. Anyone who knows Rondinone will recognize that this figure is in fact a Polyester cast of the artist himself. Having previously sealed off other exhibition spaces to enhance the artificiality of his sublime large-format landscape drawings, Rondinone now stages the artificiality of the notion that art can “open onto” reality. The visual oscillation from inside to outside pits two synthetic realities against one another: the institutionally segregated spheres of art and life prove to be equally artificial.

Certain projects of Rondinone’s have centered on the artist’s recollection of the work of his contemporaries—for example, the figures of Charles Ray. Though at first glance, Rondinone’s publications look like German versions of Raymond Pettibon’s notebooks, in fact Rondinone’s books take off in a very different direction. They make no attempt, as Pettibon’s do, to interpret a complex world. Rather, the presence of the world is conveyed through page after page of random phrases. Something similar occurs in the show’s video installation, which comprises 60 tapes with footage of daily life in real time: the view out the window from over the typewriter, two men putting on their dresses and makeup to go out. . . .

His recurrent use of the figure of the clown becomes just one more index of the volatility of identity. In a phrase that speaks of the clown’s predicament, Rondinone writes, “It’s much too hot out and the lipstick’s all smeared up to my nose, and the mascara’s running over my whole face.” For all its seeming heterogeneity and its allusiveness, Rondinone’s work remains centered on the experience of a body exposed in and to interstices. Identities slip and shift among different categories, between the sexes.

Hans Rudolf Reust

Translated from the German by David Jacobson.