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Ser Serpas’ recent solo exhibition was split between Balice Hertling’s two outposts in Paris. It began in their new space at 84 rue des Gravilliers, formerly a shop that sold mid-range designer bags. The space’s mutation into a pristine white cube was paused in a state of mid-dilapidation for the exhibition’s run: all walls stripped back to their concrete innards, fixings removed, flooring pulled up, air conditioning units exposed. The sculptures inside echoed the austere aesthetic. Made from combinations of consumer and industrial goods, they were part of Serpas’ “assisted readymade” practice that sees her wandering the streets of a city, gathering discarded items and bringing them into a gallery space to present as ad-hoc assemblages. A sketch of a city through its byproducts, the amalgamations take a corporeal form. These scrapped objects have had past lives, bruised by exchanges with others and the forces inflicted on them. Opening during the spectacle of Paris art week—amid the frenzied hype of fairs, dinners, and money games—the exhibition offered a particularly wry critique of assimilation, commodification, and the power dynamics with which we too often comply.
Aptly, the first sculpture I encountered included a shopping cart, a perennially abandoned object but also a mainstay mechanism for consumerism. revolutions insect of things (all works 2021) combined the cart with a stroller that nestled on top of it. Looped around its worn, padded handlebars and back wheels was a thick, black rubber belt that stretchedup to the industrial piping visible in the ceiling’s naked architecture. Nearby was conjoining fabricated excesses literal end to a mean, a sculpture made from a thick wooden board with a roughly sawn square in the center through which a folded, grubby mattress bulged. The two opposing materials supported each other in an uneasy balancing act. Mute without humans to push, pull, or lay on them, these objects emitted a still sadness. Stained with traces of unknown collaborators, Serpas honored their contributions, assembling the used objects in an intimate private performance that elevated each blotch, mark, and worn edge.
Downstairs, Serpas’ hand was withdrawn further. love time in vetivers, bathtub dropped a story and left as is was a rusty and chipped tub, its cleansing and soothing responsibilities a distant memory. The work’s title foregrounded its production—directly above the sculpture, which was installed by the front door, was a perilous cavity that it appeared Serpas pushed the tub through to the floor below. Elsewhere, two heavy metal bollards—each ripped out of an unseen concrete base—were left abandoned at the bottom of a staircase, having endured a similarly rough treatment as the tub (their title, real seduction state in consequence practically far in, two poles tossed down a staircase, damaging the steps, and left as they are, is also a descriptor for the action they had endured). In this piece, Serpas used actions and processes as collaborators, and unlike the carefully constructed pieces upstairs, the work had minimal compositional modifications, the thick posts left unto themselves. While freely referencing the decisively male line of process art progenitors before her—the anti-form scatter pieces of Robert Morris, in which he explored the effects of gravity and stress on ordinary materials, or Barry Le Va’s temporary arrangements of ephemera that he combined with didactic titles—Serpas brings careful tenderness to these dirty and transitory sculptures. There are no screws, nails, museum wax, or fixings. Each structure relies on the physicality of its own material composition to hold itself together.
Habitual walking is a cornerstone of Serpas’ practice, reminiscent of the Situationist International’s (SI) “dérives,” during which the group would meander aimlessly around a city as an anticapitalist activity; neither working nor consuming. In contrast, Serpas’ wanderings are decisively lucrative. With a Midas touch, she transmogrifies unwanted, found objects into desirable art pieces, instantly changing their value via the art market like some “magician recycler,” 1 using institutional critique as her spell. I’m reminded of founding SI member Michèle Bernstein’s novel, All the King’s Horses (1960), conceived as a potboiler in the vein of a French romance novel to help inflate the group’s bank account. A roman à clef that cast Bernstein’s peers (and key SI figures) as the main protagonists, the book was a commercial success and also cast aspersions on the state of contemporary popular French literature. Bernstein would later disown the novel, paradoxically insisting on its commercialism and refusing its authorship. 2 Serpas also builds in a kind of escape hatch— after her exhibitions, if the sculptures do not sell, they, too, are cast off and returned to the street, redetermining the value of these trash-cum-commodity objects once again.
A hundred meters away, in Balice Hertling’s original space, Serpas created an addendum to the exhibition that continued her distortions of value. Lined up like an arsenal of weaponry around the perimeter of the white-walled gallery at 239 rue Saint-Martin were battered pieces of wood, broken furniture, steel pipes, and rusted pieces of metal. Punctuating the display were a series of framed handwritten texts torn from a notebook the artist had used during a Georgian language class. The installation’s title is self-reflexive: im not good at anything including this round the this time, 87 unused collected objects from the installation at 84 Rue des Gravilliers and 15 framed pages of notes from Georgian language classes that the artist did not follow up on after the 8th lesson. These were the rejects—objects that were collected by Serpas for potential sculptural works that were never realized, only to be abandoned once again. By including her own, handwritten failures, Serpas aligned herself with these objects in a more direct way, speaking to failure and achievement more broadly. By placing these cast-off objects in the traditional environment in which we are accustomed to seeing art, she inverses our expectations and the sanctity of the white cube, furthering her disorientation of value. The gallery space (particularly during Paris art week) is the ultimate commodified space, one that is habitually designed for selling, yet Serpas chose to exhibit only “valueless” leftovers.
It would be simplistic to suggest that Serpas was mocking the frenzied art market and its endless consumption with this exhibition. We are all victims of late capitalism. Presented with our own discarded filth, these piles pose unexpected beauty that belies their more nefarious political implications. Serpas’ bodily composites reflect a mutability of value and power dynamics. She is setting her own terms. Art galleries operate like microcosms of society, yet here, the artist gets to decide what is permitted inside and outside, what is valued, what is worthless, and what is free. She creates her own currency. And by eschewing traditional artistic production (these artworks don’t require a studio and there’s little-to-no shipping or storage required), she allows us to imagine how we might liberate ourselves from the boundaries and rules to which most of us freely acquiesce.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 27.