Krefeld, Germany

View of “Anne Chu,” 2013. From top: Putti (no. 8 of 13), 2012; Putti (no. 9 of 13), 2012.

View of “Anne Chu,” 2013. From top: Putti (no. 8 of 13), 2012; Putti (no. 9 of 13), 2012.

Anne Chu

Kunstmuseen Krefeld/Museum Haus Lange

View of “Anne Chu,” 2013. From top: Putti (no. 8 of 13), 2012; Putti (no. 9 of 13), 2012.

Animula vagula blandula” (Pale Little Vagabond Soul), the title of this exhibition, which reads like a cantata of sonorous vowels, is the opening line of a poem by the Roman emperor Hadrian. In these words are echoes of sensuality, playfulness, and late-Roman decadence—in any case, the consciousness of living in a late era that cannot long survive in its present form. With this citation, Anne Chu refers to the Memoirs of Hadrian as opulently and unironically imagined by the novelist Marguerite Yourcenar from the perspective of the dying emperor: “A good three-quarters of my life escapes this definition by acts,” Yourcenar imagines him saying. “The mass of my wishes, my desires, and even my projects remains nebulous and fleeting as a phantom.”

And thus begins a game, spatial as well as conceptual, in the Museum Haus Lange, played with putti, busts, and a torso, all based on models from the frescoes and sculptures of Herculaneum and Pompeii. In the middle of wintry Germany, the Queens-born artist with Chinese roots turns the archetypal modernist villa, built by Mies van der Rohe in 1928–30, into the ornate yet precisely arranged interior of an ancient country house. The complex floor plan allows many different views through wide wooden doors and windows into further rooms and to the garden beyond. This creates an atmosphere of light for Chu’s captured angels, wingless figures that seem caught between allegory and reality.

Some of the putti are suspended at various heights on poles that extend from floor to ceiling, pointed as if flying in different directions. Others hang from the ceiling on long hooks or are affixed to the floor at their bases. They wear spots of primary colors like bruises. Their playfulness turns serious—above all when we view the glazed porcelain figures at closer range and see their trunks and limbs as an ensemble of loosely bound prostheses held together with sloppily bent wires. These membra disjecta form fragile childlike bodies whose brittleness evokes historical distance while at the same time reminding us of the precariousness of the present. For instance, a few polished spots on Fabullus, 2012, the life-size torso of nickel-silver bronze that stands at the entrance, capture flashes of daylight on the headless body that is forced to support itself on a tree trunk. “Fabulous”: This play on words between Latin and English lets our own time break through all the weathering and survival. These fable-like moments of storytelling are echoed in the burlesque constellations of figures in Chu’s watercolors, hung in a low room on the upper floor, whose intimate scale brings the drawings’ overlapping monkeys and putti (and a Headless Roman Woman, 2011) inescapably, sensually close.

Chu’s installation surprises with an array of cultural fragments whose amalgamation seems at once unconventional and natural. The return of ornamentality, a lascivious luxury in spatial geometry, is here more than the return of what modernism repressed. She creates a bucolic and hybrid world that will certainly leave its mark on our memories of the rooms of the Haus Lange, already shaped by so many important exhibitions.

Hans Rudolf Reust

Translated from German by Anne Posten.