Ndayé Kouagou Direction, Direction?
Sundy, London 14 April – 27 May
‘If you were looking for direction / this is definitely not the place / look elsewhere,’ instructs a text printed onto a series of connected aluminium sheets covering all of Sundy’s gallery walls. The same sentence opens A coin is a coin (2022), a short film in which French artist Ndayé Kouagou – standing in a bare photography studio against a white backdrop, clad in a grey couture suit, a babyyellow shirt and a cartoonishly enormous matching necktie – delivers a monologue to camera. Dubbed from start to finish by a thin-sounding female American voice, Kouagou tells a meandering, often elliptical story of how a two-sided coin can be a metaphor for understanding change. He often interrupts himself to cast doubt on things he has said or to apologise, tongue-in-cheek, in passages that can border on incomprehensible: “See how at first it felt like looking elsewhere when you moved from your first coin to the second, and now it doesn’t anymore?”; “I’m sorry if I got you confused (I promise it was not on purpose, no, not this time)”. Rhetorical echoes of his monologue then occur in the space, printed on clear PVC surfaces covering rectangular sheets of coloured fabric sealed in resin. Some stand alone and others are nailed onto the industrial, but unfailingly clean and partially reflective, aluminium sheet.
In fact, Kouagou almost exclusively asks questions with scant concession to coherence, to the demand for answers or to prompt resolution. ‘What?’, ‘From me?’, ‘All your life?’, repeat some of the resin plaques. The entire performance thrives off a jester’s taste for play, knowingly sardonic, a pastiche of a kind of guru-therapist Youtube vlogger – a role Kouagou has similarly inhabited in recent shows at London’s Gathering and Paris’s Fondation Louis Vuitton. Direction, Direction?’s aesthetic sense of unreality is its strength: Kouagou’s dubbed speech, imperfectly synced and visually discordant, is almost impossible to settle into; the high frame-rate and sharp focus of the camerawork – combined with a plain backdrop, his ever-so-slightly-clumsy movements, and the interplay of soft lighting with a slather of plum-coloured glitter eyeshadow – recall a character awaiting activation in an RPG videogame; meanwhile the trapped air bubbles inside the PVC, which covers wet-looking resin, evoke a thin sheet of ice. But the overarching feeling of unreality and artifice struggles to convert to anything as affecting as absurdity. Kouagou the performer is certainly in control here: his visage, movement and voice relentlessly feign sincerity, a virtue that in a life of online self-fashioning and limitless content consumption is both hard to trust and in unnerving abundance. Kouagou’s work invites you into his maze, then lets you get lost in it.