Gabriel Kuri’s practice stems from the assembly of a small number of founding axioms, which he adapts, recontextualises and renames according to the site in which he intervenes. Among the elements that compose his plastic vocabulary, there are three major categories: the materials of classical sculpture like marble or stone, those from the buildings and public works sector, metal plates or PVC tubes, but also ordinary ‘found objects’, organic or inorganic, water bottles, condoms, or hoses. He intervenes in a minimal way with these materials, preferring to arrange points of contact and organise precarious collusions, resulting in a fluid harmony that defies the laws of gravity. This is because in Kuri’s work, the surrounding space appears to have been solidified. As Catherine Wood notes in her essay Sculpture in Solid Air devoted to the question1, he “proposes an equivalence of density between a "thing" and the volume around it. It is as though the object carves out its own space within the gallery’s block of air [...].” The result is captivating, and its effect is not diminished in the critical reception of his artworks, alternately perceived as the expression of an immutable balance or of a permanent imbalance.
With "bottled water branded water", the Parc Saint Léger provides the artist with his first monographic exhibition in France. While the artworks presented on the stand of his galleries during the recent editions of FIAC made a strong impression through their formal mastery2, a major element remained obscured: the connection to context, which is nonetheless the focal point of his work and the driving force behind all of his exhibitions. At the Parc Saint Léger, a former thermal spa whose bottling activities and sale of spring water thrived on the site until the 1970s, the artist developed a series of micro-histories relating to the local context. By extension, they illustrate a phenomenon on the global scale: the commercial use of a vital natural resource. The to-and-fro relationship engaged between local and global is also played out on the scale of each work, which are autotelic, while also remaining entirely focused on the framework to which they belong. The same can be said of the soberly referential titles, which simply make reference to their location through a classification system comprising digits and letters. Each element belonging to the composition of the assemblages can be read like a clue, or more precisely, like a sign3; pointing to an elsewhere, a verbal horizon of the subject, but without ever really naming it. The artist effectively reminds us that each object or material is loaded with added value, carting along with it the weight of the socio-cultural determinations that each and every one of us mechanically associates with it.4
These blocks of meaning nonetheless take on an aesthetic value, accrued through their assembly, and, in certain cases, their name5, thus justifying contemplation or even pure emotion, which is reminiscent of the principle of stacked objects in Bertrand Lavier’s work – the term “pure emotion” is borrowed from him.6 Owing to his minimal intervention with the materials and objects, Kuri’s works are often compared to Duchamp’s assisted ready-mades. His concern for form effectively tends to situate him within a relationship to the Duchampian heritage similar to that of Bertrand Lavier, whose artworks ratify an established fact: in the 1980s, the ready-made became a sculpture like any other, which could be placed on a pedestal and deemed beautiful. Running counter to the Duchampian visual indifference that governed the choice of ready-mades, Bertrand Lavier draws up the consequences of this evolution, noting the return of repression, integrating both emotion and story-telling into his works. While all of Kuri’s work well and truly represents the start of a narrative, "bottled water branded water" nonetheless stands out through its use of a different temporal relationship to that of his previous productions, trading the disjointed rhythm7 for the more linear progression that befits narration.
But while there is indeed a narrative, it is a narrative that has been hollowed out. It is that of an ellipse: the omission of a temporal sequence, forcing the spectator to mentally re-establish what has gone unspoken; the acceleration of the narrative, resulting in the brutal emphasis of the starting point and the ending. It is in this sense, then, that we can perceive the collusion of the natural and the artificial (in bottled water E.d.E.1, two compositions installed back to back, where a straight metal plate is counterbalanced by the weight of a stone, or in bottled water E.d. E. 5, a condom filled with air and caught between two rocks) and reversals of power relations (bottled water E.d. E. 4, a rolled up garden hose retaining a concrete block). This is also the motivation behind the more descriptive sequences that refer to the history of the site, like the series of office furniture coated in a layer of tar, with its elements gaining in formal presence what they lose in functionality, serving as a reminder (slightly more insistent this time) of the escheated estate (bottled water P. D. S. 3 and 4). One of the central works in the exhibition, bottled water E. d. E. 2 is an installation that, following the rules of art and sculpture, displays duly labelled plastic bottles on pedestals. They are ready for sale and consumption, but filled with a rather unattractive yellowish liquid. The nature of this liquid, however, is never explicitly named. A transformation has taken place, but the spectator is reduced to making suppositions as to the manner in which the substitution has taken place.
Hence the interpretation remains open, subject to potential distortions that are fully accommodated as such. There are the spectators’ divergent interpretations on the one hand, but also the ‘life of their own’ inherent to exhibition photographs. As it happens, we also often first experience an exhibition through its photographs, if not exclusively through these, derived from the press release or from a more subjective choice of visuals that illustrate press articles on the exhibition. For "bottled water branded water", we were thus largely exposed to a visual showing the work in which two stones encased a condom full of air. While certainly emblematic of the artist’s rhetoric, this image nonetheless dissimulated a part of its system, that is, the roll of white paper used by photographers in advertising, on which the artwork is placed: the exhibition photographer played along with the artist completely. While continuing to produce forms and take the risk of beauty (since it is a risk!), running counter to a certain form of contemporary nihilism of fragments and fluctuations, Gabriel Kuri’s works offer the spectator narrative markers. Yet above all, they take pains to allow the discursive path to renew itself of its own accord: between “bottled” and “branded” lies the entire ellipsis of the exhibition.
- Catherine Wood, Sculpture in Solid Air, in Gabriel Kuri: Soft Information in Your Hard Facts, exhibition catalogue (Bolzano, Italy: Museion, 2010), pp. 99-100.
- During the 2013 edition of FIAC, the Sadie Coles gallery HQ invited him to invest its entire stand. Prior to this, some of his works had been presented in France at group shows, including Seuls Quelques Fragments de Nous (2012; Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris) and Pour un Art Pauvre (Inventaire du Monde et de l’Atelier) (2011; Carré d’Art - Musée d’Art Contemporain de Nîmes).
- The artist himself does not hesitate to talk about the semantic implications of the materials he uses. See for instance his interview in Prior Magazine n°11: “Sometimes one uses a material for its physical properties, sometimes you work with a material for its semantic implications, and sometimes -in my case it happens a lot- one cancels out the other in a way. [...] I’m interested in exploring what happens there, in between the material and the semantics.” In Andrea Wiarda, ed. “Artist talk: Gabriel Kuri speaks with Ger van Elk”, A Prior magazine n°11 (Spring 2005), p. 97.
- Gabriel Kuri: “all materials, no matter how raw they appear (water, stone, the wood from trees, the flow of electricity...) are socially branded and coded”. Cited by Catherine Wood, Ibid.
- The artist regularly names some of his works “self portraits”. See for instance Self Portrait as Three Point Turn Chart (2012)
- Bertrand Lavier, in an interview with Catherine Francblin “I see the Giulietta as a principle of pure emotion.” (Interview with Catherine Francblin, 1999). Cited by Michel Gauthier, in Bertrand Lavier, depuis 1969, exh. cat (Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2012), trans. Anna Knight.
- In an interview with Matthew Higgs, the artist spoke of “broken rhythm”. In Plan de San Lunes, exh. cat. (Guadalajara, Mexico: Museo de las Artes, Universidad de Guadalajara; Ecatepec, Mexico: La Colecciòn Jumex, 2000), p. 8.