THE FRENCH WORD décor means “scenery” or “stage set,” and more than its English equivalent, it connotes artifice, make-believe. Certainly, such notions are intrinsic to “Décor: A Conquest,” 1975, the enthralling final exhibition staged by Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers six months before his premature death. Originally installed in London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, the displayed objects functioned as a backdrop for scenes in his subsequent film, The Battle of Waterloo— but beyond their literally decorative purpose, the objects, now back in London at Michael Werner, also appear to invoke a set of ideas surrounding pretense, affectation, and representation.
The work consists of two rooms, designated XIXth Century and XXth Century, whose theme, according to Broodthaers, is “the relationship between war and comfort.” This is clearest in the XXth Century room, which is the first one you enter. It contains a garden table, chairs, and a parasol, while vitrines on the far wall exhibit various armaments, from antique handguns to vicious-looking automatic rifles— the implication being that both luxury and leisure are always underpinned by displays of force and aggression. The idea gets a more ironic inflection, too, in the form of a jigsaw puzzle, half-completed on the table, depicting the Battle of Waterloo— a play, perhaps, on notions of recreation and re-creation.
The XIXth Century room is more complex and irreducible. Objects tend to come in pairs— two Napoleonic cannons, twin Edwardian chairs, a couple of silver-plated candelabra. And this sense of doubling extends to the complementary color scheme, with carpets, potted plants, and spotlights all in red and green. Consequently, the few unique objects seem to carry an added resonance: a Colt pistol, a still from a Western movie, and, most dramatically, an enormous stuffed python rearing up from the floor— items whose phallic, masculine connotations mayor may not be relevant. For this is a deeply cryptic, oblique display, the absurdist touches of which-such as a red plastic lobster and crab playing cards atop a green felt table-refuse to be neatly decoded. Instead, there’s an overarching sense of estrangement, a constant slippage between different moods, time frames, and conceptual registers: savagery and gentility, history and myth, objects in themselves and ersatz versions or representations.
Such categorical slippages abound in an additional gallery, featuring pieces in which Broodthaers repeatedly used brickwork as a tricksy motif. There are broken clumps of wall, for instance, whose real bricks are further accentuated with artificial, brick-colored paint, and an upright wooden crate covered in trompe l’oeil brickwork wallpaper-yet whose cracks, in the wood itself, are real. It’s this mixture of playful and profound that is Broodthaers’s signature— an exhilarating confusion of cultural forms that posthumously made him one of the most pivotal artists of the 20th century.