A Review of Marc Camille Chaimowicz: An Autumn Lexicon at the Serpentine Gallery, London
The heart of French artist Marc Camille Chaimowicz’s glorious new show is an exploration of how we write our own narratives through the spaces and objects around us. Utilising old and new work, found objects and the work of others, Chaimowicz has transformed the Serpentine Gallery in London into an immersive interior, that acts as a self-portrait or memoir to his own life and career that challenges the conventions of a traditional linear narrative.
Anchoring the show is an early and iconic installation Enough Tiranny, which was first shown at the Serpentine Gallery in 1972. In the current exhibition the work is dated 1972-2016, and this open-ended and ever-renewing understanding of time is a constant throughout. The work collapses the before, during and after of a party into a single space, comprising discarded jewellery, records, magazines and a water fountain replete with live fish, alongside Glam rock-era music and gaudy lighting. At its heart is a disco ball, hung just above the floor, which spins like the centre of a disco galaxy, creating a sense of the ongoing passage of time. The objects now hold a sense of kitsch and nostalgia – particularly to today’s audience where the 1970's are the current go-to decade for retro chic. The work’s title is scrawled along a wall of the gallery, originally a reference to the contemporary threat of the IRA, but again could refer to any number of current political tensions. Chaimowicz described the piece as a ‘scatter environment’, and its influence has been far-reaching – perhaps most famously on Tracey Emin’s, whose My Bed echoes its use of everyday detritus to create a personal and political narrative.
The rooms surrounding this piece are carefully staged interiors, featuring pieces from the last decade or so of his career, alongside elements made especially for the Serpentine. Chaimowicz uses the products of interior design, assimilating his painterly vocabulary onto rugs, furniture, wallpaper and curtains. His painterly style falls between the biomorphic forms of Arshile Gorky and the chalky flatness of Edouard Vuillard – by whom a beautiful nude in an interior is found in the central room – and the pastel shades of domestic design. This flow between high art and the vernacular emphasis not only the cross currents of influence, but reminds us the artistry of the objects around us – even the most drab ornament is the product is of centuries of art history. Of particular note are Chaimowicz’s marble panels For MvdR (2008), which are stacked up against walls in piles. Whilst their forms recall painted wallpaper and the material a kitchen work surface, placed at this level gives an added sense of physicality, this simple intervention transforming the banal into something beautiful.
Throughout the show Chaimowicz draws our attention to details of the space of the gallery. The contemporary vogue for the white cube or invisible gallery space is subverted, instead calling out the building’s original use as a 1930's park café. In the entrance hall, the skylight is decorated in charcoal drawings of organic forms, reminiscent of cornicing, drawing our attention to spaces we typically ignore on a gallery visit. This practice reminded me of Bruce Naumun’s installation Natural Light, Blue Light Room also on show in London at Blain Southern where the artist calls out the space of a room via careful use of the eponymous blue light. Whilst Nauman’s work aims to discomfort and make the viewer physically aware of the space around them, in Chaimowicz’s work we see a more historical approach, again subtlety and beautifully making us aware of the richness of the world around us. I’m ashamed to reference a film starring Anne Hathaway, but this process did also remind me of scene in Devil Wears Prada, where her character is dressed down by magazine editor Meryl Streep for her arrogant lack of understanding about how art and history have impacted on the clothes she wears. Just as Streep is able to recite a historical line for the exact shade of blue of high nondescript jumper, Chaimowicz brings to life not only how history impacts on every inch of the world, but how we in turn ourselves become part of that narrative.
Chaimowicz’s approach in this show is always intensely personal, best exemplified by the installation of his work World of Interiors (2008). Covering an entire wall of the Serpentine's central room, the work is made up of pages of a book, which includes collages from the magazine and Chaimowicz’s drawing and paintings, alongside writings made by or about the artist, and texts from his favourite authors such as Flaubert. As written by Stuart Morgan in the exhibition’s catalogue, ‘not only is Chaimowicz attracted to time-based activities but he also permits one stage of his career to overlap one another, so much so that is may be more convenient to deal with his oeuvre as a continuing text rather than a series of separate “pieces”’. This show draws us back and forth between the past and present, and between Chaimowicz’s personal narrative and the throes of history, calling out the unseen or forgotten spaces and objects of the world around us.
From 29th September to 20th November at the Serpentine Gallery, London
Written by Will Summerfield, a contributor to Arteviste.com.