In his essay 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction' (1935) Walter Benjamin famously traced the breakdown of 'aura' with the mass reproduction of original artworks. Exploring the meaning of historical presence, and in the process capturing 'the desire of contemporary masses to bring things closer spatially and humanly', he defined the overcoming of uniqueness as 'the unique phenomenon of a distance'. Taking its name from Benjamin's text, and attempting to address a contemporary reading of the philosopher's thesis, Gregorio Magnani's exhibition situates a number of contemporary works around other 'unique' loaded historical objects.
Visible on a monitor at a distance from the street, Michel Auder's video Rooftops and Other Scenes (1998) made its presence known before the viewer was through the door. The video weaves a dislocated narrative in a sequence of black-and-white clips of life seen mostly from high-rise blocks and roof terraces. One sequence pictures a group of mute visitors to a gallery transfixed in the act of looking. Later, hookers are shown touting for business, viewed from the inside of a car. Snippets, ephemera and the stuff of urban life combine with other mundane yet magical scenes.
Inside, the show was laid out like a Parisian arcade. Princess Mathilde Bonaparte's Hand (1847), an anonymous cast originally commissioned by the princess as a gift for her lover the Count of Nieuwerkerke, was placed in the gallery upstairs. Intended as a substitute for her physical presence, this delicate object rests under a glass dome on a bed of lush red velvet. Seen alongside Marcel Duchamp's painting Bride (for André Breton) (1937), the hand's unauthored quality was accentuated, and appeared dislocated and mechanical. The sculpture's uncanny naturalism was further diminished by its proximity to Isa Genzken's Untitled (2000). Genzken's large, abject construction - like an oversized bicycle pump made from an old plinth, a metal rod and a strip of bamboo - imbued its ready-made components with pathos and a strange energy. Neighbouring works by Wolfgang Tillmans and Silke Otto-Knapp also exuded a curious sense of beauty. Tillmans' large photograph of ageing fruit and Otto-Knapp's watery painting of flowers and undergrowth contain a similar quality of perishable freshness.
In the adjacent room a couple of works married in a similar and awkward manner. Liam Gillick's BlueRMonday (2002) repeats the text 'dayindayout ...' in a frieze around the walls, and upside down along the skirting. Sherrie Levine's After Henri Matisse (1985), a mock-reproduction of a Fauve painting of a sailing boat, was placed opposite the small window that Gillick's work surrounded.
In the weeks leading up to John Lydon's first appearance as a host on BBC Radio 2 it was entertaining to find Scott King's I'm Not a Sex Pistol (2000) skulking on the top floor of the gallery. One line reads, 'I'm not a Sex Pistol because I never dared try and make my dreams a reality'. Referring to a punk rehash of a Situationist slogan, King's work touches on issues regarding the assimilation of radical politics into mainstream culture. With Benjamin's thesis attempting to enable 'the masses' to become involved and participate in new creative processes, the death of the DIY culture that King's photo-text implies speaks of the current possibilities of home-grown creative activity. Are we to believe that it's no longer possible to get off our arses and 'take our desires for reality'? King finally relents with the words 'The Sex Pistols were good. I am not a Sex Pistol.' He's obviously had time to get a hook on his infatuation.
The same sadly can't be said of the Countess di Castiglione. Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse's figurine Countess of Castiglione as Queen of Etruria (1864) was originally intended to disprove a rumour that its subject had arrived at a costume ball, only to leave (like many of the characters in Auder's video) half-naked. Placed next to King's work, the statuette stood defiantly opposite Roy Lichtenstein's Mirror 2 (1970). Lichtenstein's white, oval piece of Minimal Pop acted as a perfect cipher for the vanity and frustrated desire of the statuette. Charles Avery's Untitled (2002) print was positioned between the two works, the words 'Che sarà sarà' repeating and disappearing from pink to white toward Lichtenstein's mirror.
Some of Benjamin's preoccupations were predictably in place in 'The Unique Phenomenon of a Distance', but what came across in particular was the textual play between the various forms of reproduction, suggesting that new forms of participation can take place in unlikely areas. What was strangely revelatory was that many objects in this exhibition served to reconfigure what an object's aura might mean by forming contemporary links with the most unlikely historical fragments.
First published in Issue 72