Send in the Clowns: Ugu Rondinone at Boijmans Van Beuningen

by RM Vaughan on March 10, 2016 Reviews

Installation view of Ugo Rondinone “Vocabulary of Solitude” at Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam

Installation view of Ugo Rondinone “Vocabulary of Solitude” at Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam

When I was a small boy growing up in southern New Brunswick, CA, everybody drank Sussex Ginger Ale. It was made locally by the Sussex Mineral Springs Company and the mascot for Sussex Ginger Ale was Gurgles The Clown, who looked like a copper-dipped Roger Daltrey in a toque. I was perfectly terrified of Gurgles, as I would be today of Roger Daltrey.

But I was only small. Now I am grown up and get to travel to Europe and go to big important museums – museums, in the particular case described below, bursting with luridly dressed, sad-sack clowns that look like they’ve been drinking Atavan smoothies. And I fear nothing. Fuck you, Gurgles.

After tip-toeing through the trash at Charlemagne Palestine’s toyland next door at the Witte de With, I braced myself for another smarmy, high-concept dose of infantile and over-determined abjection before wandering into Ugo Rondinone’s “50 clowns in a big room” installation Vocabulary of Solitude. Well, face paint me surprised! I loved it.

Palestine opts for knowing winks at faked constructions of “low” art, and lets the viewer fill in the cheap insider vs. outsider analysis (as I was happy to do in a previous post). Rondinone aims both barrels at sincere estrangement. Palestine’s work reveals its thin layer of gamed otherness in a matter of moments, but Rondinone’s clowns haunt you with their exquisite weirdness.

Why I would encounter, quite by accident, two major exhibitions that present adult takes on perennial children’s art subjects – toys and clowns – I have no concrete idea, but one off-hand theory: we are entering a new era of Pop sensibility that reflects Millennial/youth culture’s anxiety over leaving the parental nest. Neither Palestine nor Rondinone are Millennials artists, but they are clever and attentive zeitgeist readers. Talk that over amongst yourselves, after you seen Star Wars VII for the third time.

Installation view, Ugo Rondinone “Vocabulary of Solitude” at Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam

Installation view, Ugo Rondinone “Vocabulary of Solitude” at Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam

Here is what goes on in Vocabulary of Solitude: you turn a corner and enter a massive set of mostly empty museum rooms, rooms decorated in standard blank space style. Leaning up against the walls are huge airbrushed paintings of rainbows on half-circle shaped boards. They are pleasant enough, and that’s all. You may not even notice them, because on the floor of the gallery are dozens of life-size, alarmingly life-like sculptures of clowns in repose. Pensive clowns, napping clowns, possibly passed out drunk clowns, clowns splayed leisurely on the floor, clowns staring into space. You are permitted to walk between the clowns as one might walk between marble busts in a pantheon, or between potted exotics in a botanical garden.

The clowns’ expressions are neutral, their costumes fluorescent, spangled, and neon hot. The collective effect of so much colour and so little action is sedating, even, dare I say it, healing. The clowns pulse with stopped intention, with a frantic energy fast-froze. I found the whole experience hypnotic and felt as if I were in some form of stasis, living in beautiful slow motion.

An experiential note: I watched a gang of young school kids, each around seven years old, make their way through “Vocabulary of Solitude”, their minders in tow. At first, the kids wanted to run around the clowns, make faces at them, and, bless their small mammal brains, kick the clowns in the head. And then, the more time the kids spent with these sombre baubles, the calmer and more attentive they became. It took only a few minutes for the brats to change from, well, brats to bewitched and humbled precious little dears.

Children are hardly innocent consumers of art, and it would be foolish to see their response as some sort of “pure” or visceral reaction to Rondinone’s work. But the clowns shut the little shits up, and I am not one to mess with elemental magic.

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