Mannaerts-opacity at De Appel

Issue no3
June - July 2020
Troebele waters

If there exists such a thing as spatial collage, a set of forms that combine different materials, frameworks and spatialities into a three-dimensional whole, then surely the work of Valérie Mannaerts embodies it. The Belgian artist notoriously deducts art from her encounters with the everyday, transposing the found aesthetics into dreamy sceneries of personally crafted objects. After a stop at Antwerp centre for contemporary art Extra City, her new show Diamond Dancer at De Appel, Amsterdam amounts equally to a blend of quasi-design-sculptures, customised imagery and appropriated household objects, each of which are coated under a varying degree of Mannaerts-opacity. Spread over four rooms stand carpet-patterned coffee tables, hollowed-out and printed cupboards, plants in custom-made pottery, as well as various paintings and drawings depicting chairs mutating to hats, glasses to fishes, etcetera.

Most material to be found in the show is nothing short of mesmerising, as the pieces varyingly inscribe themselves in the ongoing art historical contemplation over object and its representation. Yet equally, a major attribute of the work seems lost in the current presentation. For not only do the works themselves play on the dichotomy of matter and depiction, Mannaerts’ spatial montage as a whole equally evokes such an interesting oscillation. As the former setup with a curtain backdrop in the vast space of Extra City made clear, the manner in which the artist handles the exhibition space is twofold. On the one hand literally, as in a Minimalist matter-of-factness, on the other axonometrically, placing different objects and dividing screens in a two-dimensional figure-ground relationship. Unfortunately, such spatial collage is forfeited in the smaller rooms of De Appel, where the viewer enters amid the installation and lacks the distance to regard it as a whole.

Nevertheless, the presentation in De Appel equally has its charm, especially in the two bottom rooms. Shirking here intense spatial play for a more object-centred focus, it becomes clear how the artist entrenches her works in what she calls ‘resistance to bite-size signification’. Mannaerts has produced ‘things’ rather than objects. Following art historian W.J.T. Mitchell, ‘things’ are those objects that talk back or compel us to adore them, possessing a magical power and thus escaping standard categorisation. The everyday items depicted and presented in <em>Diamond Dancer</em> too acquire such uncanny anthropomorphism, having passed through the head and hands of the artist. Coffee tables now are wearing earrings or voyeuristically opening their skirts, lamp cloths seem vibrantly rebellious, and the shadows of chairs – when not morphing into a hat – break free to haunt the rest of the interior. The work as such does not attempt to radicalise the distinction between art and the everyday object but on the contrary, acknowledges that both have the power to be ‘things’, at least, in the mental space of the artist. A worthy alternative to the abstract aestheticism of many design-as-art accommodations of the 1990s, this strategy definitely asks for follow-ups in the future.

Valérie Mannaerts, Diamond Dancer is on show until February 27th at De Appel, Amsterdam.

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 3 — 2020