Paweł Althamer: The Neighbors

Review

of an Exhibition

by Flannery Ronsick

Published on April 08, 2014

  • Description:

    “The Neighbors” is a survey of the Polish artist Paweł Althamer, and consists of sculptural work and performance pieces. It is exhibited on three floors of space at the New Museum. Each exhibition floor has a distinct feel. The first floor of the exhibition is filled with sculptures from Althamer’s “Venetians” series alongside four video projections looping the eight segments of his “So-Called Waves and Other Phenomena of the Mind.” The second floor houses a diverse sampling of Althamer’s sculptural projects and the third floor is site to “Draftsmen’s Congress,” an originally white-walled room that visitors continually paint over. The works in the exhibition may, at first, appear individualistic and even self-centered. “So-Called Waves and Other Phenomena of the Mind” follows Althamer in his explorations of different drugs. The sculptural series “Venetians” self-evidently highlights the artist’s manipulation and, even, intrusion. Numerous self-portraits dot the exhibition. Where his works are self-referential though, they go past self-absorption. Althamer explores what it means to be human and how we can move through the world by, first, exploring himself and then expanding this exploration to others. The wall text identifies this common tie throughout the exhibition: “art can be used to better understand our physical, psychological and political position in the world.”

    “Venetians” is the most arresting work in this exhibition. Dozens of to-scale sculptures pose, lounge, sit, stand, bend and lean in a large, darkened, open white room. Althamer started work on “Venetians” at the Venice Biennale, casting faces in plaster of people he came across on the street. Althamer then took these casts to a plastics factory, forming in plastic the cast faces and the rest of the figures’ bodies. The cast faces are unmistakably singular and individualized. Visitors can walk around the bodies of the figures and peer into their faces. There are no stanchions, barriers, or tape to halt a close look at “Venetians,” and visitors can see every wrinkle and pore on the casting subject’s face. Visitors can interact with the statues in a one-on-one relationship. The exhibition room is peopled by both the sculptures and by visitors; the dozens of plastic sculptures are extremely approachable as they too mill about the room.

    “Venetians,” while uniquely individualized, is also a display of humanity that can be unsettling. The bodies are constructed with a steel skeleton frame that is draped with thick, ribbon-like swaths of grey plastic. Bulbous chunks of plastic droop as stomachs, breasts and jowls. These misshapen and askew bodies, nevertheless, pose in natural human ways. A man sitting on the floor leans on his right arm, twisting, balancing this posture with widely spread bent legs. A woman nearby retreats against a wall, hands clasped behind her back with her left knee bent and protruding, stomach slightly swelling and shoulders slouched.

    The unreal naturalism of the plastic bodies is augmented by the serene expressions of the cast faces. The contrast between the two body sections is purposefully done. The faces are cast as whole and complete pieces, unlike their unfleshly ribbon-laced bodies. Also, as mentioned, the faces are highly realistic. All faces look peaceful and tranquil with their eyes closed (a symptom of the casting process). The impermanency of the ribbon bodies, frozen in the middle of action, highlights the stillness of the faces. It is the human individual, recorded in the cast faces, that the visitor’s focus is drawn to. The human individual, a real person living in a far-away city, is the subject of the visitor’s questionings and wonderings. The plastic bodies clearly comment on the crude reality of the human body, but the faces show that there is something about the human that pushes past the space of its body, and into other realms. The crudeness of the bodies is almost necessary to communicate this message.

    There is a disjoint in “Venetians” and it hinges on the place of the artist, Althamer. Faces cast in plaster are, by their nature, close and connected representations of their subject: the subject becomes intimately familiar with the material as it hardens into complementary form over their face. Althamer manipulates this cast, and creates a being of his own invention by coupling strange body parts to the face. For example, Althamer created a grotesque version of an elderly woman with tumorous and distorted breasts and sagging arms. The visitor may wonder whether Althamer’s sculptures breached the trust between the artist and those who donated the impressions of their face in good faith. Regardless, the place of the artist is pulled into high relief in contemplating the relationship between the bodies and the faces.

    The third floor of the exhibit houses “Draftsmen’s Congress.” The high-ceilinged museum exhibition room has been transformed into a graffiti-ed haven. Walls have been constructed to round the corners of the white box of a room. The resulting space is oval in shape. A platform, accessed by three steps, supports a teepee. Visitors can put on dirtied smocks and use paint provided by the museum to paint the walls. An employee of the museum oversees the room, limiting the disarray and orchestrating the organization of the paints.

    On my visit, children and teenagers were intensely engaged in the room’s activity. With their smocks on, they wound their way around the room, moving with intentionality between the paints offered on the platform and the canvas of the wall. There seemed to be a unique connection that the children, especially, had with the walls: their paint work was unstudied and extemporaneous. This insouciance most likely was formed by the structuring of their experience. Many visitors before them had painted on the walls. There was evidence of layers upon layers of paint. This evidence is most convincing and seemingly quelled any insecurities the children might have had. The layers showed the children, both, that numbers of people had been able to express themselves before the children ever arrived, and that there were no expectations that they needed to satisfy in their experience of the room. Teenagers had a somewhat different relationship to the room. The teenagers identified, accurately, a place where they could express themselves. This age group feels a drive to assert who they are as they leave childhood behind and approach adulthood. They feel the necessity of forming the person that they dream of being. The teenagers in the room behaved in a calculated way. Different teens wrote inscriptions celebrating the group they were with, carefully painted a portrait while referencing a picture on their phone, experimented with, and were disappointed by, shades of paint and unsuccessfully searched for a blank gap on the wall with which they could lay territorial claim. The space of “Draftsmen’s Congress” is a successfully open place. Visitors can find what they need in the space, and satisfy their wishes and compelling motivations.

    The wall text that introduces Paweł Althamer in this survey comments that the artist “has been dedicated to joining sculptural representation with social engagement” throughout his career. The majority of the sculptures included in the New Museum’s survey seem distinct and incongruous. Apart from the series “Venetians,” the works communicate many different messages and address a range of different thoughts and feelings. A wide spectrum of medium is present, and the pieces are quite evocative of Althamer’s multi-faceted intents. There is a sense that Althamer is exploring his artistic vision in as many diverse ways as possible. A human-deer mutant sits pensively in a corner. A self-portrait of the artist in the form of a bust contemplates a female sculpture, à la Pygmalion. Weronika, Althamer’s daughter, is recorded as a statue in hay, hemp, animal intestine, human skull, wax, hair and glass eyes. Aesthetically, what does run throughout these sculptures is a seedy dolefulness, communicated in harsh realism, amplified human coarseness or a Tim Burton-esque macabre drama. Intellectually, if we return to the idea that Althamer promotes “social engagement” in and through his work, his diverse explorations work towards a greater and varied understanding of what it means to be a human and how a truer connection to generous and responsive authenticity can improve the condition of the world.

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