Zurich

Vanessa Billy, Monument, 2016, car engine, food-grade silicone, 51 1/4 × 47 1/4 × 27 1/2".

Vanessa Billy, Monument, 2016, car engine, food-grade silicone, 51 1/4 × 47 1/4 × 27 1/2".

Vanessa Billy

BolteLang

Vanessa Billy, Monument, 2016, car engine, food-grade silicone, 51 1/4 × 47 1/4 × 27 1/2".

In this age of technology, materials have become a major concern in contemporary sculpture, with artists showing keen interest not so much in their intrinsic properties as in the meditative observation of their behavior. Rather than being manipulated and transformed according to someone’s aesthetic decision, materials perform; they take on a role that turns out to be just as active as that of the artist, or even more so. Formerly a maker, the artist is relegated to a more contemplative—and often perplexed—position. Sculpture is the vessel of a force, the container of a drive that conveys endless expectation. Vanessa Billy’s work epitomizes this trend: She sets a stage where matter is put into motion.

In a show in Brussels last year, Billy hung two car engines from the ceiling (The Living and the Dead I and II, 2015). Despite the mechanical nature of these objects, a sense of organic liveliness prevailed across the space, suggesting the presence of some amphibian entity. This evocation should not be taken lightly, as the coalescence of multiple opposing formal possibilities lies at the heart of Billy’s practice. Matter, in fact, be it natural or constructed—from flower petals, small volcanic rocks, or seaweed to a modem, as in the artist’s solo show in Zurich in 2013—is inextricably subjected to a process of transmission whose origins are difficult to trace, as if, in Clarice Lispector’s words, the universe had no beginning.

Billy’s work evolves out of a game of reminiscences—echoing her own previous pieces, which will surely prefigure others to come. In her recent show “all is porous,” a similar automobile engine lay on the floor covered by a transparent silicone sheet; its ironic title is Monument (all works 2016). The lumpy membrane seemed to wrap the engine like a second skin, but instead of protecting it from the outside, the sheet connected the engine with the organic atmosphere of the gallery and, thus, with us. Rather than presenting a tension or friction between the organic and the constructed, or between the human and the machine, this piece offers something more like a mutual awareness, an acquaintance between solid and ductile forms, an intimacy between immediate actions and the probable effects of those actions—affinities of all sorts occurring in a climate of empathy.

This show featured a particularly beautiful group of works in the last space of the gallery, where five pairs of objects on the floor, from the series “Refresh, Refresh,” 2013–16, consisted of casts of what seemed to be lemon halves, some apparently untouched and some squeezed, made from various materials ranging from hard bronze to bio-resin. In her previous exhibition here, Billy showed the first work in the series, made of aluminum and mounted on a wall. A comparison of Billy’s various versions of this motif suggests that her sculptural interests are ultimately focused on what might be called epidermic concerns—that is, on the study of the possible crusts and surfaces of matter. Surface has also reflected a telluric dimension throughout her career. In a recurrent move, the energies channeled below the earth, the data or the electricity conducted through cables and wires, for instance, are either metaphorically or literally made visible. In Surge, electrical cables hanging down from the ceiling resemble an uprooted tree with exposed copper wiring as its roots. Like all of Billy’s works, it evokes life’s basic functions through materials that have an existence of their own.

Javier Hontoria