Mai-Thu Perret

The Renaissance Society, Chicago
30 April – 11 June 2006

Over the last decade there has been an increasing preoccupation with the staging of virtual scenarios in contemporary artistic production. Matthew Buckingham and Joachim Koester’s Sandra of the Tulip House, Pierre Huyghe’s Third Memory and Walid Raad’s Atlas Group, are among the more notable examples of this impulse to double and refract reality by means of its representation. In these works, categories of fact and fiction are made to merge imperceptibly with each other and are linked to a past that may or may not have taken place. Eschewing institutional studio activity, such art is open-ended, interactive and resistant to closure.

Working along these lines, the Swiss artist Mai-Thu Perret invents hypothetical social structures that propose a return of sorts to the unrealised utopian projects of the twentieth century. For her recent exhibition at the Renaissance Society, Perret presented a hybrid collection of objects under the organising fiction of The Crystal Frontier, a feminist commune founded by five women somewhere in the American Southwest. The works on display, which Perret attributes to her fictional female protagonists, draw as much inspiration from the formal rigours of modernist painting as they do from the feminised craft practices traditionally associated with the decorative arts. Perhaps most refreshing of all were the creative liberties that the artist took in reinterpreting her disparate sources, as exemplified by the enormous aluminum clad teapot that served as the visual centerpiece of the exhibition. Measuring over twelve feet in diameter, Little Planetary Harmony, 2006, instantly called to mind the topsy-turvy universe of Alice in Wonderland. From the perspective of sculptural history, the work points to the architectural scale and domestic iconography that Claes Oldenburg had earlier emphasised in his hypertrophic readymades of the 1960s. Through the addition of a door, the teapot is transformed into a futuristic space capsule which viewers are able to enter. Inside, Perret had hung a series of small-scale paintings based in part on Russian Constructivist textile patterns. Devoid of any expressive brushwork or painterly effects, these geometric compositions refer back to the productivist objective of abandoning the hand of the individual artist-craftsman in favour of more anonymous, linear forms based on an industrial model of mechanical drawing.

This antisubjective tendency was also evident in the five life-sized papier-mâché figures placed throughout the gallery space. Indicative of her interest in art and fashion, Perret covered the blank face of each mannequin with a large color dot and outfitted them with utilitarian square-cut dresses made in collaboration with the Paris-based designer Ligia Dias. The athletic poses and neon hoops (a witty nod to Busby Berkley via Bruce Nauman) held by the figures are part of a dance called the Apocalypse Ballet from which the work derives its evocative name.

The visual manifestations of The Crystal Frontier are supplemented by diaristic extracts in which the women recount scenes from their former lives in the city and their reasons for establishing a utopian community in the desert. Positioned at the entrance to the exhibition, No More City, 2003-2006 described the ‘grey-tinged nightmare’ of an unnamed urban dystopia, its inhabitants reduced to political prisoners ‘sleepwalking through waking life’.

In more ambivalent terms, Letter Home (After A.R.), 2006, appropriated from a missive written by Aleksandr Rodchenko to his wife, Varvara Stepanova, vividly captures Paris at a time when architecture’s traditional task of enabling various social functions in public space was being rapidly displaced by the demands of serial commodity display. What is most interesting about the language of this text is the way that it endows the commodity object with an uncanny life and places it within the field of desiring subjects. As Christina Kiaer has recently shown in her groundbreaking analysis of Constructivism, Rodchenko’s encounter with Parisian commodity culture in 1925 is integral to grasping the tensions within the socialist ideal of conceiving objects as co-workers formed through the active, dynamic, and transparent processes of industrial production.1

According to Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism, the capitalist system of exchange inverts the true conditions of production resulting in ‘thing-like [dinglich] relations between persons and social relations between things’. Yet rather than trying to do away with the uncanny effects of the commodity—its ability to act as a substitute for the human producer—the Constructivists attempted to harness them for socialist ends. The danger, of course, is that in seeking to align people with the products of modern industry, Constructivist design might only end up facilitating their subjection to the logic of capitalism.

For her part, Perret has sought to work through the contradictory demands of aesthetic autonomy on the one side and instrumental utilitarianism on the other. Unlike previous models of avant-garde utopianism, the aim here is to sustain a tension between art and life, not to magically reconnect the two. In this respect, Perret’s work could be favorably compared to much of the recent art that comes under the banner of relational aesthetics. However, against the ideology of post-production valourised by relational aesthetics, Perret’s insistence on the social use value of her objects takes us back to a moment before the ascendancy of the society of the spectacle.

While its frequent references to modernism link The Crystal Frontier to an actual past, the picture of Angkor Wat used to promote its latest incarnation summons up the paradoxical vision of a future that is already in ruins. From the vantage point of this atopic historical juncture, The Crystal Frontier emerges not as a nostalgic lament on the failed ambitions of the avant-garde but as a targeted critique of the present, one that compels us to imagine a different future for contemporary art.


1. See Christina Kiaer, Imagine No Possessions: The Socialist Objects of Russian Constructivism, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2005.