Antwerp

Mark Manders, Room with Unfired Clay Figure, 2014, painted bronze, wood, iron, plastic, painted ceramic, chair, painted epoxy, 8' 11 1/2“ × 14' 4 1/4” × 20' 4".

Mark Manders, Room with Unfired Clay Figure, 2014, painted bronze, wood, iron, plastic, painted ceramic, chair, painted epoxy, 8' 11 1/2“ × 14' 4 1/4” × 20' 4".

Mark Manders

Zeno X Gallery

Mark Manders, Room with Unfired Clay Figure, 2014, painted bronze, wood, iron, plastic, painted ceramic, chair, painted epoxy, 8' 11 1/2“ × 14' 4 1/4” × 20' 4".

It was in 1986 that Mark Manders began using the term “Self-Portrait as a Building” to describe the project he is still pursuing today: a never-ending accumulation of works—sculptures, installations, and so on—that interact with or comment on one another. In his recent show in Antwerp, Manders presented the latest chapter in this ongoing story, another wing in the edifice of this ever-growing oeuvre.

In Parallel Occurrences / Documented Assignments, the catalogue published in 2010 on the occasion of a traveling exhibition organized by the Aspen Art Museum and the Hammer Museum, Manders elucidates: “All of my works appear as if they have just been made and were left behind by the person who made them.” But the appearance can be deceiving. One of the first installations you bumped into in this recent show was the impressive Room with Unfired Clay Figure, 2014. A sculpture (Unfired Clay Torso, 2014) placed on a workbench, a bucket filled with clay, and an apparently casually placed chair were encircled by a makeshift partition of plastic sheeting—as if to suggest that this was a section of the artist’s atelier, a frozen, unfinished moment beamed from his work space right into the gallery. But what looks like a bucket of wet clay is actually filled with epoxy, and the sculpture, contrary to its title, has been cast in bronze. To paraphrase Magritte: This is not a studio.

For the installation Staged Android (Reduced to 88%), 2002–14, which Manders originally made for Documenta 11 in 2002 but kept working on and changing until this year, he has made scaled-down reproductions of quotidian objects such as a pair of shoes, a chair, and a folded shirt and placed them next to what looks like a model of an industrial zone complete with smokestack. Although this landscape is a fictional one, it might recall that of the small town of Ronse, Belgium, where the Dutch artist has lived and worked since 2004. The juxtaposition of the architectural model with the more personal objects that seem to act as silent witnesses to something unknown results in an uncanny, disagreeable feeling.

Perspective Study, 2012–13, gives a foreshortened view of what looks like an ordinary page torn out of a newspaper but one that carries random words: FECKLESS DIPPING REDAN ‘EXEGETES,’ proclaims the main headline. The sculpture Landscape with Fake Dictionary, 2012–14, evokes a poetic effect by presenting a book as something like a character on a small stage. But the supposed dictionary is painted wood, and on closer inspection, the blue background also seems to suggest a fanned-out tome. It comes as no surprise to learn that Manders, like his influential precursor Marcel Broodthaers, was first interested in writing. One of his quotes speaks volumes about his literary proclivities: “I wrote poems. Incredible are the possibilities after you’ve typed the word ‘the.’” But Manders, unlike Broodthaers, avoids using words in his art. Even with his newspaper works, he conceptualizes the notion of language by using any single English word only once, and without regard to its meaning: What looks like text is, in fact, nothing more than illusion, just an image of text.

Although he has become the obsessive visual artist we know today, in some ways Manders remains the poet he started out to be. Both arts were necessary to the conception of “Self-Portrait as a Building” as a container for so many sculptures, installations, and drawings—all of which reflect on the notion of identity. But is the construction of an identity ever finished? The artist himself once compared his work with an encyclopedia. The moment the book is published, it is finished. But a day later, history is ready to be revised, a project to be continued—just like Manders’s oeuvre in progress.

Jos Van den Bergh