Tate Modern, London
22 November 2013 – 13 April 2014
by DARRAN ANDERSON
In his notebooks, Leonardo da Vinci recommended that artists examine stains on walls and the textures of stones, and let their imagination run wild in interpreting resemblances. Salvador Dalí conjured up many of his surreal visions from the natural rock formations on the Cadaqués coast, and Max Ernst made pictures from rubbings of tree bark. It was an inspiring way of bypassing reason or, at the very least, predictability. Other artists conveyed the pareidolia directly to the audience; whether the distorted scale of halftone dots in Pop Art or the pointillism of that movement’s unwitting ancestor Georges Seurat. It is also a technique centrally and subtly employed in Tina Gverović and Siniša Ilić’s otherwise dramatic Project Space: Inverted House at Tate Modern, where the barest presence takes human form, a form perilously close to being erased.
There is something appropriate in the mirroring of Gverović and Ilić’s work with the setting and its means of composition. One of the many aspects of their art is the fracturing of (collective) identity and its erosion, whether wilfully or through neglect. It seems fitting, then, that the results of their residency are hosted in a building where the vast Turbine Hall is currently closed for repairs. It has also been curated, by Hannah Dewar and Una Popović, in collaboration with the Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade, a space that has been closed to the public for the past six years. Though accomplished and diverting, the transitory nature of the artwork reflects the two-week period the artists were allotted to construct the exhibition. This is a collection that speaks not only of space but also of time.
The key is in the titles – Inverted House, Without Delay, Parastate, and so on. The recurring themes of transience and potential obliteration suggest that humanity has a tenuous grip on existence. Figures are just discernible, at least in the mind’s eye, as barely traced ghostly silhouettes. Buildings appear in a state of skeletal construction or decay, an effect echoed by the impermanent nature of the exhibition as a whole. The ephemeral figures and their abodes hint at refugees and the calculated devastation of war, but also a more general inertia, a surrender to atrophy. The inhabitants of these works, which is to trust that there are inhabitants (the artwork is deliberately ambiguous), are dislocated from any form of home. Yet they are also witnesses, even voyeurs, to what is transpiring. Sometimes they seem idle, sometimes in distress. In Ilić’s Sightseeing 2 (2013), smudges of makeup-esque paint appear to be characters gathered around, watching others enveloped in a blaze. Its precursor, Sightseeing 1 (2013), features well-dressed figures on one side of an apparent ravine gazing at others throwing themselves or being thrown into the void. The titles are bitterly perceptive. The blankness of the page is used, though whether it is corrosive on us, or we on it, is unclear. The colours seem jarringly unnatural. The shapes could be either smudged fingerprints or land, balanced somewhere on the boundary of incomprehensibility. We see horrors when we want to, just as we choose not to see them at other times and places.
Though Gverović’s style is different, it is connected. In Parastates: House Apart (2013), figures appear to rummage in desolate ruins or amid a rubbish dump, beneath purple wisps of trees. With Parastates: Meltdown Shelter-Red (2013), the lack of clarity is both abstract and representational, with hints of hands, wreckage and a fallout shelter. The uncertainty is tense and crucial. Waste and refuge are inseparable. This has a self-reflective effect on the viewer and forces the question of complicity or apathy. Gverović and Ilić’s renderings may be simplistic and minimalist, and their messages thus easily missed, but so too were the shadows on the walls of Plato’s Cave.
It is brave of an artist to trust in the power of the suggestive, and braver still to explore the theme of failure at the risk of being accused of it. Gverović and Ilić afford their audience the respect of trust, to continue imagining what these works begin to denote. They also knowingly rely on the audience’s knowledge and even prejudices concerning recent histories, not least their respective Croatian and Serbian histories (as well as their collective Yugoslavian past). Inverted House is therefore an exhibition of omens, omissions and traces, defined as much by what it doesn’t say as what it does. Certain elements might not be seen to “work”, perhaps an inevitability given the hastily constructed nature of the project. This would be to take a far too literal view of proceedings, however. The flayed tent stretched across the roof, for example, may seem inessential; reality, and the thousands of people enduring winter near Syria’s borders tell us otherwise. The seats assembled in a fashion to encourage conversation may also seem to have failed because they remain empty and imagined debates are unforthcoming. The work, however, is strong enough to turn this into a comment itself, one of incommunicability. Whether this was the artists’ intention is of secondary importance; it is now up to us.
The professed aim of Inverted House to be immersive might seem only partially successful. The large square that bisects the room, as if cutting through the wall and floor, is impressive, but seems an audacious move not fully followed up. The common muted colour palette linking the installation aspects (the paint-ruptured walls, for example) with the fine art offers more balance and cleanness than disorientation. Often the collection’s strongest features are the miniature drawings and paintings rather than the larger manipulations of the environment. The dimmed room with its works under glass seems to contain preparatory sketches for a larger later work that is yet to come. What will come is vital. Lines could be the fractures of earthquakes or redrawn borders for new countries. Angles seem to contain the threat or promise of shifting. There might seem a distant longing for more boldness, to invert the house much further, but this would be to criticise the exhibition for what it is not rather than what it is (either way, it bodes well for the creators’ future work). It would also overlook the temporary nature that is at the thematic heart of Inverted House, and is the basis of its success. It is deliberately imperfect. Territory and time can constrict as much as liberate, an observation Gverović and Ilić have deftly explored, as much in their methods as their message.