One of my favourite Ugo Rondinone works consists of a large rainbow coloured banner fixed to the outside of a grey building somewhere in industrial Europe which reads simply, “Dog Days are Over”. The deliriously happy slogan jars gloriously against the grimness of its backdrop. It is one of the most upbeat works of contemporary art I know – so it is with this in mind that I brave the icy winds of London in late January, and head to Rondinone’s new exhibition at the Whitechapel in search of some further positivity.
The glass doors of the entrance to the gallery suggest this might not be a futile search: they have been covered with festive spray-on snow, and as you go in, one of the first things you see is more snow fluttering down from above and gently settling on the galley floor. An idyllic scene – idyllic that is, until you quickly become aware of the snow-making machine suspended from the ceiling spewing out bits of white paper, and making irritating metallic squeaking noises in the process. The serenity of the scene is further undermined by the sinister black pillars and beams of the installation All Those Doors, which envelops the whole space and frames everything in the room with its menacing presence. The structure is a bit like a maze, except that being made up only of horizontal and vertical beams, and having no walls, there is obviously no danger of getting lost here. Whilst not quite the nightmarish confusion of an Alice lost in Wonderland, the effect is no less curious. There is a sense that all the riddles of this particular world have already been solved – it’s just that no-one is here to tell us what those riddles actually were. The disarming atmosphere is heightened by several small speakers embedded in the pillars piping out the melancholy sound of a few simple repeating piano notes. And lying at the foot of the pillars are numerous little cartoon drawings of a raven (Rondinone’s Cheshire Cat perhaps?) engaging in various mundane tasks: washing up, sitting on a sofa, smoking a cigarette, building a house of cards.
The domestically-engaged raven motif is an indicator of Rondinone’s interest in exploring that area where the internal workings of our minds – our dreams, paranoias, obsessions, fantasies – overlap with the banality of everyday reality. His work has the unnerving ability to collide and fuse these orders of experience and has the effect of blurring the distinctions between them, so that we are left with a lingering doubt in our minds as to the origin and meaning of what we see before us
The second part of the show is a room housing an installation called (like the exhibition itself), Zero Built a Nest in My Navel. To enter it we are invited to step through the middle of a huge “0” painted onto the wall. ‘Zero’, we’re told, is a recurring motif in Rondinone’s work, and is ‘at once a symbol of nothing and infinity’ – but rather than stepping through a void I couldn’t help feeling I was instead stepping through a portal into someone’s inner mind. The room inside is an entirely blackened rectangular space, empty except for some fluorescent strip lighting and a pair of clown’s boots hanging from a comically large nail in the wall. It provides the setting for a sound-piece in which two voices – a male and a female – can be heard engaging in a repetitive, elliptical and often wryly humorous argument.
‘I’m worried,’ says the woman
‘About what!?’ answers the man
‘Because you seem so, you know –’
‘No I don’t know.’
And so the conversation continues, with nothing specific ever quite being said. The two voices endlessly and ineffectually bicker away about something or other, and the occasional swapping of the male and female roles serves to increase the evocation of a Beckettian solipsistic interior world. After a while the experience becomes unbearable and the hollowed out “0” offers an inviting exit through which I step back into the marginally less uncomfortable world of creaking snow-making machines and showering ravens.
So much for my expectation of an uplifting positivity. But then Rondinone is not interested in offering pure pleasure; he knows too well that our longing for poetry, beauty and happiness is always bound by the constraints of reality. He is too concerned with breaking down oppositions – between our interior and exterior worlds, and between imagination and reality – to be able to present some kind of unambiguous, romanticised vision. Zero Built a Nest in My Navel is a difficult, baffling, and often unsatisfying show, but that, I suppose, is exactly what Rondinone intended.
‘Everything’s going to be alright,’ continues a voice in the blackened room. ‘That’s such a stupid thing to say!’ comes the immediate and resonant reply.