Bowerbirds (/ˈbaʊ.ərbɜːrd/) make up the bird family Ptilonorhynchidae. They are renowned for their uniqbue courtship ehaviour, where males build a structure and decorate it with sticks and brightly coloured objects in an attempt to attract a mate .
The art we live with, the things that surround us on a daily basis, that we take home with us, given, found, passed on, sometimes stolen. Pocketed. Unlike the unlikely instance of a “bower” in the infamous opening lines of John Keats’ Endymion –“A thing of beauty is a joy for ever: / Its loveliness increases; it will never / Pass into nothingness; but still will keep / A bower quiet for us”– the arbour introducing Pick-Up Artist, Jennifer Gelardo’s first solo exhibition at tart.vienna is hardly a thing of beauty nor is it meant to last forever.
Instead, a beautiful mess: the exhibition space is inhabited by patches of artificial grass roughly stitched together, a green carpet covered with a scattering of objects, fake flowers, real leaves, paper petals; a styrofoam head, styrofoam on stilts and styrofoam cut to a semicircle as a pedestal for the artist’s Pick-Up Magazine – a printed edition made for the show, combining a larger selection of bower photos by Gelardo with text materials based on Mike Hansell’s book Built by Animals. While the original lighting has been maintained in the front of the space, the back half is absorbed by a pinkish hue, drops of styrofoam on the floor border three of the walls, four insulated figures, like muted speakers, around its arena. All of these things have titles adhered to them, like afterthoughts: a loan from Hedda, art for Heimo, a gift from Lone, pebbles for Flavio, a steal from the factory. Strategically crossing the borders between Gelardo and others, from material to meaningful, the cast of these relationships are referred to by their first names only, only half of which you might recognize, like in a conversation overheard.
Two photographs from the magazine are reprinted on large sheets of rice paper, framed and hung in one or the other of the half pink rooms. The pictures –depicting two actors arranging and rearranging objects against a green screen in a studio in Offenbach in 2012– function as a rehearsal for the 2021 staging in Vienna. The first image is filled with mostly red things: fabric, gloves, silk roses, some kind of berries, a hard plastic bowl, a votive candle holder and a scrub sponge. Red moss is tucked into the space between the frame and the photograph (a detail for Hyewon); where the second, more green background than arranged subject matter, has green moss sticking out of it (a detail for Christopher).
This abundant presentation is the artist’s locus amoenus, a secret garden or safe place for herself and for the viewers . At the opening and during the Vienna Art Week, Gelardo invited contemporary dancers Helen Clare Kinney and Jackson Carroll to reenact the bowerbirds’ scene while she read from a script. During the performance, the dancers could be observed entangling themselves with the fragility of her arrangement, listening to a list of notes, reverberations, instructions in a broken, achingly impersonal voice, as if they were someone else’s words. After these two nights, the recordings of both performances were sampled and played out in the space, on a loop, relabeling and multiplying all there is to see. That is, in this scene that now becomes a scenography, stepped on, overspilling, loaded with obstacles, for the dancers to relate to, as the privileged visitors they are.
With so big a choice of things to move around the bower –almost too many– there must always be something another ‘bird’ will like. It could be the studio, hoisted and emptied out in the exhibition space. A change of perspective, perhaps a trap, something of a safety ne(s)t. There is a thin line between lure and allure, natural and composite, art and artifice; all of beauty’s problems hinge on the fact that it wants confirmation, is subjective. Where David Attenborough’s documentary The Art Of Seduction (2000) and Germaine Kruip’s later film about the bowerbird’s mating ritual titled Aesthetics as a Way of Survival (2009) seem to propose that what we need to live, or at least procreate, is aesthetic, the proposition in Gelardo’s installation takes from these parameters and recombinations, focusing on the framework (through the bower’s and the frames’ perimeters) and the names we give to this desire that define what we do with beauty. How we can use it to attract, to convince, without forgetting how fragile it is. Beauty doesn’t last and it never holds. Gelardo’s voice, in a sombre, unwillingly seductive tone, on the break of tears, is interrupted by bits of reality: a phone beeping, the performers tapping away on their screens, rustling the grass. The enhanced digital version playing in their absence becomes a performative recital of its own.
Beauty, then, as this Pick-Up Artist defines it, constantly moves around. It is an endless, empty concept. It is moldable, sculptural. It requires constant recombination, negotiation, displacement, and doubt. This is how I read Gelardo’s near obsession with holders, containers, frames, shapes and forms, positive and negative, organic and mechanic on the imitation lawn. A cast in the other meaning of the word: as a depiction of the “desired space” that she describes in the dialogue with curator Melanie Ohnemus published in the exhibition text. In the exhibition space, the performers decide where what goes; in this written dialogue, the who’s who of who is speaking is again left undefined, unclear, defiant as the artist’s and the curator’s parts are left undistinguished. Translated as Wunschort , the ‘desired space’, is here fittingly connected to Lacan’s concept of lack – an underpinning of Gelardo’s practice the term itself, I think, somewhat straying away from expected grammar, neither a place of desire nor a desirable place, not digital, not unreal, conceptually hovering somewhere between what can and cannot be realised at all.
Pick-Up Artist is by no means just a show about a male subject preying on the opposite sex . Nor, as with the actual bowerbird amassing whatever it imagines will be to its future mate’s liking (and where the female alone chooses the partner) – it takes literally the act of picking up, from the street, the influence and the debt toward others that give us their words, our own voice, the teachers, friends, lovers, and the audience. The title reframes an artist’s desire to be ‘picked up’ by a gallery. The desire for recognition. An economic game of seduction. More literally, the title also refers to Gelardo picking up again the score and photo series she started when studying photography and philosophy in Frankfurt. Perhaps the stage now given to her gave her the confidence to revisit what might otherwise have been abandoned for no apparent reason except the lack of a platform, of visibility.
Sensuously collaborative and transparent about it, Gelardo exhibits a collection of entanglements with a sense of situatedness, of finding one’s place, in life, in love, and professionally, in art, in Vienna . The two birds she asked to act in her place move the more or less beautiful things around the bower. Both well-suited, looking away at each other. At one point in the performance, they start scratching the styrofoam prop standing centre stage, producing a screechy sound. Gelardo asks them (us): “Why are you treating me like this?” –pause– “Local circumstances” she answers herself.
In both the exhibition text and in the score the phrase “Making special” keeps popping up. That which matters to me does not have to matter to you. Is the performance made to be unique, as a ‘performance’ of importance? Or perhaps is it special just to those who connect the dots, holding on to the right to be opaque. Resonance is not guaranteed. This is essentially what the proposed pick-up artist has to reckon with, even if with a bit of heartache.
While I am pretty sure Keats needed the unusually pretty word “bower” to meet the demands the iambic pentameter laid on him, though less sure of it, I would maintain an equally artistic breakage of grammar is what is at play –and on display–, between beauty and debris in Gelardo’s Pick-Up Artist. The scattered fragments of a whole new way of saying, one word after the other, connected, against the rules, by a comma, art, you, love, with.
Jennifer Gelardo - Pick-Up Artist
30/10 – 23/12/2021
1010 Vienna, Austria
 Locus amoenus, ‘charming place, pleasance’, a phrase (Cic. Fin. 2. 107; Isid. Etym. 14. 8. 33, etc. ) used by modern scholars to refer to the literary topos of the set description of an idyllic landscape, typically containing trees and shade, a grassy meadow, running water, song-birds, and cool breezes. (Oxford Classical Dictionary)
 The desire-part in Wunschort is usually translated as ‘preferred’, as when Amazon lets you choose a delivery or pick-up location.
 Neither a constructed opposite, as the men in Éric Rohmer’s La Collectionneuse (1967) framing the girl they sleep with as a seductress predator in their stead.
 The plaster turtle on Gelardo’s lawn, for example, is a replica of those carrying the giant planters in front of Vienna’s Secession (a turtle from Secession, 2019).