The exhibition The Theater of Disappearance by Adrián Villar Rojas at the Kunsthaus Bregenz feels like a play in four acts where the viewer gets the main role and has to write the plot to be composed of an enormous number of archaeological and art historical references the artist provides. Villar Rojas takes the viewer on a journey from prehistoric fossils, over Renaissance pieces to modern and contemporary references, merging the different timelines together in order to complicate the viewer’s experience. The artist mentioned that every project is like a measuring device of the interaction with the institution. This exhibition is highly telling about this close collaboration. It is one of the most elaborate exhibitions in the KUB history, where the whole building, designed by Peter Zumthor, goes through a remodeling of sorts. Every level of the building feels transformed through the use of newly laid floors and the particular use of light and darkness. The exhibition coincides with the 20th anniversary of the institution to be commemorated this summer.
Adrián Villar Rojas works on every project with his team of collaborators and has been working on this project with them for almost a year. The young Argentinean artist is known to produce epic, large-scale installations that blend figurative sculpture, immersive installations and painting together. At the 2009 Bienal del Fin del Mundo in Patagonia, a lithic whale lay stranded in a forest. For the 2011 Venice Biennale, the artist erected a forest of stone creatures, which extended to the ceiling like surreal pillars. He thinks in terms of geological periods, equating prehistoric history and the distant future in his imagery. Adrián Villar Rojas accomplishes far beyond what most artists could accomplish in one year in terms of scale and frequency. In a lot of interviews, he mentions that the particular project is going to be the last one, but still continues to engage in large-scale shows. Therefore, it’s not surprising that the artist looked both tired and relieved on the day after the opening in Bregenz. His exhibition schedule this year alone is impressive: in April he opened his roof garden installation on the MET, featuring nearly 100 objects from the museum’s collection and in June he will open the third part of The Theater of Disappearance narrative at the National Observatory in Athens. All three of these exhibitions are independent and yet share a narrative. This practice has been increasingly apparent as his wildly ambitious projects become more interconnected. In this year’s narrative of The Theater of Disappearance, he explores discomfort and purification, creating not solely pieces for an exhibition, but transforming spaces into a Gesamtkunstwerk, where everything is carefully choreographed to create the experience. Villar Rojas feels that the environment where the exhibition takes place is the container that generates meaning. While museums seem to be prepared to host exhibitions, in a public space it’s about appropriating the place.
Adrián Villar Rojas doesn’t feel comfortable to explain his practice in a didactic manner. His exhibitions are exceedingly aesthetically appealing and yet packed with enigmatic references that need more clarification. As he was missing on the opening night of the exhibition, the artist talk between him and the director of the institution in Bregenz Thomas D. Trummer the day after, gave some further insights. The artist emphasized on various occasions that he was grateful to become a part of the institution’s history and being able to appear now in the exhibition archive with artists like Olafur Eliasson (2001), whose exhibition images were the first he saw while visiting the Kunsthaus. On his first impression of the KUB, he felt that the museum was like a temple and his workers like monks who bridge the tension between bold exhibitions and the care for the building. It’s been the architecture of Peter Zumthor that attracted him in particular to the KUB. The use of concrete and glass felt like a domestic space even though the museum is obviously public. The artist is fascinated by the notion of inside and outside; private and public. He feels that the environment where the exhibition takes place is the container that generates meaning. While museums seem to be prepared to host exhibitions, in a public space it’s about appropriating the place. Adrián Villar Rojas wants to expand what an exhibition is able to do and explores something he describes as “corniness and cheesiness”, employing repetitive patterns and amassing common places that become a form of clichéd perception.
In every exhibition, Adrián Villar Rojas needs a problem in order to feel that he is risking something and getting out of his own comfort zone. One of his recurring questions is: “What kind of original art can you even make today after Duchamp?” His answer: “Create the very last works on Earth”. His practice feels torn between wanting to stop time, or at least creating a new perception of time, and defying the rules of the museum. Art is codified, and it is important to create confusion and disappointment to break learned patterns in art. He believes that the exhibition experience is usually a repetition of going somewhere and seeing the piece and then having some form of meditation to understand the piece. “But why are we so obsessed with understanding? I don’t want to be put on the top of the pyramid of understanding and explain everything. Not knowing can be a privilege. An institution can be like a shelter where not knowing is allowed”. It is the phallic approach in art that Villar Rojas is against, the practice where he as an artist imposes his rules and thoughts on the exhibition. He prefers to negotiate with the space and its conditions and form a collaboration that can be challenging.
In the exhibition, the whole ground level is empty, even the whole welcome desk that usually gives visitors an orientation has been removed. The light is colored through window films based on the movie 2046 of Wong Kar Wai, a romantic drama about remembrance including some science fiction elements. During the film’s opening and closing credits, one can see a hazy urban landscape riddled with skyscrapers blurring into abstraction. This lighting from the windows falls on the floor where the whole space is covered with a painted and enlarged reproduction of the painting Madonna del Parto (1450–1475) by Piero della Francesca. The painting’s iconography is often described as melancholic, fertile, and an unachievable artistic ideal. The copy was painted on 530 sqm plywood in Argentina and fits the whole floor. One can barely see the entire image while standing in the room due to its oversized dimensions. Contrary to the original, which is carefully persevered, the copy in this exhibition is purposefully aged; the wood has conspicuous flaws giving this Renaissance reproduction an even older appearance, somehow destroying the Renaissance ideal. The entering visitors are forced out of their comfort zone and must behave contrary to the regular behavior of exhibition spaces. In order to get to the next level of the building, one has to step on the painting, committing the first sacrilege of stepping on a piece of art, a religious piece to be precise. The moment to walk on the exhibition installation will be an experience throughout the exhibition. Villar Rojas goes back in time putting time periods in his exhibitions together that go against a linear perception of time.
The bodily experience is key throughout the whole exhibition with alternating lighting from the abysmal darkness to the ultra bright, the experience of heat, different oxygen levels and stepping on different grounds. Time feels different as the body is forced to slow down its motion in order to not trip and fall on the uneven ground or in the darkness. Another recurring theme is the connection of different time periods and genres. Adrián Villar Rojas blends references from the art historical canon with pop cultural references as if he wants to expand the notion of what art can look like and question the current canonical definition. Like a time traveler, Villar Rojas goes back in time putting time periods in his exhibitions together that go against a linear perception of time.
The first floor feels like an archaeological excavation site. The light dulled with flora hanging from its ceiling resembling the impression of being underwater. The whole floor space is paved in brown marble containing 400 million-year-old fossils, Ammonoideas and Orthoceras, building a bas-relief on which the viewer has to carefully balance. Throughout the room, further fossils are meticulously exposed. On the walls of the “excavation site”, one can see cave paintings, reminding us of the Lascaux caves with incredibly accurate depictions of bulls and in between this ancient painting, we find contemporary Street art of Pichação, a highly codified graffiti writing style from Brazil - old and new wall art merged.
The second level is hot and for the first moment, one has to gasp for breath as the oxygen level thins. Over a long fireplace hangs a reproduction of Picasso’s Guernica, which celebrates its 80th anniversary this year. A painting that has been extensively reproduced in war contexts and became an anti-war icon, but is often strangely decontextualized from the real life events of the bombing of Guernica, a little town in the North of Spain. In the center hangs, according to Villar Rojas, a chandelier, but it looks actually more like a huge iron basket. Underneath it is an impressive 2,5 m high and 2,6 tons tree stump from Anatolia. On top of the tree stump, one can recognize on the second glance, due to the darkness of the room that there is a glass plate marking the stump as a table. Chairs of black marble encircle the table. The whole arrangement gives the impression of an empty meeting point where supposedly important topics could be discussed. The artist frequently investigates the human condition and how a cultivated being can incorporate evil as the painting of Guernica opposite of the table depicts. Michelangelo’s David reduced to legs. Suddenly the ideal sculpture is destroyed and just quoted, left only recognizable to connoisseurs.
The atmosphere abruptly changes on the upper third and last floor with a stinging white light. It almost feels like the ascension into a sacrosanct room. The floor welcomes the viewer to see a reproduction of the legs of Michelangelo’s David (1501-1504) enthroned on a ramp. This work connects the ground level with the Madonna del Parto to this work; one could say that the female and male ideal of the Renaissance become the reference points the exhibition deconstructs. The torso is accurately cut with a computer program out of Carrara marmor and not handmade as its original. The sculpture is part of the art historical canon and circulated in art education. It stands undoubtful for a piece of art, but Villar Rojas questions this belief and reduces the Adonis to his legs. Suddenly the ideal sculpture is destroyed and just quoted, left only recognizable to connoisseurs. The sculpture and its recognition becomes sort of a trophy. This vapid feeling is emphasized through two kittens playing between the legs of the torso. If the viewer doesn’t recognize the legs of David, he still gets through the two cute animals a highly instagrammable image as a reward. Cats and art: a combination that seems to be the modern depiction of corniness and Adrián Villar Rojas’s questioning of how clichéd the art experience has become.
All works Courtesy of the artist, Marian Goodman Gallery, New York | Paris | London, and kurimanzutto Mexico City © Jörg Baumann unless otherwise stated.