Nadeige Choplet's first solo show, titled "Feeble Force," reveals a poetic and witty sensibility obsessed by reproductive imagery and fascinated by the improbability of life. I first saw her work this past spring in the diploma exhibition at the Ecole nationale des Beaux-Arts, and there, as here, the most prominent work was the room-filling Les Esprits frétillants (Wriggling Spirits). Consisting of 14 large-scale plaster spermatozoa (almost 70 inches each), the piece is installed in varying ways depending on the environment in which the "creatures" are set loose. Streaming up a stairwell into the spectator's space before circling towards the ceiling, these "spirits" animate the gallery as a sort of womb and reduce the spectator to an infinitesimal speck amidst a stream of potential life. The shift in scale conveys the artist's whimsical delight in the unlikeliness of birth, which allows only one sperm of very, very many to hit its mark. "The probability of our actually being alive is even less than our chance of winning the lotto," she says.
Le Boulier (The Abacus) offers a more suggestive enumeration of the architectonics of the living organism. In the form of an abacus of roughly human dimensions, the standing sculpture features 88 ceramic spermatozoa hanging by their heads on ten thin metal rods. Capable of counting into the billions, the abacus here serves as an armature for both micro- and macroscopic metaphors of the biological world -- ranging from the mapping of individual genetic profiles to censusing the globe's ever-expanding population.
The appearance of a scientific, taxonomic study of identity brings to mind Damien Hirst's medicine cabinet pieces -- though Choplet's emphasis on hand-made craft is in distinct contrast to the cool impersonality of Hirst's commercial cases. Another Choplet sculpture, Homage à Loeuwerllek, consists of seven large wax-cast spermatozoa; the forms of these variously headed sperm are derived from a 17th-century treatise by Loeuwerllek, the first man to view such generative wonders of the miniature world. One of these sperm forms served as the mold for La Vitrine (1996), a delicate, almost translucent paper cast which was displayed in broken parts in a vitrine. Bearing a formal relationship to the work of Kiki Smith (whose own horde of glass sperms was famously reproduced on the cover of Art in America in 1990), the piece seems to be the precious remains of a now-departed being captured in the controlled environment reserved for rare museum objects. Both etymological and paleontological in form, the object and its integral display case beg for inclusion in a natural history museum or a cabinet of curiosities.
In conversation the artist noted the differences in the regulation and documentation of sperm-bank donations in France and the U.S., where she had recently spent a year on a Fulbright Fellowship in New York (and where she first worked in ceramics). Choplet remarked on the extent of the information provided for American sperm bank clients (IQ, occupation, appearance, etc.). In France, by contrast, such documentation is limited to skin color, and "donations" are just that -- non-remunerated. The kind of genetic planning made possible by more extensive documentation suggested to Choplet a form of social engineering in which the less desirable (or simply imperfect) would be pushed aside.
References to such engineering mechanics can be found in the ready-made form of Choplet's abacus, as the central counters on each rod contrast in color. Here, the glistening, craquelure-ridden white sperms and the seemingly less fragile (and less plentiful) matte black ones lend an unexpected political dimension to the work. There is, however, a tongue-in-cheek aspect to this elegant combination of minimalist regularity and ancient utility: while the work as a whole is anthropomorphic in scale, each of the dangling sperms is roughly "hand-sized," a proportional relation explicitly intended by the artist.
Recent untitled sculptures recalling the male and female reproductive organs are more baroque and quirky. The shiny, glazed, green male form consists of a stamen-like shaft crowned by a royal red velvet ball from which descends two Slinky-like, metallic elements; at the end of each of these is a hinged green testicle-egg split in two -- disconcerting and eccentric, like a plant from an alternatively evolved world.
The female half of the unlikely couple is a contrasting matte green on the outside and covered with globules, flower-like in some areas, like green Cheerios in others. Intensely interested in materials and their combinations, Choplet acquired lamb's wool directly from the Queens Zoo in order to fashion the bright-green, cotton-candyish "ovaries" of the female form. In the center of the piece, an hourglass-shaped stainless steel element defines the upper and lower regions of the female organ, lending to the whole assemblage the uncanny appearance of a headless fashion victim of the 19th century, too tightly corseted and bulgingly curvaceous. Despite its whimsical surface growths, the matte female form appears less self-promotional than its shiny male companion. Only from behind through a split in the long "skirt" of the female construction does one glimpse the slippery glaze of a vegetal interior corresponding to the male member's slick outer surface.
Though Choplet's strongest work derives from a narrow range of subject matter long familiar to contemporary art, her variations of scale, material and reference demonstrate an impressive depth of imagination and control.
Nadeige Choplet, "Feeble Force," July 3-Sept. 7, 1997, at Galerie Claude Samuel, 69, avenue Daumesnil 75012 Paris.
J. MARTIN HILL is a Ph.D. fellow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a doctoral candidate at the Institute of Fine Arts.