View of Alicja Kwade’s exhibition “I Rise Again, Changed but the Same,” 2016, at 303.

Alicja Kwade’s “I Rise Again, Changed but the Same,” her first exhibition at 303 Gallery, comprised an assortment of formal pairings and doppelgängers, with similar objects and materials recurring as the installation unfolded. Dead leaves that flanked the gallery’s entrance—at first seeming simply to have blown in from outside—were followed by other such piles placed around the perimeter of the main room. A chain of jagged rings in bronze and steel (Reality Zones, all works 2016) suspended from the ceiling was echoed by a tangle of brass circles resting on the floor across the room (99 Seconds). Leaning against the walls, four mirror panels partially consumed by layers of rust touched, at their bottom-right corners, identically sized floor-bound panels of corroded Cor-Ten steel (Incident: Trait Transference).  

At the center of the installation were three of what Kwade refers to as “paravents”—large configurations of freestanding black metal frames that contain double-sided mirrors or sheets of clear glass and that are each accompanied by a pair of objects. One such work, I Rise Again, incorporates two thin bronze poles. One pole is straight and leans against a mirror panel, producing, due to its reflection, the illusion of an inverted V-shaped form straddling the metal frame. On the other side of the mirror, the second pole curves up from the floor to meet the glass surface. In Changed, a rock and its cast-aluminum replica sit on either side of another double-sided mirror. If the mirror is approached from an oblique angle, one of the rocks appears to merge with the reflection of the other, as if they form a single object in the midst of some alchemical transformation. But the Same comprises two wooden stairways ascending toward each other—a pack of American Spirits resting on one, and candy cigarettes on the other—with a mirror between them. 

Though the paravents are technically discrete works, they were treated here as a single mise-en-scène. Each one amplified the effects of the others, the group creating a profound sense of spatial disorientation. Here, Kwade played shrewdly with the blank uniformity of the white cube gallery: an architectural container designed to make itself invisible offers little in the way of perceptual anchors. Walking around these works led to one experience of misrecognition after another: I was never quite sure where I was in relation to anything else in the space, if the objects I saw were in front of me or behind, or if I was looking at a real thing or a mirror image. 

Within such an uncanny setup, the mostly banal objects started to take on outsize significance, serving as inquiries into the nature of perception and reality that suggested alternate ways of conceiving of things in the world. Indeed, as a long, and somewhat heavy-handed, press release notes, Kwade is influenced by the work of “speculative realists” like Graham Harman, whose theory of object-oriented ontology proposes, among other things, a metaphysics that refuses to privilege the perspective of humans over other kinds of entities. As it turns out, a number of these sculptures have elaborate conceptual backstories and are intended as philosophical prompts or thought experiments: the irregular shapes of the metal rings hanging from the ceiling, for instance, are based on the boundaries of Earth’s time zones, whose idiosyncrasies reflect national borders and trade agreements. 

But these works don’t entirely hold up to subsequent viewings. Much of the exhibition’s initial impact was the result of confounded expectations, the sense of being continually unmoored as the installation revealed new mysteries with each step. When I visited the show a second time, some of that magic was undone: a trick is less impressive when you know how it works.