Like flooring, benches, or windows, but not, Thea Djordjadze’s works echo the everyday surfaces around us. Surrounding, they don’t so much take centre stage, but point to the margins, the frames of our perception. Over the course of a career spanning more than twenty years, she has repeatedly returned to a cast of supporting characters: from her landmark installation at Documenta 13 that foregrounded the forms of pedestals, vitrines, and walls, to the austere exhibition ›o potio n.‹ at Portikus, which featured almost nothing but windows, flooring, and an aluminium screen. By her own account, her fascination with displays could be traced back to formative experiences at the Simon Janashia State Museum of Georgia. There, she was captivated by the vitrines Alexander Javakhishvili and Avto Varazi designed to present the archaeological collections, which helped visitors to »get a glimpse of the souls of these old, timeless objects«, as she once wrote. In her forthcoming exhibition at the Gropius Bau, which once housed the state of Berlin’s archaeological collections, visitors can expect to find a similar fascination at work. All the same, Djordjadze’s presentations are anything but didactic. And for all her formal clarity, it is often hard to know what exactly you are supposed to be looking at.
For all the formal clarity of Thea Djordardze’s presentations, it is often hard to know what exactly you are supposed to be looking at.
By and large, Djordjadze’s method is intuitive and her sources eclectic. She often starts by trying things out in the studio or sketching pieces out on the way to the fabricator. But it is not until they are exhibited that the works achieve a finite form. In order to make her site-specific installations, she then combines, arranges, and rearranges the individual elements in situ—a painstaking process of trial and error that can last weeks. And even then, things keep getting recycled, such as the benches for her show ›INVENTUR SGSM‹, which were originally made to accompany custom made vitrines for works from the Staatliche Graphische Sammlung in Munich, but have since then taken on a life of their own as independent sculptures (›Power of No Excuses‹). In tandem with her avowedly non-representational approach, this improvisational, open-ended process makes it difficult to know, far less say anything fixed about her pieces. And much like her former professor, Rosemarie Trockel, Djordjadze prefers to let the work speak for itself and usually refuses to have any explanatory texts installed in her exhibitions. If there is anything that she wants for her viewers, it is for them to be fundamentally left to their own devices.
The only hints of conventional meaning come from her titles, which are often drawn from memory or literary fragments. Though in a rare interview with the writer Andrew Maerkle, she also clarifies that, for her, the poetry of her titles »is a material as much as plaster . . . not an explanation or translation.« Indeed, much like the industrially manufactured steel, glass, and aluminium that populate most of her installations, her titles at times evoke a corporate, if not outrightly neo-liberal ethos. In addition to the aforementioned ›Power of No Excuses‹, there are also such greats as ›Why hold on to that?‹ and more notably ›She didn’t have friends, children, sex, religion, marriage, success, a salary or a fear of death. She worked.‹ Considering that Djordjadze is old enough to have witnessed the violent collapse of the USSR in her native Georgia first hand, one might surmise that such allusions are made with a fair share of ambivalence. Nonetheless, they also seem to capture the powerfully individual mode of experience at the heart of her work. In the same interview, she observes that »if something profoundly touches you then it is your experience alone and cannot be shared with others in exactly the same way.«
Thea Djordjadze’s shows offer a freedom to watch things shift, change, become whatever they are, without having to rationalize them to myself or anyone else.
In the early stages of our perpetual pandemic, many friends of mine welcomed the introduction of the home office as a much-needed reprieve. But with the increased ›freedom‹ to schedule one’s own time, there also came an increased pressure to justify the way we spend it—not only to others, but also to ourselves. Long familiar to freelancers, that sense of freedom soon mutated into an all-encompassing professional anxiety, where every ›free‹ moment is overshadowed by some unanswered email or unreturned phone call. Not unrelatedly, many museums seem to have undergone a crisis of justification in recent years where exhibitions are no longer just about art, but are also expected to manifest a concrete cultural mandate. This is exactly the kind of thinking that Djordjadze seems to reject.
When I remember what it’s like to walk through her shows, I get a sense of freedom diametrically opposed to the freelancer’s: a freedom to watch things shift, change, become whatever they are, without having to rationalize them to myself or anyone else. In her interview with Maerkle, she described her process as one of »taking things as they are, and then in accepting the freakness of accidents somehow gaining control over it as well. It’s ambiguity: we are the owners of our ambiguity.« If we think of ambiguity as the coexistence of too many options and the freedom of not having to decide between them, then it seems like Djordjadze’s work is offering us a space to appreciate something that is increasingly under threat in the rest of our instrumentalized lives.