View of “George Henry Longly,” 2016. Photo: Sylvie Chan-Liat.

View of “George Henry Longly,” 2016. Photo: Sylvie Chan-Liat.

George Henry Longly


View of “George Henry Longly,” 2016. Photo: Sylvie Chan-Liat.

A room closed off by a curtain, matte indigo walls, a floor of soft apricot wall-to-wall carpeting on which visitors had to walk with protective coverings over their shoes, one sculpture hanging on the wall, two others in the space: It seemed that we were no longer in a gallery but in a white room that had undergone a careful makeover, evoking the beauty products that were the subject of George Henry Longly’s earlier marble plaques. The works in this show, “The Smile of a Snake,” functioned as architectural maquillage rather than as aesthetically autonomous objects. In the past, the artist has exhibited his sculptures in vitrines like those you might see in a natural science museum. This time, it was the exhibition itself that was enclosed within a large, colorful display case. But the institutional context of the gallery remained a central concern.

Was this an attempt to reinvent the nineteenth-century domestic interior in which the bourgeoisie sought shelter, a comfortable haven away from the outside world, from public life, from the display of merchandise in shopwindows, from the industrialization of urban space? By creating a closely controlled micro-universe, the modern bourgeois subject—surrounded by familiar objects, carefully selected and removed from social reification—could delude himself into thinking he was making contact with his most intimate being. But the first image one encountered in the exhibition was a piston in the form of an anamorph on the carpet, a slightly distorted figure ready to detach itself from the ground and occupy three-dimensional space. This apparition of the mechanical was counteracted by the perfumed scent that spread throughout the space from some potpourri on a small table; its fragrance was sprayed out from a bottle during the course of the exhibition, as if to keep at bay any industrial product.

Still, this was no cozy interior. There were no sofas or cushions, mirrors or chinoiserie, fireplaces or candelabra, bawdy engravings or images of nature; not even the snake mentioned in the show’s mysterious title. On the carpet—“the soul of an apartment,” as Edgar Allan Poe wrote in his essay “The Philosophy of Furniture” (1840)—there was no arabesque, but only, in addition to the piston, an androgynous figure and a suit on a hanger. The bourgeois interior was meant to be an oasis of quiet, but “The Smile of a Snake” was accompanied by a sound track that went on for over an hour, with pop hits by Diana Ross, Cher, and Donna Summer, among others. Punctuated by long silences, the music would suddenly erupt, taking visitors by surprise and breaking the feeling of intimacy that had settled in. So this was, rather, a ballroom or, more precisely, a glamorous nightclub, like the one in London where the artist codirects Anal House Meltdown night. There was also no human presence; the violet resin cast of two hands that protruded from an aluminum sculpture hanging on the wall referred less to an organic presence than to a medical prosthesis, incapable, as such, of leaving any trace on the surrounding objects.

“The Smile of a Snake” offered a suspended space, one that was uncertain, even unresolved, in the way in which the objects were fabricated, selected, installed, and placed in relationship to one another. As Adorno wrote in his commentary on Kierkegaard’s Diary of a Seducer, “In the English interior things do not remain alien. It draws meaning out of them. Foreignness transforms itself from alienated things into expression; mute things speak as ‘symbols.’” Here, instead, everything remained silent—at least until the disco music started up again.

Riccardo Venturi

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.