Adrián Villar Rojas: Today We Reboot The Planet

Serpentine Gallery, London, 28 September – 10 November

By Denise Kwan

A sense of devastation lingers at the entrance of Adrián Villar Rojas’s exhibition, as a life-sized elephant appears to be struggling under the weight of a large beam. Entirely crafted from unfired clay, the surface of the animal is jagged and rough yet distinctively fleshy. Helpless in its fossilised glory, a sagging trunk hangs limp between its front legs. As this is the inaugural exhibition at the Serpentine’s new Sackler Gallery, it seems ironic that it should begin with a premonition of an apocalypse while the emphatic exhibition title suggests a lingering obliteration.

Built in 1805, the building was previously an ammunition store. Simultaneously, Villar Rojas displays and conceals the history of the building; a bulky clay cladding wraps around the rooms like a heavy second skin while one of the gunpowder rooms is adorned with small panes of stained glass. Bathing the interior with a soft glow, it conjures a majestic dustiness of its former military identity.

In contrast, the second room is brimming with paraphernalia of the mundane to the outlandish. Along tall shelves, replicas of futuristic figurines are placed alongside palm-sized birds while iPod shuffles are interspersed between slumped vases and small domestic tools. Entirely modelled from unfired clay, these objects are devoid of any function and become mannequins of their former selves. Unlike the fixity of plastic, the untreated clay embodies an intrinsic decrepitude as moisture continually escapes: the clay shrinks causing fractures to emerge. As though transported into the future, we witness the ruins of our present moment.

The process of decay not only disrupts the inherent structure of each object but also the cultural distinctions

The process of decay not only disrupts the inherent structure of each object but also the cultural distinctions. Within the debris lies an unexpected humour as two clayed snogging kittens cuddle beneath the legs of a broken Renaissance statue. While the statue is regarded as an emblem of Western civilisation and rationality, by comparison the kittens appear kitsch. The drawing together of these opposites disregards the traditional hierarchy of taste and the result is both charming and absurd.

At first sight, the atmosphere of the exhibition eludes towards a mausoleum of our contemporary age however the sense of destruction is perhaps motivated by a desire for renewal. While the sprouting plant life and shrubbery amongst the clay objects seem contrived, the overwhelming abundance of clay is a powerful gesture about the composite of the earth. It strikes a distinction with the manufactured surfaces that furnish our lives from the carpeted floors, pristine lawns and smoothed tarmac and underneath all the various floorings, might there be a ground?

The idea of our physical distancing with the organic world is amplified in a piece of work that is the most easy to overlook: Villar Rojas has tiled the entire gallery floor with loose-laid red bricks. These bricks originate from the artists’ home country of Argentina, crafted from raw materials and fired using traditional methods; the floor becomes a ground. Drawing the sensation of the body into itself, the bricks creak and shift as shoes clink and scrape across their uneven surface, the repetition of footsteps echo in the space and form a meditative atmosphere. Amongst the ambience and the tottering of other footsteps is a moment of reflection about the multiplying containers and increasing layers that have been cultivated to live in and upon. Within the exhibition hangs an elusive question about the meaning of rebooting, as definitions between nature and culture dissolve into one another, the proposition to return to an unadulterated state becomes more of a pervasive idea than a tangible reality.