Ugo Rondinone (b. 1964) is a Swiss-born, New York-based artist who explores such themes as loneliness, fantasy, boredom, disorientation, and spectacle. Often his works employ several mediums and techniques, yet are interconnected in their dedication to unraveling the complexity of the human psyche.
Mesmerizing and hypnotic, Ugo Rondinone’s breathe walk die filled the entirety of the multistoried Rockbund Art Museum during Shanghai’s grey autumn. As I entered, I felt as if I had stepped into a televised children’s painting, a surreal Technicolor landscape decorated with vibrating mandala paintings and sleeping clowns. Though surrounded by vivid patterns, bright colors, and humorous figures, there was an unsettlingly intentional emptiness that deflated any sense of joy. Standing in the center of a color-swathed gallery, turning to take in the floor covered by living clowns, and observing the several young guests who crouched down beside them, giggling as they took selfie upon selfie without ever looking out at the expanse of the room around them, a paralyzing awe overcame me.
The exhibition completely saturated the building. Color films covered each window, filtering natural light into subdued rainbows across the floor. Horizon paintings, minimal murals that stretched from floor to ceiling, carefully set the tone and ambience of the rooms, each with its own musicality, feeling, and state of mind. Rondinone’s vision even poured out into the hallways where clowns lounged languidly across benches, in corners, and at times even partially blocking the entrance to the stairwell that brought viewers from gallery space to gallery space. Here you entered not into a museum, but into the psyche of the artist.
Mandala paintings punctuated the walls of every room. Composed of concentric colors on circular canvases, the paintings blurred lines bled into one another, making it difficult for one’s eye to focus on anything distinct. From far back, the lines and colors made sense, yet up close they violently disintegrated into a magic eye puzzle. Staring at them caused my pupils to vibrate until the contrasting colors shifted before me; my eyes could only instill order by filtering part of the painting out. Standing before these, I became aware of my inability to focus on the whole and how greatly perception is subject to the power of imperfect senses.
breathe walk die was all about ocular perception. It questioned the power of the visual not only in terms of how we see, as demonstrated by the mandala paintings, but also in terms of how we interact with the objects and subjects that surround us, as demonstrated by the clown figures. The living clowns both broke down the walls upheld by traditional sculpture and commented upon the inherent dangers of our image-driven culture. Never was this more apparent than outside of the gallery spaces where guests stared down at their phones while seated beside sunken clowns. Looking over the images they had captured, the visitors were more interested in how their photos turned out than in the work that literally breathed beside them. Here Rondinone’s clowns, played by actors, served to entertain merely as props rather than as the performers they trained to be.
On the roof of the museum stood one of Rondinone’s neon sign works from which the title of the exhibition was taken. The bright rainbow text broke down life’s complexities into three simple tasks: breathe, walk, die. Likewise, although there are a million points buried within this exhibition, its meaning can be broken down into simple observations: The clowns slept through the show, only occasionally adjusting their positions; visitors photographed themselves within the bright gallery spaces, more interested in how they looked in their selfies than in the work that surrounded them; and then we all left the Rondinone’s fantasy for the cold, grey rain that awaited outside.
breathe walk die was but a dreamscape instilled with latent questioning.
To experience the exhibition virtually, watch Video DE Shanghai’s documentation.