On the extremes of good and evil
Hugo Canoilas at mumok, Vienna
BECOMING A DOG
Hugo Canoilas, Elise Lammer, Julie Monot
December 8, 2020 – June 20, 2021
Originally slated for November 5
Kapsch Contemporary Art Prize 2020/2021
Hugo Canoilas’ On the extremes of good and evil is an experiment in time travel. Closed before opening, reopened and now kept close again, standby at -3, in what is maybe the mumok’s hardest and most artificial space: a giant elevator sticking out from under the building, located on the its lower (but not lowest) level, that is also the museum’s lab for rising and contemporary positions. Down here, though still some 150m above current sea level, Canoilas has spilled out an ocean of doubt —and belief— in painting.
Titled in blue vinyl, an expanse of blue, lowering the visitor’s view along dark airbrushed plinths and a slightly darker blue carpet they pretend to extend, covered by islands, speckles, puddles, dashes of pigment, acrylic, varnish and sprinkled with two sets of inhabitants, soft and furry felts, hard colorful and colorless glass shapes, but both cnidarian and microbial — the things life begins with and ends by. Following this line of thought, made either of the marks a new painting starts with — or the slashes of pain(t) when the enterprise is abandoned altogether.
Like these first gestures, the exhibition is meant to be flooring: its gravity made even more pressing by the bright lights and walls they are aimed at, exposing the white cube’s boringness and leaving us no option, really, but to look down, our feet and eyes touching the ground's varying textures. That the invitation to step on and into the work is difficult to accept, might explain why visitors seem to stay in the gallery so short. Too much and too little is happening. You can follow the drips of paint. You can try to avoid them and stay in the blue, as anyone aiming to stay within the lines, only stepping in the middle of paving stones, would do. Or, more horizontally and audaciously, make your way from one islet of paint to the other, from this creature to the next, the woolly ones that can be touched and stepped on (unknown to most of the gallery attendants) and those made of glass that (they will tell you more than once) are to be avoided at all cost. In every case, what you are constantly forced to watch, as you become part of the picture, are your steps, as if —having taken them off— you have to put yourself in your own shoes again.
This is where I comes in, this uneasy awareness of asking yourself where I/you stand. The fact that beside the downward angle there is no preferred perspective. That this could be a landscape, scorched and in abeyance of the flood, a sea bed or a dried out petri dish, enlarged under the microscope, and on another scale, a galaxy of paint. None and all of these, what you are standing on is a proposition.
Not fixed, in a state of suspense (‘badly’ done), the installation Cetacean blue at mumok states itself not just as an unfinished painting, textured with a “wilfully fragmentary and internally discontinuous view” 1, it raises the question whose view? What voice, if not the “sea voice” that Canoilas’ early stenciled Nomadic Works (2012) started with. 2
Here, some differentiation and comparison might be in place. Where carpeting is concerned: Rudolf Stingel’s specifically participatory installations, within the museum and in public space, such as Plan B, stretching wall-to-wall in Grand Central Terminal (2004). The figurative insinuation in Philippe Parreno’s and Pierre Huyghe’s 6pm shadow pieces (2000-2006), with inlays one tone off from the rest of their surroundings. 3 In paint: the indexical, nearly photographic frottages of the studio floor Isa Genzken made in the 1990s, shifted into an upright position when exhibited. And, vertically again, the formless ‘organ’ paintings hanging unplugged against the wall that Henrik Olesen showed at Buchholz, Cologne, last year, suggested not only that painting can make do without electricity. But also the other direction, that if sockets and extension cords may come off the ground, so too the messy medium encroaching it can come off the gallery walls, creep into corners, seep onto the floor and from the floor out to the streets, the pavement, the beach, the Atlantic. And back inside again, a kitchen in London, the ceiling at the Fundação de Serralves, the mumok’s basement floor, a Viennese living room or café 4 — examples of the extremes Canoilas has painting go to.
Between high and low, before/after the end of the world, the death of painting and other extinction events, in a time when palaeoloxodon, dimorphodon, edaphosaurus speak in bubbles and say what they shouldn’t be saying out loud —as they do in the ‘dinosaur paintings’ Canoilas made around 2013-2014— there is a slight but significant difference between good and evil, evil and bad. 5 As the meaning slips between the limits, from quality to morals, and never really sticks, but for the dilemma of strong language: how evil can a painting be? “I still don’t know how to determine the division between the ethical and the artistic” 6, Canoilas writes, explaining how his work is actually always about both, elastically taking turns between presence and protest, anti and ante.
“One million years ago, back in a.d. 1986,” as Kurt Vonnegut’s Galápagos (1985) opens, written in the future from a past that is now, when the human brain has finally managed to develop to a smaller, less onerous size and the species evolved into furry seal-like ocean creatures, is a curious example of science fiction modelled after what what we know, what was before, not so much cynical as a retrograde version to robots that resemble (wo)men or a space ‘ship’ camouflaged in naval metaphor.
So if the Romantics needed ruins to project the future (and Picasso the primitive, Pollock the primordial), the new the old, it is all too logical Canoilas’ take on the posthuman goes back to the bacterial, tentacular and other companion species, much older and much more lasting than and ourselves. BECOMING A DOG, the exhibition’s performative part, partially delayed because of an unwanted, viral aggressor we are quite helpless against, then might then might open up to the contrary: of canines taking on traits of ours. Even if this is not the prospect Vonnegut plays out in his novel, where “thanks to Darwin’s Laws of Natural selection, all humans beings now have senses of smell as acute as” a German shepherd’s and “surpassed dogs in one respect: They can smell things underwater” — sadly the dogs of this future still haven’t acquired the skill to dive and stay below the surface “although they have had a million years in which to learn.” 7
There is literally only a one letter difference, moving from Canidae, the dog family, to Cnidae, the tentacular arms defining the species of jellyfish, corals, sea anemones that could have spit out the inks this exhibition is splattered with. What excites and exudes the painter’s body, phlegm, puke, virus, bacteria, the sperm of Duchamp’s sexually frustrated Fugitive landscape (1946) or the acid in the oxidizing Piss paintings Warhol made toward the end of the 70s — all of these fluids that Canoilas’ installation is not an enlargement of — but another call that that sea dogs and their very unrelated antipodes on land still share 8, when they speak out, when they cry. Because it hurts to see what lies before us. If we don’t cry harder, the future is in these tears.
“Sea voice / louder / he moves / on / boots on / a shingle / as he / goes / he halts / sea a / little / louder”, in Hugo Canoilas, Nomadic Works. Lisbon: Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian 2012, p. 3 ↩
And also, imaging the opposite of water, John Russell’s Well, currently on view at Bridget Donahue in New York: a “Vinyl print of Hell” splayed out on the gallery floor as the press release lets us know ↩
The path of displacement away from, and back to, the gallery setting, of Canoilas’ paint-objects, is traced by the images throughout the exhibition catalogue and the essay ‘Painting: Tentacular‘’ by Rainer Fuchs. Canoilas’ decision to display the catalogs of the current and previous exhibitions together on a bench outside the entrance of the installation, is an example of the same device of dislodging and relocation: painting, like a book, going everywhere. ↩
On the extremes of good and evil picks up on the title of Hugo Canoilas’ floor piece God is good and the devil is not bad for Ficarra Contemporary Divan, Messina 2015 ↩
Hugo Canoilas, ‘Shit Sandwiches’, in Before the beginning and after the end: Júlio Pomar and Hugo Canoilas. Lisbon: Documenta 2020, p. 192 ↩
Kurt Vonnegut, Galápagos (1985). Reprint. London: Flamingo 1994, p. 68 ↩
The crying of both dogs and seal (canis marinus) is a recurring motif in etymologies of the term sea dog, German Seehund, Dutch zeehond ↩