In ‘The Nine Day Week’, his solo exhibition at CAC Vilnius, Gabriel Lester weaves fantastical narratives around commonplace items: a building for stick insects; artificial trees piled in the corner of the gallery; Andy Kaufman’s alter-ego Tony Clifton’s jacket remade by a Chinese tailor. Recalling theatrical props, Lester’s sculptures are often accompanied by back-stories revealed in the exhibition’s accompanying interpretation. In 7 (2016), made in collaboration with the artist Valentina Desideri, a line of sandbags on the floor supposedly contain healing rituals based on the seven bodily chakras that the artists have written down, burned and mixed with semi-precious stones. Or have they? Without opening the bags, it would be difficult to verify their contents. Like any compelling narrator, Lester asks us to take a leap of faith.
Doubt pervades this exhibition, which represents the second part of ‘The Itinerary of Twists’, a touring show of Lester’s recent projects following ‘Unresolved’, held earlier this year at De Appel Arts Centre in Amsterdam. Including collaboration, works by other artists, and remixes of older pieces by Lester, the show betrays the artist’s background as a rapper, musician and film director. Like a big-budget hip hop album, the exhibition is an ensemble, situating Lester as the nexus within an expanded network. While the gallery space is bathed in a crepuscular light, the works are expertly spotlit, amplifying their theatrical qualities. The protean nature of Lester’s practice – shifting between moving image, sculpture, text and installation – is anchored in the vocabulary of cinema and theatre.
The Tragedy (2016), made in collaboration with artist Jonas Lund, consists of a camera lens embedded in a false wall. As I look through it at the street below, its mechanical iris opens and closes, its rhythm, according to the accompanying text, dictated by a ‘moon based algorithm’. The cosmic and incidental merge, with the residents of Vilnius becoming unwitting protagonists in an ad hoc piece of street theatre. As I watch a couple chatting on the pavement I start to feel like James Stewart in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954). If I look long enough, will meaning emerge? Life, unlike cinema, rarely provides a convenient conclusion, and Lester’s work is situated in this space of ongoing suspense. In On the Rocks (2016), a group of nondescript wooden chairs with their legs cut at different points lie crookedly on the floor. The feeling of unease is heightened when I learn that the amputations were performed after Lester’s show by staff at the beleaguered De Appel, as a way of lamenting the gallery, which was recently threatened with closure. Damaged but not quite broken, the chairs appear to be on the verge of sinking, yet is buoyed by an ineffable spirit.
The most explicitly political work in the show is Murmur (2016), made with Russia’s radical theatre company Teatr.doc during the 6th Moscow Biennial in 2015. In the video, a small orchestra is temporarily incarcerated inside a civic building. Small holes have been cut out of the wall to allow them to play their instruments on the other side. The image flicks between their protruding arms and legs and the musicians bickering amongst themselves on the other side of the wall. In the context of the Russian government’s increasingly prohibitive attitude towards dissent (Teatr.doc have faced censorship), Lester’s film makes a typically wry critique. With artists and musicians like Pussy Riot facing actual imprisonment, Murmur describes a situation where creativity may be celebrated but criticality is scorned. The wall hides a deeper discord beneath the performed conviviality. In the sculpture Open Minded (2016), Lester has added crude eye-like holes to the back of two Greek plaster busts, offering a clear line of sight through their hollow heads. The work suggests that art can be a way of looking through someone else’s eyes – the more we see, the less we know, and meaning can start to proliferate in the lacunae.