Art Seen: Chicago

MATHIAS POLEDNA // THE RENAISSANCE SOCIETY

by Ruslana Lichtzier

A Ballad of Wasted Time

Notes on Mathias Poledna, coupled with some peripheral questions about the meaning of art.

The Renaissance Society is currently exhibiting work by LA-based artist Mathias Poledna with a two-component exhibition: a 6:40 min color film, entitled Substance, and a spatial architectural intervention. The film portrays a Rolex watch, firstly in a series of soft close-ups, highlighting the watch’s mechanics, and later in full form, depicting the watch drifting away into a dark void. The accompanying soundtrack may sooth the agitated viewer with its slender upbeat techno—it may also, which most likely, makes it completely forgettable after leaving the space. The architectural intervention was the removal of its white steel grid ceiling structure, which has been used to support the lighting and the movable walls systems since 1967.

Poledna 1

Poledna 1 Mathias Poledna, Substance, 2014 35mm color film with optical sound, 6:40 min 35mm frame enlargement. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Buchholz, Cologne / Berlin; Galerie Meyer Kainer, Vienna; Richard Telles Fine Art, Los Angeles.

Upon entering the space, a massive horizontal wall blocks outside light from creeping into the exhibition hall. On the right, two text pieces—printed on thin paper and framed—replace the titles of the works. Using a bureaucratic form, but a slightly enigmatic language, the texts describe some of steps of the work. Behind the wall is the projection. Shot with a 35 mm camera, with specialized macro lenses (rented from Panavision Hollywood) the film creates a very soft, gold–ochre frame. The choice of lenses seems to manifest an almost pornographic compulsion, depicting the minutest details of the watch’s mechanical and metal work, while also fetishizing an already fetishized object. The temperature of the film orients, on the other hand, a different reading. With it’s almost sepia tone, it points to longing. But this is an empty longing. As the watch drifts, into the black void, it captures the viewer in nostalgia without source.

I watched the film three times. And still felt I’m missing it. I left the space.

On my way back, I had quite enough time to ponder my experience—I am one of these ideologically rare (or just poor) people that still deceive themselves about the usefulness of public transportation in the city of Chicago. The first thing that came to my mind during my hour and a half trip is that I missed Poledna’s architectural intervention…! It was a shame, how could I have missed it?! The space was darkened, sure, yet I did not register the change, such a cardinal move, one that was titled “iconoclastic” by the critics! What happened to my senses? When did I become so numb?

I turned for help.

Poledna 3

Mathias Poledna, installation view, 2014. Photo: Tom Van Eynde


Where does it hurt the most?

As common as the case is, the contemporary art viewer comes out of a show perplexed; to rescue herself from drowning in her own pool of ignorance, she grabs the exhibition text. The Mathias Poledna text is printed on high-quality cardstock paper, as if to add some mass to the already authoritative voice. Conveying the artistic gesture, the exhibition curator Solveig Øvstebø quotes Michael Bracewell defining Poledna’s work as “a form of conceptualism, philosophical in basis, which attempts to engage with paradox as a means of enquiry.”

The first question that came to my mind is why one should read this, or rather, what is the relation between the work of art and the text describing it? One may propose that while it is a wide field of relations, the text should not overstep some boundaries; it should not bend down to the work of art, which is to say it should not subscribe to it blindly. But, likewise, it should not ride as an empty platform to manifest its own ideas. Within the exhibition context, the text should mediate the work. Considering the modernistic tradition, where the curator cures the work, she puts a bandage on an open wound by using words. And still, returning to the specific quote with this perspective in mind, I remained confused. What is exactly this unique “form of conceptualism, philosophical in basis” exhibited by Poledna? In writing it again, the confusion of how this logic operates continues—isn’t conceptualism, a movement defined by concepts, always philosophical in basis? And if it is the case, isn’t it the writer, and not the artist, that “attempts to engage with paradox as a means of enquiry”?

Poledna 2

Mathias Poledna, Substance, 2014 35mm color film with optical sound, 6:40 min 35mm frame enlargement Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Buchholz, Cologne / Berlin; Galerie Meyer Kainer, Vienna; Richard Telles Fine Art, Los Angeles

I could not resist then from asking more questions. Who is the imagined reader of this text? While in being an essayist, a novelist or poet one can, and should ignore this question, the writer of an exhibition text is however obliged to ask it, because the text itself is utilized to bind the artwork and the audience. Who then is the reader that can unfold paradoxes as a means of enquiry? Or, what viewer can define the various unmentioned iconoclastic historical concepts that Poledna supposedly uses as a “conceptual backdrop”? In what way should the viewer experience the impact of the “demolition, dismantling and removal” of a ceiling structure, that seems to create a “break in the Renaissance Society history” while the space is darkened?

Remaining with my questions unanswered, I’ve decided to detour.

Where’s Waldo?

Werner Herzog’s reading of Where’s Waldo is one of my favorite cultural manifestations of the expanded moving image on the Internet. In this, I read Herzog’s search for Waldo, for the “fellow traveler,” that needs us to convey his “mad adventures,” as an allegory for the act of viewing art. Herzog narrates: “Waldo leaves trinkets scattered behind him, shedding a wake of objects as he goes. What story do these leavings tell? They are a series of transmissions of the past, sent in a code we cannot decipher. Is that a scroll or merely a rolled up towel? After trying so hard to find the scroll, are we sure we can handle the real answer?” After trying so hard finding the meaning in Substance, can I handle the real answer of Poledna’s architectural intervention?
Maybe it is not the scroll, but a merely rolled up towel.


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Mathias Poledna at The Renaissance Society runs through February 8, 2015.

Ruslana Lichtzier is a Chicago based artist, writer, curator and educator.

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