In 1935 Walter Benjamin coined the term aura, a description of an aesthetic experience that was difficult to convey in words, which he had encountered when observing specific objects: a kind of atmospheric condensing, which seemingly revealed the essence of the objects, a simultaneous feeling of great proximity and distance. The works in adopted, the new exhibition by Michail Pirgelis at Sprüth Magers
in Berlin, tend to conjure up Benjamins notion of the aura. The objects on display also refer to so much more than just themselves, appearing equally near and incredibly remote. They evoke a number of psychological and physical associations which the viewer can hardly avoid. Despite their almost minimalist austerity, they enable archaeological insights into a world which has never been seen in this way before.
Michail Pirgelis finds the material for the majority of his works from airplane cemeteries in California and Arizona, where discarded passenger planes await their dismantling and the recycling of their valuable aluminium and titanium alloys. Pirgelis removes individual segments from the gigantic aeronautical bodies, for further modification in his studio. For adopted he has left some of them in their original state, such as the brake mechanism of the work Onera, almost three meters in size and reminiscent of a cross. On other airplane components such as the canvas-sized, rectangular fragments of an airplanes exterior skin, he has partially exposed the metal beneath the coat of lacquer. Likewise he has sanded and polished the calotte in When it is called a moment a component from the fuselage of an airplane, responsible for cabin pressurisation, normally invisible to passengers until its curved aluminium surface resembles a convex mirror. Together with two other calottes it looms within the exhibition space in a concentric configuration of three. Finally, for the work Beer or Wine, Pirgelis has mounted flexible airplane cabin flooring, which still retain all the traces of adhesive, screws, and the holes for seat legs, on an invisible base with a suspension mechanism.
Whilst the works on display as a result of their reworking and decontextualising may have shed their original functions, they have now become sculptural objects with a distinctive presence. They are occasionally reminiscent of Gordon Matta-Clarks heroic gestures in deconstructing houses and factory buildings, sometimes of John Chamberlains car body sculptures and Donald Judds minimalist fetish for aluminium, of Rosemarie Trockels psycho-socially charged objects, or the archaeological finesse of Cyprien Gaillards installations.
The works in adopted are both cultural relicts and objects that may be considered within the history of art. Pirgelis has succeeded in extending Conceptual Arts long history by means of a highly specific sensibility and the radical position he has adopted.
A notable aspect of this position is its narrative strength. This contributes enormously to the objects auratic charge. The works on show succeed in revealing the suppressed fears which are often unconsciously associated with flying, even though for many of us this has become part of our everyday experience. Pirgelis reworking of found paraphernalia in earlier exhibitions already drew attention to the cultural compensation mechanisms of fashion, glamour, and high style, which for a long time were required to distract people from their fear of flying. In adopted, a silkscreen print of a Pan Am publicity photo showing the well-known Spanish-French clown and former international star Charlie Rivel, provides a good illustration of such a scenario. In the photo, staged as high comedy, Rivel seems to be thanking heaven that he has safely arrived on the ground already while descending the stairs of the plane. In addition, Pirgelis repeatedly returns, in his sculptural works, to the dream of flying, one that perhaps will soon be a thing of the past. The recycled materials in his works tangibly address the anxieties linked to air travel in an era of diminishing resources, oil crises, terror attacks, global recession, and climate change.
In terms of cultural history flying has always been understood as the epitome of human hubris an activity which was accompanied by the possible threat of divine retribution. The works in adopted are distinctive in their mixing of the archaic with high technology, of vulnerability with strength, transforming the notion of hubris into an almost physical experience. That objects of such scale, such weight, and such fragility are able to overcome gravity, to convey humans safely through the earths atmosphere, inevitably challenges the limits of the viewers imagination. Perhaps Benjamin was thinking of precisely this feeling of precariousness, or even the magical, when he coined his term aura.
Michail Pirgelis (*1976, Essen) lives and works in Cologne. In 2010 he received the Audi Art Award for New Positions at Art Cologne and was an artist in residence at Schloss Ringenberg. In 2008 he was the first recipient to be awarded the Adolf Loos Prize from the Van den Valentyn Foundation, Cologne. In 2007 he was awarded the Villa Romana Prize in Florence. In 2011 Pirgeliss work was shown in a solo exhibition at Artothek in Cologne. He has participated in group exhibitions at Stadtmuseum Düsseldorf (2005), Kunstmuseum Bonn (2010), Thessaloniki Biennale (2011), Museum Morsbroich, Leverkusen (2012), and Istanbul Modern (2013), amongst others.