The big BBC screen in Festival Square typically shows rolling news, weather and other media paraphernalia. However, last Saturday at 7pm the rolling-images and fractured screens went quiet as Jesper Carlsen’s Compositions emerged full-screen. Compositions is an animation that rotates around El Lissitzky’s abstract painting Composition, making what was once static and two-dimensional, dynamic and three-dimensional. Carlsen’s work presents the viewer with a number of possible entry points: technology, the dead-end of suprematism and a bundle of aesthetic considerations on form, line and weight.
Unfortunately, the work is unaccompanied by an explicatory text. This is out of character for the Sierra Metro gallery, whose shows are normally so conceptually dextrous. Without an illustrative text, abstract art, such as Compositions, can represent almost anything.
Take the case of American abstract expressionist Barnett Newman. He created large paintings to depict cosmology as seen through his own brand of Jewish mysticism. But his work (along with most other abstract expressionists) went from mystical to deeply political in a matter of decades. In the light of the Vietnam War and the rise of the civil rights movement, the abstract expressionists became harshly criticised. They, the supposed avant-garde, were painting transcendental individualism when their country was internally and externally at war: morally reprehensible escapism doesn’t begin to cover it.
So what then, is the viewer to make of Carlsen’s work, which rotates slowly around El-Lissitzky’s original? It is a peaceful thing, certainly – the slow pace at which it rotates around El-Lissitsky’s original is calming and constant. But meaning beyond this is regrettably unclear.