The name Joël Andrianomearisoa has been in the air around me for a while, but I was pretty late to the piquant little show he did with Church Projects this month. I ended up going with my mom on a Saturday morning and we had a great time. The exhibition spoke to a number of my personal predilections, though I imagine that this brand of high-end minimalism might not appeal to everyone. It is modest in scale, but cool to the touch and expensive looking. Nevertheless, I wore a curious and ecstatic frown throughout, as I wound my way around its various intrigues.
The first intrigue you encounter is the text printed large on the front window of the gallery. To my untrained eye, it looked like word soup, but I assumed it was in Malagassy, Andrianomearisoa’s native tongue. I subsequently plugged the words into google translate, which confirmed my suspicion, but the app went haywire trying to make sense of my prompt. I got variations on a theme of precious stones, rain and happiness, but no sense or clarification. The failure of the translation, as well as my general non-comprehension, took on some kind of meaning when read against the opening lines of the lyric that accompanied the show:
The other is a conversation with the land on the other side.
Land not only perceived as territory but also as intrigue.
Once inside the gallery’s narrow lobby, a long clothing rail guides you along the right-hand wall. The rail is lined with a selection of fine garments made from the same off-white cloth. I took my time fingering through them, trying to spot the minor differences between each item. Some were casual, others formal. Some were raw fabric, others immaculately finished. Some of the small details signaled cultural difference to me, others did not. Soon enough, I was completely absorbed in the pure sensuousness of the clothing and the way the fabric fell, folded or stretched. There was a consistent lightness about them, a soft radiance that I had noticed from the street. However, the inviting glow of the clothing rail proved to be part of a bait-and-switch. The switch, it turns out, occurs just as you turn up the staircase.
As soon as you round the corner, the walls turn to matte black and a thunderous drone can be heard coming from the floor above. The sound grew more potent with each step I took and a dulcet Malagassy voice, also in the mix, spoke words I could not understand. The speaker sounded almost artificial, their cadence clinical yet resonant (or is haunted the right word?). At one end of the room, five wooden panels are illuminated, covered in free-hand black markings and words written as if in a desperate hurry. On the first two panels, I could make out a list of things that the artist believed to be his. “MY DESIRES,” “MY EYES,” “MY SPIRIT,” “MY INSPIRATION,” among others. Across the last three panels, these possessions are ceded. “MY HEART,” he finally adds, “BELONGS TO THE OTHER.”
On the opposite side of the darkened floor, from which the sound is emanating, a bar of light splits the wall in two. I felt compelled, like a little kid, to stick my head through the gap in the wall to see what is on the other side. A luminous chamber opened up in front of me, lined with fluorescent tube lights, but my view was only partial. It was all very mysterious, but my senses and curiosity felt wired. I was trying to solve the riddle of Andrianomearisoa’s work, when the show was in fact dramatising my desire to make sense of it. It is impressive, to say the least, to watch this small installation of moments perform its thesis about mystery, desire and their strange union in the figure of the other.
I especially love the way fashion is used to crack open these ideas. Our fashion belongs to the other as well; it is our gift to other people. The way we dress is an attempt at solving the mystery of what other people want from us. The artist presents dozens of these failed attempts on a clothing rail and invites us to interpret them. “The other is a stranger yet the other calls out to us,” says Andrianomearisoa, who shrewdly makes his home country stand in the position of otherness. He hereby avows the mystery that is even in our closest neighbours. It is also precisely their mystery that “calls out to us.”
There is a great Joan Copjec essay about fashion and colonialism called The Sartorial Superego. In it, she entertains the idea that Freud’s reality principle might simply be “that principle that allows us to abandon a false, narcissistic pleasure in favor of the true pleasure that only a love of others can bring.” In her view, to be real is to dress for other people, not for yourself. Andrianomearisoa commits to the same principle and wears his mysterious heart on his sleeve. Be sure to check out his exhibition at Church before it closes at the end of the month.