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Reviews / February 5, 2009

Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster: Back to the Future, or A Cautionary Tale

Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster  TH-2058  2008 Installation view  © Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster  / photo Tate Photography

Last week’s announcement that Polish sculptor Miroslaw Balka is the next commissioned artist for Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall has been met with great critical anticipation. That’s something considering that the former power plant’s massive industrial hall—measuring 152 metres long, 30 metres high and 24 metres wide—is easily the largest indoor contemporary art space devoted to a single installation and is a formidable challenge for any contemporary artist. But it’s also, in many respects, the contemporary art world’s marquee venue, one made all the more important by the seemingly endless quantity-over-quality proliferation of commercial art fairs and questionable biennale exhibitions. If there is one must-see destination for modern art, it’s Turbine Hall.

TH.2058, the current work in the Tate Modern space by French artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, is a science fiction dystopia of expectedly epic proportions. For more than two decades, Gonzalez-Foerster has produced a varied catalogue of immersive sculptural and cinematic installations rooted in universal notions of personal memory and collective isolation. Her Turbine Hall work brings all of those threads together in a fictional narrative rubric and cautionary tale of the past, present and future.

The year is 2058. London has been deluged by a “never-ending” rain that has forced the city’s inhabitants to take refuge in public places, including Turbine Hall. The atmosphere in the space has turned prison-like, crammed with institutional bunk beds and surveillance devices, and the sound of that rain is subtle but omnipresent—one gets the sense that even this shelter is temporary. Scattered across the beds are novels representing the dystopic literary canon from J. G. Ballard to Roberto Bolano, the printed evidence of a world’s demise. What’s more, this future rain has had an unexpected effect on public sculptures, causing them to grow gigantic. In an effort to halt this mutation, Turbine Hall has also become storage for a menagerie of iconic works of art by Louise Bourgeois, Alexander Calder, Henry Moore, Bruce Nauman, Maurizio Cattelan and Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen. Projected high above on the hall’s rear wall is a silent montage of clips culled from sci-fi movies like Soylent Green and Solaris as well as from experimental film works including Michael Snow’s La Région Centrale. Finally, a single windup radio wired to one of the bunks quietly plays a bossa nova by Arto Lindsay titled “The 1958 Song.”

So what does this all mean? Citing George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (the author’s own doublespeak inversion of “1948”), Gonzalez-Foerster has stated that TH.2058 is as much a lesson on the nervous global tensions and near-atomic catastrophes of the late 1950s as it is a forecast of a doomsday future. London itself holds a central place in that disaster history as the survivor of many real and fictional civic attacks, and Gonzalez-Foerster sources her initial inspiration for the work to the wartime imagery of Henry Moore’s animal-like drawings of people sheltered in the London Underground during the Blitz. TH.2058 therefore is a work packed with cultural quotation and fragmentary evidence of a future past where museums are mere relics of a long gone golden age. Its sculptures are dinosaurs; its sheltering population, the ghosts of humanity. The past can only be imagined from extant bits of writing, film and song. The future, as always, is uncertain. What happens in the present is left by Gonzalez-Foerster for the viewer to decide. (Bankside, London UK)

Bryne McLaughlin

Bryne McLaughlin is Senior Editor at Canadian Art.