How do we define value? In what way do a material's properties dictate assumptions regarding its identity and worth?
These are just some of the questions preoccupying Polish-born sculptor Alicja Kwade, who, like many artists of her generation, adopts a Minimalist aesthetic while rejecting the movement's fundamental belief in the uncompromised integrity of materials.
Indeed, Kwade herself has emphasised that, since "All my materials are so loaded with symbolic meaning" the decision "to work with a very minimal expression" is primarily dictated by aesthetic economy; her principal interest lies precisely in the 'symbolic meaning' she describes.
Several of of Kwade's more recent works, for example, juxtapose the essential elements of coal and gold. Kohle (2008, above) consists of piles of gleaming ingots which, despite their resemblance to bullion, consist of coal covered in gold leaf.
While it is often assumed that Kwade's aim is to transform the quotidian into something more conventionally precious, her intention is almost exactly the reverse.
Pointing out "the arbitrary way in which we structure our world and how we determine what is valuable and what is not", Kwade contrasts the lowly status of coal - a provider of essential heat and electric power - with "... gold, that is not a very useful material, but something we abstractly decided to be something special, just because it's yellow and shiny."
Similar tactics inform works such as Berliner Bordsteinjuwelen (Berlin Curbside Jewels, left) which consists of pebbles found on Berlin streets, polished and cut to resemble gemstones.
If the preferential hierarchies ascribed to certain materials seem, in Kwade's eyes, illogical or even absurd, other works seek to reflect this confusion by instigating our own questioning of their reality.
Untitled (2008) pairs identically sized sheets of glass and steel. While the glass panel stands sturdily upright, the metal lies as if shattered on the floor, its jagged pieces resembling crystal shards. In a similar work, a silver tray appears to have fractured on impact with the ground (left).
By overturning our common understanding of material properties, such works simultaneously undermine teleologies which, like the preference for gold over coal, ultimately dictate a particular view of the world. And in the superb series Being Gregory Peck, Dr. Edwardes, John Brown, Alicja Kwade (2008, below) the multiple potentialities of human identity are scrutinised as Kwade produces careful copies of hand-written letters that appear on screen in Alfred Hitchcock's thrillers.
Although a product of various real and fictive authors - the creator of the original prop; actors, and the characters they play; Kwade herself - the letters were then presented to a professional graphologist in order to obtain a detailed analysis of the writer's 'character'.
The resulting reading is, of course, virtually meaningless, as flawed and problematic as the other apparently definitive identifications Kwade forensically investigates.
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