like a hole in a room like a room in a hole (Bernd Oppl, Elisabeth Molin)

Center of Contemporary Art Wiels, Brussels 2019

Concrete Communication

In 1970 Mel Bochner created a wall work, scrawling a sentence into dripped, fluid black background. He wrote “Language is note transparent’. That sensation of conflict between meaning and the word, the visual and the textual, ideology and experience emerges in Bernd Oppl and Elisabeth Molin’s exhibition at Wiels Project Room, A dialogue in form of an exhibition. Here their separate practises form a duet exploring the contemporary understand of meaning, object and the screen. Yet equally this is a show about failure. The failure of architecture, of capitalism, of technology, of the image and meaning itself.

Originally coming from a photographic background, Elisabeth Molin’s practise has developed to focus on storytelling. She is drawn to the moment where the image can’t represent something and text emerges as a kind of stand-in for the visual. Equally, when text fails to communicate, Molin looks to the image. Technology is also a fundamental element in her work – which manifests in photographic books, video works and kinetic sculptures.

Bernd Oppl is also interested in narrative, but with more of a focus on the architectural. His sculptures, dioramas and films are often devoid of a human presence. Instead the focus is on space and perception. He repositions the viewer to think about how they experience the environment in ways that are equally poetic and playful.

In the show, their works overlap, communicate, function separately and together. The exhibition played on the concrete, linear, whitecube it inhabited. Concrete blocks, video projections, embedded screens and the written words all emerged in different forms around the room. The placement of the word riffed on the architecture of space, using its central columns and floor as much as the more obvious wallspace to display work. Oppl’s concrete blocks are like miniature versions of the room itself, or Wiels in a wider sense. Many of the words were intentionally small , forcing the viewer to come closer to peer into or decipher them. It is an interesting echo of the phone screen, crawling into bed to stare at a tiny 3 inch moving image is a common contemporary experience.

On the first wall are three works by Oppl. Lightboxes hidden within small concrete cubes, the faces of their screen facing out at different angles. The first is direct, the second viewed from above, the third seen from the side. In all the case the only way to read these images, like a book, is to come close almost til your face is on the sculpture. The artist forces you to consider the process of perception. They show backlit images taken from ruined building sites in Mallorca, the aftermath of failed capitalist projects. Broken, covered in graffiti, these abandoned spaces are an interesting echo the concrete blocks they are encased in. The images are in holes, depicting holes in space.

These sculptures become little modernist building, as much ruins as the images they project. They are between 15 and 20cm, less than a A3 piece of paper. At first the blocks appear clean and linear. Yet on closer examination these minimalist, small monoliths are rough and textured. The images they hold are also intentionally messy and chaotic. This is the underbelly of the utopian aims of modernism, crumbling in contemporary society.

In Oppl’s next work in the room, Background, the screen is used in a different way. Behind the word in the concrete cube, is the hiss and static of an old television. Rather than an old analogue, it is a flat screen with a random generator that creates this familiar noise and flickering lights. It is a literal take on the title, but also a wider comment on the art historical and construction of image. Even when we are just presented with a word, the visual is indicated or explored.

Molin’s work begins to emerge at this point in the show. On the pillar at the centre of the space is a black screen, which again takes poetry and short texts as a starting point to something sculpture or visual. These text pieces explore her take on the mechanical nature and personal experience of the camera and image itself. These again are contemporary small monoliths, moving beyond the architectural to the screen space. They create a kind of freeform poetry, synthesising our experience of a plastic, mechanised world.

There a three similar works in the exhibition. The screen itself is covered with a dark privacy film, that prevents people to the right or left reading what is on the screen. It again shifts the body’s relationship to image, forcing the viewer close and making it a more individual, intimate experience. On the other side of the pillar is a similar work, but instead coated with an iridescent pink film. The third shifts from black to yellow. They appear to be video works but in fact are static.

Equally sized is the floor projection work by Molin. A tiny beamer projects a graphic film onto the surface of a concrete block. It sits on three fictional books created by Molin, or as she puts it “potential book titles”. The video shows a cigarette burning itself until it is finished, against a red background. It highlights the fragility of the object, as much as the projected image itself. Something transient, small, easily overlooked yet full of meaning about human experience and the comedy of life.

Molin’s second floor piece is a concrete rectangular block with a bronze sculpture of a cast, decayed banana on it. It is an object beyond its use. Heaviness made from something originally light. She also plays on the history of sculpture somehow. The plinth itself is the work. The significance of the insignificant adds another dose of humour, though the process of making here is quite intuitive.

All the pieces in the show create a tension between the two and three dimensional. Only one piece is entirely collaborative in the show. It is a wall based concrete block with a debossed word “POETRY”, in a blocky Helvetica font. This piece by Oppl was amended by Molin, who placed a crushed cigarette butt on the top; like a point of punctuation. The butt itself takes on entirely different meaning. Molin’s reference was towards the concept of revolution innate in cigarette imagery. The result is humorous, and twists the seriousness of the concept of poetry into something wry and playful. Oppl’s texts are always discovered by chance – cut from newspapers or taken from song titles. The font is intentionally unspectacular and anonymous.

Alongside the sound of static, the exhibition’s is filled with noise by a single video work by Oppl which shows a plant skateboarding around an abandoned lot near the back of Wiels. The board was electronic, and we watch the organic object become semi-human, skating around a graffiti covered space – similar to the ruins in Oppl’s sculptures.

Emotion is interesting in the context of this show. Concrete is a material perhaps devoid of emotion. The choice of Oppl and Molin’s fonts, and the texts they use, evade emotion. Instead we are left with a kind of comic poetry. A desire to imbue meaning onto object, image and the mechanical. Where even plants, bananas and cigarettes are signifiers for something else. Where even in ruins there is a sense of possibility.

Francesca Gavin