This is the second time that Pascale Marthine Tayou has made an appearance at Kunsthaus Bregenz (KUB). In 2013, he participated in the group show “Love Is Colder than Capital,” where, together with locals, he wrapped hundreds of empty gift packages, forming them into a giant ball that hung from the ceiling of one of the exhibition spaces. For this solo show, the Cameroon-born, Belgium-based artist returned to declare his affection. Throughout Bregenz he greeted passersby from billboards, where he appeared holding an illuminated neon sign that read, “I love you!” Also displayed at a length of nearly 30 feet and mounted in neon behind the semi-transparent glass panels of KUB’s facade, the phrase alone—which was also the title of the show—seemed welcoming and warm.
Ascending to the upper floors of the museum, one was soon aware that Tayou’s is not an unconditional offering. At the top of the staircase, hundreds of pointed wooden stakes, suspended from above, were sharply aimed at visitors. The discrepancy between the sentiment of Tayou’s neon sign and that of the newly commissioned staircase installation, titled Beautiful Sky, made clear the complexities of the show. It comprised roughly 100 works spanning the last two decades, uniting a diverse range of mediums, from assemblages and paintings to drawings, sculptures and large-scale installations, spread throughout the building.
On the first floor, canvases covered in cement and soil explicitly labeled as of African origin generated the question of how the viewer constructs her or his own image of the “dark continent.” The hanging installation Things Fall Apart (2014; the title is taken from Chinua Achebe’s classic novel) is a telling reminder of the pitfalls of Western stereotypes. In it, Tayou amassed African hand brooms, masks referring to African rituals and beliefs, elongated upside-down figures and children’s exercise books into an unsettling assemblage that looms like a threat over visitors’ heads. Various examples from the series “Pascale’s Dolls” (2011)—human-shaped sculptures not taller than a child, made primarily of crystal, often with torsos covered in blobs of chocolate—were arranged in groups of two or three on a 19-foot-long pedestal on the second floor; on the third floor, 3-foot-high anthropomorphic mixed-medium sculptures on iron stakes, called “Human Beings, A to J” (mid-1990s), provided a contrast to the colorful, undulating landscapes of Tayou’s more recent abstract cloth paintings.
The perilous gap between the reality of Africa and how it is imagined by the West is vividly expressed in Tayou’s “Sauveteurs Vendeurs” (Colon Vendors, 2011—“colon” refers to a type of statuary). These figures in crystal look as though they are about to break under the burden of the numerous African wares attached to them. In Colonne Pascale (Pascale’s Column, 2010), on view in the foyer of the neighboring Vorarlberg Museum, the artist stacked to a height of nearly 50 feet a tower of African enameled metal pots, in a piece reminiscent of Brancusi’s Endless Column. Here Western folk culture as represented by the museum, which is dedicated to local history, was merely the backdrop for a colorful version of Brancusi’s modernist, utopian vision, remade in common African cookware. That the world has ceased to be explained through a predominantly Western perspective was clearly the point.