The assistant curator of the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris reflects on why the American artist’s work is an unintentional, but substantial departure from the mainstream
the earth was without form, and void;
and darkness was upon the face of the deep
The work of American artist Dwyer Kilcollin is an outstanding phenomenon in the world of contemporary sculpture. Devoid of any cultural references (at least, clearly visible ones) to art history or stylistic references to the big names of today (Gormley, Kapoor, Koons), it sets itself apart from the post-conceptual moment and its techniques, like the use and glorification of new technologies and synthetic materials, intensive use of texts, everyday objects, screens, the Internet. Kilcollin, instead, works with her hands and uses traditional materials like sand, stone and metal. Also departing from mainstream art’s problematics: sex, gender, social justice, race, minorities, politics, irony; Kilcollin’s work is, nevertheless, placed at the pulsing heart of contemporaneity – in the deepest sense of this term. Taken up consecutively by Nietzsche, Roland Barthes and Agamben: the contemporary is something asking the deepest, the sharpest and the most painful questions about human existence (what Heine and Dostoyevsky have called damned or final questions), impossible to answer from the conjunctures and affairs of the current day; thus, the contemporary is necessarily inopportune, anachronistic, standing on the banks of the river of time – not floating down the river.
Another point to Kilcollin’s unintentional, but substantial departure from mainstream art is that her work is, technically, not conceptual: it is not a commentary nor a theoretical, political or emotional message that can be verbalized, but rather something radically anti-logocentric, an echogram of her unconscious. Randomly focusing on everyday objects and amorphous substances, embodied with techniques, materials and varying archival methods, her work cannot be explained in terms of causal relationships; while some of the sounds that the human organism produces are recognisable and able to be estimated, like a heartbeat or breathing, healthy or sick, some of the others, audible as well, are not. This peculiarity both substantially complicates interpretation of her works and makes them particularly attractive, as with everything unrecognisable and beautiful – a curious shell, leaf or stone.
Like a stalactite-covered in a cave or ancient pillar, Kilcollin’s Column, made of natural, ascetic dark-coloured sand, having a quasi-ruined and scratchy surface, handcrafted out of stone and resin, reminds us of something solid and elemental. The second part of its title Capital indicates the source of Kilcollin’s inspiration: The Capital, the title of Marx’s treaty and the organising principle of the global economic system. And just as capitalism has its own dark sides, the opposite side of the column is empty, like a hollowed tree trunk – an elegant ‘trompe-l’œil’ and ingenuous allegory, applicable far beyond economy.
Sand, the principal material from which Kilcollin’s sculptures are made, corresponds the most to her reflections and intuitions on the substance: the ruins of ancient rocks, dust, the distant future of every piece of stone, a pile, rejection of structured form, symbol of the impermanence of all things, the companion to flowing time. Thus, to give form to a mass of sand, kneading it, is to fight and try to overturn the inexorable law of decay and entropy, to heal, to give sense to the senseless and the material realisation of an idea – a very natural, implicitly liturgical gesture – substantially antithetic to dissection as the base method of contemporary art where superficial irony and swagger has a tendency to be its dominant tonality. According to Plato – of whom Kilcollin is an avid reader and with whom she shares a sensibility towards the material world, as well as to the profession of Demiurge, Plato’s most prominent creature – the idea is a pure, immaterial and impeccable form pre-existing any material realisation, rather than the perceived “meaning” of any object. Kilcollin masters this subtle distinction (whether intellectually or intuitively) quite literally, by means of uneven surface and demonstrates how a form transitions from immaterial to material; at the last moment, achieving its smooth surface – a process, spectacularly demonstrated in 1999 horror film The Mummy, where Imhotep, one of the main characters, rapidly transforms from a pile of sand and bones into the attractive man he once was.
The Bouquet is a rough, pulsing structure, a chaotic conglomeration of layers, partially coloured in variegated ultramarine brush strokes, reminiscent of a stalactite, a bouquet, or a coral-reef with a labyrinth of microscopic corridors and caves to gaze at. As we gradually move away, it acquires dynamic movement and visual grandeur, turning into a hurricane funnel. The biconical main body of the sculpture is deformed and extended by a side spout, an elongation, a few petrified flower stalks providing it a second fulcrum, distributing between them the heavy visual weight of a sculpture and allowing the viewer’s eye to glide over it like a roller coaster. At the end of this elongation, a delightful surprise awaits: an anthropomorphic, energetic and playful (extremely unusual for Kilcollin) rounding, like the strained arch of a dancer’s foot. In this graceful piece, an equation between form and formlessness, dynamics, statics and angles of view is composed and solved. An elfin, irrational, highly sensitive psychometrical perception of the material world – light, texture, form, movement, ability to detect subtle visual weirdness and ambiguity, vulnerable and ephemeral beauty are the driving forces behind Kilcollin’s work. It makes her sculptures engaging and profound, revealing the hidden potential and natural beauty of forms and materials, but also, perhaps unintentionally, providing us with a deeper insight into the artist herself.
Kilcollin’s magnum opus is a massive table. One for dining or negotiating and filled with 4 bottles, glasses covered in centuries-old dust; the ruins of a city, its skyscrapers and downtown; and from bird’s eye view: a catafalque. Instilling anxiety, the sculpture asks the questions: Why is it deprived of any human presence? Why are its form, texture and colour so disturbingly brutal? A few blots – blue, red and white – emphasize its concrete achromatism. This sculpture brings a viewer to the point either before the beginning or after the end, to the extremities of time when man is non-existent and powerless. Made from fragile sand, this table is a fleeting mirage appearing to an exhausted pilgrim in the wilderness of the desert, imitating the form of its dunes – the false promise of satiated hunger; its surface is scratched and unfit for dining, there are no chairs, and nobody is going to sit. In its simple, crude and brutal form this sculpture poses a direct question about human existence, about happiness, oblivion and loneliness. A mighty, stoical, monological noumenon, it reminds us just how cold it can be to stand in the wind of being.