Es Baluard Museu d'Art Contemporani is located on the southern edge of Palma, overlooking the city’s port. The museum - which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year - is built around the remains of a 16th Century bastion, which was once part of the murallas de Palma: a network of walls that fortified the city. Through occasional gaps in the building’s white walls, you can see the original structure’s craggy, sandy-coloured blocks. Palma would have looked like an uninviting place from the ocean.
Inside the building is another foreboding network of walls. Ian Waelder’s exhibition, even in a language that is not your own, is housed within a labyrinthine cardboard structure that has been built in the gallery, its entrance unlit and un-signposted. If you weren’t looking for the exhibition you might walk straight past it, assuming it to be closed for cleaning or off limits to the public. You might also wonder who you can hear whistling from inside.
Francesco Giaveri, the exhibition’s curator, explains to me that there are no screws or metal fixtures keeping the walls together and in place, just gravity and the odd smear of air-dry clay— which look like trailing drops of candle wax. The whole thing could be flattened with a few kicks and pushes. The exhibition - which Giaveri says should, including the walls, be taken as a whole rather than a set of discrete artworks - is full of similarly ephemeral displays. Most of the show would be blown away by a strong gust of wind.
The whistling plays on a loop from a speaker hidden above one of the cardboard corridors. It sounds thin, ghostly, perhaps a little mournful. Hidden in a small alcove are ten unframed black-and-white photographs from the artist’s ongoing series 1993 (2022-) depicting a Monstera plant. Their edges curl away from the brown wall behind them. Around the corner is To handle with care (Bare hands) (2022-3), a series of hands printed on acetate that emerge from joins in the structure, flimsy and unfixed so as to flitter under the museum’s air conditioning. Each work feels somehow abbreviated, clipped; Waelder’s interventions stopping short of anything more than a precise and fleeting gesture.
Spare as it may be, the exhibition is anything but rushed. Everything here has been meticulously conceived and placed as part of a process that started between the artist and curator two years before it opened. Whilst most shows of this physical scale might take a day or two to install, this one took fifteen. “We like to cook slowly,” Giaveri admits. The product of such intense planning is a collection of objects, sounds and images that suggest a story of Waelder’s own history. From G to C (Nose – Umlaut) (2023), two circles painted near the top of a wall in oil stick, might be the umlaut that the artist’s Jewish grandfather dropped from his name. He changed it from Wäelder to Wælder before boarding a ship going from his home in Germany to Chile sometime around 1937. As Far As I Can Recall (2022–3), the whistling track, is the artist recalling a tape of the same grandfather improvising on his piano before he left Germany.
Each work conceals a story. If they are economical, or even reticent, in their telling, perhaps this is just the artist’s way of inviting the viewer to cook slowly themselves — to look closely and consider the minute details with the same kind of intensity that he did. Of course, much of the meaning here is impossible to deduce, no matter how much attention is given. Without being told, I couldn’t be expected to know that the plant in 1993 was given to Waelder’s parents on the day of his birth, or that To handle with care (Bare hands) contains images from the handbook of an Opel Olympia, the car that Waelder’s grandfather bought in 1936, only to sell it a year later.
Waelder is reluctant to tell his stories explicitly, tending to allude to things rather than spelling them out. If he wanted to write a book on his personal and family history, he could have done that. Instead, he opts not to communicate in full sentences. Maybe, as the exhibition’s title suggests, he isn’t even communicating in the same language as the viewer. Instead, we are given a series of starting points followed by space to fill in the blanks with our own stories, in our own languages. After explaining a work’s relevance for the artist to me, Giaveri is careful to add that these facts don’t complete it any more than my own, uninformed, interpretation would. This exhibition, he says, is not a manifesto, but a hand reaching out.