Magali Reus: As mist, description at South London Gallery

By Laura Smith

Magali Reus, Hwael (Fully Automatic Time), 2017, mixed media, 232 × 340 × 203 cm

34, 36, 38, 40, 42… Magali Reus measures an imagined water level rising throughout her first institutional solo exhibition in London. These numbers appear to reference those on a ship’s hull or a flood-level marker, they reiterate across the space, quietly incised into the curving walls that Reus has installed to move the visitor fluidly through the exhibition. Yet there is no water here, and this obvious lack, coupled with the repetition of the numbers, seems to imply either that a deluge is coming or that a drought has arrived, lending the exhibition a subtle sense of foreboding.

In addition to the fateful engravings, Reus includes sculptural works from two series: Hwael and Sentinel, as well a standalone work, Crane (all works 2017). Reminiscent of a hotel welcome-desk, the bulky body of Crane is topped by toppled casts of buckets and vases onto which are printed images of tickets – lottery, delicatessen, cinema, etc – and that spew out raw-concrete-coloured casts of Styrofoam packing-peanuts and slender white numbers. On the panels of the ‘desk’ are a series of jauntily positioned grey reliefs that appear to be zoomed-into sections of mountain maps or tourism brochures for hiking. And on the left of the front panel is the water-level indicator again, a ghostly white-in-white engraving. The impression is of an abandoned ski-lodge in the not too distant future, or perhaps in a parallel world. Something about Reus’s play with materials: she applies industrial processes to objects that would ordinarily be handmade (and vice versa), and uses materials antithetical to her objects’ everyday functions (fragile packing peanuts for example or – later – diligently embroidered firehoses), means that the familiar remains ambiguous. The overall effect of her accumulated works being a sort of unsteady sculptural transformation of the world around us.

The three works in the Hwael series (the title derives from the Anglo-Saxon word for whale) each consists of a dislocated skeleton of powder-coated metal tubing – evocative of handrails on a public bus – adorned with boilerlike forms, weights, counterweights and the holes you might find on an adjustable crutch. The series reveal Reus’s characteristic layering and repeating of diverse, seemingly recognisable objects, modified through playful shifts in scale, materiality and contextual associations. The frame of Hwael (The Flat), for example, supports a rectangular box containing a scrap of card on which the words ‘FOX GLACIER’ are painted, while from the card hang a camping spoon (engraved with the letters ‘AM’) and fork (‘PM’). Hwael (Fully Automatic Time) sports scratchy engravings of football tactics and a selection of athletes’ signatures, while Hwael (Soft Soap) holds blank silhouettes of ‘do not disturb’ signs and a floral coathanger that peeps from a fibreglass cupboard.

As a trio, these works collide references to routine, repetition, practice, necessity and leisure. Yet they seem to be frozen in time, as though abandoned one day and left to become shrines to the quotidian passage of time. The five Sentinel works have a greater sense of urgency. Consisting of reels of embroidered cotton webbing, reminiscent of firehoses, these works are attached to the wall by way of a small molten-looking resin plaque, on which sits a unique matchbox design. Therein containing both a cause of and means of extinguishing fire.

The off-kilter pace at which Reus guides her audience around the space ensures the works never appear schematic. The prevailing atmosphere is somewhat melancholic, questioning the permanence of the world that we are so keen to categorise. As mist, description bears memories of human, architectural and technological existence, yet the human body feels pointedly absent. Instead, Reus’s objects slip through a chain of associations that seem to threaten calamity, whether past or impending, flood or fire. The only certainty being that here, everything is different.

Magali Reus:
As mist, description at South London Gallery, London, 23 March – 27 May

From the May 2018 issue of ArtReview