Lutz Bacher: Black Beauty

ICA, London, 25 September – 17 November

By Chris Fite-Wassilak

Horse Shadow, 2010–12 (installation view, ICA, London). Photo: Mark Blower

Somewhere between the old-school totem and the current Internet usage of ‘avatars’ we might locate the practice of people being ascribed, whether they liked it or not, literary or cartoon characters according to their personality traits. (I’m familiar with entities like Eeyore, Oscar the Grouch and the Grinch, because they were the ones most often attributed to me as a kid.) The activity lives on in the endless ‘which character from X TV series are you?’ surveys online. But you get the feeling that Lutz Bacher has an acute sense of the vacuous possibility inherent in such characters, and of the intricate flows that take place in this act of transference. Her installations make blatant use of cultural swipes, found ephemera and broad tropes, and while Black Beauty might not hold any surprises for those who’ve seen her work before (sand-covered floors, cardboard cutouts, walls covered in gold Mylar), it still manages to feel both unsettling and intimately familiar.

Upstairs, the cheery cartoon racing horse of Horse/Shadow (2010–12), painted on a sheet of wood, rotates under the strong glare of two bright stage spotlights, its dance serenaded by the looped, soaring tones of Elvis (2009) singing Blue Moon drifting in from the opposite room. The King, or a stand-up cardboard image of him grinning in a gold suit, stands alongside a beat-up camel stage-prop, a photograph of an old tyrannosaur sculpture and the twisted shells of a bishop and a queen, all taking part in an oversize game of Chess (2012). They loom in a weary circle on the pixelated black, white and grey patches of the playing board, staring down a replica of Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel (1913), the swirling music and horse chasing its own tail in the next room only emphasising the sense of stalemate.

Upstairs, with its racing, strategising and gold-covered hallway, is where the competitive go-getters are; it is in the monochrome underworld downstairs where, by the artist’s own proclamation in the titles, the beauty and magic lives. Black Magic (2013) is a wall of dark ‘astroturf’, thrumming and pulsing with waves from presumably thousands of phone vibrators just behind its surface. At times, the pulsing, loud buzz takes on a marching rhythm, at others a symphonic sweep, as if a toneless transcription of a Wagner piece. The eponymous Black Beauty (2012) covers the entire downstairs gallery in black silicate, turning it into a dense, surreal beach. Walking in it is one thing, but the work’s greater pleasure comes in observation: everyone roaming in the sandpit looks pensive, lost, alone. Their only companion is Ashtray (2013), a small junkshop figure of welded brackets and bolts that looks like a cheap Johnny Five with an erection. Stuttering around us is the soundwork Puck (2012), a man giving a range of uneven readings of an excerpt from the closing of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “If we shadows have offended, think but this and all is mended.” Think but what? Bacher leaves out the bit where Puck tells us, it’s OK, it’s all a dream.

There’s any number of suggestible analogies readily here for her art: an obtuse game of chess, senseless beachcombing, half-recognised music. There is something more, though, to Bacher’s pilfered stage props arranged to create profane, self-undermining conjurings of kitsch sublime. It feels personal, I think, because it’s scrappy and aspirational, taking the stock characters and stories we find constantly around us and using them as ciphers for a bigger idea, imaginative proxies for an unreachable great beyond; hence her touchstone themes of dream and space, using Elvis to gesture to the moon. Any number of characters, materials and texts then become supple cultural readymades for her to stage for us. If, as Rosalind Krauss asserted, ‘the temporality of the readymade is that of the conundrum, or riddle; as such it is speculative time’, then Bacher is the set designer for the scenes where we enact the fevered, oddball dreams that come from prolonged dwelling on such speculations.

This article was first published in the December 2013 issue.