Published in Artforum, February 2008.
The work in Belgian artist Kris Martin’s New York solo debut engages quietly but directly with fundamental issues: death, entropy, the ravages of time. In a period characterized by a loss of faith in artists’ ability to communicate fundamental truths, Martin’s unswerving devotion to such grand topics is striking. His ambition also makes the success or failure of individual works relatively easy to quantify: Each tends either to resonate with the clarity of a tuning fork or else miss its mark entirely, ending up seeming garishly sentimental, even trite. Curator Neville Wakefield’s astute, compact selection of compelling sculptures and comparatively less engaging works on paper was installed elegantly in an institution not known for sensitive exhibition design, allowing each object ample space.
The work in the first gallery illustrated the strengths and pitfalls of Martin’s approach. On one wall hung Mandi III, 2003, a scale replica of a train-station signboard, its all-black placards cycling intermittently but conveying no information. With its intimation of futility, of departures and arrivals endlessly deferred, the work triggers a sobering unease; one imagines its staccato clacking as the unrelenting tick of a clock. Nearby were Golden Spike, 2005, a two-inch, eighteen-carat gold nail driven into the floor, its gleaming head virtually indistinguishable from its surroundings, and Plate with milk, 2005. The former work is too precious not only in its choice of materials, but also in its hide-and-seek placement; the latter seems little more than an arbitrary paean to Wolfgang Laib and the charms of pet ownership. Yet such missteps were rare here, and the logic of Mandi III and Golden Spike—that a simple, Conceptual art–inflected transfiguration of an everyday object can dramatically alter its meaning–underpinned several other sculptures in the show.
Vase, 2005, for example, is a seven-foot-tall replica of a Ming dynasty vase that, per the artist’s instructions, must be smashed and reassembled prior to being displayed. This process, repeated each time the work goes on view, is entropic, as attested by its hundreds of fragments, held together by plainly visible daubs of yellowing glue, which no longer fit together seamlessly. (This dust-to-dust aesthetic brought to mind Yoko Ono’s April 2006 performance at a memorial for Nam June Paik, during which she distributed 450 pieces of a similar vase and urged visitors to promise to think of the late artist.) In another room, 100 Years, 2004, a small steel sphere, rested on the floor, seeming to absorb the room’s energy like a black hole. Like Roni Horn’s subtly asyemmtrical “asphere” sculptures, 100 Years is not exactly what it seems: It is supposed to suffer “corrosive self-destruction” in 2104, a fact that charges it with questions about permanence-not only the type to worry art conservators, but also about how artworks and artists pass into history.
Mandi VIII, 2006, a plaster replica of the famous classical statue Laocoön and His Sons with the serpents removed from the composition, furthered this line of inquiry. Here, the material transformation (from durable marble to delicate plaster) and the erasure of a key element of the Greek myth comments on our endless capacity for forgetting. Also seeming to make a classical allusion, Mandi XV, 2007, a nearly twenty-two-foot-long sword that lay diagonally across the floor of another gallery, summoned the cautionary anecdote of Damocles. Imagining such an outsize blade dangling over one’s head—or, perhaps, over a head of state—was a final reminder in a stringent, demanding, but by no means bleak exhibition that everything shall pass.