Ugo Rondinone at Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam (2016)
This review was previously published in Sculpture magazine in November 2016, p. 77.
Maybe it is a good idea to fill a museum [space] with 45 life-like sculptures of clowns supplemented by colorful, rainbow-inspired and cartoon-like works— or maybe not. In any event, Ugo Rondinone chose to do just this in his recent exhibition, “Vocabulary of Solitude,” which also doubled as a retrospective of his color spectrum works. This was one of the weirdest art experiences I’ve had in some time, prompting a PTSD-like [reaction to having watched 1980s horror films in] my youth. Would any of these creepy clowns come to life like the demonic Chucky in Child’s Play (1988)?
Personal reaction was anticipated in the [exhibition’s communications material], which described the works as “prompt[ing] free association and memories.” Other viewers appeared less unnerved, crouching down, a few sitting on the floor with the clowns to soak up that unusual visual and spatial perspective. It was lovely to watch two small children do the same, especially in a formal museum environment.
Intellectually, the work raises frictions between pop culture subject matter and possible intellectual depth, but Rondinone shifted that discussion in very interesting ways. The experience is not well communicated via photography. According to the museum, the clowns, as indicated by their present tense titles, “such as be, breathe, remember, feel and yawn… represent a 24-hour day in the life of an individual.” These nuances, however, were lost in the presentation, because only one wall placard was allocated to the large, three-room exhibition.
Facial expressions didn’t seem to communicate clearly in this context. Instead, a rather vivid illustration of Warholian unity / variety ensued, with similar clown forms wearing different costumes and taking different poses and positions. Over time, looking at works below one’s natural sightline had a curious effect. A haze of muted rainbow colors permeated the space, with natural light filtering through colored panels. And curiously, in rooms filled with naturalistic clown sculptures and a crowd of viewers, there was a deep sense of solitude. But how Rondinone constructed all this is, after a period of reflection, still a bit of a mystery. Back to the [museum communications copy]: “Rondinone lays bare the various facets of our existence.” While this sounds like pretentious artspeak, there is indeed something to it.
Over time, the installation seemed to get weirder. The unity / variety of the work had kicked in by then, and with the clowns below eye level, visitors and their personal/group reactions began to take precedence. One very enthusiastic viewer wearing art world-approved eyewear was particularly entertaining. Her “performance art” included sitting with the clowns and diving to the floor taking photos. Her actions were discrete enough, however, to not necessarily be termed attention-seeking. I offered to take a photo for her, which resulted in an animated headshake. When I left, I compared notes about the weirdness of the installation with a security guard, who emphatically stated that he would not go in anymore. I was relieved that my mental image of a Chucky-like clown brandishing a large kitchen knife did not appear during my visit— this time.