An inattentive viewer could overlook Ian Kiaer's groupings of architectural models, found objects, paintings and drawings arranged modestly on and around the gallery floor. Yet the rudimentary nature of his materials – block of polystyrene, an upturned plastic bin – contrasts directly with the epic subjects they evoke – a snow-covered sweep of land, a vertical cliff face – while painted backdrops lend spatial depth and context to the settings. Each component acts as a visual notation to a complex, fragmentary narrative, derived from Kiaer's comprehensive research into the idealistic notions of various eccentric visionaries. Whether architect, philosopher or artist, each is united across history in their search for a retreat from the dominant ideologies of their day or concerned with methods for the physical or social integration of man and environment. Emblematic of unrealised or abandoned utopias, Kiaer's works are inevitably imbued with a wistful romance, whose transience is eloquently articulated through the ephemeral materials used.
For Art Now, Kiaer brings together two ongoing projects inspired by the landscape paintings of the sixteenth-century artist Pieter Brueghel and the working spaces of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. He presents earlier works alongside new pieces that develop previously established themes. Tentative connections weave through the works: the desire to view the world from a remote position, and the importance attributed to the location of the workplace or studio within the landscape, whether imaginary or built. However, rather than illustrate specific narratives, Kiaer evokes a context in which ideas and motifs overlap, encouraging a dialogue between the disparate components.
In Brueghel project/Casa Malaparte 1999 Kiaer links Brueghel with the Italian poet Curzio Malaparte, who was exiled by Mussolini in 1933 to the same mountainous and remote part of Italy that the painter had journeyed through several centuries earlier. The work comprises a large, battered chunk of blue foam, positioned next to a stool. On the stool is a smaller square of brown foam supporting a tiny balsa wood house, suggesting an isolated dwelling dwarfed by its surroundings. On the wall hangs a canvas painted with an empty landscape, its only feature a windmill situated precariously on top of a mountain. Kiaer has taken the windmill motif from Brueghel's The Procession of Calvary and draws parallels to the retreat Malaparte was inspired to build on a rocky promontory above the Tyrrhenian Sea following his two and a half years of isolation.
The theme of artistic pursuit resulting from voluntary or enforced exile is central to the installation and unites many of Kiaer's earlier works. Wittgenstein project / palm house 2002 and Wittgenstein project / Skjolden 2003 refer to the remote buildings where the philosopher worked in Ireland and Norway respectively. The latter takes as its focus the small wooden house of vernacular Norwegian design that the philosopher commissioned to be built in 1913. Overlooking a lake and surrounded by cliffs, it provided Wittgenstein with the almost hermetic conditions he needed to work on Tractatus Logico Philosophicus. Kiaer's work consists of an overturned kitchen waste bin, a small pink watercolour and strips of pink Styrofoam lying horizontally on the floor. The colour guides our reading of the objects as part of a unified landscape and, for Kiaer, is indicative of the romantic nature of Wittgenstein himself.
The viewer cannot hope to grasp all the intricate associations that permeate Kiaer's compositions. The links he makes are intuitive rather than academic; by layering references and leaping across centuries Kiaer generates relationships between complex ideas and individuals. Yet while his motives remain multi-faceted, the arrangements retain a visual coherence that captures a sense of the subject. Constituent parts of a composition are often fused through tone and colour. Brueghel project / studio refers to Brueghel's painting Winter, and an impression of desolate chill is evoked through the use of grey/green tinged props. The cardboard model with acetate window relates to a building designed by contemporary architects Anne Lacaton and Jean-Phillipe Vassal in 1993, a sort of 'archetypal studio', half enclosed and half exposed to the external landscape. The use of the model in Kiaer's compositions has connotations of the 'ideal', yet also suggests a project still to be realised, existing only in the imagination. Furthermore, in Brueghel project/studio Kiaer highlights the impracticality of such a design by situating it in an inappropriately hostile climate.
Kiaer gives form to select visions whilst simultaneously emphasising their remoteness from reality. The painted backdrops indicate the projected ideal while the impoverished props represent the transient and unattainable nature of such ambitions. At once merged into and overwhelmed by the cavernous expanse of the gallery, the tableaux operate as miniature theatre, drawing us in yet never allowing us to engage fully with the fantasy. Balanced precariously between imagined and real spaces, Kiaer's works exist on the periphery, encapsulating the disparity between art and life.
Text by Lizzie Carey-Thomas
Born in London, 1971
1991-95 Slade School of Art, University College London
1998-2000 Royal College of Art, London
Lives and works in London