Rita McBride, Greenland, 2015, plasma-cut steel plate, 60 3/4 × 81 1/2".

Rita McBride, Greenland, 2015, plasma-cut steel plate, 60 3/4 × 81 1/2".

Rita McBride

Rita McBride, Greenland, 2015, plasma-cut steel plate, 60 3/4 × 81 1/2".

If ever there was an exhibition of art that seemed totally secure, literally under lock and key, it was Rita McBride’s “Gesellschaft”: The show included plenty of keys as well as several locks and then more keys. But where is the door they unlock?

The ten-millimeter steel plates from which the locks and keys were cut were on view as well, although their meaning remained likewise obscure. The use of metal slabs brought Richard Serra’s work to mind, and the installation—most of the objects were arrayed along the gallery’s walls—clearly suggested a Minimalist sensibility in the use of space. Indeed, McBride’s art is grounded in the Minimalist tradition, even if the proportions of her objects are more readily reminiscent of Claes Oldenburg’s Pop-art toothpaste tubes and lipsticks.

But despite their austere simplicity, McBride’s sculptures are not works of Minimalist art; they are objects fraught with content and associations by virtue of not only their shapes but also their titles. The first work which is made up of three padlocks, goes by the name of Alaska (all works 2015), while another comprising one of the metal sheets from which they as well as several keys were cut is called Greenland; a piece composed of a whole set of keys spread out over a wall is titled Yakutsk. Mongolia, a single key adorned with curtain tassels as well as a thermometer attached to the shaft, is especially odd: Who would really want to gauge the temperament of this “cool” installation?

The titles are obviously geographic names, though some, such as Irkutsk, do not designate independent countries. Did they somehow provide the key to understanding the exhibition? They are taken from a board game (the German term for which, Gesellschaftsspiel, is echoed in the exhibition’s title): Risk, whose own history points to important changes in how we understand world affairs. The object of this game of strategy, which dates from the late 1950s, is world domination. Typical moves include the “conquest” of territories and the “annihilation” of enemy armies; the quoted terms, from the instruction booklet accompanying the German version of the game, were replaced in the 1980s by the “liberation” and “disbanding,” respectively. Around the same time, a similar terminological shift occurred in the broader political discourse. The Iraq War of 2003, for example, was waged to “liberate” and “disarm” a country, and the dead were counted as just “collateral damage”: These days, rather than conquistadors and annihilators, our armies claim to be emancipators, inflicting abstract destruction through their clinically clean surgical interventions.

This key in hand, the visitor realized that McBride’s installation was playing a shrewd game in more ways than one. There was the allusion to the game of conquest (or liberation), but the artist’s stakes were higher: If you bought one of her objects, she would also hand over one or several keys with names like Congo or Irkutsk. From the Middle Ages until the era of the Napoleonic Wars, the key to a conquered city or fortress was surrendered to the victor in a symbolic act marking the end of hostilities. Given that the prices for the works in the show started at $40,000, buyers might be forgiven for thinking they had bought a minor country, or at least its in-game avatar. It is striking to note the rich meaning a single key can unlock in an art that, at first glance, seemed so impregnable.

Noemi Smolik

Translated from German by Gerrit Jackson.