(This review was originally published on www.frieze.com in May 2012)
Gonzalo Lebrija ‘La vida no vale nada‘ at Travesía Cuatro, Madrid, Spain.
A hypnotizing sound overwhelmed the gallery, as if heralding an ominous event that never occurred. The source of the noise was a record player, looping in the final grooves of an old vinyl record by the famous Mexican folk singer José Alfredo Jiménez. With the Nietzchean title The Eternal Return (16 éxitos) (The Eternal Return, 16 Hits, 2012), this small, tight show by the Mexican artist Gonzalo Lebrija comprised four works that appeared so intricately linked they could have been read as a single installation.
The title of the exhibition, ‘La vida no vale nada’ (Life Isn’t Worth a Thing), was borrowed from one of the most memorable folk songs (or ‘rancheras’) that Jiménez wrote and sang in the 1950s. The song combines a nihilistic message (‘life isn’t worth a thing. It always begins with crying, and with crying it ends’) with an uplifting melody. In recent years, Lebrija has been concerned with the passing of time and the futility of life, but he examines them with a mixture of melancholy and humour that echoes the self-effacing and occasionally demotic tone of Jiménez’s song.
In front of the record player was a large black and white photograph of Mexican cowboy on a magnificent white horse, encircled by his lasso. As is usual in Lebrija’s work, the image, despite its depiction of action, is static, airless even. Although a moment is frozen in time you can somehow feel the dizzying movement of the lasso, its force surrounding both the human and the animal. The title of the work, Trou Noir (Black Hole, 2012), alludes to this sense of vertigo. The ghostly background of the scene – the ruins of a stone arcade – contributes to the detachment of the image from any particular moment in time.
The image of the entropic lasso was transubstantiated into a real rope next to the photograph (Lazo, 2012). It loomed ominously, and appeared to be mysteriously unsupported. At first I wondered how this thin rope could stand on its own but a closer look revealed it to be cast in iron.
At the far end of the gallery was a minimal wall clock, its hands like spider legs, so impossibly long and thin that they seemed to be on the brink of dematerialization. The clock – which was only visible thanks to a bright spotlight – again references Lebrija’s preoccupation with the slippage of time. With its Nietzschean chimes and anxiety over the inevitability of death, his treatment of the subject is rooted in the kind of bathos exemplified by Woody Allen in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986). In the film, the hypochondriac genius roams the streets of New York wondering about the meaning of life: ‘Millions of books written by all these great minds and, in the end, none of them know anything more about the big questions of life than I do… […] And then Nietzsche and his theory of eternal recurrence… He said that the life we live, we’re going to live over and over again the exact same way for eternity. Great… That means I’ll have to sit through the Ice Capades again. It’s not worth it.’
It’s not worth it, says Allen. And it might not be worth for Lebrija either, whose dark Mexican humour and metaphysical bent continues a great tradition of artists and writers. Bittersweet and lucid nihilists, who, despite the impending shadow of failure, never cease in their quest to find the answers to those questions.
Images courtesy of Travesía Cuatro