Gabriel Kuri, Untitled (scratch lotto oysters), 2019. Detail. Installation.
Stainless steel and Plexiglas lightbox, oyster shells, scratch cards.
150.0 x 100.0 x 6.0 Size (cm)
Courtesy of the artist and Esther Schipper,
Berlin Photo: Andrea Rossetti
1.11.19 - 05.01.20
1. Getty Conservation Institute (2016). Finder Keeper: The Art of Gabriel Kuri. [video].
2. An edition of twelve singular objects titled: SELL BY SEP 19, produced in the same way, were sold to support production of Kuri’s WIELS exhibition.
3. Cildo Mireles 1987 work Mission/Missions (How to Build Cathedrals) combines 6,000 copper coins with bones and communion wafers; materials which, unlike Kuri’s approach, are contextualised historically rather than contemporaneously.
4.Kuri elucidated in an interview that this work was, in its original outside context, ‘Inspired by the stark contrasts between naked desert and developed land, typical of the Palm Springs/Coachella Valley area [...] a commentary on the desire to control and profit from the indomitable’. Desert X. (2019). Gabriel Kuri — Desert X.
5. Something the WIELS press announcement made clear from the outset: describing the show’s classification of works as a ‘strictly logical yet absurd taxonomy’.
6. Ngai, S. (2015). Our Aesthetic Categories. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, p.128.
Anastasia Shin ~ Material Circumstance
Mixing industrial production and life’s transactional residue, Gabriel Kuri presents a two floor solo show at WIELS, Brussels, featuring multiple minimal assemblages; forms which maintain their fixity and yet reflect the systems and flows required for their make-up. Sorted, Resorted, presents sculptural work the artist has produced between 2004 and 2019, with an emphasis on the more recent work. Born in Mexico City in 1970, Kuri is now based between Brussels and Los Angeles. He describes the situatedness of his practice through time, reflecting on transactions, movement and travel through the phrase ‘Materials are circumstances’.1
As is likely the case when one artist reads another artist’s work, I carry concerns from my own practice with me. Some of Kuri’s conceptual motifs resonate with my own: language play, signification, sense-making, perception, choice and consumption. Some material motifs also resonate: seductive rounded corners, a penchant for packaging materials and a recapitulation of ergonomic design. Amongst the grouping of sixty works on display, those which deal with time and transactional behaviours stand out.
Before seeing the actual show, I see postcards for it in the WIELS bookshop; this already feels like a strange, premature, dispersion of content, and it points me to specific works with an iconic quality. Untitled (stages in an event line), 2019, one of the works pictured, is composed of six oversized bread bag tags, broodclipjes, scaled up 2000%, and produced in varying colours, thick enough to be propped vertically on their thin edge. Each enlarged tag has the text: ‘BEST BEFORE’ or ‘USE BY’ with a day-month-year date CNC engraved and hand painted, in carefully conscripted Navy blue.2 The sculptural plastic tags have heart shaped gathering-holes at the top and are loosely tethered together by a curling piece of plastic wire; a line which guides sight more than it aids structural function. In maroon, green, cream and navy, these square shapes―minus sharp corners and said heart cutout―face into the room on a shuffled diagonal. A tidy huddle surrounded by white space. Here, I describe the work as I remember it was installed, but sense that it’s rather the postcard image which has been burned into my memory.
Once inside the show, a giant ashtray of discarded cigarette butts and pennies greets us. In Donation Box (2017), mounds of sand fill the exhibition space, undulating irregularly at knee-height with a pathway cutting between. The minute particles of sand, smoked butts and discarded pennies all carry with them the sense of circulation and, in this constellation, human interaction as extraction. What can be used is extracted and usefulness is conflated with value. As individual units, the copper coins seem meagre but of course en masse they are just as valuable as their paper counterparts. Plus―where as the metal can be melted―the paper’s just a promise. Enclosed in the gallery it smells like a dirty hotel lobby and I’m reminded of a more weighty Cildo Mireles installation that also gathers copper money on the floor.3 When I learn of the site specificity of the prior installation of Donation Box, on the edge of the desert in a vacant commercial lot in Palm Springs, it seems this newer WIELS version has lost something in translation, namely the specificity of the nearby ‘indomitable’ desert.4 Far from feeling wild, this gallery space―a restored former brewery from the 1930s―with its modernist industrial architecture, creates quite a different context for the installation; the gallery is a controlled, guarded space and this Belgian iteration is a different work indeed.
The curation of the exhibition and the accompanying publication follow the same taxonomic conceptual framework. We pass through adjacent rooms of Metal, Paper, Plastic, sorted as a recycling centre might be; according to the material or metaphorical resonance of each work. Registering as both formal and conceptual, Kuri’s discrete sculptural works evolve and conclude at varying speeds depending on what he’s amalgamated at his studio; sorting and resorting are inherent to his process. But as well as using found objects he has things industrially made and unabashedly dives into the contemporary art basics package: powder coated steel, carrara marble, collected-printed-matter.
Still within the framework of 'metal', Untitled (scratch lotto oysters), 2019 displays a grid of pearlescent oyster shells and used scratch cards, the cards providing accents of saturated pink, green and purple on the grey, metallic backing. These objects are presented in bacteria and rust free stainless steel frames, fitted with non reflective (I.e slightly green/lilac anti-glare) glass. These materials reject any presence of the body, eradicating the possibility of contamination and decay and maintaining the illusion of permanence.
As I look at this work, I wonder if the selection reflects its selector... Not necessarily the user(s) of the objects: someone who eats oysters and buys scratch cards (and keeps them after eating or gambling) but a gleaner, who follows the material trails of this behaviour. Compositing a corner shop and a champagne bar on the same avenue in my mind, I question the signifying power of these objects IRL. Do the people who eat oysters ever buy scratch cards? Untitled (scratch lotto oysters) reflects chance, belief and randomness in the face of global capitalism; a place where big gambles come in small doses and different ratios. The gleaner (Kuri) is a protagonist to (re)view the structures of the western world through―but we rummage through our own set of references, subjectivities and experience when we ‘read’ what he's assembled.
At this point in the show, things feel quite compacted. Swaying between sensual riffs and reasoned linguistic puns has me interested but requires some invested interpretation. The vicarious narratives carry themselves but the objects’ nuanced signification seems dumbed down by the systematised curation which creates a vacuum between the individual pieces. This conceptual engagement is perhaps better facilitated by the structure of a book, where you can stay on one page and then choose to carry with you what you saw before, or reset and look afresh, but here in an exhibition space it's more like the way art fair booths work together―badly. With this in mind, I wonder what came first in the curation and publication process? Because instead of encouraging you to engage with the nuances of Kuri’s ideas, categorising (rather than phrasing) the sometimes disparate pieces stifles their poetic potential.5
I enjoy Kuri's discursive sculptural style when I maintain my focus on the transactional, time-sensitive, material circumstances. I note the reusable metal straws next to soon outmoded plastic ones―a nod to recent environmental policies―as well as the different scales of dispensing-and-receiving objects that evoke the ergonomics of an airport or pharmacy; places which characteristically aid, control, and coerce us towards more efficient behaviours.
The sculptural assemblages which survive the art-fair effect develop a grammar which allows them to work like words: signifying within a sentence. Relating the component parts to each other and to ourselves, we are enticed to connect disparate information in unexpected combinations. With our aesthetic appetites whetted, seduced by Kuri’s strange assemblages, when we question the material circumstances, infrastructures and behaviours that the art work reflects we engage with the artwork on the premise that something will be revealed. How interested you are depends on your own sense of familiarity because ‘the less predictable a narrative is, the more interesting (engaging, fascinating) it is.’6
In Sorted, Resorted Gabriel Kuri takes existing material circumstances and reshuffles them for us to reflect anew on globalising societies of consumption and control. But this is realism in circulation―alongside changing material circumstances, processes of signification, attention and judgement are also liable to change.
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