Joël Andrianomearisoa’s first solo exhibition at the Goodman Gallery Project Space, ‘A Perfect Kind of Love’, seduced me rather unexpectedly into taking seriously his sensual investigation into materiality. The gallery was transformed into a formal and conceptual meditation which utilized the potential of a range of materials and objects to evoke the power of the erotic as a tool to understand the complexities of desire. Cut Cute, a live performance that coincided with the end of the exhibition, underscored this and formed a crucial part of the exhibition. Staged in Fox Street, this ephemeral work also provided a necessary contemplative pause in SA Fashion Week’s Winter 2011 Collections’ proceedings at Arts on Main.

‘A Perfect Kind of Love’ was conceived as an installation of predominantly monochromatic relief works and sculptures built from soft, destructible materials such as paper and plastic. Love Letters, a stack of A4-sized black paper atop a slender plinth, is a poignant introduction to the material and sensual emphasis of the exhibition. The work prompts one to consider the quantity and the repeated monochrome surfaces of the pages on display. The scale of the work is intimate and invites close inspection, just as letters exchanged between lovers are perused closely and once read are treated as the artifacts of an intimate connection. A corresponding stack of paper is displayed close by on a gallery wall. One surface of each piece of paper in this stack of postcard-sized black cards is inscribed with the exhibition’s title in white lettering. It is difficult not to acknowledge the legacy of Felix Gonzalez-Torres in these paired works. However, whereas viewers were intended to become the ultimate custodians of Gonzalez-Torres’s paper stacks, Andrianomearisoa’s Love Letters are destined for the collector, a private exchange that Gonzales-Torres himself only ever made once when he personally sold a complete stack to a collector.

In a work titled Darling you can make my dreams come true if you say you love me too, Andrianomearisoa develops the idea of appropriation implicit in Love Letters with its allusion to Gonzales-Torres’ posters. Darling you can make my dreams come true… is a close grid of 150 found pocket mirrors mounted on the gallery wall. The black plastic flaps concealing the pocket mirrors within have been opened to varying degrees, flirting with acts of revelation and concealment and diffusing the boundary between the surface of the work and the space just beyond it. The mirrors add to the playful quality of the work, channelling a Minimalist impulse to activate the viewer’s awareness of their presence in relation to the art object.

Andrianomearisoa continues his strategy of appropriation and reconfiguration with Boys Cakes, a pile of 96 haphazardly stacked compressed paper bricks. The humble materials and the installation’s ‘impoverished’ aesthetic is an inadvertent nod to Arte Povera. The work has the feel of a ruin, or a collection of objects salvaged from some unknown catastrophe. Amongst the bricks that were not voided by black paint, emerged pornographic imagery of men engaging in sexual acts with other men. I could not resist interpreting Boys Cakes as a contemporary memento mori or vanitas. Gay identity has undergone major moments of crisis, particulary from the widespread threat of sexually transmitted diseases like HIV/AIDS. Historical moments of trauma like this force us to consider our own mortality by realising the effect that individual action has on a collective body. Boys Cakes is a construction of sexual fantasy that goes hand in hand with a consideration of death. Lust and sexuality can no longer be considered private, and romance inevitably implicates more than two bodies. It seems that for Andrianomearisoa, love is almost synonymous, or at least analogous, with the body. Today both can be commodified and legislated, criminalized and marginalized. Love is a violent political territory, and this remains its attraction as the ‘bad boy’ of all emotions.

A sculpture titled Bondage Cage is unnervingly anthropomorphic. Attached to the gallery wall at approximately knee height, the work seems to cower in the viewer’s presence. It is only once one navigates around Bondage Cage that the structure of a metal cage is revealed behind the mass of tresses which are woven into it and hang from it. The cage appears at once burdened and empowered by the mane of ‘hair’ cascading down its side. With its strands simultaneously resembling braids and the leather extensions attached to whips found in S&M stores, the work is as threatening as it is reassuring. The potential for an intimate experience of the work is underscored by a more promiscuous impulse to caress and pull at it. The work highlights that an art object can induce both cautious restraint and a kind of fetishistic lust.

Le Labyrinthe des Passions (I-IV) (The Labyrinth of Passions), are four square black paper collages respectively, each measuring 250cm by 250cm. Audiences will be familiar with the material covering the surface of these works as tissue paper, the kind commonly found in the shopping bags of more expensive retail purchases. It is a notoriously fragile material, yet in his layering of it onto the square frames, Andrianomearisoa manages to use its tactile possibilities to sumptuous effect. These four works are a prelude to the exhibition’s centre piece, Le Labyrinthe des Passions. This installation of nine black paper collages made in a similar fashion to the aforementioned collages, was a climactic amendment to the gallery’s architecture. The work, consisting of three rows of suspended collage panels, created two passages large enough for viewers to walk through. Meandering through these two passages allows for the inspection of the reverse sides of the collages and for stumbling across an anonymous set of eyes and mouth on two separate collages. Slightly threatening, yet comforting in the way in which it embraces one’s presence, Le Labyrinthe des Passions continues the conceptual threads established by the other works on show.

Andrianomearisoa’s closing performance, Cut Cute was characterised by the same tension between threat and seduction that runs through the works on the exhibition. The performance draws on some of the performative conventions of catwalk fashion shows, in which human models simultaneously animate and become the stage for otherwise inanimate garments. It also emphasises the inherently architectural nature of fashion – items of clothing are soft architectures built to protect and conceal bodies. In this performance, Andrianomearisoa took twenty minutes to improvise dressing six models with a variety of black materials not typically associated with fashion.

I was one of the six volunteers to participate in the work as Andrianomearisoa’s models on the night. A large audience occupied the periphery of a rectangular territory, ordinarily a functioning section of Fox Street parallel to Arts on Main. The area was illuminated with multiple beams of light from overhead studio spotlights. An array of materials awaited the performance, placed strategically within the space by Andrianomearisoa. His inventory included fabric, gaffer tape, insulation tape, plastic packets, paper, ribbon of various widths and rolls of vinyl, all in different shades of black, with the exception of the rare inclusion of an unidentifiable white material. Within moments of the soundtrack starting, an edit compiled for Cut Cute by Andrianomearisoa and collaborators from Paris, he began his transformations. The performers were initially dressed in black vests, trousers and sneakers, while the two female performers climbed into imposing pairs of high-heels. Although I was unable to witness the performance from the outside, my first-hand experience of the materials’ ability to alter the performers’ bodies from their original states so forcefully was profound. As Andrianomearisoa used the performers as anchors in an increasingly full lattice of soft materials, our bodies became a collective unit. Each person’s slightest movement affected the stability of the others. These tenuous and tense connections did not last long though. As the music’s tempo started to suggest the nearing of the end Andrianomearisoa cut at the lattice calculatingly, separating us once again into individual units, now sporting ensembles only an avant-garde couturier could fashion. With this we lined up for the final time, facing both sides of the crowd momentarily before marching off in single file. Our bodies became evocative traces of the performance’s fierce action, where the shifting nature of personal and collective identity was reconciled by an atmosphere of latent violence.

Cut Cute reconciled key elements from Andrianomearisoa’s diverse practice which spans architecture, art, fashion and textiles. The human body remains the locus around which these fields of interests gravitate. Cut Cute’s nod to the protocol of fashion shows is a subversive one, in which the artist visualises an undetermined and spontaneous narrative that goes beyond a premeditated authoritative vision. His process blurs the relationship between fantasy and reality because his well-staged spectacle acts out an uncanny and surreal drama of the work’s own making. Here the fragmented and strange relationships that he puts into play are joyously cryptic. The permanence of art and traditional notions of sculpture are questioned through offerings such as Andrianomearisoa’s, where the ephemeral or short-lived is privileged and performed. The gallery is left behind for an environment that engages a larger public, even though one could claim it has not yet overcome the former’s exclusivity.

Despite obscuring the autobiographical in ‘A Perfect Kind of Love’, Joël Andrianomearisoa still manages to deliver an authoritative exploration of the intimate and private that speak to broader understandings of love and sexuality. The exhibition and its accompanying performance’s articulation of interpersonal and material relationships, is necessarily obscure and tenuous. Yet the dark sense of humour embedded in some of his titles encourages the viewer to overcome any initial reserve and prompted unexpected explorations of his conceptual motivations. A consistent thread throughout both ‘A Perfect Kind of Love’ and Cut Cute was a strange sense of modesty. There was a recurring fragility that undercut his grander and more exhibitionist gestures, to the point where one could suggest that his production is remarkably unmonumental. At every turn there is an acknowledgement of transience and even entropic potential, either inherent to the objects’ construction or the deconstructive actions that Andrianomearisoa, paradoxically, uses as an act of creation. It is his transformation of the ordinary into the extraordinary without the need to resort to illusion and trickery that makes his work truly beautiful.