Ugo Rondinone transforms the Contemporary Arts Center with his strange clowns and rainbow colors

The artist’s ‘let’s start this day again’ features 45 vibrant life-size clown sculptures that each represent a different action like breathing, crying and sleeping.

 MAY 17, 2017 

PHOTO: HAILEY BOLLINGERIn a world that seems increasingly divided between scary clowns and jovial ones, the artist Ugo Rondinone provides a third choice: introspective, meditative, puzzlingly perplexing clowns. You can see 45 of them at the Contemporary Arts Center now through Aug. 20 in an installation titled “vocabulary of solitude” that takes up much of an entire floor. There, the clowns are lost in a surrounding world of color so intensely alive it should make them want to jump and dance — even if they are life-like, life-size sculptures rather than actual humans. They should at least look happy.

This is the key portion of a larger exhibition, a selective retrospective of the Swiss-born, New York-based Contemporary artist Rondinone, titled let’s start this day again. He first created “vocabulary of solitude” in 2014. This show containing it has already been to museums in Rotterdam and Rome, and after Cincinnati, it moves on to Berkeley, Calif. and the Bass Museum of Art in Miami. At each venue, the exhibit name is different to reflect slight changes in the works displayed.

Since this exhibit first was announced a year ago, clowns have gotten their share of bad press, what with all those “scary clown” sightings a few months back. At one time, that negative publicity prompted Raphaela Platow, the CAC’s director, to tell CityBeat that, “We do hope, even if the scary clown images and stories prevail, that we can introduce a different perspective — a much more positive and thoughtful one — into the discourse.”

And now that let’s start this day again — and “vocabulary of solitude” in particular — is finally here, it reaffirms what she hoped the show would reveal. Platow had also said at the time, “The artist is interested in the tension between the inward poses of the sculptures and their outward appearance of comical entertainers. I would claim that we all experience that dichotomy of inward and outward in our lives.”

Rondinone’s clowns are closer to Rodin’s “The Thinker” than to either Bozo or the Insane Clown Posse. But with Rondinone, it’s as if “The Thinker” has wandered somewhere over the rainbow. The CAC’s walls, floors and ceilings have been painted the most intense colors this side of a mountain range of boulder-sized gumballs. It makes for a weird contrast, and as you wander through “vocabulary of solitude” looking at all 45 kneeling, seated, reclining clowns, you’ll wonder what they could be thinking. They’re so passive that they offer no indications.

During a tour of the exhibit just ahead of its recent opening, Rondinone gave an explanation of sorts. “The 45 clowns represent one single person, middle-aged, and they represent the 45 actions that someone does by himself — from dream to sleep to wake to sit to walk to pee. Each is named after an action,” he said. 

And indeed, the exhibit’s wall text helpfully provides each clown’s name: Be. Breathe. Sleep. Dream. Wake. Rise. Sit. Hear. Look. Think. Stand. Walk. Pee. Shower. Dress. Drink. Fart. Shit. Read. Laugh. Cook. Smell. Taste. Eat. Clean. Write. Daydream. Remember. Cry. Nap. Touch. Feel. Moan. Enjoy. Float. Love. Hope. Wish. Sing. Dance. Fall. Curse. Yawn. Undress. Lie.


But while they are named after those actions, they aren’t all actually posed as if doing them — fortunately, in some cases. That’s the kind of contradiction Rondinone savors.

To him, the clowns are engaged in “self-inspection.” Perhaps they are awaiting enlightenment; perhaps they know they are waiting in vain — he cites the writer Samuel Beckett, author of the classic absurdist play Waiting for Godot, as a key influence. “The clowns symbolize entertainment, but in this case they don’t do anything,” he says. In short, they’re holding back, which makes us all the more curious about them.

And also curious about the man who created them. Rondinone, who is in his early 50s, thinks maybe visual artists need some kind of protection when they make their intensely personal work public — the way that the clown-like jesters of yore assumed their exaggerated, costumed roles to be able to speak truth to power. He knows he personally needs distance after an early attempt at performance art left him unsatisfied. 

PHOTO: HAILEY BOLLINGER“It was difficult in the beginning to realize that, as an artist, you have to defend your private freedom once you’re out in public,” he says. “The public has no boundaries, so you have to set some.” Thus, his reluctant clowns can be seen as a passive-aggressive statement about his own inner thoughts about being an artist. “Even if my work tells you a lot about myself, it gives you a distance to myself,” Rondinone says.

The clowns are made with epoxy-covered polystyrene foam and they wear white masks without pronounced eye openings. To create them, Rondinone used 23 women and 22 men as models. The final sculptural objects are made from 3-D casts; the masks, made from casts of the models’ faces, have eyelashes, red noses and intentional smudge marks denoting life’s bumpy roads. It’s a hard life, being a clown.

Their costumes, while not elaborate in terms of material or accouterments — Rondinone likens them to jumpsuits — still have a riot of polka dots, thick stripes, bold checks and neck ruffles, which have the fluffy otherworldly hues of cotton candy. All wear gloves and socks. The artist worked with a designer on them.

The clowns’ environment of florescent-like colors looks much different than the way Zaha Hadid’s much-heralded museum usually appears. The CAC had to get special paint from Switzerland for the walls and apply layers of vinyl flooring; the CAC’s skylight has been covered with colored film, distorting the “reality” of the museum’s interior even further and making for an interesting, trippy experience when clouds move across the sky on a bright day.

Rondinone sees this presentation as a response to the CAC’s architecture — the neutral colors, hard angles, mysterious corridors, dramatic overlooks and steep, exposed stairways of Hadid’s design which, taken as a whole, can challenge any artwork on display for the viewer’s attention. He found the building an imposing presence, so he decided to make the interior a giant canvas, in a sense. 

“It limits us a lot, the architecture. It guides you,” he says. “I made a positive situation out of it.”

To Platow, what Rondinone has done with the building is extraordinary. “It’s amazing how the architecture has changed through this,” she says. “He’s changed the entire environment.” Speaking on opening night, she referred to let’s start this day again as an “amazing color explosion on our concrete walls.”


Since moving to the United States in 1998, Rondinone has become known for, on one hand, working with intense colors — red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet — and, on the other, exploring more naturalistic tones. His art often has a poetic dimension — specific and concise imagery with strong metaphoric implications.

Among the other pieces in let’s start this day again is 2003’s “lines out to silence,” containing 30 separate haiku-like poems written in pencil on paper. Another, 2006’s “the 8th hour of the poem,” is a large realistically rendered light bulb cast from wax and suspended in a gallery occupied at what Rondinone considers “belly-button level.” He made 24 of these, each named after a different hour of the day.

let’s start this day again also contains a floor display of his series of cast bronze and lead candles, each painted a different color and referred to by their color, as in “ (neon yellow candle),” “ (warm yellow candle),” “ (straw yellow candle),” “ (carrot orange candle),” etc. They are so life-like, you might want to light them.

“It hasn’t happened yet,” Rondinone says, with a laugh. “Perhaps behind my back.”

Another work, from 1998, is one of the many circular sun paintings he has done since 1992 — this one is acrylic on canvas, and the lines between the colors grow imprecise as the viewer stares at the emanating radiance. That is intentional.

“You cannot visualize the sun — it blurs,” Rondinone says. “This is really something out of focus that lulls you. It’s connected to the clowns. This is a device to put you in a mental state of inspection.”


Rondinone, ever looking for bold contrasts in his art (and in our lives), has paired “vocabulary of solitude” with a work called “your age and my age and the age of the rainbow.” It is nothing less than a long wall containing many of the 5,000 drawings of rainbows made by Cincinnati schoolchildren from 8 months old to age 12 at the CAC’s and the artist’s request. (He’s doing this in each of the five cities on this show’s tour and will display all the drawn rainbows in Miami.) To him, this serves as a polar opposite to his clowns and is another example of how his work reflects dichotomies.

“These represent the other end of the spectrum — done by children in their innocence, where here (the clowns), we have a state of soberness,” he says.

There’s as much to think about in let’s start this day again as there is to see. The exhibit is entertaining, but it isn’t meant to be merely a “fun” show with easy-on-the-eyes gimmicky imagery. It’s really a plea for all of us to make more of what little time we have on Earth.

“In my mind, the entire show is a meditation on the passing of the hours of the day,” Platow says. “It’s an opportunity for thinking of time as something other than duration, to just dwell on beautiful moments.”

Ugo Rondinone’s LET’S START THIS DAY AGAIN is on display at the Contemporary Arts Center through Aug. 20. More info:

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