My review of Amalia Pica's solo show, submitted to the 2013 Burlington Contemporary Art Writing Prize. The winning entry was announced on Monday 8 April - congratulations Jenna Krumminga for her review of photographs by Larry Clark at C/O Berlin gallery, Berlin.
Amalia Pica, BABBLE, BLABBER, CHATTER, GIBBER, JABBER, PATTER, RATTLE, YAMMER, YADA, YADA, YADA, 2010, 35mm slide sequence, semaphore flags, Dimensions variable.
Babble, Blabber, Chatter, Gibber, Jabber, Patter, Prattle, Rattle, Yammer, Yada Yada Yada (2010) is a work that takes some deciphering. Comprising a series of slides projected onto the gallery wall at chest height, it can be read by stringing together the words of the title, one letter at a time. The fact that ‘(...) Yada’, like its homophonous precursor Dada, essentially means nothing, renders the artist’s method of presentation comically arduous. In each slide we see Pica raising semaphore flags against a background of arid and empty landscape. Superimposed in the bottom right hand corner of the slides are the signals’ alphabetic equivalents. All of this is preceded in the foreground by a pair of actual red and yellow flags, placed alongside the projector atop a white plinth, with their wooden handles pointing towards the viewer. I imagine seizing them and mimicking the artist’s transmission of gibberish live in the gallery. I might establish communication with a fellow visitor, or on a quiet day be caught in the absurd activity of relaying nothing to no one.
Unfortunately, the invitation to perform is not to be taken literally. Observing Babble… at close range entails crossing an approximately foot-width boundary that divides the gallery, crack-like, into two uneven horizontal parts. By calling it Red Carpet (2010), Pica conjures ideas of celebrity and wealth. Paradoxically, it is made cheaply from red gaffa tape stuck directly onto the floor, so there is little sense of trepidation as one steps on the crack. The flags, on the other hand, are presented as readymades, raised on a plinth denoting the interdiction to touch.
On the other side of Red Carpet a second opportunity to perform is offered and just as soon denied. An octagonal construct, Stage (as seen on Afghan star) (2011), is installed diagonally opposite the projection. Afghan star is Afghanistan’s version of the British/American TV talent show Pop Idol. The stage stands empty and is lit by an alluring pink spotlight triggered by the viewer’s approach. Seconds later the spotlight disappears, leaving the podium’s fragile composition exposed: brown cardboard and tape reminiscent of Pistoletto’s Arte Povera. It looks far too weak to support a singer’s weight. A microphone dangles from a cord at reasonably human height, but at too great a horizontal distance from the stage. Made of soap, it would be liable to slip from one’s hands.
The exhibition title (which is also that of the microphone) now seems relevant: shower singers are those who eschew the limelight, preferring truly private space. Modern Art Oxford, a public gallery, is an unsuitable arena for Pica’s absent stars. The installation approximates a theatre set in which the artist choreographs our path. But its props are ephemeral, to be contemplated rather than used.
Re-crossing Red Carpet we find Sorry for the Metaphor #5 (2011). An expanse of black and white photocopies depicts a lake view, pasted straight onto the wall. A woman holds a placard in the foreground but neither her face nor her message can be read: she confronts the viewer with her back. Interviewed by Frieze (Issue 148), Pica recalls the ‘first piece of art that really mattered to her’ being ‘a full-scale silhouette of a pregnant woman drawn on paper and stuck to a wall in a street’ of her native city Cipolletti, Argentina. It was one version of El Siluetazo, a ‘graphic event’ conducted in the early ‘80s by three Argentinean artists: Rodolfo Aguerreberry, Julio Flores and Guillermo Kexel. Appearing in the aftermath of their nation’s ‘Dirty War’, El Siluetazo commemorated those ‘disappeared’ by the military dictatorship. Sorry… might be Pica’s tribute to the silhouette, and to the silent march conducted by mothers of the disappeared in Buenos Aires’ Mayo Square.
A similarly scaled and photocopied work - Strangers on common land (2012) - is situated in the passage serving the main entrance to the gallery. It strikes a jovial tone and features brightly coloured bunting, stretched like an umbilical link between a grown man and woman enjoying the kind of successful communication forbidden by Pica elsewhere. Communicative cheer finds its echo in the gallery: Some of that Color #2 (2009) comprises a classroom chair from which bunting is stretched and pinned to the wall. A large sheet of white paper featuring a multi-coloured watery splodge hangs above the line of bunting. Purple blends into blue, blue runs into pink and pink encounters red and orange. The splodge, or stain, (also present in the turquoise streak running down Pica’s concrete plinth downstairs) perhaps commemorates the happier aspects of the artist’s Argentinean heritage: parties, carnivals and schoolroom experiences.
The mood is deflated in the penultimate room of the show’s natural trajectory. Nine assemblage pieces fill the space, including Catachresis #8 (head of the nail, teeth of the comb, eye of the needle, head of the screw) (2011): a wall mounted comb with thick black thread pulled taut through pointed teeth. A dictionary definition of catachresis is ‘the use of a word in an incorrect way’. Pica conveys this meaning through objects; disregarding their intended purpose she reconfigures the props of domesticity to make misfit sculptural beings. Some of these are elegant and humorous – the upturned table legs of Catachresis #18 (legs of the table, neck of the bottle, head of the screw) (2012) form an angular smile. Others strike a sinister note: where catachreses include bottles set against walls I am reminded of the listening devices presented in Pica’s Chisenhale Gallery show last year. Though the artist has never alluded concretely to the text, Argentinean author Marta Traba’s novel Mothers and Shadows springs to mind, in which the protagonists, living under dictatorship, fear they are being overheard.
The tiny final room seems to warn against over-interpretation. A single work hangs on the wall: a placemat reproduction of a Brueghel painting. Wall text tells us that this is the only trace of writer Pardodsky’s stay in Amsterdam. But who is Pardodsky? I google him when I get home and the nearest hit is ‘Paradoksy’: Polish for paradoxes.