Thomas Delamarre, senior curator for the Fondation Cartier, didn’t know what he would learn when he visited 200 European artists who came of age after the fall of the Berlin Wall. How, he wondered, did the still politically charged landscape of today shape their perspectives and impact their work? He gathered 16 of those artists, born between 1980 and 1994, under the rubric of “Metamorphosis,” a staple of Western art from Ovid to Kafka, reinterpreted in the distinct visual language of a new generation.
The seamless merger of interior and exterior space in Jean Nouvel’s striking glass and steel frame museum enhanced the fluidity of forms coursing through the two levels of galleries. Polish artist Piotr Łakomy seized its potential for Untitled (2019), a site-specific sculpture consisting of two metallic objects sheathed with honeycomb-textured aluminum and sprouting ostrich eggs. Placed high up on a wall and attached so that they appeared to grow through the glass—from nature into interior space—these weird hybrids prophesized a new breed of organic and inorganic beings sired by technology and biology.
Georgian artist Nika Kutateladze’s Village de Metsieti (2019) visited a far darker, Kafka-esque metamorphosis. He deconstructed a rotting, abandoned house from his native region of Guria, a community ravaged by ethnic cleansing and forced expulsion during the 1990s, and transported the remains to the museum, where he rebuilt it. Extending its walls beyond the glass-enclosed gallery into the garden allowed warm ambient light and the lush greenery of nature to infuse renewal into the decay of ravaged life.
Mother’s Tongue (2018), a poignant video by Sweden’s Lap-See Lam, produced with director Wingyee Wu, sizzled with the sting of cultural dislocation as it unfolded the fictional history of a restaurant belonging to three generations of a Chinese family living in Stockholm. The evolving decors, visually manipulated to melt like desiccated relics, served as stage sets for voiceovers betraying the family’s differences and their ultimately realized fears of robots assuming the jobs that had sustained them. So Let us Melt and Make no Noise (2017), an eclectic installation by Estonian Kris Lemsalu, also dealt with agonizing identity displacements: a sawed-in-half dingy afloat on a sea of blue balloons supported a mournful human figure, magnificently crafted in porcelain and holding a ceramic keyboard, a sad elegy to humanity’s lost song.
While many artists today project an apocalyptical future, those represented here wrapped their cautionary tales in past genres and vocabularies. Whether this symbolized nostalgia for lost tradition, a desire to find stability within the neurosis of cultural upheaval, a pragmatic determination to recycle obsolete materials, or all of the above, they conflated the present world with the art historical past. Riffing on an 18th-century Florentine cabinet that sold for $36 million in 2004, The Elemental Cabinet (2017), created by Greek artist Kostas Lambridis, consisted of a replica made from concrete, wood, recycled textiles, gold leaf, and plastic. Britain’s Charlie Billingham was also inspired by the cultural, social, and economic upheavals of the 18th century. His installation reproduced Regency-era caricatures of elitist politicians on wallpaper panels imprinted with snakes, which served as a backdrop for decorative objects recalling period salons. His buffoons, fat hypocrites, and fawning pseudo-royalty conjured striking associations with today’s cast of disingenuous political characters.
Some artists turned to even older traditions and myths. The eclectic columns in Achronies (2017), by French artist Marion Verboom, were inspired by ancient and Gothic architecture, as well as archaic megaliths, all cast in a variety of materials—from bronze to cement—and hued in a bizarre range of colors, earthy to pastel. Her transformation and integration of disparate architectural forms conveyed a sense of a world potentially united. Russia’s Evgeny Antufiev creates handcrafted sculptures that resemble archaic tools and figurines. Here, his works maintained a rapt visual conversation with the large-scale ghostly casts of Germany’s Raphaela Vogel. Her reductivist take on 19th-century bronze lions battling four treacherous snakes (In festen Händen III) became a metaphor for the conflict between freedom and security, the flayed forms echoed in a haunting series of animal hide paintings.
Others, including Dutch artist Hendrickje Schimmel, who calls her practice Tenant of Culture, recycled articles from the more recent past. Her wearable and conceptual garments, such as those in the “Works and Days” series (2018), consist of recycled outerwear reconfigured to resemble the hodgepodge of garments worn by the homeless who carry “home” on their backs. Focused on contemporary e-waste, the Italian duo Formafantasma (Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin) create a smart and functional line of office furniture, all of it constructed from obsolescent electronic grids and recycled industrial materials.
Though there was little thematically unusual in these works, the exhibition was nevertheless remarkable for all it had to say about contemporary culture, without relying on didactic texts. Clear messages resounding through inventive combinations of forms and space spoke succinctly to this generation’s distinct immersion in the metamorphosis of life as it was handed to them and as they have learned to deal with it.