Geneva and Biel/Bienne, Switzerland

View of “Vanessa Billy,” 2021. From left: Vertebrae, 2021; Ouroboros, 2020; Centipedes, 2020. Villa Bernasconi. Photo: Dylan Perrenoud.

View of “Vanessa Billy,” 2021. From left: Vertebrae, 2021; Ouroboros, 2020; Centipedes, 2020. Villa Bernasconi. Photo: Dylan Perrenoud.

Vanessa Billy

Villa Bernasconi/Kunsthaus Pasquart

Vanessa Billy’s increasing prominence in the Swiss art scene was corroborated by two concurrent solo shows. “We Become,” at the Kunsthaus Pasquart in Biel/Bienne, dealt thematically with questions of material transformation and energy but also delivered a survey ranging from early pieces of the mid-2000s to recent large-scale installations. A smaller, more intimate exhibition, “Redevenir” (Re-become), was housed in Geneva’s Villa Bernasconi and was concerned with questions of ecology and social reproduction.

Such basic coordinates—some timely keywords regarding themes and general comments about career, content, and politics—are fine for a press release and useful for the first paragraph of a review, but they capture little of the experience of taking the stairs down into the basement of the Villa Bernasconi. Across the floor ranged Centipedes, 2020, a pair of huge black arthropods, their forequarters aloft, in a position of aggression or, perhaps worse, curiosity. In the corner, draped over a step, was a ceramic replica of a human spinal cord, Vertebrae, 2021, with fibrous wires cascading from its center. This basement room functioned as a kind of Freudian id to the rest of the house, a restored bourgeois mansion on the edge of Geneva. It also presented the ambivalence of Billy’s world, capturing how it is initially provocative but demands closer inspection. The centipedes turn out to be molds taken from the treads of tractor tires. Only their length makes them look different from the “road gators,” or shreds of tire treads, you might see along the highway. Likewise, the filaments spilling from the spinal cord appear on examination to be diaphanous, delicate, even decorative.

Upstairs at the Villa Bernasconi was Centuries, 2016, a plaster cast of a heavily pregnant woman balanced perfectly on her belly. Her body appeared to float, thanks to lead weights in the figure’s head that keep it balanced. She seemed to stare through the floor at all that writhed beneath it. Even in its motionlessness, her poise suggested a presence of mind. She conveyed both tension and repose.

One of the questions prompted by Centuries and other works of Billy’s could be phrased like this: How is the contemporary disordering of the world manifested in family life? Families, especially happy families, have sometimes been characterized as an obstacle to progress. They are caught up with themselves. From the perspective of the family, the world mostly enters via negation: in interruptions of the daily round, in absences, in loss. Those who care do so in anticipation of such loss. The body of the balanced figure is, as she seems to well know, a crucible of future grief as well as happiness. Hers is a pregnant body, positioned to stare directly down into the earth, as if about to be buried. She’s not casting her eyes up like the Virign Mary during the Annunciation. What she perhaps does have in common with Mary is that she is both engine and victim. Is this too pathetic? Perhaps. But in other rooms of the Villa Bernasconi, Billy repeatedly offered images that carry the same pathos: Downstairs, in I twist you turn, 2009, heavy concrete slabs, twisted around a single domestic towel, held a perfect tension with each other, while upstairs life-size models of shrimp stood in for human embryos.

Complementing the imagery of biological reproduction in Geneva, the larger works at Kunsthaus Pasquart explicitly employed forms and methods derived from industry, as well as cast-off materials. Billy’s works are the products of molds, stamps, and impressions: the practices of production that have intersected with, and in some cases displaced, the processes of biological and social reproduction that preceded them. Some of the pieces that were on view were made of rubber, some of resin, others of metal alloy; all had undergone multifarious transformations. Tractor treads that in Geneva gave form to centipedes or laurel wreaths (Thorns and Crowns, 2021) were here fashioned into caterpillars (Chenille [Caterpillar], 2019) and gateways (Chains [Arch], 2021). The result was a kind of postapocalyptic English garden in which all our follies had come to rest, and we wandered among them, as impressionable and as trashy as they are.