Anne-Lise Coste

Last winter, Anne-Lise Coste undertook a sort of exorcism of five years that she spent in clinical treatment during her youth. Working quickly and obsessively, she produced a large series of drawings (and one sculpture) that deals with that early traumatic experience. The result, on view in its entirety in an exhibition titled “5 days 5 years,” was disturbing and vehement, if perfectly closed off and cohesive, making this one of the season’s best shows in Barcelona.

The series, titled “There,” 2010, does not constitute a documentary reconstruction of the episode in question, nor does it make reference to any one specific memory. The explicit and crucial concern here is, rather, the reproduction of a prolonged experience. Unlike most of Coste’s prior work, these drawings do not make use of text but refer to physical space and architecture. With a single-minded minimalism reminiscent of Samuel Beckett, Coste created variation after variation of a severe room with only a chair, a bed, and a menacing cross—a composite scene built in her memory out of similar rooms in a clinic, a home, and a hospital. Far from being a sheltering room of one’s own, this inhospitable cell is crowded with inner murmurings and housed by a geometric and austere architectural structure. Along with the drawings, a small iron sculpture (The Bedroom) offers a three-dimensional version of the room.

Though the drawings invite an attentive reading of iconographic detail—the recurrence of prisonlike grids and a brick chimney, the occasional use of scribbled self-portraits, the enigmatic presence of a notation of time—they do not seem to hide some meaningful secret. Unlike the language of much of Coste’s work, where each sign is removed from convention, here each ingredient seems absolutely literal. There is no metaphor but, rather, the open exhibition of a vital experience in a specific setting. Designed for containment, this space is violent due to its corrective severity and dramatic because of its supposed curative silence. Rather than ensuring a return to calm, the asepsis and hygienic asceticism of this hospital architecture houses only fear and loneliness.

The therapeutic potential of art has been widely discussed in the long tradition of writing on the field, and its importance to Coste’s project and its reading cannot be dismissed. Yet what’s really at stake in this series is something much more ambitious: the direct agency of lived experience on art. Whether the artist has managed to rework a memory through these drawings until it is rendered harmless isn’t overly important. What matters, rather, is that we accept everything that goes through our minds, regardless of where it is locked away.

Martí Peran

Translated from Spanish by Jane Brodie.