New York

Ugo Rondinone

Matthew Marks Gallery / Swiss Institute

I can’t stand clowns. Although their ostensible purpose is to make people laugh, clowns seem to exist for the sake of sheer perversity and torment, functioning as absurd objects of derision, creepy interrupters, or surreal distracters—and often cruel ones at that. Think of the cynical Krusty the Klown of Simpsons fame, or Bruce Nauman’s 1987 video installation Clown Torture, which brilliantly captured the buffoon’s persona: We are nearly driven mad by the chaotic dissonance of multiple tragicomic figures shitting and screaming (“No no no!”). The clowns that appear throughout Ugo Rondinone’s work are generally mute and benignly lazy, but their presence is no less disturbing.

In Rondinone’s recent solo show “A Horse with No Name,” three larger-than-life mannequin-like clown sculptures sat or lay on the floor, torpid and half dressed, with closed eyes. The figures seemed to have been lulled to sleep (murdered?) by the maddeningly circular, irresolvable conversation between a man and a woman that played in a loop against the sound of four repeating, minor-key piano notes. Their Mars-Venus exchange went something like this: “I don’t want anything.” “Really? Why?” “Why what?” “Why don’t you want anything?” “Because I don't think anything is going to help.” The discordant mood is made all the more inimical by the ambiguity of the clowns’ presence. Instead of doing the torturing, they are themselves held captive in this emotional circus. It was absolutely depressing. Yet the speakers from which the voices emanated were nestled in a large, cheerfully glittering mosaic made from shards of mirrored glass set into plaster: The uneven reflecting-puzzle cast back a glimpse of you and your surroundings that was as fragmented and uninformative as the overheard dialogue but sparkled as if in spite of it.

This show’s title, borrowed from a song by the group America, might refer to Rondinone himself: Creator of dynamic, polymorphous exhibitions with elements of photo, sculpture, sound, and painting, none necessarily related by style or theme, he is a mercurial figure. The heterogeneity of his output is partly attributable to the fact that he frequently joins forces with musicians, poets, and other artists. For his collaborative installation with painter Urs Fischer and New York underground poet John Giorno (a Rondinone clown in a previous collaboration) at the Swiss Institute, Rondinone covered most of the gallery floor with a low, stagelike platform, painted black and white in a hypnotic pattern of wavy lines (somewhat reminiscent of the mirror mosaic). The viewer was invited to walk on it (shoeless) to approach a group of framed collages and two surreal sculptures by Fischer (one a cast plaster arm holding up a cat by its tail, the other a strange construction of two wooden chairs painted bright pink), which served as an interesting but unrelated visual element to consider while listening to a recording of Giorno reading his epic “There Was a Bad Tree,” a kind of socioecological morality tale about a community that tries in vain to kill an evil tree. The poet’s words, coming from speakers hidden under the platform, were set to pensive, ultramellow instrumental music of the kind Rondinone often employs to establish a contemplative mood.

In Rondinone’s hyperreal world, life is a melancholy path of futile searches and broken hearts on a rotting planet. The heady mix of romance and misery is both irresistible and maddening. Yet he tries to reclaim meaning in the meaninglessness of it all through poetry and beauty, which in his work is often conflated with the poetic. At the end of Giorno's story, the people are rewarded with fruit, jewels, and stars—splendor. For Rondinone too, in the absence of poetry we are like those inert, exhausted clowns, lying masked somewhere between bloated boredom and oblivion.

Meghan Dailey