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.
Entering Alicja Kwade’s New York debut, “The Heavy Weight of Light,” one encountered a sculpture called Matter of Opinion (all works 2012), exemplifying many of the questions that animate the Polish-born, Berlin-based artist’s work. A folding screen made of glass panes in a steel frame sat on the floor in the center of the gallery. On one side, which might be called the front because it faced the door, two illuminated globes were placed directly on the floor, their long black cords connecting them to an unseen power source. Each light appeared to be doubled by a matching lamp seen through the glass. However, moving to the other side revealed a clear crystal ball and an opaque sandstone sphere sitting opposite their formal doppelgängers. Placed at precisely the distance from the glass so as to be obscured from the front by the reflections of the lights, the crystal and stone looked remarkably dim in the afterimage of their luminescent twins. Light, normally a purveyor of insight and clarity, here became the source of obfuscation, and transformed the clarity of glass into a mirrored surface of illusion. Was this simply a sleight of hand, or a lesson about the deceptive tendencies of perceptual experience?
Nearby and using a similar formal vocabulary, 12.10.2012 consists of a thin steel rod leaning against a wall-mounted mirror. At the point where metal touches glass, the surface of the mirror appears to yield to the weight of the steel. It is an illusion, of course—the concave depression on the surface of the mirror has nothing to do with the rod—but their “kiss” is affecting nonetheless. Stylistically and conceptually indebted to Minimalism, Kwade contradicts the received wisdom of that art, particularly its entwined commitments to literalism and phenomenology, by emphasizing the difference between the physical properties of materials and the perceptual effects that such materials can produce.
Between these two works, in the corner, was Looking Glass, a sandy mound of pulverized mirrors. This pile of finely ground glass, stripped of reflective properties, made obvious references to a familiar set of precedents, from corner pieces by Robert Morris, Joseph Beuys and Felix Gonzalez-Torres to Robert Smithson’s mirror and glass works. A similar sense of recognition emerged from Heavy Weight of Light. In a row along one wall, narrow rods of copper, wood, bronze, iron and brass as well as oblongs of transparent glass, mirror and MDF, in varying lengths and widths, gently curved at the angle where the floor meets the wall. The effect was something like Dalí’s version of Home Depot. These “slouching” construction materials (prized for their tensile strength) were most interesting for their subtle anthropomorphism and their arrangement suggesting a demonstration, in the experimental and the pedagogical sense.
It is in the shift from physics and chemistry to mechanics that Kwade’s thinking feels most relevant. On opposite walls, framing Heavy Weight of Light, were Dimension +1-+9 and Dimension -1–9, two Art Deco clocks that tick faster and slower than a second. This slight alteration strips the clocks of their practical function without altering their decorative function, and can serve as a welcome, if disorienting, reminder that minutes and hours are only one possible measure of time. A similar sense of mystification emerges from Future in the Past, an installation of eight vintage pocket watches suspended from the ceiling on delicate metal chains, a small congregation of timekeepers. Each watch was attached by a thin black wire to boxy black speakers on the floor. This resulted in a symphony of anxious ticking that was never quite in sync.
Photo: Alicja Kwade: Matter of Opinion, 2012, powder-coated steel frame, glass and mixed mediums, approx. 71 inches wide; at Harris Lieberman.
Alicja Kwade’s exhibition at Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof last year, on the occasion of winning the 2008 Piepenbrock Prize for Sculpture, confirmed—for better or worse—the reputation of the Polish-born sculptor. At 30, she has already become associated with luxe products like mirrored clocks, Kaiser Idell lamps and objects embellished with gold leaf or a cut diamond. Her first solo show at Johann König, bearing the title “Grenzfälle Fundamentaler Theorien” (Limit Cases of Fundamental Theories), introduced new materials and objects, but her sensibility and guiding ideas remain consistent.
Although Der Tag ohne Gestern (The Day without Yesterday), 2009, occupied the gallery’s largest space and was the exhibition’s focus, it was not the most engaging work shown. Reminiscent of one of Olafur Eliasson’s quasi-scientific experiments, it suffered from a disproportion between the technology employed and the esthetic result. Kwade’s installation consisted of 11 loudspeakers amplifying and projecting the otherwise inaudible noise made by the room’s neon-strip lighting onto 11 curved plates of lacquered and polished steel. Each sheet’s curvature is modeled on an individual sine wave function, resulting in a sound wave interference pattern that took viewers “by the ear” and moved them from one component to the next. While apparently referring to a theory in speculative physics proposing an 11-dimensional reality, The Day without Yesterday did little more than remind us of the artist’s soft spot for shiny, mirrored surfaces.
But treasures are found where we least expect them—here, at the intersection of floor and wall, where a mysterious sheet of curved glass lay furled like a fallen piece of paper. A glimpse at the ceiling raised the question, could one of the panels of the skylight have sailed down to the floor like a leaf? While there was no missing windowpane to support the conjecture, it is precisely this kind of unreasonable thought, wherein we imagine a malleable and indestructible sheet of glass, that illustrates the power of this young artist’s work.
Time and again, Kwade leads the viewer to assume impossibilities that reach far beyond simple trompe l’oeil. Outside the gallery two silver-colored Nissan Micras were parked at an angle, mirroring each other. A rusty dent, caused by a road accident, above one of the car’s headlights is mimicked by a meticulously fabricated dent in the other car. Their juxtaposition created a headlong collision between an accident and its reenactment, and lured viewers to position themselves between the two matched elements—the space that the artist in many other works has reserved for a mirror.
Photo: Alicja Kwade: The Day without Yesterday (Dimensions 1-11), 2009, steel, black varnish, speakers and mixed mediums, 11 parts; at Johann König.