MAI-THU PERRET SURPRISED HERSELF recently by producing a quasi-classical statue. Debuting this week at the Frieze Art Fair in New York, it’s a startling object: an updated version of the goddess Diana, standing straight-backed, made in ceramic except for the hands, which are finely cast in bronze. The sleek 5-foot-tall figure wears a sheath dress resembling a tunic, and her feet are clad, incongruously, in sneakers. But the strangest touch is an agglomeration of breast-like lumps around her midsection, a surreal motif drawn from another ancient source: the Ephesian Artemis, a fertility deity.
Diana’s uncanny quality is not what Perret finds surprising. It is, rather, the idea of creating a traditional statue at all. During her more than twenty years of making sculpture—with mannequins, clay, neon, and other materials—the Swiss artist has studiously avoided conventional figurative modes, preferring instead the messier arena of found objects and contingent art-making, aslant conventional models of artistic authorship.
To understand how Perret got to this fecund image, it’s helpful to go back to the beginning of her career. Born in Geneva to French and Vietnamese parents, she studied literature as an undergraduate at Cambridge, where she fell under the sway of modernist writing and criticism. She was especially impressed by T.S. Eliot’s contention (put forward in his 1919 essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent”) that “poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.” The young Perret even considered going on to write a postgraduate thesis on Theodor Adorno’s aesthetic theory. But noticing that her many artist friends enjoyed a freedom unknown in academia, she abruptly shifted to making art.
She didn’t leave literature behind, however; she repurposed it instead as a generative armature for visual works. This strategy yielded a career-defining body of texts and objects, created, beginning in 1999, in relation to an invented realm called “The Crystal Frontier” (a double allusion to texts by artist Robert Smithson and novelist J.G. Ballard, two notably dystopian thinkers). Set in the American Southwest about a century ago, the written account—comprising letters, diaries, lists, reports, and even song lyrics, all composed by the artist in various fictional guises—centers on a feminist commune with “psychedelic-pastoral tendencies.” There, Perret’s women support themselves through various arts and crafts enterprises, much like members of historical utopian communities such as the Shakers and Oneida Perfectionists.
“The Crystal Frontier” also provided the artist with a pretext to make artifacts. Or to have them made: a Mescaline Tea Service (2002), based on a Bauhaus design, was fabricated for her by a professional potter. The tabletop ceramics in “25 Sculptures of Pure Self-Expression” (2003), a series conceived as the work of several different characters, were sculpted mostly by Perret but with contributions by a number of friends, some of them artists.
As curator Hamza Walker has noted, the “Crystal Frontier” scenario is “in no way, shape or form a finished document”—it’s a mélange of fragments with no continuous story line. Some of the texts exist in uneasy, Rashomon-like contradiction to one another. For example, the commune’s leader, Beatrice Mandell, writes that “our greatest freedom lies in the absolute unity of the hand and the aim that drives it,” yet an anonymous community member claims that Mandell “has nothing but contempt for our potential customers.” The multivoiced structure also allowed Perret to try on aphorisms for size, such as “the woman as object fabricated by the capitalist West will be its downfall” (a line lifted from Alexander Rodchenko).
For all its sly misdirection, “The Crystal Frontier” served Perret very pragmatically, providing her a framework for creating works of remarkable diversity. The Pyramid of Love (2003), for example, is a rabbit hutch, complete with actual live bunnies, alluding to modular architecture, a key means by which utopian modernism was propagated across space. Little Planetary Harmony (2006) is a walk-in teapot, clad in aluminum, that nods in the direction of the Bauhaus metal shop. Perret used the structure as a miniature art gallery, presenting in its curved interior a set of paintings purportedly by the women of the commune. “These people had an inner life, culture, and imagination,” she told me in an interview, “so I needed to make their art, their symbolic culture, as well as their utilitarian design. What you see is ‘their’ production, not mine.”
EVENTUALLY THE “CRYSTAL FRONTIER” conceit began to pall on Perret. “It started feeling narrow. I got worried about making art for curators,” she said, concerned that she had been prompting a sort of anecdotal fascination in audiences and critics. In 2007 she achieved escape velocity with An Evening of the Book, her contribution to the Lyon Biennial. Appropriating the title of a 1924 stage performance conceived by Russian Constructivist Varvara Stepanova, Perret worked with documentary photographs and the still extant set and costume designs to imagine her own version of the event, which she filmed and then projected onto walls papered with a Stepanova pattern. Her presentation draws on both Constructivist imagery and the everyday-movement choreography of Yvonne Rainer and others involved with the Judson Church Theater in the early 1960s. The closing soundtrack was taken from a composition that Perret created with artist Steven Parrino.
In An Evening of the Book, Perret once again channels a utopian past, this time a real one. Stepanova’s original concept was to dramatize the clash between traditional and revolutionary literature, with the latter triumphant—a starkly ideological theme, well within shouting distance of a book burning. Perret’s re-creation, though, is the opposite of strident. She portrays the radical impulse to reshape the world as a poignant, fragile, and perhaps somewhat comical urge, handed down from one generation to the next. History is treated nonjudgmentally, as a theatrical overlay.
The same attitude extends to the way Perret procured costumes for the project, having them made up by a seamstress in Vietnam. That nation’s Communist economy is obviously far from the Constructivist dream of worker self-actualization. By stitching that disparity into the fabric of her project, Perret introduced a subtle yet insistent note of doubt. “I wish I had the certainty of a [William] Morris or Rodchenko,” she told me. “I am not completely sure what is right and wrong in terms of production. Even the back-to-the-land, hands-on approach, making rural pottery with self-dug clay, is riddled with political problems. So I don’t believe in the mystique of the maker. I respect that people believe in it, but personally I don’t. We’re not in the same line of work, somehow.”
Perret has accorded clay—without the mystique—a central place in her oeuvre. A turning point for her was the 2006 exhibition “Country Life” by German artist Rosemarie Trockel at Barbara Gladstone Gallery in New York. (Trockel was also included in “Makers and Modelers,” a group show at Gladstone the following year that was a milestone in the art world’s reevaluation of ceramics.) Impressed by the possibilities of the medium, Perret set about realizing her own large-scale clay reliefs.
The first of these, a series ironically titled “Heart and Soul” (2007), comprises monochrome slabs bearing strange signs: a circle of rats, a row of dolls, an enigmatic diagram. They are like a rebus without a key; Perret has described them as “a cut-up inventory, a list of shapes and symbols with an infinite number of permutations and meanings.” This sense of indeterminacy was unexpectedly amplified when the slabs cracked in the firing. Lacking time to remake the pieces, Perret simply gilded the fractures, an obvious allusion to the Japanese practice of kintsugi, though perhaps even more akin to Marcel Duchamp’s acceptance of the shattering of his Large Glass.
While Perret rather enjoyed this last-minute adjustment, she was glad when Trockel connected her about fifteen years ago to top-flight ceramic fabricator Niels Dietrich in Cologne. She has worked with him ever since, making an ongoing series of monochrome wall sculptures that often bear titles attesting to her writerly turn of mind, among them the Zen sayings If you are unclear about 3, 8, and 9, then about the world you will have many thoughts (2008) and From the start it is naturally so, it does not need any sculpting (2011).
Perret has also extended the iconography she explored in “The Crystal Frontier,” conjuring such extraordinary works as Flow My Tears (2011), a figure with a head in silver-gilt glass, clad in a reproduction of Elsa Schiaparelli’s Surrealist skeleton dress, and Les Guérillères (2016), a group of mannequins named in honor of Monique Wittig’s feminist revenge-fantasy novel and dressed in military fatigues, some with John Baldessari-like polka dots on blank faces. These works raise Perret’s long-standing interest in female agency to a fevered pitch. Armed with automatic rifles, striking confident poses, her feminist archetypes are obviously topical, though they seem to occupy a world other than our own.
Perret’s powerful guerrillas lead us back to her new fertility goddess, which will be accompanied at Frieze by a ceramic rendition of a corpse flower—that gargantuan, foul-smelling, ludicrously phallic plant that blooms every decade or so, to the disgusted delight of onlookers at botanical gardens worldwide. Together, the figure and the flower (with its colors long said to resemble those of a rotting cadaver) evoke a Freudian dreamscape, or possibly a nightmare—at any rate, a primal collision of life and death. Yes, Perret has a highly theoretical, somewhat esoteric approach to art-making. But one way or another, she always manages to make extremely potent images. There’s “craft” here in abundance, meaning not just skilled labor but also hints of a more arcane practice, preserved in the English word “witchcraft,” another gendered history implicit in Perret’s work.
Long before conceptual art, we had the esotericism of the occult. Could this tradition offer yet another alternative model of authorship? Perret is suspicious of the notion that true artists help the world by revealing mystic truths. On the other hand, as she nicely puts it, “maybe if the idea of a visionary is to be traversed by forces that are not yourself, it’s very beautiful.”
Works by Mai-Thu Perret appear at the Frieze Art Fair, New York, May 18-22, while her solo show “Real Estate” continues at the Istituto Svizzero, Rome, through June 26.