On Pawel Althamer

Exhibition view of "Almech" at Deutsche Guggenheim, 2011-2012.

The below article was commissioned and published by Galeri Manâ in the catalogue for the exhibition Pawel Althamer: 6 Sculptures, 21 November 2012-12 January 2013

In writing about Pawel Althamer, medium-specific statements immediately become irrelevant. The artist’s work stems from a self-inflicted tension between traditional sculpture and performance—the latter loosely defined here, as the artist’s active engagement with an audience.

All of the terms used—traditional, sculpture, performance, engagement, active, audience—are constantly emptied out and filled by Althamer; in most of his works, the artist deals with self-conception, self-limitation, boundaries, artistic media, and parameters in general. That he constantly reinvents himself is frustrating, to say the least. Alrhamer constantly shifts—a condition that he employs as his material in many works.

The perpetual conflict between the sculptural and the gestural in Althamer’s works can be traced back to his academic work. Grzegorz Kowalski here identifies the artist’s corporeal disengagement from the academic context, presenting a sculpture of his body made out of hemp, which he supplemented with a film of himself leaving the premises of the school to go to the forest, entering the bushes naked and finally the cameramen following him until he disappeared into the green. His self-portrait as a sculpture is the essential complement to his action of leaving. The sculpture anchors the viewers and the artist alike, situating him in space, time and the social. Althamer’s work is not about absence or an ephemeral gesture, but an absolute presence that is both captioned and titled by his actions.

Self-portrait, 1993.
Self-portrait, 1993.

In 2001, for an exhibition at Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Althamer re-connected with a high-school friend, a professional house painter. He contracted this friend, a Polish immigrant, to work for the duration of the exhibition, changing the color of the room every day. The commentary on the state of immigrants in the United States is subtle. The personal connection that Althamer has to his friend and the collaborative nature of this project decompress the charged framework of the art museum. If the point of an exhibition is for the artist’s choices to be realized in the space, then the situation that Althamer created is precisely the work itself. Althamer thus takes on the role of a catalyst. He produces circumstances that subvert the display mechanism and the work is what it is, nothing more, nothing less.

The futility of creating even a situation in the exhibition space is pushed to its limits with the artist’s work exhibited the same year, next to the Foksal Gallery, Warsaw. The artist built a tree house that had all the basic requirements of a shelter, including electricity, heat and a bed, right next to the gallery. He spent a few nights in this space in the six months during which the house was left up—it was subsequently dismantled by the city as it was built illegally. Althamer’s relinquishing of control over his “sculpture” thus becomes monumentalized only through the very gesture of taking his “work” outside of the exhibition space and inhabiting that space, however temporarily. The performance is barely there, yet the very invention of this gesture permeates through the walls of the institution.

"Wspólna sprawa/Common Task" (2008–present).
“Wspólna sprawa/Common Task” (2008–present).

Althamer further disintegrated the separation of the street from the exhibition space in Motion Picture (2000), presented during Manifesta 3 in Ljubljana. Ten people played a simple street scene at a certain time of the day for three weeks. The situation Althamer constructed could not be distinguished from a quotidian scene, except for the knowledge of his having arranged and choreographed it. The ‘hyper’-reality of this collective performance re-framed the viewer’s relationship with what already existed and what was put there by the artist. Instead of representing reality in an exhibition space, reality is represented in situ.

Althamer’s social engagement and re-representing of reality was also the foundation for Common Task (2010)—a science-fiction film in real-time. At Modern Art Oxford, the artist transformed the first floor galleries into a zone for teleportation. Visitors were invited to take part in the journey, Common Task. A series of documented social actions and activities set in the framework of a convention provides a convivial setup that integrates different groups of people into the “task” at hand, producing the sense of a shared goal through the familiar genre of science fiction.

Preparations for “Almech” (2011), Wesoła, Poland, March, 2011.
Preparations for “Almech” (2011), Wesoła, Poland, March, 2011.

Almech (2011–12), a project commissioned by the Deutsche Guggenheim, marks a point of culmination, bringing together the artist’s interests in methodologies of exhibition, social engagement, and sculpture. The white, ghost-like sculptures are ominous yet extremely seductive with their perfectly finessed surfaces and imposing representation of the human figure. The process of production, however, of these sculptures subverts the expectation of a large-scale exhibition at a museum. The works were produced in the exhibition space by the plastic company Almech. Almech—a word derived from the combination of Althamer and mechanics—is a family company, founded by the artist’s father in the early 90s. For the exhibition, the company, with its tools of production, was setup in the Deutsche Guggenheim, working on sculptures that were built on metal constructions, also imported from Poland. The sculptures were based on casts taken from people who worked at the museum and Deutsche Bank, as well as regular bystanders. All the people who served as models for the sculptures were in a way brought to the same level as their bodies appeared very similar represented in that way—pointing back to the artist’s employment of people from a range of social classes. This can be interpreted as an attempt to strike a social balance in his portrayal of the specific circumstances of the Deutsche Guggenheim during the time of the exhibition.

Exhibition view of "Almech" at Deutsche Guggenheim, 2011-2012.
Exhibition view of “Almech” at Deutsche Guggenheim, 2011-2012.

The sculptures are indices of a process that took place at a certain point in time, in a very specific location. The space dedicated to exhibition was employed as a space of production. Viewers witnessed how the sculptures came to be, rather than consuming them passively as objects of art. The works are quite beautiful, which evokes a confusing viewing experience, as Althamer left no space for the viewer to quietly contemplate by—for lack of a better word—invading the exhibition space with what normally takes place outside of that space.

The experience of seeing the ghost-like works next to ‘real’ people working, walking around, actively moving and doing, rather than standing still, is eerie. That tension is retained in the works by the movement and the draping, and their entrapment in plastic. Althamer has frozen those active moments of production in the work. It is this palpable activity in the material that charges the sculptures with an ominous vigor. There is a before to the objects and they foreshadow an after, whatever that might be—each sculpture is deeply entrenched in a moment in the continuum of time.

Exhibition view at Galeri Mana, "Valerie," "Elisabeth" and "Rita," 2011
Exhibition view of “Pawel Althamer: 6 Sculptures” at Galeri Mana with “Valerie,” “Elisabeth” and “Rita,” 2011.

The point of departure for the exhibition at Galeri Manâ is the artist’s keen sense of the social fabric, which not only connects his different works, but almost becomes a material that he plays with. Althamer embeds himself in the social structure and it is his acute sense of time, place and community that situates the six works now in Manâ, both removed from and grafted onto a novel framework. Manâ—an exhibition space, a plain, white cube—hosts these works and is inhabited by them. The detachment from their original means and site of production is precisely how Althamer has liberated the sculptures from their very specific conditions, re-conversing with them and opening them up for an interpretation that is not charged with history. The anti-memory of this presentation perhaps points towards a less specific, personal experience of the work that might be surprisingly invigorating. Just as the hemp sculpture of his own body was the residue of his actual presence both inside and outside of his presentation to the professors, the white sculptures at Galeri Manâ will remain as the celebratory trace of what once took place at the Deutsche Guggenheim.
—Merve Ünsal