Cover Story, July 2017
4.543 billion. The matter of matter recently opened at the CAPC musée d’art contemporain de Bordeaux, and features the work of more than thirty artists. Curated by Latitudes, the exhibition looks at histories of art as fragments in geological time. The portentous mood of this gallery hinges on combustion and history violently formed through the fundamental reordering of the relations between humans and the rest of nature.
On the left of this view is A History of Detonations (2014), by Xavier Ribas, a poster sequence which explores the legacy of the mining of sodium nitrate in northern Chile. The extraction of this resource not only industrialized the arid Atacama Desert at one end of the chain, and enriched English country estates at the other, but through its use as a fertilizer and a component of explosives, it radically altered a whole swathe of seemingly disparate geographies, bodies and institutions.
In the centre Lucy Skaer’s Black Alphabet (2008) comprises twenty-six identical missile-like forms based on the 1926 sculpture Bird in Space by Constantin Brancusi. They are made from coal, the carboniferous matter that became a cheap fuel in the nineteenth century, dethroning peat and charcoal to reshape planetary life and industrial capitalism before the rise of oil.
The late Jannis Kounellis’s threatening Sans titre (Untitled) (1985), a masterpiece from the CAPC collection, bookends the exhibition. Fused steel panels are perforated by pipes that continuously throw live flames, while sacks once used for cacao trading are draped over the top. Kounellis’s work speaks of longue durée movements of power, commodity production and exchange forged across the great expansions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
What appear to be wooden ammunition boxes are in fact core samples on loan from the University of Bordeaux’s lithoteque—negative monuments to a vision of Bordeaux that was thwarted by its geology. They were part of the feasibility study in the 1990s for a proposed underground metro system. The characteristic Calcaire à Astéries (asteriated limestone) that formed from compressed marine life 33.9 million years to 23 million years ago, the same that comprised the museum’s walls, is typically fragile. Geological studies confirmed that tunnelling would be too risky and the underground transit option was discarded. Today Bordeaux has a tram system instead.
As of this month Bordeaux also enjoys a high-speed direct rail link that now connects the city to Paris in a little over 2 hours, and the exhibition—on view until 7 January 2018—forms a part of the Paysages Bordeaux cultural season to mark this new line.