Attributed to a fictitious 17th-century source, Jorge Luis Borges’s shortest story – ‘On Exactitude in Science’ (1946) – tells of an empire in which the art of cartography has been perfected to the point of producing a map that corresponds exactly to the territory it describes. People live in the map as if it were the empire, or rather live in both simultaneously, the two being indistinguishable. Oppositions between real and represented, or original and reproduction, cease to have any meaning; object and image reflect each other in an endless cycle.
Peles Empire – both the collaborative moniker of German artists Katharina Stoever and Barbara Wolff (who was born in Romania) and the name of the two exhibition spaces that they run in London and the Romanian city of Cluj – is nothing so much as a hall of mirrors, of shifting and distorted reflections. The name is taken from Peles Castle, a former summer residence of the Romanian Royal family in the foothills of the Carpathians. The palace was built at the turn of the 20th century, its construction coinciding with the birth of the Romanian state following independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1878. Its several hundred rooms are a magpie-like collection of contemporary and historical styles from around the world – a Frankensteinian attempt to breathe life into a new national identity.
The ‘Empire’ started out in 2005 as Peles, the name of the salon that Stoever and Wolff hosted in the living room of the apartment that they shared whilst studying at the Städelschule, Frankfurt. A collaged, photographic reproduction of the Princess Bedroom at Peles, life-sized, formed a gilded backdrop to these weekly gatherings. There are photos of the space candlelit, their mismatched furniture a flea-market version of the prince’s gold-leafed mahogany, filled with people, sitting, drinking, talking. (Their 2011 project at Frieze Art Fair, Noroc – Romanian for ‘cheers’ – a working bar serving the Romanian spirit Tuica, was a nod to the project’s beginnings.)
Since then, the pair have been reproducing rooms from the castle in ways that are becoming increasingly abstracted from their (ambiguously) original objects. Theoretical questions of simulacra and re-territorialization taken on concrete, social dimension for Peles Empire, with mirrors opening spaces for dialogue and encounter. The walls of their two current exhibition spaces are papered with the same image of a hallway from the castle – an amalgam of Neo-Renaissance wooden panelling and ostentatious chinoiserie – which has the effect of making the space feel already inhabited. The faux-neutrality of the white cube is its own form of masquerade, but at Peles Empire the walls are in drag, irrepressibly theatrical. They extend an invitation to respond and exhibitions often evolve as a kind of extended collaboration: in London, Anthea Hamilton and Julie Verhoeven installed a black and white floor, striped like the grain of a degraded photocopy, for their 2012 show; in 2011, Shannon Bool hung greyscale patterned curtains from the walls, partitioning not the space but its 2D cladding.
That first reproduction in Frankfurt, like all those that have come since, was printed on sheets of A3 paper that were then assembled to reproduce the space at almost 1:1 scale. Paper, thin and insubstantial as it is, forms the foundation of the whole Peles edifice. This is partly because its standard dimensions and near-universal availability offer endless anonymous screens for the projection of imaginary spaces of infinitely subtle variation. But whilst paper flattens and renders indiscriminately 2D, it is materially unruly. The absurd logic of the Borgesian map is heightened by a sense physical unwieldiness: a map could never lie flush to the territory because paper puckers and crumples and overlaps. To make a fold or a crease is to shift between two and three dimensions: to give depth to surface appearances by compressing one space within another.
When I visited Peles Empire’s London space – also the pair’s home – I was intrigued by the corners of the room where the flat images seemed to converge and distort. In their work A33D (2012), shown as part of the ‘Young London’ survey show at V22 last year, a black and white photograph of the space, taken face-on to the corner with the concrete floor and ceiling beams visible, had been blown up and reproduced along one side of a large mdf block, the crease in the room flattened. Photocopies of this same work were also used in thick, papier-maché layer to cover smaller mdf tablets, some standing erect and others lying flat, monoliths or headstones of ambiguous weight.
Stoever and Wolff are also aware that folds are not always material. The backdrop to their recent exhibition ‘Formation’ at Cell Project Space in London, based on Peles Castle’s armory, was formed by parallel rectangular screens papered with digitally manipulated shots of the room’s interior (Formation 1 & 8, 2013). Enlarged, cropped, rotated and layered, the screens had a glitchy and recognizably digital grain: the world of cut-and-paste construction has its own Frankenstinian possibilities. From these flat glitches come clay sculptures (Formation 2–6) – smooth white porcelain mixed with grainy black grog, stridently tactile – manipulated photographs of which currently form the backdrop to the pair’s show at the Kunstmuseum Stuttgart (Re-construct 1, 2013), and thence more sculptures. And so on, one imagines, ad infinitum. True to the cyclical nature of things, it was perhaps fated that Peles Castle, at birth a mausoleum for long démodé historical styles, should become a museum.
Stoever and Wolff say they will never leave the castle. How could they? When you hold one mirror up to another, the reflections extend forever in a flat infinity, inescapable, like the no-space between the layers of a Photoshop screen.
Peles Empire is a collaboration between London-based artists Katharina Stoever and Barbara Wolff and the name of the two exhibition spaces that they run in London, UK, and Cluj, Romania. Their solo exhibition, ‘Re-construct’, is on at the Kunstmuseum Stuttgart until 9 June, and earlier this year they had a solo show at Cell Project Space, London. In May, they will have a show at Glasgow Sculpture Studio, UK. Forthcoming exhibitions at the London space include a solo exhibition by Daniel Sinsel, which opens in May.
First published in Issue 155