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Hell in its heyday

Contrary to what some medieval theologians might have thought, hell is not being boiled alive and then having your viscera scooped out and devoured by greedy demons. It is instead the invitation to a buffet with an “extremely generous lobster” sliding off a “gradrooned silver platter” followed by a “violet blachmange hatted with orange chantilly cream” on a “silver gilt George II salver”. 

A department store visit, an all inclusive holiday, a botanical garden. 

Anglo-Argentine artist Pablo Bronstein’s vision of hell at Sir John Soane’s Museum is a pleasurable one. All tastes and desires are catered for, from mass media to gambling.

Pablo has been given two rooms. The first presents the fun side of hell, and the second, the other face, the factories, mines and ships which make it possible.

The installation draws on Pablo’s long standing interest in the baroque and in queering architecture. 

Yet for all his interest and knowledge in the field, he claims to have no taste in architecture. He says he is drawn to the Baroque by its globulous molten quality, which he calls ‘golden pooh pooh’.

He is being modest about his own work which transforms this seventeenth century architectural style into powerfully imagined worlds which have the uncanny ability to pick out something underground in our own society: chthonic stirrings. 

This perhaps gives only a little sense of what makes Pablo’s work so brilliant. In works like Psuedo-Georgian architecture and postmodern buildings, he used a pen to create delicate drawings, almost like an antiquarian guidebook. In other works like Wall Pomp in Pallant House and London in its Original Splendour at the Bloomberg Space, he has used digital design software. 

This exhibition gives visitors the chance to see Pablo’s exquisite watercolours. Trained at Goldsmiths and the Slade, he has said that he taught himself watercolours. After the design stage, he then began painting layer by layer each single painting over several months. The effect is a richly hued, psychedelically coloured world.

In this set of works, we can also discern the influence of Toulouse Lautrec and Manet. 

During lockdown Pablo took delivery of a book of posters designed by Toulouse Lautrec. The visual  language of the posters is perhaps clearest in Artillery. A picture reducing militarism and imperialism to a circus advert. A parade of soldiers, seemingly wearing the national uniforms of different countries, march in the foreground. Their eyes dramatically cast in the shadow of their caps. In the foreground a cinderella coach is topped by a metallic cannon. Inside, we can glimpse a man “hiding behind the velvet curtain” as Pablo quips. In the background, other gun topped coaches slide imperceptibly into a red background- whether a circus curtain or burning fires, we can never know. Artillery is placed in the other room, the production room, yet there is a desirous subtext. The soldiers are sexually desirable. As a male space, the army was often queer with homosexuality accepted.

Manet’s ghost is felt strongest in Department Store, a fin de siecle vision of luxury consumerism in a beaux d’arts shop, with a more than coincidental resemblance to Paris’ Galleries Lafayettes. Shop staff are almost plucked fresh from post-impressionist paintings to entice customers in this new hell. In the middle of the store, there is a ‘Piransian’ style lipstick. The staircases also have something of Piranesi’s prison prints. Keep moving and you’ll never get anywhere. In discussion, Pablo has drawn links between this space and the Great Exhibition of 1851, a building linked with the Empire but also still the most influential building of our time. 

For all his interest in the baroque, Pablo argues that the Beaux Arts were perhaps the most successful architectural style. In Botanical Garden, a pram is pushed beneath a resplendent swan fountain in the shadow of a dome. Pablo argues that this is his most autobiographical piece, drawing on memories of his infancy in Argentina. In the book he says he is the child in the pram, but in conversation he admits he also identifies with the gorgeous swan. There is a tension of desire at the heart of the image. The swan alludes to the swan imagery used by many homosexual German creatives in the late nineteenth century like Ludwig II. But the dome resembles the Nazi architect Albert Speer’s vision for a victorious Hitlerian Berlin. We are not being ‘asked’ to choose between two alternative ways of life, rather I think, we are being made complicit. The dome is evil, but it is not banal, it is beautiful. We are drawn in through desire. Nothing is neutral here, not even the Botanical Garden which was also an invention of ‘Empire’, a way to display the size and spoils of imperial gain. An image unsettling but stunning with many layers of paint and meaning.

When you call an installation something like ‘Hell in its Heyday’, you expect something like a theory to be given to audiences so that people read work with a clear understanding of intent. Pablo wisely avoids this. His bitchy captions instead pick out the gorgeous details.

Perhaps it is in the second room that we receive, if not a moral, then a denouement. If the first room is about consumption, then the second room presents visions of how this hell is produced. The maestro pulls the curtain away. This vision of hell is just as enticing as the ‘other room’. Car Plant is an intoxicating vision of baroque robotic tools in gold and silver colours creating red cars. Yet there is something horrific about the cars, something of The Triumph of the Will

Each image has many layers. Pablo says that the Cargo Ship alludes to the US military incursion into Japan in 1853, the imported Chinese goods popular in Europe in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth centuries and Early modern Mediterranean galley slaves. It is also a reminder of the inadvertent star of 2021, the Ever Given which got stuck in the Suez Canal. 

This is the great work of the British lockdowns. There is something of the passive consumer who doesn’t realise the work that goes on in the background, who sees the internet as a great virtual space but which is instead embodied and whose work is detrimental to the society.

The exhibition ends with a triptych of an altar piece, with a blank cross, representing the internet. It is the internet which makes this hell possible, but what is the cross doing here? Perhaps like Dante, we have descended to the very depths of hell to emerge finally in paradise.