‘Odradek’, writes Walter Benjamin in his essay ‘Franz Kafka’ (1934), ‘is the form which things assume in oblivion’. Here, Benjamin refers to the enigmatic and vexing creature that appears in Kafka’s short story from 1919, ‘The Cares of a Family Man’. Unsettling the domestic scene, Odradek is somewhere between subject and object, able to stand, speak and laugh, all the while made up of ‘old, broken-off bits of thread that are knotted and tangled together, of all sorts and colours’.
Kafka assembles the creature in terms that could very well describe the sculptures of Judith Scott, one of eight artists featured in ‘Odradek’, a group show organized by the Paris-based critic, curator and publisher François Piron. Scott’s untitled sculptures, made by meticulously binding and wrapping found objects with yarn and other textiles, present complex arrays of shapes, colours and textures. The armatures are in some cases visible: a chair, a lock, a ring of plastic tubing. Although they are similarly constructed, each of Scott’s untitled sculptures – 18 of which are on view here – has a distinct affective and aesthetic charge, their inscrutability yielding an interpretive field just as rich and weird as Kafka’s oft-cited character.
Using Scott’s work to elaborate various points of connection, Piron’s show proposes affinities among a diverse group of artists. Nairy Baghramian’s Mops Single (2013) and extracts from the late Hassan Sharif’s ‘Books and Boxes’ series (1982–2016), which incorporate materials such as bottle-caps, ribbon and cardboard, make visible different forms of labour. On a more formal register, Katinka Bock’s Balance North (2018) is a suspended mobile of square metal tubing draped in fabric, which has been stabilized by the weight of two fresh lemons – their colour echoes that of a neighbouring sculpture, Baghramian’s Mooring (Standing) (2016), a large cast-aluminium hook. Hanging on a nearby wall is Franz Erhard Walther’s Gelbe Modellierung (Yellow Modelling, 1985), a performative textile work that looks uncannily like an oversize closet organizer.
Elsewhere, the sharply-angled confines of Oscar Tuazon’s Reading Booth (Cabane de Lecture) (2016) – inside of which is tethered a Swedish translation of Kafka’s 1922 short story, A Hunger Artist – mirror the cell-like structures comprising Laura Lamiel’s installation White Hot (2017). Her sculptures conceal, among other things, books, parcels, rolls of canvas and gauze. Evoking unconscious processes, her work adds a layer of symbolic ambivalence to an interior off its kilter.
Displayed throughout the galleries is an extensive selection of Henri Jacobs’s ‘Journal Drawings’, an ongoing series of mostly abstract morphological studies that began in 2003. The works, which move fluidly between tessellations, quasi-suprematist geometries and even inkblots, harken to the binaries animating modernist aesthetics, setting rational and irrational into dialectical play. Patterns, in Jacobs’s work, often break as suddenly as they emerge. Their ubiquity gives the show a vaguely anachronistic feel, as though it were distancing itself from the present – or, like Kafka’s titular family man, being haunted by it.
Following Benjamin’s reading, Odradek’s significance lies in where it appears: the attic, the staircase, the corridors, the hall. ‘It prefers’, he claims, ‘the same places as the court of law which investigates guilt’. For Benjamin, as well as Kafka, the juridical dimension – the disciplinary space of contract, testimony, witness and judgment – is a realm of distortion. It’s a reading that is all-too-easily transposed onto the spaces of contemporary art, a realm in which the law of value rules, commanding attention and obedience, distorting our habits. ‘Odradek’, then, might be the form that exhibitions assume in this oblivion. A strange disturbance, neither malevolent nor benign, its laughter, as Kafka writes, ‘like the rustling of fallen leaves’.
'Odradek' is on view at Malmö Konsthall until 6 May.
Main image: Judith Scott, Untitled, 2004, (detail), fiber and found objects. Courtesy: Creative Growth Art Center, Oakland
First published in Issue 195