View of “Nairy Baghramian: Déformation Professionnelle” (Occupational Hazard), 2016–17. On wall: Portrait (The Concept-Artist Smoking Head, Stand-In), 2016. On floor, from left: Flat Spine, 2016; Mooring (standing), 2016. Photo: Timo Ohler.

View of “Nairy Baghramian: Déformation Professionnelle” (Occupational Hazard), 2016–17. On wall: Portrait (The Concept-Artist Smoking Head, Stand-In), 2016. On floor, from left: Flat Spine, 2016; Mooring (standing), 2016. Photo: Timo Ohler.

Nairy Baghramian

Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst (SMAK)

View of “Nairy Baghramian: Déformation Professionnelle” (Occupational Hazard), 2016–17. On wall: Portrait (The Concept-Artist Smoking Head, Stand-In), 2016. On floor, from left: Flat Spine, 2016; Mooring (standing), 2016. Photo: Timo Ohler.

NAIRY BAGHRAMIAN gives her audience nothing less than an aesthetic reeducation. Her starting point is an academic understanding of sculpture as a modernist art medium—in other words, as an autonomous form, one that is by definition of no use. But she submits the well-worn modernist trope of medium specificity to a series of multifarious overextensions. Baghramian’s work presents the notion of autonomy as a physical challenge, one that each sculpture has to meet individually. Rather than defying use per se, Baghramian’s works ultimately defy us. Again and again, the artist alludes to braces, crutches, stabilizers, and spines, suggesting that the sculptures might gain a purpose precisely to the degree that they imply the impairment of our own bodies’ functions. In this way, she traces the outlines of an alternative, twisted mode of sculptural practice—what we might call a prosthetic formalism.

In the artist’s most recent show, the emblematically titled “Déformation Professionnelle” (Occupational Hazard), curated by Martin Germann and on view at the Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst this past winter, Baghramian added yet another layer of intensity to the physical challenges posed by her practice: She exhibited new work that consisted of nothing but transformations of older pieces, cannibalizing nearly two decades of her own artistic oeuvre and, fittingly, putting her earlier pieces to use. And so Baghramian turned what could have been a typical midcareer retrospective into an act of self-assertion. Instead of encountering a series of static objects that have already begun to accrue a stable art-historical meaning, viewers found themselves surrounded by items in the process of—to use Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s phrase—“becoming-body.”

Baghramian’s efforts to continually surpass her own work recall earlier practices that strove to destabilize the medium of sculpture. From 1919 to 1922, for example, the Moscow-based OBMOKhU (Society of Young Artists) regularly showed the efforts of Constructivist laboratory experiments in ever-changing arrangements. But where OBMOKhU seemed broadly in sync with the milieu in which they were working, staging collective efforts to articulate a radically industrialized, functionalist notion of form amid an expanding socialism, Baghramian mounts an inverted relationship between art and its social context. Within the seemingly boundless conditions of contemporary capitalism, Baghramian offers a powerful repudiation of modernist formalism and radical functionalism alike. She does not present sculpture as a form of critical politics; she sculpts the critical politics of a disciplinary form called sculpture—the bodies of an “Occupational Hazard.”

The first work to confront visitors to this exhibition was Peeper, 2016, an elongated sculpture that stretched more than forty-five feet from wall to wall across the entrance of the exhibition, blocking visitors’ primary means of access. Cobbled together from a hodgepodge of steel cables, lacquered aluminum, and concrete, the object does in fact have an undeniable function: restriction. Through its placement at the exhibition entrance, Peeper positioned visitors themselves as the outer limit of institutionalized artistic form, as objects needing to be disciplined.

Three pieces dating from 2016 were installed in the show’s second gallery: the large-scale sculpture Flat Spine, the ten-part photo work Portrait (The Concept-Artist Smoking Head, Stand-In), and Mooring (standing), one of a series of aluminum casts of the eponymous device normally used to secure boats in harbors. In different ways and to different degrees, these works are all self-referential, and together they laid out the range of the artist’s self-representation in her own show, though Flat Spine surely took center stage. The photo “portraits,” a sly play on a German saying that too much thinking makes one’s head smoke, depict smoking industrial chimneys, likening the artist’s notoriously conceptual approach to factory production. Flat Spine is a reworking of a 2014 sculpture titled French Curve, which was part of Baghramian’s show at the Art Institute of Chicago that year. That piece had been conceived in relation to the Windy City skyline, modeled after the titular drafting tool traditionally used to draw the flowing curves of Neoclassical architecture. In an interview about her Chicago show, Baghramian described this work as evoking a curve having freed itself to take a rest. In Ghent, we might have inferred that the Flat Spine in question was in fact the artist’s, which here had undergone a similar relaxation. Indeed, it now seemed to be a sculpture in a state of dissection. Comprising slick, light-gray lacquered-wood exteriors and organically modeled orange resin interiors, its fifteen elements were arranged on the museum’s dark wooden floor in a wide angle. The “spine” was severed from its head, surrounded by the “portraits,” and laid open for inspection.

In the following rooms, Baghramian introduced the newest members of several families of sculptures that have populated her exhibitions throughout the past few years. The metal frames of Scruff of the Neck (Stopgap) and Chin Up (First Fitting), both 2016, allude to dental prosthetics that previously appeared in Baghramian’s 2016 show at Marian Goodman Gallery, London, as well as in “Slip of the Tongue,” the exhibition that the artist Danh Vo and curator Caroline Bourgeois organized at the Punta della Dogana in Venice in 2015. But while these earlier works were placed either on the floor or at eye level, in Ghent, Scruff and Chin lurked high up on the walls of the museum, as if their cast-aluminum frames (some lacquered and polished) were lined up in anticipation of an impending attack. To reach them, viewers had to walk past a small adjacent room filled with “Stay Downers,” 2016, a group of bulky, crouching bodies grotesquely rendered in pastel polyurethane. Each of these carries an individual name, such as Klassenclown/Class Clown or Hässliches Entlein/Ugly Duckling, suggesting that they might be discarded parts from some larger entity—sculptures unfit for their intended use.

Viewers’ movements through these galleries were guided—and restricted—by “Big Valves,” 2016. Their painted polyurethane poles resemble small Minimalist sculptures, but attached to them are flexible galvanized metal arms holding polycarbonate sheets, strategically placed here in passages and corners to cordon off some of the gallery’s edges. While the “Stay Downers” are surely evocative of Franz West’s bulky appendages and Claes Oldenburg’s soft sculptural objects, their child-size forms, in pastel rubber, appear somehow more fragmented, as bits and pieces of fugitive bodies that have been detained for underperforming. Baghramian’s forms, too, are stubbornly immobile, seeming less to invite interaction than to oppose us by denying the very possibility of use.

Headgear, 2016, plays on another dental device—it is a twenty-five-foot-high version of the corrective mechanism of the same name, created from stainless steel, polished aluminum, textile, silicone, rubber, polyurethane foam, and polycarbonate—and was fitted directly to the building, suggesting that the institution itself was the intended target of remedial action. More instruments occupied the large rear space of the exhibition: The swooping curved lines of Chin Up (First Fitting), a prosthetic set of three-dimensional signs, here seemed to recall as-yet-unintelligible writing on the wall. Like the nine Scruff of the Neck (Stopgap) sculptures nearby, these are frames without bodies. In front of the sculptures, two 2016 works, both titled Treat (Marrowbone), were placed on the floor, as if to suggest that these frames are not just references but animated beings.

The exhibition’s final three galleries could be seen as an appendix to the artist’s grammatology of forms. Introduced by Formage de Tête (Maître Faux) (Molding of the Head [False Master]), 2016, a recent version of one of the photographic images that have become staples of her practice—another one from the same year, Walker, waved on a flag in front of the museum—this set of consecutive rooms was dedicated to what art historian André Rottmann, in his 2012 article on the artist in these pages, described as “a conception of sculpture as placeholder,” a series of works that, unlike the rest of the show, offered not bodies in limbo, but forms as conceptual arsenal. Formage de Tête (Vitrine Rafraichirée) (Molding of the Head [Refreshed Counter]), 2016, comprises a tableful of primitive forms in white porcelain, a tableau continued in the more dramatically titled Fourth Wall (Proscenium), 2016, in which Baghramian staged a similar set of shapes, this time in waxed wood. Rather than being arranged on a table, these objects dangled from the wall on large aluminum bails, with a rolled-up blue-and-white-striped canvas nearby.

This last item was a clear nod to Daniel Buren, and suggests that painting, too, can be admitted to Baghramian’s prosthetic formalism. Indeed, her target is not any specific medium, but all modernist hierarchies of form—the clear marks of distinction that were necessary to sustain formalist medium specificity and linger today. The artist’s continuous plays of positive and negative forms, of casts and molds, of prostheses and bodies—in this exhibition redoubled through works that embody, quite literally, the negations of their earlier iterations—invert and transpose the academic modernist order, opening it toward sculptural escape routes that nevertheless seem blocked. Baghramian’s sculptures are beautifully stuck on their way “out,” and medium specificity herein returns as the specification of this blockage that implicates artist, viewers, and institutions alike. Walter Benjamin wrote in 1936 that one of the most important political functions of art is to generate a demand that cannot be fully satisfied within the present. Eighty years later, Baghramian offers her sculptures as testimonies to this fleeting promise of satisfaction, one that remains just out of reach for sculpture and subject alike.

“Nairy Baghramian: Déformation Professionnelle” travels to the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Sept. 7, 2017–Feb. 4, 2018.

Kerstin Stakemeier is a professor of art theory and art mediation at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste Nürnberg.