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Kunsthaus Bregenz opens "Adrián Villar Rojas: The Theater of Disappearance"
Adrián Villar Rojas, The Theater of Disappearance, 2017. Exhibition view third floor, Kunsthaus Bregenz. Photo: Jörg Baumann. Courtesy of Adrián Villar Rojas, Marian Goodman Gallery, New York | Paris | London und kurimanzutto, Mexiko City © Adrián Villar Rojas, Kunsthaus Bregenz.

by Thomas D. Trummer

BREGENZ .- The vast painted wooden floor spans the entire space. Distressed gold leaf is discernible, amongst darkened colors and mysteriously curved forms. In his exhibition Adrián Villar Rojas enacts the ground floor as an immense empty stage, even the freestanding structure designed by Peter Zumthor, serving as reception desk and ticket counter, has been removed and relocated to the basement. A towering mirrored cuboid rises to the ceiling. The space is filled with colorful multi-faceted light that flows in through colored film attached behind the windows. The color range originates from Wong Kar Wai’s film 2046, a tragic love film revolving around memory set in Hong Kong and Singapore, where silhouetted skyscrapers and canyons of streets become distorted into colored abstractions during the opening and closing credits. The painting on the floor is an enlarged copy of Madonna del Parto (1450–1475) by Piero della Francesca. The Renaissance fresco depicts Mary under a brown baldachin, flanked by two angels holding open a precious fur-lined canopy, embroidered with pomegranate motifs. This colossal enlargement of the original image was faithfully re-painted to scale by hand on plywood panels in Argentina and now paves the 530 square meter ground floor. Due to its size, the accuracy of the work remains hardly discernible. Gold leaf has been applied to a surface also displaying damage, cracks, areas of fading, and scratches. These are the traces of an apparently scarred history. In contrast to the immaculately intact original, Villar Rojas’ copy has been assaulted by time. Piero used a blue imported from Afghanistan for the Madonna’s dress. Elaborate transports from distant regions are also typical of Villar Rojas, who for dOCUMENTA (13) was also in Afghanistan, where he erected a gigantic clay wall in Kabul. Andrei Tarkovsky had already quoted the painting in his film Nostalghia (1983) – as a metaphor for melancholy, fertility, and art’s unachievable ideal. Piero’s fresco is very singular in its iconography. With her right hand Mary, the pregnant Mother of God, fondles the waist-height, vertical slit down her blue dress, buttoned at the front, evoking associations with birth and expectations, but her gaze nonetheless appears both grave and distracted.

Adrián Villar Rojas works in the largest dimensions. His exhibition on the occasion of Kunsthaus Bregenz’s 20th anniversary has already secured its place in the institution’s history. Rarely have so many materials been utilized, seldom such massive resources expended. The artist has conceived a four-part cycle for Kunsthaus Bregenz, a passage through the history of human culture. Villar Rojas sets out in an epoch prefiguring the human and continues through religious worship, the Paleolithic Period and the bunkers from the modern era to arrive at a theatrical glorification of the human image in a brightly lit, lustrous mausoleum.

Villar Rojas, born in 1980 in Rosario, Argentina, has become renowned for the colossal scale of his site-specific work. At the Bienal del Fin del Mundo 2009 in Patagonia, a lithic whale lay stranded in a forest, the leaves falling during rough autumn weather coloring the sculpture rusty red. One of the ocean’s endangered inhabitants is expiring at a remote site in a far-flung corner of the world. For the 2011 Venice Biennale, Villar Rojas erected a forest of stone creatures, extending to the ceiling like pillars. Visitors were obliged to make their way between these surreal structures – half bone, half-monstrous machine. At the 14th İstanbul Bienali prehistoric creatures coated in seaweed, shells, and decaying flesh emerged from the waters. During the current year Villar Rojas has embarked on a series of exhibitions that started at the Metropolitan Museum in New York and which will culminate at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Surreal figures inspired by paintings from the collection can be seen above Central Park on the roof of the museum. Villar Rojas frequently creates figurative ensembles that associatively plumb the depths of evolution and the life of pre-human creatures. In Bregenz he traverses the earliest geological epochs and most distant future.

The Theater of Disappearance, as the exhibition is titled, is a sequence of mythical tableaux and post-apocalyptical scenarios. Visitors encounter a visual experience in four impressive acts, dominated by desolate gloom, discomfort, and moments of catharsis. They do not enter an exhibition space with individual works of art but a Gesamtkunstwerk.

First Floor
The first floor of Kunsthaus Bregenz is darkened, a narrow entrance enabling access to a world of craters and ruins. False concrete walls, deceptively real, and door lintels have been installed, whilst 3,600 artificial ivy plants, each 1.50 meters long, are densely hung across the ceiling. The lighting is a toxic blue, tinted red. The floor has been entirely paved in uneven marble slabs, some polished, but predominantly roughly carved. Petrified fossils protrude as flat reliefs from the reddish and gray blocks. They are 400 million year old ammonites, predators that populated the oceans of the Silurian and Devonian periods. There are in addition long-stemmed primal creatures, so-called Orthoceras, which are likewise cephalopods, resembling spearheads or projectiles, pointing in all directions. The brown blocks, weighing up to 600 kilograms, and the 80 x 80 centimeters panels, weighing up to 70 kilograms, were cut for the exhibition in Morocco and trucked to Bregenz in several shipments. The species of primal crustaceans assembled here can be considered metaphors of the human perception of time, whether cyclic or linear. But what form does time take? And what scale would be appropriate to it? 350 or 400 million years ago the present edge of the Sahara near Erfoud was a richly populated sea. Some panels resemble pedestals or cenotaphs from an enchanted excavation, others feature depressions like mythical altars. They contain vessels displaying smaller fossils, petrified turtles, and hand-sized stalactites. Villar Rojas is interested in inherent time, the periods of life and decay. The organic and inorganic become interchangeable in the petrified landscape. Kunsthaus Bregenz’s gray exposed concrete walls are adorned by cave paintings dating from the earliest discoveries by prehistorians Abbé Breuil and André Leroi-Gourhan, and are here reproduced in dirty sepia colors, earth tones, and shades of blue. The models for the naturalistic

depiction of mammoths, aurochs, and hunting scenes originate from Pech-Merle, Trois Frères, and Lascaux. Do the first images by humans always depict danger? Early engravings are visible together with inscriptions from the Roman era, enigmatic scriptive signs, and pichação, the legendary graffiti from São Paulo. The mannered signatures of a Spanish king and an Argentinian campaigner for independence as well as a fictional signature by Rembrandt from 2541 contend a higher state of human culture. Are we in an ancient site of excavation and worship, in a prehistoric wunderkammer, or the deranged vault of the collective psyche?

Second Floor
Picasso is said to have declared with regard to the discovery of the Lascaux Cave in 1940: »We have learned nothing« – a statement concerning the Modern era, its struggle with abstraction, but perhaps also the World War that had just started.

The second floor has been completely darkened. Entering the space is accompanied by feelings of unease. Any orientation is difficult, a bar of flames flickers distantly. The marble slabs on this floor have been polished smoothly, the floor is black and sober. The petrified cephalopods swim within the dark of the panels like sharp splinters or shooting stars. An oversized copy of Picasso’s Guernica (1937) is located in the center of the space. It is a painting of dramatic pain, the epitome of anti-war imagery. Picasso painted it for the Paris International Exposition under the impact of the aerial bombardment that had been unleashed by Nazi Germany. Dismembered body parts are visible, a horse collapses, a mother mourns her dead child, all however remaining darkened and silhouetted. The open fire that has been permitted here in KUB’s exhibition space, is perhaps a first in museum history. According to Villar Rojas, his main interest is in the »occupation of space.« During his youth he drew comics. Elements in the exhibition have likewise been assembled in a signet-like and surreal manner. A painting located behind a grated wall depicts a bearded huntsman with bow and arrow, a Cro-Magnon man from the period around 40,000 BC. The painting is an enlarged copy of a realist painting by Charles Knight, who produced it for the Natural History Museum in New York in the 1950s, a period during which the euphoria surrounding the discovery of cave paintings was at its height, as was Modernism with its pavilion architecture and precise elegance. In the background a contemporary illustration of two dinosaurs is visible – examples of the Argentinosaurus from the Cretaceous period, approximately 100 million years ago. The monumental image, consistent with latest research, distinctively conveys an aesthetics of the virtual, an attempt to animate the reconstructed. The paintings of the hunter and the dinosaurs are stowed, as if in a museum storage space, behind a grate. Modernism’s cool aesthetics have provided the model for the design of the space, in the middle of which an iron basket hangs from the ceiling like a »chandelier« (Villar Rojas). Below it stands a 2.5 meter high petrified tree stump, weighing 2.6 tons, from Anatolia. A circular glass table protrudes from the stump, the amorphous design of the black marble chairs arranged around it, likewise date from the 1950s. Each chair weighs about 350 kilograms. Villar Rojas is concerned with the problem of depicting life both pre- and post-human. As long as humanity prevails, even a cultivated one, slaughter, drama, violence, and the bunker will continue to exist in the world.

Villar Rojas works closely together with his team of assistants. He describes them as a group of »collaborators« and the joint work as »process-orientated,« the work with institutions as »political« and his ideas as »parasitic.« They are architects, conservators, designers, and transport and facility managers. Villar Rojas operates similarly to a film or theater director. Almost all the participants have spent several weeks in Bregenz. The preparations on various continents have required several months of planning. A team member spent six months in the Moroccan desert, supervising the stone work for the exhibition. Others have been working for months on the production of paintings, technical simulations, and research. The majority of the technical work has been sourced locally thanks to the unique experience of KUB’s technical team and the expertise of local craftspeople who have provided carpentry, painting, locksmith, and stonemasonry skills, as well as installing gas and ventilation systems and all the necessary additional fire safety equipment.

Third Floor
On the third floor a change of atmosphere occurs. The entire space is maintained in a cool light gray. The legs of Michelangelo’s David (1501–1503) are mounted on a four-part, cruciform ramp, its limbs each eight meters long. The narrative arc to the Renaissance, represented on the ground floor, is completed. Darkness is followed by light and brilliance. After the oppression of the lower floors we find ascension and glorification. For the first time, perception centers on a single work. »The manifestation of David becomes the site of art, it is that which says >I am art< in relation to everything surrounding it,« (Adrián Villar Rojas). Humanity has arrived in Olympus, the heaven of the pure ideal. Clinical emptiness prevails, the sole artifact is radiant, a famous sculpture that is merely a trophy of its own faded history, a cliché, a torso carved from Carrara marble, even if not by human hands but with the aid of a computer program. The final witness in this fictional scenography of the future is a spider. It was one of the first creatures on the planet and as a dancing cybernetic being, perhaps the ultimate witness to its disappearance – a post-apocalyptic life form in dialogue with the unapproachable grandeur of art.

All dystopias are obliged to be realistic in order to be credible. Villar Rojas exhibits an art in which, despite the cinematographic panoramas the material becomes testimony. His subject matter is the ontology of things, life forms, and thinking, his workshop is the »imagination of the others« (Villar Rojas). In order to both activate it and simultaneously disappear within it as an agent, he returns to the beginnings of history in a »radicalization of time.« In doing so Adrián Villar Rojas favors the »gaze of others,« being inspired by the ideas of such authors as Enrique Vila-Mata, such painters as Hubert Robert and his tutor Jorge Macchi, as well as artists like Marcel Duchamp, filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick, and such philosophers as Pythagoras and Timothy Morton. At the same time however he transports us to the depths of our own fears and the fundamental questions surrounding humanity, emotion, and existence.
As Adrián Villar Rojas states: »We have to mourn art.«

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