Bruno Munari, Looking for comfort in an uncomfortable chair, c1950
Confusion, and, more pointedly, the inability to understand an artwork using a given set of cognitive tools, is the subject of this travelling exhibition curated by Anthony Huberman. The titular quotation is attributed to Charles Darwin in reference to a mathematician who seeks to explain away the world through reason, heedless of the risk of losing himself in abstraction. Huberman addresses his exhibition to that blind man, to show him the error of his ways and, perhaps, to enjoy his limits.
Ironically, the exhibition uses a lot of words in its refutation of explanations. Text abounds—primarily within artworks, as in the wall text in Falke Pisano and Benoît Maire’s installation Organon (2008), or Fischli and Weiss’ diagrams that futilely attempt to untangle questions big (“Where is the galaxy heading?”) and small (“Chicken or fish?”). The catalogue for the exhibition, designed by artist Will Holder, adopts the speech bubbles, ellipses and exclamation marks of a children’s textbook. Less didactic is a vast wall of drawings, prints, paintings, rubbings and photographs by Matt Mullican that mixes symbols found and invented to create a semiotic cacophony that undoes meaning as fast as it can be formulated.
Elsewhere, words are eschewed altogether in favor of intuitive abstractions. An ungainly, semi-reflective ceramic sculpture by Rosemarie Trockel is affixed to the wall adjacent to Rachel Harrison’s equally lumpy, mute sculpture Three of Cups (2008), a lurching orange plaster column from which hangs a coconut shell bikini. Models of the chatty rat and bear characters from Fischli and Weiss’ video The Right Way (1983) snooze in a corner of the upstairs gallery, silenced, perhaps, by two penumbral etchings by Giorgio Morandi that hang nearby. As with the inclusion of Italian designer Bruno Munari’s hilarious slideshow Seeking Comfort in an Uncomfortable Chair (c.1950), unexpected cross-historical allegiances re-direct the interpretation of familiar contemporary works.
Animals recur throughout as enlivened symbols of an enigmatic ‘other’, with parallel but impenetrable systems of comprehension and communication. Perhaps the show’s ultimate moment occurs on the stairwell, where we overhear the recording of Marcel Broodthaers’ Interview with a Cat (1970). “Is this one a good painting?” asks the artist. “Meow” replies the cat; its response is both reassuring and terrifyingly nonsensical—a good deal more eloquent than the dead hare that Joseph Beuys once attempted to instruct on art. Further on, an anonymous Sixteenth-Century engraving depicts a room filled with all manner of stuffed birds, fish and animals. While this wunderkammer may have initially stood as a tablet of empirical understanding, all that remains is slack-jawed wonder at its absurd mysteries and the effort put toward their revelation. Huberman doesn’t attempt the crises of consciousness that initiated the earliest works on display; his winningest critique is that those moments of dissonance, and the transcendence they promise, don’t at this moment seem possible.