“Bodys Isek Kingelez: City Dreams,”
Museum of Modern Art, May 26, 2018 – January 1, 2019.
“A city set on a hill cannot be hid.” (Matthew 5:14)
By now you’ve undoubtedly heard about Bodys Isek Kingelez (1948-2015), the Congolese sculptor of imaginary skyscrapers and cities out of cardboard, pasted papers, and all manner of shiny and colorful, miniaturist flotsam and jetsam. Antoni Gaudi meets historical Futurism meets the Jetsons. Meets Hindu gopuram meets Miami Art Deco. Meets, crucially, the uncompleted modernization of Kinshasa in the early, hopeful reign of OG Mobutu Sese Seko, when Kingelez arrived there from a small village and settled in for the rest of his life. Very “global modern”–MoMA is the perfect venue. More so if you recall the debut (more or less) of African art at MoMA in the infamous 1984 exhibition, “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, in which African art was presented (without mention of the artists) as static and conceptually limited, and which this oeuvre deconstructs inherently and completely.
No one could fail to “like” these wedding cake-terraced constructions, dotted with painted details and calligraphic signage. For Kingelez, they were models for what–he had faith (literally)–would someday be realized as architecture. His art journey began after a professed spiritual (Catholic-inflected) vision and attendant desire to address and contribute to new urban environments that would meet all the needs of its inhabitants. Global art world acclaim came with his inclusion in the landmark Paris exhibition, Magiciens de la Terre (1989), and related support of mega-collector of Jean Pigozzi, after which his material inventory and the physical space of his works expanded. Overall, however, his vision and approach remained pretty much consistent; likewise, the child-like pleasure of perusing his wonderlands. Creations range from charming World’s Fair-type national pavilions (e.g., Palais de Hirochima; Belle Hollandaise) to kaleidoscope-Coney Island re-dos of corporate and government complexes set amidst painted parks, thoroughfares and recreational sectors that feature sports arenas named after himself. More solemn and sterile but equally utopian, Kingelez also gave much attention to hospital and health-related entities, partially drawing on colonial-style facilities in the Congolese capital.
Besides an extensive retrospective display (the first for Kingelez), MoMA’s exhibition includes a superb virtual reality component that places viewers, via special glasses and video monitors, within one of his more complicated extrêmes maquettes (his term) and allows for bounding around the buildings by shifting focus, . There are no interiors though, nor even the suggestion of such. It’s all surface–but what dazzling and dizzying surface. Too bad the artist did not live to see this incarnation, so very close to his city dreams.