Big shoes, collar, overdone painted smile, red round nose and an overall colorful outfit, who does not recognize the figure of the clown? He is a well-known character in popular culture and therefore presented artists with a relatable subject. Artists like Pablo Picasso, Auguste Renoir, Georges Seurat and Charley Toorop have concerned themselves with this red-nosed individual in their paintings. Today the colorful appearance of the clown decorates the exhibition space of the Boijmans van Beuningen in Ugo Rondinone’s Vocabulary of Solitude.

Rondinone is a mixed-media artist from Switzerland, who supports the idea of art speaking for itself. He wants to create an atmosphere where visitors don’t have to think, but just experience. The whole design of the current show at the Boijmans seems to contribute to this notion. There is, for example, no text to be found in the exhibition, not even an introduction or captions near the art objects. This absence of text encourages the spectators to walk around and have a personal experience of the objects in the space.

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Ugo Rondinone, vocabulary of solitude (detail), 2016.
Walking up to the entrance of the exhibition the visitor walks past hundreds of rainbow drawings, made by the children of Rotterdam on request of the artist. Rondinone is interested in the rainbow because its colors and shape make it a very recognizable and comprehensible symbol. The big salon then houses 45 clowns in different positions, all placed with some distance from each other and none facing each other. Together they represent 24 hours from the life of a solitary individual.

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Ugo Rondinone, vocabulary of solitude (detail), 2016. And three half circles (detail), 2015.
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Ugo Rondinone, vocabulary of solitude (detail), 2016. And love invents us (detail), 1999.

On the walls hang seven pairs of oversized shoes and a sharp observer will notice none of the clowns is actually wearing shoes. It is as if these clowns have recently come home from a performance and taken off their shoes, but before they could change into a different outfit they have sunk into a state of reflection. Time is present through a clock which has no hands and seems to hang on its side and through the colored windows which let the daylight in.

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Ugo Rondinone, seven shoes (detail), 2006.
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Ugo Rondinone, red clock, 2015.

The clown is well known for his attempts to make people laugh, while at the same time he is stereotypically shrouded in sadness.* This could be because people perceive his facial paint to be a mask; the clown might be trying to hide his real personality by pretending to be very cheerful. It is clear Rondinone is aware of this duality of the clown figure, though by using the word solitude he is referring to the kind of being alone that could spark a creative idea (symbolized by a huge light bulb hanging upside down in the exhibition). And his clowns are not necessarily sad; they are engrossed in themselves. This is emphasized by the closed eyes of the masks and the windows on the blind wall. These windows offer no outside view, but instead reflect the image of the viewer.

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Ugo Rondinone, vocabulary of solitude (detail), 2016.
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Ugo Rondinone, vocabulary of solitude (detail), 2016. And four windows (detail), 2015.
Still Rondinone’s work could be interpreted as a comment on the everyday life of people within the current society. We show only a mask to the outside world, afraid of getting judged in a time where expressing opinions has become very easy through social media. Rondinone appears to encourage the spectator to do some introspection and find out who we really are and what we really stand for.

* Other theories suggest this impression could have originated in the Pierrot, a tear-faced participant of the commedia dell’arte. Research is also being done into the relation between comedy and depression.

Vocabulary of Solitude
february 13 until may 29, 2016

Museum Boijmans van Beuningen
Museumpark 18/20
3015 CX Rotterdam
www.boijmans.nl

Photographs by author.

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