Bodies in Space: Some notes on the work of Nairy Baghramian

Walead Beshty

Unpublished text, 2016


Upon entering, we see rounded lumpen forms attached to a rail whose hard linearity and icy chrome offset the neutral beiges and rounded edges of the objects it holds aloft. It is as though a series of Franz West sculptures had been skewered into a provisional taxonomy, a sequence of patchwork tubers wrenched from their comfortable place upon the ground where gravity could dictate their inclination. Yet, on the wall, their position contradicts our sense of mass and scale, and they appear more specimen-like than sculptural, like gigantic insects pinned inside a monumental vitrine. As we look closer, we notice fleshy silicone extruding indelicately from the tips of the steel armature, the same goo padding the feet of the spindly-legged works in the museum atrium. There the silicone acts as a supple joint between the polished steel and the floor below it, as if the sculptures required something to cushion their perch, but oozing from the steel tubing, it has the feeling of something repressed seeping into view, an indelicate secret released by the mistreatment of the bulbous forms. We might notice similar metal posts holding together the smooth plaster shells peppered throughout adjacent rooms, spanning the linear cuts in the otherwise smooth ergonomic objects. There is something unmistakably clinical about the works, they all contain moments when disparate materials are disturbingly conjoined, like a plastic knee joint exposed underneath skin and muscle. Each work deploys a similar play of oppositions: the round with the linear, flesh tones with metallics, the stiff with the pliable. We too are in a state of communion with alien materials, our own doughy figures padding against the hard concrete and steel of the museum, our rounded profiles cast against its grey geometries.

For an earlier iteration of such tensions, we might think back to when we confronted the work wedged unexpectedly into doorways, twisted and torqued polished aluminum and rubber whose curious bowing and curling was the result of being pressed into narrow architectural frames. There they lurked like wallflowers at a party as they blocked the smooth flow from room to room, exuding the unease of an unsprung trap, full of disquieting potential energy. Rather than things to be looked at, or even to move around, they were things to evade, things that pushed into our personal space like a stranger standing too close in an elevator, or a loiterer on the street whose eye contact we avoid. When around them we felt the equivalent of a foreign breath on our shoulder, an anonymous chest at our back, an unwanted brush of a hand, and we shrank from these bodies whose presence violated polite proximity. From a distance, their precarity appeared almost whimsical, slight and playful if not perverse, but when we were forced to be unnaturally close to them, their delicate balancing act became a threat. We might recall that as we slipped past, our bodies were forced into complimentary contortions, becoming the inverse of their bends, mirroring their contours, echoing their tensions. In our evasion, we not only mimicked them formally, molding ourselves to the shape made between them and their architectural confines, but felt their stresses as we contorted into the space they created. We went from seeing this tension from a safe remove, to feeling their stresses, the stresses of a body fit into the margins. We, like them, are wedged into the gaps. We are constantly being subjected to such energies, pushed at by the force fields that surround bodies foreign to us. Bodies who impose on our trajectories through the world: visitors, bouncers, loiterers, invigilators, alien figures with unpredictable agendas. When we find ourselves in their proximity, we contort ourselves to keep our distance, hoping to avoid interference.

The sculptures trade in these sensations, those of restriction, apprehension, and stress. The tension one feels when performing a delicate manoeuver over a slumbering seatmate on an airplane, or the sidestep we execute in making our way out of a crowded nightclub, shimmying between bodies and furniture careful not to knock over a glass or tumble into a stranger. These are the twisting stresses of being a body, an awkward dance composed of tensing ligaments and flexing muscles. We are reminded of our immersion in rapid plays of tension and release, fluidity and tautness. But we are only confronted with this fact in moments of duress, moments when the complex orchestration of our rigid pivoting segments is pushed to its limits, when the sinewy bands that bind our appendages together fail to affirm our belief in the seamless integration of body and mind, and a poorly calculated swing of a limb threatens to upend our best intentions. At those times, our bodies become odd and unpredictable. We feel the friction of moving parts: we sense our joints creaking, we register the kneading and pinching of the slippery cartilage that intervenes at our pivot points as it diffuses the force of repeated pounding and twisting. This is the awkwardness of bodies, the tenuous grasp we have on grace and posture in light of social and physical constraint. This is the disquieting oddness the sculptures make us feel, a kind of abject phenomenology, a phenomenology of precarity.

What does one make of sculpture that behaves, or rather makes us behave in this way? Sculpture that seems to have been cast off-handedly into, or against its architectural frame, that slouches abjectly against a pillar as we loom above it like a passerby inspecting a slumped body on the street for signs of life. A sculpture that is haphazardly flopped onto the ground, its rigidity fighting a gentle rolling lawn in much the same way as it did the concrete and granite it had previously been deposited upon. A sculpture forced into a doorway, like a corpse indelicately stuffed under the stairs. This is something other than site specificity, for the site itself is little more than obstruction or stricture, and the sculpture treats it with indifference. It doesn’t deal in proper names, or acknowledge the function of its context, rather it treats its confines as an impediment to be pressed up against. The works break against these obstructions like water on rock, caring little if it is granite or sandstone, fighting concrete and wood with the same force. That is to say that the world is registered by the sculptures as bare fact, the power of its surroundings manifest in the shapes that it twists its subjects into. Such power is only visible when it is drawn into conflict, making it bring its full weight to bear. Rather than site specificity this is site ambivalence, and the sculptures serve as bellwethers, registering the forces at play before we ourselves register our own subjection to them.

As the works move on to other locations, into other forms of bondage and stress, they act accordingly, dutifully molding to whatever new confines present themselves. But this is not passive acceptance, things do not fit easily or without struggle. Here base-materiality stands in protest to each of its deployments; each instance contains friction, whether realized in pent up energies, or by an alarming fragility that makes us walk on eggshells, spindly legs and delicate props warning us to approach with caution. At other times the works are slack, offering resistance by sheer inertia, like the limp form of a protestor dragged by police. But rigidity also has been their means of dissent as they brace themselves against obdurate forms, pushing or pulling against captivity. Interdependency between an entity and its surroundings is here realized as a conflict brought about by the stubbornness of things, things placed into a state of opposition, and while in audience with these objects, we become conscious of our resolute thingness in a world of things, life an ever evolving state of taut equilibria.

This form of agency is something quite different from what we are used to seeing in art. Sculpture tends not to slouch or list, flop or push, rather it stands tall with nobility, announcing itself as a majestic figure upright against a horizontal field. Traditional sculpture confronts us in tandem with its location, and architecture is the stage from which it stands apart, holding the spotlight, arch and noble, granted authority by its context. In the early twentieth century, we saw sculpture begin to claim more of architecture’s territory, internalizing the frame on which it depended, expanding to become its own support, taking more of architecture’s properties for its own. But these sculptures are different; they not only toss themselves against the architecture around them, breaking upon the hard angles, but also push up against the dominant approach to sculpture that has, since Minimalism, pantomimed architecture’s resoluteness in a protracted staring contest. That sculpture looked back at architecture as a father to be usurped. It sought to hijack architecture’s centuries-old tricks to redeploy them for itself. That is to say, late twentieth-century sculpture’s conventional relationship to architecture is Oedipal, seeking to take its place rather than draw itself in contrast. Such a sculpture reaches its pinnacle with Richard Serra’s industrial monoliths, dwarfing us in their shadows, their incomprehensible mass forcing those who want to exhibit the work to cut apart buildings, slice off roofs and knock down walls. It attempts to literally and metaphorically dominate architecture. Even when small enough to fit in a room, such works threaten their containers by sheer weight alone; the halls of the redesigned Museum of Modern Art were engineered to accommodate Serra’s retrospective and the demands of works like his One Ton Prop (House of Cards) (1986) that threatened to damage the structural integrity of the building. If the battle between sculpture and architecture began with Tony Smith’s Die (1962), which intervened in architecture’s phenomenological power by inserting itself into its flow, sculpture’s victory was confirmed by the museum becoming wholly subservient to sculpture, transformed into an elaborate pedestal, forced to subordinate to its heft just as it must to the elements or the crowds it pumps through its halls. It is rare for an object to be able to demand as much as that, to throw its weight around and make architecture bow to its whim.

We must not forget that mass follows capital, and the force of such work is matched by the economies of scale required to own, produce, and house it. For most of us, these cash flows are as sublime and vast as the sculptures they enable, torrents of zeroes appended to the commonplace numerals we experience in our daily lives. Just as the sculptures take familiar forms and expand them to the point of inscrutability, their financial scale is equally unfathomable. How does one make a thirty-foot tall undulating wall of steel? Where do objects such as that come from? What does 30 million dollars really look like, and what exactly does it buy? We imagine mining operations and stadium-sized foundries. We imagine cranes and cargo tankers, armies of installers, technicians and clerks toiling under an ethereal cloud of handshake deals, offshore banking and Lear Jets. We are given a brief view into the alternate universe of boundless wealth that operates all around us, yet does so on its own plane of reality—the nature of which we can only speculate. We are left to investigate their residues, their global mechinations a distant rumble as we commune with the monoliths deposited in their wake. Such a world is beyond the common experience of all but the vast minority of viewers who might find themselves subsumed in such works, the story of their becoming sewn in the limits of our speculative imaginations. But these other sculptures, these slouching, leaning, and teetering forms, do not engage in such warfare. Rather than opposition by brute force, they register the strain of fitting in, and their marginality is their most caustic weapon. Slips of the tongue, cold shoulders, these are minor disruptions performed up close by individuals, not state or corporate entities. These micro-aggressions occur on the street, among the rabble. Consolidated centers of wealth and power are unable to work in this way; they are denied such provocations. These interruptions yank us from the sense of solidity that power cannot avoid portraying, drawing our attentions to the seams and fissures in expansive orders. These sculptures remind us of the kind of body whose very existence resists the authority of congealed capital. They gum up the sublimity of its torrential flow, and they remind us that resistance need not form a mirror image of its dominant other. This resistance is an innate feature of the bodies we are shackled to, a liberatory possibility that is imbedded within the condition of life, which is toxic to the frictionless pulsing of power. It does not require that we match the brute force of such powers to break their hold. No, effective resistance can be as slight and petulant as dragging one’s feet.