Before Contingency After the Fact is Mexican artist Gabriel Kuri's first solo work in a London public gallery. It works in purely formal terms as an exploration of the sensual experience of hardness and softness, heaviness and lightness.
The lightness also echoes in the playfulness of many of the exhibits: a delicate, blown-up condom precariously supports the weight of an abstract metal form in Untitled (Extra Safe) and empty energy drink cans, with their suggestion of life-giving elixirs, are crushed by the serene dead weight of polished tomblike marble slabs in Untitled (Shelter). So it is through this lens of aesthetics and laughter that we view the dense political content of the exhibition.
Untitled (Shelter) is perhaps the most disconcerting of Kuri's installations. It appears to be laid out simultaneously for a comedy show and an abandoned religious ritual. Three squat female stone figures stand together: are they revered icons or something used to prop open a greenhouse door? The precisely lined-up matches, some burnt, some unburnt, are absurdly, childishly large but also sinister, with their Little Match Girl symbolism of a futile attempt to keep warm and evade death.
Propped against the wall, and enlarged to the same scale as the matches, are burnt, cut-up credit cards, their lines of numbers bubbling up like welts from their smooth, black skin. Now ridiculously unportable and impotent, their only function is to help clumsily de-mark a sorry little piece of territory, by creating a dark fence against the white gallery walls.
Above the credit cards hang a pile of jackets, sweaters and shirts, so dense they form a round, sensuous, beatle-like shape. They appear abandoned, and such is their number that there is little hope of anyone returning and being able to retrieve their own garment.
Possessions that provide us with an identity - the card in our pocket with our name on that allows us to spend, to be, and then haunts our lives with debt, the clothes that declaim who we are - are here made anonymous and useless. Attempts to make a shelter, a little place to call one's own, are again rendered comically futile by the knee-high barriers used.
Kuri's exhibition as a whole perhaps suffers from - or maybe enjoys - an excess of meaning. His choice of artifacts have such a rich inner life that their significances are hard to contain. Like in Untitled (Platform), which has cigarettes and their rain of ash suspended in a slab of resin, next to other glass, stone and concrete slabs. The cigarettes are arranged as lovingly as a Victorian botanist might arrange a particularly interesting collection of burrowing insects that he has unearthed. But here we are again caving in under rampant significance. I look at the cigarettes butts and see death, desire, sex, waste, pollution, corruption.
I found it a relief to walk out into the bare courtyard garden at the back of the gallery and contemplate, or stare in exhaustion at, a solitary cherry tree. Its drifts of pink, brittle leaves banked up against black roots had a gentle, distilled, haiku-like clarity. I thought again about Kuri's work and saw that it does aesthetically have this nature-like simplicity of form. Perhaps, then, it achieves its effect by colliding formal beauty with an over-burdened, anarchic content.