View of “Lutz Bacher: SNOW,” 2013–14. Photo: Stefan Altenburger.

View of “Lutz Bacher: SNOW,” 2013–14. Photo: Stefan Altenburger.

Lutz Bacher

View of “Lutz Bacher: SNOW,” 2013–14. Photo: Stefan Altenburger.

IN 2013, New York–based artist Lutz Bacher staged three separate surveys of her work in Europe: at Portikus in Frankfurt; at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts; and at the Kunsthalle Zürich, where “SNOW” was the last and most comprehensive to go on view. Though each exhibition could be considered a retrospective, none presented itself as a historicizing look back at the artist’s oeuvre. Rather, the independent shows, linked only by a catalogue and a shared time frame,tended to liquefy contours between individual works, imploding tout court any notion of Bacher’s work as a coherent body or chronology of development—a process that,since the mid-1970s, has evolved under the cover of a pseudonym and nearly exclusively via found objects and images.

Following the architectonic givens of the Kunsthalle Zürich’s building—with its galleries on two separate floors—the exhibition internalized doubling and division as fundamental structural principles. Anchoring this conceit at the center of the first floor was a pair of rooms staged as repetitions-in-difference of one another. Each showcased various iterations of several shared works, generating a sense of déjà vu as one passed between them. Installed across the south wall of both spaces were two versions of Detour, 2007–2008—wheat-pasted photocopier enlargements of black-and-white images taken from a book on the cinema of Guy Debord, whose films often include book pages and clips from movies by other filmmakers. Using these enlargements as a scenic backdrop, Bacher installed two- and three-dimensional works on and around this gridded array. It would seem that instead of détourning the artistic paradigm that Debord represents, and thus assigning it new political meaning, the artist has transposed the Situationist’s deracinated images into an undefined temporality, blending them with her own framed photographs of troll dolls (Little People, 2005), a white flocked peace symbol (Peace, 2010), and commissioned remakes of Alberto Vargas’s ’60s pinups (“Playboys,” 1991–93), among other items. Considering this interstitial realm between generations (Bacher’s follows Debord’s by some twenty years), the younger artist’s The Gap, 2003–11—in which she appropriated store posters from an early-2000s Gap campaign featuring Ed Ruscha and his son in an uncanny doubling—takes on striking weight. Here, the elder Ruscha is reduced to a biological body converted by mass culture into a dynastic cipher. He becomes an empty, tautological trademark, standing for nothing more than a “gap,” or blank, consolidated as brand.

On the exhibition’s first floor, such rupturing and disintegration of history was related to the figuration of nature, as could be detected in slices of a redwood tree (Redwood, 2010–11) and raw sheep’s wool (Sheep, 2013). These introduced organic processes (such as the growth of wood and hair) that seemed to extend beyond humankind’s accounting of time and, likewise, beyond the domain of artistic subjectivity. Bacher’s films similarly engage natural rhythms—take, for example, her looped video feeds of an avalanche (Avalanche, 2013) and of slowly grazing horses (Horses, 2008). Perhaps signaling the metamorphic fluidity of Bacher’s own subjectivity in time, Snow/Hands, 2012, a giant ink-jet print depicting crumbling handprints in the snow, appeared wallpapered ceiling-to-floor across the exterior entrance of her show, paradoxically aligning artistic production with the untraceable index.

And yet, such formlessness is often calcified into image or thing or commodity. Snow is always already Snow White. The latter is, in fact, the title of a 2009 work comprising two film canisters that contain weathered reels of the Disney classic. And in Bats, 1983, a video is made from slides showing a dead bat—the creature’s blind flight through the dark having ended—photographed at close range against a department-store shopping bag. Perhaps a twin for Bats could be found in Edward, 2011, a framed portrait of vampiric Twilight character Edward Cullen behind dark Plexiglas. If Bacher’s work suggests that art has the power to resist such reification, it does so only in flashes of irony: The Alchemist, 2012, a biomorphic, abstract fiberglass sculpture installed at the beginning of the show, not only conjured a dilapidated remnant of modernism, its very title linked it to false science and superstition.

Whereas the first floor of this exhibition presented itself as a kind of limbo or underworld, the second floor might have been read as a suspicious Elysium. The promise of mass culture, already exemplified by Snow White and The Wizard of Oz (the latter represented on the first floor by Oz, 2009, a cardboard promo cutout of three of the movie’s characters), condensed upstairs into the saccharine audio track of “Over the Rainbow” in Haleakala, 2012, a video filmed at an observatory in Hawaii. Yet such upward mobility, epitomized in Rope, 2013—a piece of aqua-colored mooring line suspended from the ceiling, an oscillating allusion to Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel—recalled a much older genre: the fairy tale.

Indeed, Bacher uses the device of the mirror to enact both the consolidation of myth and its unraveling, both the rigorous structure of reflection—of good form or stable genre or idealized self—and its undoing, its fragmentation. So it is a shattered mirror, the slightly concave Big Glass, 2008, that almost allegorically assimilates these two forces, turning orderly symmetry into a field of disorder, of fracture. Differential division and repetition might generate and normalize the subject. But as strategies of expropriation, these processes also mark vanishing lines beyond which the subject might dissolve into an empty, anonymous, ruined form. In Bacher’s oeuvre, this dissolution never assumes the specificity or unity of a work of art. Such persistent breaking-down, it seems to me, is exemplary.

Simon Baier is a critic and art historian based in Zurich.