The Congolese polymath Bodys Isek Kingelez (1948-2015) wasn’t shy about his greatness. Describing himself as “a small god,” and an “enlightened artist of new horizons,” he claimed of his work that “since time immemorial, no one has had a vision like this.” However immodestly, he spoke the truth, based on the evidence of the stunning “Bodys Isek Kingelez: City Dreams,” a euphoric exhibition-as-utopian-wonderland at the Museum of Modern Art.
The first comprehensive Kingelez retrospective in the United States, it introduces the artist’s fantasy architectural models: strong in color, eccentric in shape, loaded with enthralling details and glowing with futuristic visions for Congo’s transition after its independence from Belgian rule in 1960. Beginning in the late 1970s, after arriving in the capital, Kinshasa, from his home village, Kingelez made his primarily civic structures from a lexicon of cut paper, cardboard, cigarette packaging, translucent sheets of tinted plastic, and glue. The consistency of style and rigor is impressive and, astoundingly, Kingelez made up these fascinators as he went along, without studies — or formal art training. Less astounding, he frequently worked his name or initials into their facades or signs.
The ornate objects that Kingelez came up with snap the eye and mind to attention and push your personal image bank into high gear. It’s hard to keep track of the multitude of references they can stir up. Chinese pagodas? Romanesque vaulted ceilings? Las Vegas casino signs? Eastern-bloc architecture? Empire mantle clocks? American megachurches? Jetsonian design? That’s only the beginning, yet every suggestion is fastidiously integrated, nothing so crude as postmodernism’s heavy-handed appropriation of Classical forms.
The MoMA show presents 33 of Kingelez’s creations, including single buildings, town squares and mad little urban centers, some drawing on Kinshasa’s grand boulevards and buildings in a Belgian Art Deco style. They date from 1980 to 2007, eight years before his death from cancer. His reputation was established, almost instantaneously in 1989, when six models were included in “Magiciens de la Terre,” at the Pompidou Center in Paris, a landmark exhibition that attempted a global view of contemporary art. Kingelez spent six months in the French capital — his first trip out of Congo — and came to know a new world of materials, which he also began to be able to afford. He became a fixture in international biennials and surveys.
The MoMA installation was designed by the German artist Carsten Höller with distinctive white pedestals and platforms that add their own glamour. The centerpiece is Kingelez’s masterwork, “Ville Fantôme” of 1996, which took two years to create, covers an expanse of 7 feet by 18 feet and combines about 50 structures, including a bridge and an airport. An overhead mirror facilitates viewing; the town can be further explored by virtual reality, which is attracting long lines.
The base of “Ville Fantôme” epitomizes Kingelez’s enthusiasm for beautifying his models and cities with painted lawns, gardens, pathways and roads; they seem to sit on richly patterned carpets.