Alix Vernet & Arielle Chiara’s Water Damage

Images courtesy the artists and Soft Opening, London. Photos by Theo Christelis.

Written by Zoe Koke
Water Damage is on view at Soft Opening, 4 Herald Street, London, until March 31st. 

Minimalism sought to erase the artist’s hand. In the late 60s, Minimalist sculptors responded urgently to the domination of Abstract Expressionism in the art world. They expressed their hostility to the painter’s mark by producing objects that were outside of Modernist descriptions of art, often made by fabricators, employing materials that they considered distant from the body. Ironically, the Minimalists’ authoritative use of building materials and grid patterns couldn’t escape prefacing the body and its movements.

Alix Vernet and Arielle Chiara’s show Water Damage at Soft Opening in London, England offers a supple rebuttal to formal questions Minimalism sought to answer at least 60 years before. Instead of erasing the labour of the body, Vernet and Chiara’s installation is infused with narrative, representation and implicates the body and remnants from nature in a feminist Post-Minimalist conversation. In their sculptural work, markings of time (stains, gravity, signs of wear) and vestiges from nature such as silk and stone become a subtext for lost or outgrown corporeal memory, pointing to the ways social systems, and our constructed environments and architecture actively fail us, failing our bodies too. At the core of this conversation is materiality, labour and a feminist visual language that activates sentimentality; largely articulated through fabric to consider space around and between, inside and out.

Alix Vernet, Inspection Notice, 2019, Poly-blend moire and PVC plastic piping, 130 x 80 x 80 cm

Arielle Chiara, Fragile Purse Shell (Pink), 2018, Antique silk textile,
Salton Sea barnacle cement,122 x 17 x 10 cm

Alix Vernet, Ruin Exercise, 2019, Fiberglass ceiling tiles, pvc plastic piping, 114 x 109 x 81 cm

As poet Anne Boyer writes in Garments Against Women, “…fabric still contains the hours of the lives, those of the farmers and shepherds and chemists and factory workers and truckers and salespeople and the first purchasers, the givers-away, who were probably women who sewed. Sewing is difficult. There is a reason girls were trained in it before they were trained in anything else, years and years spent at practice, and even then they might not have been any good.”

Fabric (sagging, drooping, painted, folding) as artifice and armour is perhaps the central medium in Water Damage. Fabric thematically carries references to time, labour and sentimentality, arteries between Vernet and Chiara’s individual art practices. Chiara’s puddles of silk pool around Vernet’s mournful crumpling castles. Another principle material in Water Damage is crystals. Chiara’s jagged halite crystals nestle in fabric. Their proximity and connection to architecture are immediately palpable in their placement alongside Vernet’s structures. Chiara’s silk formations on the floor and walls carry the history of the natural process of how silk comes into being, as well as point to status and glamour. If Vernet’s miniaturized homes represent a set of goals, Chiara’s crystals swimming in silk represent their origin.

The conversation between interiority and exteriority in Chiara and Vernet’s work alludes directly to childhood as well as a child’s progression into adulthood via their manifestation of an abject space of fantasy. It’s the accessibility of this theme around time that I find particularly important in their work which can be read as a miniaturized landscape composed of small structures and creeks of silk. I can’t help but think of my own at times lonely upbringing. The large jagged crystals my geologist parents had scattered through the house and how they hosted tea parties for our barbies and dolls. The awkwardly large white empty dollhouse my father’s carpenter friend brought over for my sisters and I, that our handmade objects and dolls could never fully fill and make homey. My elderly neighbour teaching us how to sew and crafting a tiny mink fur coat for one of our barbies. Racks of fabric at the fabric store and running small hands through a world of texture. Watching my sister sew her pointe shoes, and lace slippery ribbons around her legs in a disciplined manner. Ribbons weave through the sculptures in Water Damage echoing this memory. In considering the space, the miniaturization of the landscape brings to mind growing expectations on one’s body and psyche to fit into spaces. The increasing and heavy social pressures under patriarchal capitalism that fall on each body to keep within the grid Minimalism prioritized. For some, these restraints fully collapse with time, yet for many, resources and social norms will forever constrain them.

The sensory information flickering at the surface of Chiara and Vernet’s work that alludes directly to my childhood memories in some ways is a clever ploy for the deeper themes the artists address. Like Elena Ferrante’s use of saccharine photographs for the covers of her feminist Neapolitan series, Vernet and Chiara’s use of girlish symbols is both honest and strategic. Their work holds various levels of disruption that engage viewers through uncovering layers, offering more with more time.

Chiara describes in the notes she sends me: “STRATIFICATION is applied as a model to describe cognitive memory recording as image-impression in layered accumulation, a structure which is also manifest in the digital and virtual. Geological processes can be considered as descriptions of felt states: these saturations, beds of salt, formations, precipitations, opal gels filling pores and bone casts, beds laid and layered, internal SEDIMENTATIONS, deep-sensory interior and felt landscapes generate a stratified body memory.”

The halite crystals in Water Damage therefore act as emblems for the body. Time pieces in nature, they announce a broader historical investigation, but a living and felt time space, actively alongside us, neglected by urban life. More obviously, they reflect the starting place for the raw materials that become the imagined stoneware to build Vernet’s cramped shelters, homes, or castle structures. Vernet’s tent like structures reflect ideals of home. The castle the grandest space to reside, the tent the substitute; the nomadic home, the lowest dwelling. Their carefully worn and composed surfaces hint at the long gone presence of bodies. Chiara’s crystals in their natural beauty represent ideal forms in nature. Seductive, sparkly and laid bare on silk, they also illustrate nature as the starting place for all built environments. Silk hanging on the walls simultaneously hints at nature’s codedness, regalness, our misuse of it and our lack of access to its magic.

Vernet and Chiara’s works both highlight facade and its collapse. Leaks on familiar foam ceiling tiles and peeling floral wall paper indicate decay and questions of class in one of Vernet’s house sculptures. As Vernet described to me, the miniaturization of her structures may reference a general antiquated conversation in art. How any representational form like a landscape painting can be considered an act of mimesis, or a miniature of an original situation. I see this as a wistful comment, how observation and art can maybe only meet edges of sparking real change, in the way child’s play in replicated space aims to prepare children for reality, but could never possibly do such a thing. Art has an elusive social function and difficult edges with life, often accessed by few, and only supported by realms of luxury, where politics may be absent.

Alix Vernet, Stealing a Stone from the King Himself, 2019,Poly-blend moire and PVC plastic piping, 130 x 80 x 80 cm. Arielle Chiara, Pink Halite Pile 1, 2019, Pink halite

Arielle Chiara, Multi puffy silk bow, 2019, Antique silk ribbon, 90 x 23 cm

The miniaturization of Vernet’s dwellings also suggest questions of unsustainability which can be interpreted broadly. They become anti-monuments. The crudeness of Chiara’s crystals point to the large gap in labour between a raw material and a resulting product for human consumption. Appearances tell lies. The silky lustrous pools and failing structures make this apparent. Appearances and shotty architecture seduces, especially so in American culture. And geology and the earth’s processes and our impact on it remain poorly understood.

Both artists live and work in Los Angeles, a landscape steeped in contradiction, both grotesquely urban and deeply alluring for its access to nature. In LA, an oil tower sits snugly disguised on the Beverly Hills High School campus and another is masked inside a nearby synagogue tower on Pico Boulevard. California has been the third largest oil producing state until recent years but is masked as a green media city. Development in Los Angeles is rampant. A tent city makes up a large portion of downtown, which is home to many of the 53,000 reported homeless in Los Angeles. And yet dreams and realities of stardom are prevalent and glisten in the public image of the city and throughout the hills where wealthy people reside unphased. People seldom interact in public space, they are cloistered in their cars and in their demographics. Los Angeles is a place where you can be entirely sheltered by your lifestyle (your facade), to the detriment of never witnessing anyone else’s.

Vernet’s text for Water Damage’s press release seems to further emphasize Vernet and Chiara’s collective attack on the authoritative and masculine tones of Minimalism and the history of sculpture as a knowable terrain. In Water Damage, they prove to offer succinct observations on the history of sculpture but also reflect on the unsustainable and impossible material conditions we are living through.

“Maps are landscapes drenched in text. The road is lined with letters. I’m not sure what exists before road. Maybe it looks like rocks on a bed. Maybe the road is a bed sheet. You cannot look outside your window, because the window is inside, you are not looking at the building outside your window you are looking at the building inside your bedroom. An entire office lives next to your refrigerator. The building can no longer bear the burden of the weight it carries, it swells, it pisses, it leaks information from the unit above. The stain is a ready-made past. You can be out and look in but you can’t be in and look out. I take pieces of outside in and they try to adjust. At night inside is marked by squares of yellow. Night exists outside but inside there is infinity. Past is maintained by present or present invents past. I use the map to remember where the castles are. I examine the setting patterns of the castles. They are not on hilltops, they are on flat ground. The ground attempted stratification, it tried to keep “ago” under, but it was upturned and now a piece of “ago” lies next to the car. Tiny houses have taught me that straight lines are responsible for everything but it is so difficult to create a straight line, everything is jagged and curved, so we go out to look for it instead. ”  (Alix Vernet)