An old artist’s bumper sticker (in California, of course) said, “When Outsiders are Insiders, only Insiders will be Outsiders.” At first gobsmacked glance, the “extreme maquettes” (as the artist called them) of tabletop make-believe cities by Bodys Isek Kingelez (1948-2015) appear to be the products of an artist inhabiting both categories at once. They look like acid-trip models of Las Vegas made out of toothpaste packaging and the like, done with the ironic folksiness of Red Grooms. They’re currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art in “Bodys Isek Kingelez: City Dreams.”
Bodys Isek Kingelez: City Dreams
Museum of Modern Art
Through Jan. 1, 2019
Kingelez was born the first of nine children in the countryside village of Kimbembele-Ihunga in what was then the Belgian Congo (now Democratic Republic of Congo). An excellent student educated in a Catholic school, he traveled to the capital city of Kinshasa in 1970 to begin university study of economics and industrial design, a subject that borders the fine arts. After graduation, Kingelez—who eventually had three wives and fathered a number of children—became a secondary schoolteacher.
In his spare time, Kingelez began making the kind of model buildings—from paper, pieces of cardboard, colored plastic and cigarette packs—that would eventually fill up his imaginary cities. Friends who saw the little buildings urged him to go to what is now the National Museum of Kinshasa and show them to the curators there. He did, but not believing Kingelez had made them by himself, museum officials tested him by asking him to make more, on site. They were so impressed by what they saw that Kingelez was offered not what he wanted—an immediate exhibition—but a job as a conservator of tribal art objects. Later, after his own work had acquired a bit of an international reputation, he refused to have anything to do with the local art world in Kinshasa. The artist, it seems, was determined to be an outsider somewhere.
At the same time, he spoke five languages, and in 1989 six of his maquettes were included in perhaps the most influential anthology of contemporary art since the famous Armory Show in New York in 1913: “Magiciens de la Terre,” at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. This exhibition did for the visibility of non-Western artists in Europe and America (the latter because of word of mouth and the media) what the Armory Show had done for early European modernists in the U.S. Several years later, Kingelez became the subject of solo museum exhibitions in Berlin, Hamburg and Brussels, as well as Houston, Texas. This exhibition at MoMA is, however, the first full-blown retrospective of the artist in the U.S., and with 33 works, it includes a third of the assemblage metropolises the artist ever made. Few art-world insiders have enjoyed better careers.
The centerpiece in an exhibition that consists almost entirely of centerpieces is “Ville Fantôme” (1996). Seven feet wide by 18 feet long, and comprising some 50 buildings, as well as its own airport and a golden skyscraper with “USA” on top, the piece required two years of Kingelez’s obsessive, almost manic, labor to complete. Kingelez even imagined an urbanized, utopian version of his home village (“Kimbembele Ville,” 1992), and “The Scientific Center for the Hospitalization of the SIDA [AIDS]” (1991) that’s as attractive as a resort hotel in the Swiss Alps. “Sparkling,” “colorful,” “intricate” and “inventive” are so inadequate in describing Kingelez’s work that one is tempted to drag out that overused compliment in contemporary arts commentary: “amazing.”
Yet it is amazing. And what’s even more astonishing is learning that Kingelez made no preparatory drawings or plans. That unfathomable fact, along with what curator
describes as the artist’s “tenderness toward objects” (each building is a product of real artistic affection), as well as his economic optimism (no city in the world is as clean, colorful and prosperous as those in Kingelez’s art), make the work consistently euphoric.
In proportion, viewer flow, access to all angles of vision, and ingenious overhead mirrors, the installation by German artist
is typical MoMA-high-grade, although the amoeba-shaped platforms and slow turntables for some works—you move around and through cities; they don’t move for you—are unnecessary features.
As an insider’s outsider, Kingelez ranks right up there with the Abstract Expressionist Clyfford Still, who said that most other modern artists were “impaled and their sycophancy exposed on the blade of my identity.” Similarly, Kingelez regarded himself as a “small god” and said that no one—since the beginning of time—has had a vision like his. In modern art alone there are Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers, James Turrell’s Roden Crater and Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial, all made by artists with equally grand visions. That said, none has been as compellingly cheerful as that of Bodys Isek Kingelez.
—Mr. Plagens is an artist and writer in New York.
Source : WSJ