Giulio Paolini: To Be or Not to Be at the Whitechapel Gallery

The Whitechapel Gallery, in suitably vanguard style, stages the work of the high-minded, Italian artist, Giulio Paolini (b. 1940). The oeuvres gathered represent investigations into the process of perception and the origins of creativity in which the artist plays with the relationship between his established presence, and the viewer’s potential involvement.

The broad nature of these investigations is reflected in the range of media explored by the artist in his installations, spreading across the floor like a checkerboard as in To Be or Not to Be (1994-5). The work’s geometrical structure recalls Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII (1966), yet as opposed to an aesthetic deemed austere and abstruse by many, Paolini’s piece is ludic and inviting. Small canvases are aligned and stacked wittily, while a blank pad of paper and a pencil beg for a doodle.

Cover image: To Be or Not to Be (1994-5)

Equivalent VIII (1966)

The invocation of the viewer’s presence is matched by the unnerving ghostly presence of the artist within his work. A series of photographs hang in succession in which the artist is initially seen hanging a blank canvas, then carrying the canvas through the street, and finally, carrying the photograph of the prior photograph. This development stages a metaphysical investigation into the physical presence of the artist, and further aptly illustrates Walter Benjamin’s famous essay, The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936). Benjamin argued that with the advent of mechanical reproducibility questions of authenticity became complicated, as despite the fact that a reproduced image can never match the original work, its reproducible state assumes an existence independent of traditional notions of space and time. Paolini’s photos enact this discussion of authenticity while turning it in on itself: the process of reproducibility is repeated and solidified in these canvases.

As we move to the upper galleries, Paolini’s ghostly presence is invoked more concretely in the form of a plexiglass structure trapping a sheet of blank paper on the floor beneath, and a pencil above. In this way the artist seems to allude to the fundamental principles of creativity, the separation and mutual entrapment of both pencil and paper lays bare the challenge faced by the artist: the burden of the necessity to create something truly original. The problem of originality is also staged in The Big Bang (1997-8), an installation in which an artistic studio situation is reconstructed. A chair tucked beside a plexiglass structure is mounted with light bulbs which seem to signify individual new ideas. These hopeful sources seem fruitless however, as scrunched up balls of paper litter the floor around, representing rejected thoughts. 

The Big Bang (1997-8)

However the artist does not leave us for want of hope! Perhaps the most ludic of all is his large installation Contemplator enim (1992), a plexiglass gallery set up within the gallery. 18th century style courtiers are stationed in the transparent walls, holding would-be canvases. What appears instead are open squares which will be filled by the gallery visitor’s presence. 

Contemplator enim (1992)

But the work which most caught my attention, On the Threshold (2013), presents the back of a bronzed plaster bust of Apollo set against a wall, with perspectival lines sprouting from his head. This piece seems to illustrate the power of conceptualism as these diverging lines signify a plurality of thoughts, which are given authority in relation to their source: the bronze head of a classical god. In this manner Paolini presented his conceptual open-mindedness, yet his desire to anchor his work in the art historical tradition.

Not to be missed!