Sara Deraedt: sous vide

Emile Rubino

Sara Deraedt paradoxically reinvests visuality by operating a shift of the discursive impulse away from words

To write about the work of Belgian artist Sara Deraedt is to contend with the scarcity of language that she carefully maintains around it. With one published interview and not a single exhibition text, her work seems designed to draw discourse in such a way that supplying it with words could amount to shoving dust in the nozzle of a vacuum cleaner. Although it might be presumptuous to assume that silence awaits discourse, it is clear that throughout her work, Deraedt labors to signal criticality without resorting to the art circuits’ demand for “statements that function as readymade memes.” [1] Her mediated, circumspect and often enigmatic exhibitions are filled with voids and gaps that she meticulously devises. Correspondingly, she is deliberate in withholding information about herself. In the catalogue of The Photographic I – Other Pictures, a group exhibition at S.M.A.K in 2018, her bio takes up the same amount of space as others (half a page), with a single line – Sara Deraedt (1984, Asse) lives and works in Brussels. Untamed by words, the situations she constructs are as airtight as they are open-ended. In this context, her silence implies a displacement of the vulnerability that comes with language and its unavoidable shortcomings. This displacement, which forces viewers to face their subjectivity and desires, could be praised as a way to reclaim an artistic right to opacity in a world where incessant communication leads us to expect constant intelligibility.

Sara Deraedt, Maxwell Graham/Essex Street, New York. Installation View, 2016

In her 2016 exhibition at ESSEX STREET in New York, the artist presented a set of nine small color photographs of vacuum cleaners. Photographed in a casual yet precise manner under the grim glow of shelving units or through the windowpane of shop displays, the variously shaped and priced household appliances appear otherworldly. Akin to deep sea creatures, these vacuum cleaners all bear distinctive features, they are at once austere and colorful, they suggest movement but look as if they were trapped in their environment – out of reach, like the price point for a cordless dyson. By photographic standards, Deraedt’s unique Lambda, Xerox and Noritsu prints are framed in a classical and even conservative way. Centered and hinged on white mat boards and placed behind glass in small black frames, most of her standard sized prints are framed according to their respective orientation and ratio. However, a few horizontal photographs are lodged in tighter vertical frames, and the blurry picture of three dyson animal vacuum heads resting on their designated cardboard display is repeated twice at different sizes. The smaller print is presented in a horizontal frame with a generous amount of space around it, while the slightly bigger one occupies a vertical frame that visually constrains it. With the exception of one Xerox print depicting a vacuum hose leaning against a metallic surface, all the other prints are trimmed to the edge. The troubling amount of attention that seems to go in these minute formal considerations contrasts with the otherwise conventional framing. As objects and depictions, her pictures playfully thrive on standardization in a way that verges on absurdity. From one subtle decision to the next, or by default, the incongruous nature of Deraedt’s stripped-down photographic endeavor emerges like an unexpected glitch in the post-internet landscape of contemporary photography.

Sara Deraedt, PHILIPS, 2012, Lambda print, 10 ½ × 7.9 inches (26.67 × 20.07 cm)
Sara Deraedt, dyson animal, 2013 Lambda print, 7.9 × 10 ½ inches (20.07 × 26.67 cm)

In reviews published in Artforum and in The New Yorker, critics attempted to position Deraedt’s pictures by pondering if they were close to Albert Renger-Patzsch’s formalism, Lynne Cohen’s eerie photographs of offices and retail environments, or Konrad Klapheck’s stylized depictions of machines – the list goes on… While there is a fetishistic kind of formalism in these unique prints depicting mass-produced items, their deskilled snapshot aesthetic and Deraedt’s singular use of layout places them in a photographic lineage that extends from Walker Evans’s magazine works to Dan Graham’s seminal photo-text article, Homes for America (1966-67). In The Pitch Direct (1958), a photo essay published in Fortune magazine, Walker Evans marvels at the sidewalk: “the last stand of unsophisticated display.” [2] In his introductory text, just below a picture titled The march of the mops, Evans discusses the “rich and sensual enjoyment” that comes from “contemplating great bins of slightly defective tap wrenches” [3] amongst other things. Similarly, as Matthew Weinstein wrote in his review for Artforum, Deraedt’s photographs bear “a gentle absurdity and humor” [4] that elevates them by rewarding the engagement they demand from the viewer. In their unassuming black frames, her small prints, which she used to show in binders, take on an unforeseeable physical presence that evokes Christopher Williams’ use of the traditional passe-partout. With great economy of means, her pictures of appliances play out photography’s back and forth motion between transparency and opacity. Deraedt, who studied photography, points to the industrial manufacturing of opacity as the inherent condition for the existence of the seemingly transparent depictions that documentary practices rely on. The inside of a camera, like the inside of a vacuum cleaner, is designed to suck the world in and contain it within a more manageable realm. Here, the photographic apparatus is exposed as an appliance, an instrument of production, and a decentralized institution.

sara deraedt
Sara Deraedt, Avenue E. Ducpetiaux 106 – Saint Gilles, 2019. Pencil on paper, 29.7 × 21 cm. Installation view, Etablissement d’en face, Brussels

Four years later, for her first solo exhibition in Brussels, Deraedt cleverly deflected expectations by showing small grayscale photorealistic pencil drawings instead of photographs. Pressed behind glass directly against the walls of Établissement d’en face, four detailed drawings of the historic facade of Brussels’ infamously overpopulated Saint-Gilles Prison were shown in the basement and in the office. Titled after the address of the prison Avenue E. Ducpétiaux 106 – Saint Gilles, the drawings depict the building’s defensive medieval architecture, its battlements, arrow slits, machicolations and arched windows. These architectural features typical of the late 19th century’s romantic imaginary are represented along with the contemporary sidewalk, street signs, and graffitied concrete barriers. Built in the second half of the 19th century when Saint-Gilles was more rural, the prison is located in today’s prime real estate area, and is about to be moved to the outskirts of Brussels. Soon enough, the prison will be out of sight for those who are not affected by incarceration, further away from artists like Deraedt or myself, who often pass by the fortified institution on our way to local galleries and restaurants.

Sara Deraedt, Wall, 2020. Glass wall, 348 × 458 cm. Installation view, Etablissement d’en face, Brussels

Echoing the glass used to present her drawings, Deraedt’s key intervention at Établissement consisted of a large glass pane that split the street-level gallery space in two, forcing visitors to go through the basement in order to reach the other side where they’d find themselves put on display in the empty room. Think of a glass pavilion by Dan Graham, minus the optical distortion and children funhouse parts of it. Unlike Graham, Deraedt’s heterotopia reveals no interest in turning alienation into pleasure. In her essay about the exhibition written for Afterall, Eleanor Ivory Weber teases out the implications of putting the artistic scene on display. “Deraedt’s exhibition shows that what is not seen (‘unseen’) and a certain limit of the scene (‘obscene’) outline the possibility of resistance to the master’s critical discourse. At her opening I perceived a staging of the dynamics of the scene at Établissement where a new orientation in this space is possible for the public.” [5] The strategy used by Deraedt in this exhibition also evokes Down the River, a piece by Andrea Fraser in her 2016 exhibition Open Plan at The Whitney Museum. Fraser used the dramatic fifth floor of the newly built museum and its scenic views of the Hudson River to broadcast ambient sound recorded in Sing Sing Correctional Facility, one of America’s largest maximum-security prisons located thirty-two miles north of the museum along the Hudson. In her press release, Fraser forefronts the importance of glass and visibility in the museum in order to compare, contrast, and link the two institutions: “Its glass-walled lobby welcomes the public with a promise of transparency and access. Inside, visitors find airy, light-filled spaces and terraces opening out to endless views. Public spaces share glass walls with offices, exposing functions often hidden from view. Yet, nowhere is the openness of the museum more dramatically constructed than this 18,200-square-foot space.” [6]

In Deraedt’s hostile dispositif, however, the glass wall that splits the empty space exposes nothing; it reorganizes the aesthetic experience, making use of the “aesthetics of administration” [7] while enacting a remote “administration of aesthetics” [8] by recruiting [9] the audience and putting it on display – but to what end? If Deraedt tempers with architecture to dramatize social relations and, like Cady Noland, “influence the trip someone goes on to get somewhere rather than their destination – which is to say make the means as important as the ends,” [10] the parallel between her architectural intervention and the “absolute non-freedom” [11] evoked in her drawings remains unresolved. In abstracting social subjects, the artist aesthetically leans back on “the authority of the crypt,” [12] which her vacuum cleaner photographs had managed to escape after she stopped exhibiting them in binders and allowed them to exist in space. Her glass wall overstates a desire for control while undermining the more complex and subtle effects of her photorealistic drawings. While there are important connections that need to be elicited between the different institutions that partake in the system of carceral capitalism, not all forms of containment can be flattened onto the field of artistic discourse. The risk is to inadvertently perpetuate the fantasy of an elsewhere, where others are actually deprived of freedom. In the introduction to her book Carceral Capitalism, Poet and scholar Jackie Wang writes about the experience of visiting her brother in prison: “Although I always dreaded the experience of waiting to be processed by the corrections administration only to be able to talk to my brother from behind a piece of glass, the phenomenological experience of entering a space of absolute non-freedom and social abjection makes the existence of prisons that much more real (rather than a fantasy elsewhere)…” [13] Without promoting a moralistic view on Deraedt’s exhibition, which succeeded to avoid the formulaic didacticism of more overtly political art, it is fair to question what happens when astute and intellectually pleasing artistic gestures start to prevail over what they imply.

Sara Deraedt, M HKA 1993 (detail), 2021, gap, 448000 cm3

More recently, for her first institutional solo exhibition in Belgium at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Antwerp (M HKA), Deraedt began by uncovering the existing gap between the building’s central part, which was originally a grain silo, and the triangular exhibition space added in 1993 when Antwerp was Cultural Capital of Europe. The exhibition is part of M HKA’s In Situ program, a series of monographic exhibitions that gives artists an opportunity to take over the 2936 cubic meters of the museum’s largest room. Concretely, the gap takes the form of a thin and somewhat deep cut into the wall, ceiling and floor of the museum by the entrance of a narrow corridor that leads to the imposing exhibition space. Again, the symbolism of this cut, which formally echoes the artist’s glass wall in the aforementioned exhibition by delineating a physical interface, refers first and foremost to a certain type of gesture in and of itself. Indeed, Deraedt seems eager to quote and emulate the surgically precise site-specific gestures and displacements of early institutional critique artists like Michael Asher. But whereas Asher’s interventions aimed to reveal the underlying mechanisms at play in the presentation and reception of art, the present cut merely acts as a tangible marker of the 1993 cultural event. It appears to exist for what in French would be called, la beauté du geste. In perpetuating “the nostalgic notions of site as being essentially bound to the physical and empirical realities of a place” [14] this intervention only inflicts a superficial wound to the museum.

More interestingly, in the vestibule before the delineated corridor leading to the main exhibition space, Deraedt suggested the display of Andrea Fraser’s On taking a normal situation… (1993), a series of ten posters (five in English and five in Dutch) realized by the artist for a group exhibition held at the museum during Antwerp 93, Cultural Capital of Europe. Fraser, who didn’t want to exhibit in a museum, but outside in the city, modified the official posters promoting the event by rewriting the texts and repositioning the sponsors’ logos. The five posters feature artworks by Edouard Manet, René Magritte, Jackson Pollock, Jacob Jordaens, and Laurel & Hardy, paired with statements and questions like “Must art be liked?” or “I want to be beautiful.” Laurel & Hardy’s film still from The Second Hundred Years (1927), where the two play convicts who try to escape from their cell but end up in the warden’s office, is accompanied by the catchphrase “Have a nice day.” The decision to have these posters exhibited as a preamble to the exhibition is bold in the way it invokes Fraser’s authority while acknowledging the work’s current archival existence within the confines of the museum.

sara deraedt
Sara Deraedt, Untitled, 2021, steel, screws, paint, 364480 cm3

Once on the other side of the long corridor, the large triangular space advertised by the In Situ program is strikingly empty. In a literal way, the artist presents the gallery space instead of “being passively presented by it.” [15] Along the back wall are two chairs for the guards to sit on, a banal table from the museum with nothing on it, and two freestanding cage-like sculptures made of steel, which are symmetrically positioned near the corners of the space. The tallest structure is brown and ominously shaped like a life-sized coffin, while the other one is white and rectangular. Two smaller black wooden cages sit on top of tables on either side of the space. One structure sits vertically, while the other one is placed horizontally, making it more akin to an architectural model. These four different cages are deceptively simple, and their respective idiosyncrasy makes them hard to comprehend. Arbitrarily distributed bars and apertures complicate their implied functionality as instruments of restraint. On a basic level, these models, which put forth an allegory of the cage, evoke the “narrow cages of cultural institutions” [16] that Fraser was trying to avoid with her posters. In her 2005 essay From a Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique, Fraser contends with the idea that we can expand, transform and redefine the frame of the cage “but we can never escape it.” [17] Deraedt’s deceptively hermetic structures at once appear autonomous and contingent on their location – they inhabit containment. In the words of Nikolaus Hirsch, the “two-directional character of the model between the spaces of production and the museum might be inherent to the field of architecture, yet it is more explicitly used (and productively misused) in the visual arts. The model acquires the status of an installation, always on the edge, between a decontextualized speculation and a potential inhabitation. In fact, it becomes possible to use such a model as commentary on the space of art (and its institutions) and on artistic practice as such.” [18] The strength of Deraedt’s work lies in its ability to walk this fine line between speculative decontextualization and extreme specificity, the two prerequisites of the discourse that her work exists through.

Sara Deraedt, Untitled, 2021, plastic water bottles, 2010 cm3, 2010 cm3, 2010 cm3, 1515 cm3, 1266 cm3, 1266 cm3, 1016 cm3, 1011 cm3, 1011 cm3, 512 cm3, 507 cm3, 507 cm3, 507 cm3, 505 cm3, 505 cm3, 505 cm3, 505 cm3, 505 cm3

The exhibition culminates with a group of eighteen empty plastic water bottles of various brands nonchalantly placed on the floor by the large window situated at the back of the space towards the Scheldt River. The arrangement is reminiscent of a TSA checkpoint at the airport where travelers are asked to dispose of their liquids. Where is Deraedt going with all these water bottles? What messages do they contain? On the list of works, the dimensions of the bottles, the cages and the cut in the wall are expressed according to their countenance in cubic centimeters. There is a lot to consider in this simple but effective proposition where art becomes gaseous, at once voluminous and intangible. But there is also something snarky about these readymade containers; they locate the pleasure that Deraedt finds in maintaining the production of meaning in a precarious state. The pressure she puts on her work to evolve in such ethereal conditions occasionally comes across as an attempt to conceal its potential shortcomings. In her guileful reductivism, the otherwise prolific opacity that she develops periodically turns into a lack of generosity that tends to overshadow her gestures of resistance. Her work is most ambitious when it forgets to be cunning, when it appears unfazed by the potential contamination of language and embraces the absurd inadequacies of human experience. If we follow Edouard Glissant’s notion of opacity as a refusal to be reduced, assimilated or normalized for the sake of comprehension, it becomes clear how opacity and generosity aren’t mutually exclusive – they manage the flow and content of our deepest transactions of intimacy. Similarly, in her 1985 essay on Louise Lawler titled In and Out of Place, Andrea Fraser concludes that if “Lawler manages to escape both marginalization and incorporation, it is because, whatever position she may happen to occupy, she is always also somewhere/something else.” [19] Deraedt also seems to be seeking this “somewhere/something else.” But when purportedly, “there is no longer an outside,” [20] how does one avoid getting pinned down? How to escape the cell without ending up in the warden’s office?

By operating a shift of the discursive impulse away from words, Deraedt paradoxically reinvests visuality. The implications of this shift remain unclear since it imbues the work with its critical edge but occasionally leans into vague abstractions. In repurposing the old ways of de-aestheticization tantamount to a withdrawal of visual pleasure, she requires the viewer to confront the attraction that perdures in spite of the constraints she imposes. For better or worse, Deraedt’s work is able to suck the air out of a room, and meaning is forced to contort itself in order to survive.

[1] Sven Lütticken, “(Stop) Making Sense,” in “Meaning Liam Gillick,” ed. Monika Szewczyk (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009), 32.

[2] Walker Evans, “The Pitch Direct,” Fortune, October 1958, 139, reprinted in “Walker Evans: the magazine work,ed. David Campany (Göttingen, Germany: Steidl), 178.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Matthew Weinstein, Artforum, October 2016, https://www.artforum.com/picks/sara-deraedt-64949

[5] Eleanor Ivory Weber, “Sara Deraedt,” Afterall, Sept 15. 2020, https://www.afterall.org/article/sara-deraedt

[6] Andrea Fraser, “Andre Fraser On Down The River,” Whitney Museum Of American Art, 2016, https://whitney.org/exhibitions/open-plan-andrea-fraser

[7] Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, “Conceptual Art 1962-1969: From the Aesthetics of Administration to the Critique of Institutions,”  October 55 (Winter 1991), 105.

[8] Miwon Kwon, “One Place After Another: Notes on Site Specificity,” October 80 (Spring 1997), 103.

[9] The use of the term ‘recruiting’ is directly inspired by Eleanor Ivory Weber’s use of it in her essay about Deraedt for Afterall: “Yet when nothing eludes the artist’s discourse and everyone is recruited, there is no risk…”

[10] Cady Noland, Original text, 1989, reprinted in THE CLIP-ON METHOD, ed. Cady Noland and Rhea Anastas (Published by Cady Noland, Rhea Anastas, and Robert Snowden, 2021), 229.

[11] Jackie Wang, “Carceral Capitalism,” (South Pasadena, CA, Semiotext(e), 2018), 37-38.

[12] Jeff Wall, “Dan Graham’s kammerspiel,” (Toronto, Art Metropol, 1991), qtd in Thomas Crow, “Unwritten Histories of Conceptual Art,” in Alexander Alberro (ed.) and Blake Stimson (ed.), “Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology,” (Cambridge MA, MIT Press, 1999), 216.

[13] Jackie Wang, “Carceral Capitalism,” 37-38.

[14] Miwon Kwon, “One Place After Another: Notes on Site Specificity,” 108.

[15] Andrea Fraser, “In and Out of Place,” Art in America, June 1985, 124.

[16] Nikolaus Hirsch, “Model World” in “Meaning Liam Gillick,” ed. Monika Szewczyk (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009), 139.

[17] Andrea Fraser, “From a Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique,” Artforum, September 2005, 104.

[18] Nikolaus Hirsch, “Model World” in “Meaning Liam Gillick,” 142-143.

[19] Andrea Fraser, “In and Out of Place,” Art in America, June 1985, 124.

[20] Andrea Fraser, “From a Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique,” Artforum, September 2005, 100.

February 2, 2022