Sophie Nys

Seeing Sophie Nys’s work is like reading a haiku: You face an object that is at once complete and laconic, evident and enigmatic. Take, for example, a small felt disk pierced at its center and hanging on the wall, Untitled (all works cited, 2009); simple and soft, it immediately arouses a feeling of fullness. But it isn’t long before this feeling is contradicted by a vague sense of anxiety, for although this object is undoubtedly filled with meaning, it somehow remains impenetrable. The same is true of Kogetsudai, a silent video in black and white that focuses on a mound of sand some six feet high, not far from Kyoto, Japan’s Silver Pavilion. While contemplating this large truncated cone and the subtle play of light it supports, one feels uncertainty about its ostensible symbolic functions. It might be a miniature representation of Mount Fuji—the forest at its base is the subject of the exhibition’s second video, The Room—but this is not enough to attenuate the mystery generated by the obdurate abstraction of this structure. In principle, then, this piece revolves around abstraction and geometry; the circle and the trapezoid emerge as leitmotifs throughout the exhibition. Yet the work does not result in a strictly formalist investigation, for it quickly becomes clear that the convocation of these elementary forms responds to very different objectives and relies on the use of multiple media and materials. Behind the austere formal thread, one does actually perceive a kind of amused dissipation, which could be described as the oscillation between two sources of inspiration: on one hand, the vocabulary inherited from Minimalism and Conceptualism; and on the other, the artist’s travels to Japan, to the coast of the Black Sea, or elsewhere—in other words, a reality grasped in the warp and woof of geography and history.

The first work one saw when entering the gallery perfectly synthesized this unique dynamic: Artefact-Todtnauberg (D), is a wooden object found near Martin Heidegger’s Black Forest cabin, which the artist believes to have been the great philosopher’s toilet seat. It hangs on the wall and is carefully protected by a sheet of glass. The ironic reference to Marcel Duchamp’s urinal is patent. But there is also an air of derision about this piece; one is not sure if it comes from the fact that such a thing could be connected to the philosopher or from the solemnity and the beauty (very real, nonetheless) that this patinated plank of wood acquires, as if by magic, simply by being exhibited. Further along, the object was relegated to the status of ambiguous fetish. An ordinary wooden replica of the supposed toilet seat was displayed, its label indicating it to be one in an edition of ten (Multiple). Ah, yes, those labels: There was one for every object, each in itself designated a work, and for sale. In making these informational tags separate pieces themselves, Nys was again articulating—and not without humor—her sense of how enigmatic the things that seem most evident can be: here, a familiar tool of museology. One could, she says, remove all the objects and leave only these nominative plaques; the exhibition would continue to exist through the viewer’s suppositions based on the indications of size, materials, and so on. Quite a dare!

Olivier Mignon

Translated from French by Molly Stevens.