My discovery of Rondinone dates back to a sexy picture I noticed in Flash Art in the mid-1990s, of what I took to be a seductive model revealing a glimpse of appealing cleavage. I hadn’t actually meant to stop at the image, but biology had taken over, as it does. But wait a second. There was something weird about this girl. Why was she so swarthy? And wasn’t that a moustache on her upper lip? Someone had digitally transferred his head onto a photograph of an alluring model and seamlessly confused the two to create an unsettling self-portrait that wobbled between masculinity and femininity as frantically as a woofer.
So that was Ugo Rondinone. Except it wasn’t. A few months later, in Flash Art, he had another show. This time, what stopped me was a gorgeous set of abstract paintings, circles of coloured fog of such exciting brightness that the page seemed to throb. They reminded me of Kenneth Noland’s work: Rothko in the round. Who did these, I wondered? They’re fabulous. It was Rondinone.
Except, of course, it wasn’t. A few Flash Art issues later, I noticed some mad-looking drawings, skilfully achieved with Indian ink, of knotted trees, tossing and turning in the landscape as if they couldn’t get to sleep; and forest clearings writhing with unease, like an angler’s worms. An installation shot showed them to be wall-sized. Weird, I thought. Who did them? Oh, no. It was Rondinone.
As the years wore on, and the 20th century seeped into the 21st, it kept happening. Something in Flash Art would catch my eye, and it would turn out to be by Ugo Rondinone. It was never the same thing twice. Video, photography, painting, sculpture, sound pieces, projections, performance, comic stuff, serious stuff, things with him in them, things with nobody in them — you just couldn’t tell.
So the news that this one-man studio of artists was finally getting a British showing at the Whitechapel came as a blessed relief. I had expected to be put out of my confusion, and finally to be able to grasp who and what Rondinone was. But I was being optimistic.
The Whitechapel show is called Zero Built a Nest in My Navel, which is not a title that gives much away. The line is taken from one of the haikus that Rondinone apparently writes every day, and which take the place of a diary for him.
A few examples are scattered about the walls of his Whitechapel installation, written in white on old bits of wood, of the sort you find washed up on beaches. Here’s an example: Fold back/my love/as you did/my sheets.
Here’s another: Air gets/into everything/even nothing.
While you’re solving these etymological sudokus (clue: there is no solution), I will run a few pertinent biographical facts past you. Rondinone was born in Switzerland in 1964, of Italian parents, so flexibility was his birthright. He studied in Vienna and spent his early career collaborating with the notorious Austrian performance artist Hermann Nitsch, who is probably the most gory artist there has ever been. Nitsch showered himself in blood as if it were bath water. From him, Rondinone would have learnt that life is messy, red, angry, scary, wet and violent. We can safely assume that everything he has done since should be viewed as an attempt to get over the trauma of Nitsch.
And so the show has a Japanese feel to it, an oriental air of extreme neatness and striking delicacy. The installation occupies the whole of the lower gallery and turns it into an indoor garden. A series of black trellises, which seem to be made of polished lacquer, lead this way and that. If they were solid, you’d be in a labyrinth. But they’re not solid, so you’re in a psychological bower, a gazebo of the mind, a rock garden without rocks.
There are noises, too: a plinky-plinking of music that confirms the Japanese feel, but also the sound of a man and a woman arguing somewhere out of sight, around the corner or behind a screen. “What I’m trying to say,” gasps the man, “is that I don’t want to lose you.”
“You’ve never had me,” yells the woman. Round and round they go, snapping at each other, arguing, criticising, contradicting, a lost pair of contemporary lovers who no longer agree about anything, and whose constant refutations form a decent forgery of a Beckett play. It takes a while before you notice the two adversaries in love keep swapping parts.
“What I’m trying to say,” gasps the woman, “is that I don’t want to lose you.”
“You’ve never had me,” yells the man. All this is confusing enough. But it soon gets worse. Hanging from the ceiling is a contraption that appears to be pumping snow. It’s actually a shower of ticker tape, but once again it feels very Japanese, as if you’re in an Edo print, or a geisha’s garden, or an artificial paradise of wintry moods. Everything would be rather lovely, if only those two would stop arguing: “What’s wrong with you? Tell me.”
“No, you tell me.”
“Do I have a problem?” “Of course you do.”
Arranged around the walls is a series of huge black masks, inspired, I read, by the grimacing masks made by Yuk’ip Eskimos in Alaska to represent the 12 months of the year. Rondinone has turned them into his personal zodiac. Blobby Two Heads represents October. Triangle Face is July. Pumpkin Features is June.
All this is going on at once: the masks are grimacing, the seasons are passing, the voices are arguing, the snow is falling, the music is playing, the labyrinth is leading you this way and that, the little poems are puzzling the hell out of you, and I haven’t even mentioned the giant yellow light bulb hanging from the roof, or the weird cartoons about a day in the life of a very bored bird, which are drawn on the bottoms of the lacquered trellis. Ugo Rondinone, 20 artists in one career, is setting us quite a quest here.
There was simply too much happening for me to work out confidently what Zero Built a Nest in My Navel was trying to tell me. So I went outside and thought about it some more. The show adds up, I suggest, to a set of observations about boredom and ennui in contemporary living, which simultaneously offers a set of working antidotes for that ennui, presented by the various Ugo Rondinones.
The modern world lacks poetry, says the first Rondinone; so let me supply you with some, replies the second. The Japanese have got it right with their excellent trust in beautiful artifice, suggests a third; and so have the Yuk’ip Eskimos, chimes a fourth. People argue too much, insists a fifth. Yes, but everything looks better in the snow, concludes the sixth.