David Thorpe

A work of strange beauty, David Thorpe’s installation The Defeated Life Restored, 2007, was co-commissioned by three institutions: Kunsthaus Glarus and the work’s successive venues, the Camden Arts Centre, London, and Museum Kurhaus Kleve, Germany. At Kunsthaus Glarus, the work was presented in a room with two long walls of windows and a tiled floor, a setting more like a church community hall than the white cube of a museum. Here the artist built an environment of screens, crowned by zigzagging tops, whose intricate wood supports create geometric patterns paned with green and blue glass. The architecture of this structure draws on spatial elements found in the interiors of churches and specifically evokes stained-glass windows. The mirrorlike quality of the glass, which prevents light from penetrating, creates a hermetically sealed space, insulated from the outside world; unable to see out, the viewer is constantly confronted with images of herself.

The pedestals of the three large sculptures that dominate the interior are also constructed from wood and glass. The star-shaped sculptures are made of tile; one might be reminded of crystalline structures. Six frames that are intricately integrated into the screens hold large-format watercolors whose delicacy counterpoints the imposing physicality of the installation. These fictional plant studies in the style of old-fashioned biology books are also reminiscent of Karl Blossfeldt’s formally rigorous photographs of plants. At first glance they appear naturalistic, but on closer observation they reveal themselves to be stylized and technoid “superplants” whose forms are as threatening as they are graceful.

Thorpe has created a strange, sealed-off world where the natural and the artificial, the real and the fictional, New Age and Space Age fuse in a coherent aesthetic gesture. It is a bizarrely timeless space that draws on the past as much as it depicts an unreal present or a distant future, evoking (as the work’s title suggests) the insistent yearning for alternative ways of living and the failure of past utopias. Thorpe’s interest in utopian and obscure faith communities reflects, one imagines, a restrained sympathy. His respect for the Arts and Crafts movement emerges in his meticulous craftsmanship as well as his search for harmonious formal principles. The number three, a perennial symbol for spiritual harmony, constitutes the installation’s dominant formal principle, present not only in the three sculptures but also in the many triads in the plant illustrations and in the geometric wall structures. Completely untouched by pathos, kitsch, or ideology, this work is not an allegory for the death of utopian ideals but a representation of the constant metamorphosis of this human longing—its recurrent capacity to spread from an ideal “nowhere” to a possible “somewhere.” Utopia, as Max Horkheimer put it, leaps beyond time.

Valérie Knoll

Translated from German by Jane Brodie.