Even stranger things… Tara Donovan, Untitled (Mylar), 2011-2018, which is on the Hayward show.Photo: Christopher Burke/Courtesy of the artist and Pace Gallery
One day, Olaf Brzeski was cleaning the chimney of his studio in Wrocław, Poland, when something terrible happened. “A column of soot ten meters high fell down the chimney,” he remembers. “It included everything in the studio. And me of course.”
Blinking black dust from his eyes, Brzeski couldn’t even blame anyone else. He had released the weight of the past upon himself, uncovered dark matter, cleared the chimney of all the waste, as effective as a colonic. Freud would have called it the return of the repressed; Others may have seen it as the revenge of Soot, which turned its back on the people who had burned the previous incarnations.
The world we live in is all based on predictable, regular shapes – but everything in this show is completely irregular
Brzeski collected the soot and made a sculpture using chemicals I barely understand. The next stop is London’s Hayward Gallery, where this seemingly miraculous explosion of soot will pour out of a wall, its movement frozen in time, its shape spherical and unbalanced. Brzeski will darken the wall with his blowtorch to add the finishing touch.
He calls the result Dream – Spontaneous Combustion. His idea is that a dream can contain thoughts so inflammatory that a human body can catch fire. Brzeski has long been fascinated by the history of spontaneous combustion, while accepting that it could all be hokum. This history extends from an Italian knight named Polonus Vorstius, reportedly consumed by flames in 1471, to the 2011 case of an Irish pensioner who died of spontaneous combustion, an inquest concluded. Like many of the works in When Forms Come Alive, as Hayward’s new group exhibition is titled, Dream is the product of someone with a Puckish temperament, wresting something funny and thought-provoking out of disaster.
Can sculpture be funny? Many of the works that Hayward director Ralph Rugoff has collected for the exhibition are playful, unknowable and indomitable. While they showcase artists depicting movement and growth through sculpture, many also undermine any sense of pretension or self-importance. Rugoff points me to a huge Pepto-Bismol pink blob hanging in one room. The blob is, like something out of Liz Truss’s nightmares, a creepy yet comical pop art satellite with appendages that stick out like cartoon trumpets.
It is a sculpture called Epiphany on Chairs by Austrian artist Franz West. The joke? This obvious nonsense is surrounded by chairs, inviting viewers to ponder its meaning in awed reverie. “It takes away from the idea of looking at art and having some kind of epiphany about your experiences,” Rugoff says. Cain and Abel, another of West’s sculptures, consists of two vaguely human shapes facing each other. Boy, I think, those Biblical brothers really let themselves go. Are they about to shake hands? Or, more likely, are those other appendages being extended? Is this a representation of the very first willy-wive match? It’s hard to be sure.
Rugoff gestures to a pile of junk in the corner. “It could be mud, lava or feces,” he says. In fact, it’s a lead sculpture by Lynda Benglis called Quartered Meteor. What looks like a hideous mess that experts in hazmat suits have to quickly remove is actually a work of art, a work of art that has managed to turn the hideously awful into something cute – maybe even funny. “I’ve never heard her talk about her work being funny,” Rugoff says, “but there’s a sense of humor in it of, ‘I’m just going to drop this lead shape into this pristine gallery.’ What she has said is that her work is about resisting geometry. And I think geometry represents the world of the straight.”
So is this exhibition for the queer, the abject, the crazy? “Absolutely,” answers Rugoff. “The world we live in is all based on things that are predictable and have regular shapes. But everything about this show is completely irregular. So the great hulking brutes with indeterminate shapes of the late artist Phyllida Barlow, and the teetering sculpture of a roller coaster by EJ Hill – they all rebel against straight things, be they lines or worldviews.
But nothing captures the exhibition’s spirit of irregularity, ephemerality and endless mutation quite like Michel Blazy’s sculpture Bouquet Final. This is a multi-level fountain, held in place by scaffolding, but instead of running water, scented bubble bath foam is whipped up by pumps. Say what you will about the glory of Louis XIV’s fountains, but the Sun King didn’t have a hot tub flowing through the gardens of Versailles.
But don’t you think, I ask Rugoff, that displaying these soot explosions, hot tub fountains and gloop will jam the Hayward telephone exchange with complainers saying if this is art, they have a compost pile in the back? garden crying out for gallery space? “I think the days of outrage are over,” Rugoff says, possibly with some regret. “I did a show a few years ago about the invisible in art, and no one called us then.”
Of the many delights in When Forms Come Alive, I am also impressed by the work of Matthew Ronay. It seems that the American artist has taken all the plumbing from our bodies – sacs, intestines, organs, tubes – and recreated them through sculptures as large as netsuke and just as charming. Ronay tells me that he started out making sculptures inspired by fungi, but that, as he says in the catalogue, he continued to explore all kinds of things that fuel his work “such as death, reproduction, disease, aging, genitals, orifices, stalks, protrusions, mathematics”. After all this, he came back to one humbling idea: “All these things you think you invented, nature invented them first.”
An equally striking work is a strange sculpture of canals called Sottobosco, created by London-based artist Holly Hendry. At first glance, it seems like a riff on the way architects Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano placed color-coded ductwork on the outside of the Center Pompidou to show where the power, water and air flow, but the pipes that carry them sculpted in a window opening of the Hayward have no function. At least none that aren’t aesthetically pleasing.
What is that all about? Like Brzeski, Hendry cites a Baroque ancestor as an explanation. “The sottobosco is an Italian term specifically meaning a type of moist thicket whose depiction became the focus of the work of a 17th-century Dutch painter named Otto Marseus van Schrieck. He painted still lifes of the forest floor. Because it was the moment of the microscope, he suddenly looked down instead of out and around. That’s what I’m doing. I started with the idea of taking something that is microscopic, magnifying it 25 times, and seeing this world teeming with life.”
If you look at cross-sections of Hendry’s canals and pipes, they are certainly clogged with foam and fossils, as if the world has become so full of material that even the pipes intended to carry waste are no longer fit for purpose. Marie Kondo is no match for this permanent overabundance of things.
Not far from Sottobosco is another Brzeski work, which consists of corten steel girders folded onto chairs. He calls them orphans. “My idea,” he says, “is that all these raw materials of art have become tired. They need rest. They’ve been messed with for too long.” Unconsciously, Brzeski has created sculptures that speak to others recently shown upstream: at Tate Britain, Sarah Lucas’s bunny-like figures were similarly flopped onto chairs, as if fed up with symbols of to be female objectification. Like the beams that have been overly manipulated for art, Luke’s figures seem to have had enough, not least because they have been subjected to the patriarchal gaze.
What’s especially curious is that these chair-draped beams look astonishingly human. I’ve never felt like I could identify with bits of metal, but here it’s strangely easy – just because they look tired. Which, I think as I rest for a moment, is kind of funny.
• When Forms Come Alive is on view at the Hayward Gallery, London until 6 May