Maria Loboda, Metal Hurlant (Heavy Metal) (detail), 2019, mixed media, dimensions variable.

Maria Loboda, Metal Hurlant (Heavy Metal) (detail), 2019, mixed media, dimensions variable.

Maria Loboda

There are exhibitions for which an accompanying text is helpful, and then there was Maria Loboda’s “Woman observing the Alpha Persei Cluster,” which would have been impenetrable without one. Unless, that is, the viewer happened to be equally versed in French modernist interiors, English Bronze Age antiquities, Swiss utopian movements, Egyptian royalty, old science-fiction comics, astronomy, and more. Heavily researched and encoded art is nothing new, of course, but the Polish artist’s installation, a mix of wall drawing and sculpture, was among the most multilayered examples I’ve seen, and tactically so. The impression of calculated maximalism began with the title, its protagonist—presumably, given the emphasized act of looking—a pointedly gendered proxy for the audience, genuflecting before something colossal, namely, a cluster of stars in a constellation estimated to be between fifty and seventy million years old. In the gallery, this translated into little uplighters set into the wall, arranged in the cluster’s shape, and punctuating an airbrushed wall drawing that used elements of a 1920s architectural sketch by the architect Robert Mallet-Stevens and contemporaneous patterning by the designer Jacques-Émile Ruhlmann. Rendering the architecture in outlines, Loboda also drew in hairline cracks, advertising entropy.

Mounted at intervals on the other walls were more paradigms of temporal damage: crushed steel chalices (collectively titled Some mysteries have no clues; all works 2019) modeled on the Ringlemere Cup, a gold artifact dating to around 1700–1500 BCE and unearthed in 2001 in the English county of Kent. This object was attractively squashed into folds by the weight of soil over centuries before eventually landing in the British Museum in London. In the center of the gallery, meanwhile, stood a copy of the Naturstuhl (nature chair), a throne-like mass of intricately twisted roots by Karl Gräser, a cofounder of the Monte Verità community in Ascona, Switzerland, which hosted several successive utopian groups and an artists’ colony in the early twentieth century. Loboda’s version of Gräser’s seat is called The chair of Hetepheres, Mother of Khufu. By placing this and a worn table strewn with digital printouts of sci-fi and horror comics from 1975 to 1987 in the middle of the room, Loboda was—it says right here in the press release—referring to the funerary chamber of Hetepheres, the Egyptian queen who ruled about a thousand years before the Ringlemere Cup was cast; her sepulcher apparently housed not her mummy, but furniture, including an armchair. As if to signify an absent presence, Loboda placed some medieval armor in front of the seat. At the opening of the exhibition, she organized a performance in which all of this material was activated by an armor-clad, seated female performer who flipped through the comics, collapsing millennia together; the gazed-upon sci-fi material looped back to the show’s astronomical title.

The reviewer’s burden, and the viewer’s, was to address all of this (and more: that 1920s marble desk set engraved with gazelle hoofprints!) and to form—or, in my case, find room for—a critical response. Loboda entrains vast, boggling scales of time and space, and frames the process of looking itself as an act of wonder. But because her show was so encrypted, much of the viewer’s time was spent not looking but reading, turning from object to page. In the cognitive movement from itchy bafflement to a repeated “Oh, that’s what that is,” only slowly could the parts knit together, a sense of compound enormity establish itself, and finally—in turn—the now-understood parts open onto combinatory readings concerning the force of time, the inevitability of extinction, the usefulness of dreaming of other and better worlds, and an overarching relationship to womanhood. Loboda demands patience, in the teeth of an impatient culture of reception, for her slightly woolly blend of cosmic grandeur and melancholy. “What you’re looking at is measured in centuries,” she seemed to suggest. “Maybe you can give me half an hour.”