Materials and epochs collide and dissolve in “Shift,” which places the Modernist-inspired forms of Berlin-based Claudia Wieser in dialogue with ancient artifacts excavated from the ruins of a Roman temple from the third century AD. Wieser is the third artist, following Isabel Nolan and Pablo Bronstein, to show at London Mithraeum Bloomberg SPACE on the ground floor of Bloomberg’s European headquarters. Opened in 2017, the London Mithraeum takes its name from the reconstructed temple of Mithras, which is located in the bowels of the building. Other than his iconography as a slayer of bulls, little is known about Mithras, but soldiers were particular devotees and would descend to the temple to sacrifice animals to the young god by torchlight. Wieser, however, does not dwell on the mysteries of Mithras, focusing instead on creating playful juxtapositions between old and contemporary, artifact and art, original and reproduction.
Entering this fascinating exhibition (on view through July 13, 2019) is a joyfully kaleidoscopic experience. Wieser overwhelms the senses with optical illusions, color repetitions, and distortions of perspective, scale, and timeframe. A collage of photographic fragments around the walls—images of antique statues, film stills from the 1970s BBC series I Claudius, and contemporary portraits—creates a trompe l’oeil effect. Various brightly colored, hand-crafted wooden sculptures resembling vases, installed on a large central plinth, find formal parallels around the room, echoed in the bold geometric patterns of the ceramic tiles lining the plinth and two benches and in magnified shapes within the wall decor. For example, a round pink bottle form seems to ricochet across the space between repeated photographs of a large pink ball; yellow, blue, black, and red sculptural elements are reprised in two dimensions on the hand-painted tiles, which recall the later geometric works of Wassily Kandinsky. Wieser apprenticed as a blacksmith before receiving an MA in painting from the Akademie der Bildende Künste in Munich, and this training is reflected in the multidisciplinary nature of her work.
Wieser’s longstanding interest in antiquity chimes perfectly with the unique setting of the London Mithraeum, where her forms reverberate with hundreds of Roman artifacts recovered during the site’s restoration in the 1950s. This trove, permanently displayed in a vast glass cabinet along one wall, includes an array of mosaic fragments, earthenware pots, shoes, coins, and jewelry offering insights into the lifestyle of the capital’s inhabitants nearly 2,000 years ago. In a happy fusion of past and present, iPads offer visitors an in-depth exploration of each artifact.
In keeping with this context, Wieser wittily exploits the clash of temporal dimensions. On one wall, a photograph of a classical statue in profile is placed near three images of a nose, prompting questions as to whether the nose belongs to an actor playing a Roman hero or to an ancient statue. Likewise, is the stone wall framing the noses a preserved ruin or part of the wallpaper? In a further visual joke, the noses are positioned so that they appear to be sniffing the vase sculptures. And then, suddenly, a sliver of colorful fabric or a glimpse of a woman’s bobbed hair alongside the old-looking photographs yanks the viewer back into the present. Wieser constantly breaches expectations of spatial borders and depth of field. Heightening the sensory confusion, a multifaceted, mirrored cube in the middle of the room throws back refracted reflections and unites multiple viewpoints within the same plane. The work draws the viewer in, like a portal simultaneously opening onto different eras.
Indeed, the London Mithraeum explicitly encourages a feeling of time travel through an immersive experience two floors below on the site of the old temple, where the dimly lit space is brought to life by Latin chants, worshippers’ footsteps, and projected columns of light. This sense of theater is not lost on Wieser, whose works call to mind stage props, most notably a monumental copper and tile throne placed against a backdrop of stills of actors in Roman dress. As business people rush around London’s financial district just beyond the door, it is easy to lose track of time and place, dazzled by the eye-catching colors and interplay of forms in “Shift.” One is reminded of the trope—immortalized by Shakespeare—of the world as a stage on which men and women are mere players. Weaving a thread between civilizations, Wieser presents humanity as a flowing continuum of which we are all a tiny part. It is a humbling, and uplifting, thought.