Bringing together a multitude of art historical references is de rigueur in artistic practice today, as though artists were chefs blending a variety of flavors to create their own signature dishes. In this sense, Vanessa Safavi’s sculptures and two-dimensional works, which combine notes of primitivism and Pop, naive expression and contemporary criticism, are typical. But they outshine the work of many of the young Swiss artist’s peers thanks to an irreverence that is neither pointlessly destructive nor archly ironic but applied with critical wit.
Her first institutional exhibition, “Resorts,” occupied three rooms of the Kunsthaus Glarus. In the first large gallery—hanging on the walls or propped up against them—treated animal hides dyed green, brown, yellow and close to Wedgwood blue were displayed on or behind Plexiglas, their forms suggesting outline maps of unknown territories. Three pedestals were positioned along one side of the gallery; placed on the first two were, respectively, three small bottles labeled “Love Drops” and three tubs of hair gel—both in the Pan-African colors of red, yellow and green—while the third featured a small stuffed parrot. Titled Still Life 5 (African Samples), 2011, this tableau of souvenirs from Safavi’s recent residency in South Africa fused mystic Sangoma medicine, 21st-century commodity culture and the fantasy of Africa as natural paradise. Yet these symbols of personal and national identity seemed to be presented as outdated tools, their use value depleted, since Safavi had turned the gallery into a kind of warehouse, by means of her sometimes casual display of the hides and the general sparseness of her ensemble.
The upper gallery was populated by 17 sculptures made from painted iron rods, each a tall vertical pole from which shapes protrude at various angles. Some of these sculptures are birdlike, and some could be busts, echoing the austerity of those on Easter Island, though they have hints of European monocles and mustaches. They evoke both “primitive” figural sculptures in remote societies and the absorption of such objects into modern painting and sculpture by artists such as Gauguin and Picasso; the results are new characters that seem mildly confused but not overly perturbed by their identity. In contrast to that inviting forest of sculptures, the third room, housing Real Life Is Elsewhere (2011), could not be traversed. Covering the floor was a carpet of sand, from which a number of nascent, unfired, fist-size clay forms poked out as if washed up on the shore, teasing us with their lack of definition.
In our age of what Okwui Enwezor calls “intense proximity,” when every place and thing is accessible as information, image or destination, Safavi reminds us that we are still largely tourists, that familiarity is often illusory. The recognition of so many different localities, traditions and languages does not necessarily indicate a substantial understanding of them. By finally thwarting our desire to see what lay in the sand, Safavi closed the show by frustrating our urge to index, organize and experience the world as an assortment of images that we assume we comprehend and can therefore disregard.
Photo: View of Vanessa Safavi’s installation Real Life Is Elsewhere, 2011, sand and clay; at Kunsthaus Glarus.