Pawel Althamer, The Neighbors , New Museum, New York

I pressed Number 4 and the lift doors slid over the image and sound of a lone figure in the lobby singing a Whitney Houston song. I was heading up to the top floor of the New Museum (New York) to see the Pawel Althamer exhibition, the first solo exhibition of this Polish artist’s work in the USA. With lingering questions about who that busker was and why she was singing in the museum lobby, the lift doors opened to the visual assault of a graffiti arts and crafts otherworld or perhaps a hell, seeing as I was intending to experience the exhibition by descending through the levels of the museum from the top.

Bewilderment was my initial response not just to the chaotic profusion of image and activity, but also to the dualities of social and moral choices presented in the work Draftmen’s Congress (2012). Presented originally for the 7th Berlin Biennial, the New York iteration of it occupied the entire fourth floor gallery and comprised the accumulated doodles and drawings of the museum’s visitors paints and crayons provided. Should I join in and paint the walls or remain a spectator? If I joined in, should I stay in my clothes or put on one of the white boilers suits that had been supplied, thus becoming part of the spectacle? Should I draw on the (fake) walls or on the (real) floor? How far could I have graffitied before I was stopped by a museum official? 

Somewhat overwhelmed, I decided that I did not want an ‘involved’ museum experience that afternoon. In any case, ‘voyeurism is participation, to quote a line from Jon Cameron Mitchell’s film Shortbus. Instead, I joined a number of photo-snapping viewers circling a drawing encrusted teepee structure in the middle of the room. It would become clear later that this acted as a precursor to the way the exhibition dealt with the relationship between spectating and involvement through the medium of figuration.

In an online interview for the 2013 Venice Bienniale, where Althamer appears to be replying to a question about the meaning his work, the artist declared: ‘Up to you. Doesn’t matter what I want to do. Up to you. What you find here. What you get here. What are you looking for. That’s the message. Open yourself.’ You could accuse the artist of relativism or conceptual sloppiness here. In fact, many artists appear to absolve themselves of all responsibility for meaning or intention in their work. But Art’s claim to knowledge is not one primarily based on knowing facts about particular works valuable as these are, but how work gives rise to an encounter as prescribed by the crafted physical and visual parameters of the work. In Althamer’s case, it was becoming evident to me that these parameters were the figure (live, still or moving), the frame (architectural, social or psychological) and the pause. 

Leaving the colourful chaos behind me, I approached the entrance of a long dimly lit stairwell that descended through two levels of the building. Halfway down and with some vertigo, I joined a small group huddled around a wall mounted screen watching Mezalia (2010), a short video made with puppets that recounted a remembered childhood narrative. As remembered childhood narratives go, the themes of longing, loss of innocence, friendship, play and nostalgia were unremarkable. However the image of the framed figure, whose back was to you and looking out, was significant. The viewer’s gaze was directed out, from the inner known space this side of the frame via a figure standing at the cusp, to an infinite unknown out there. The allusion to Romanticism was palpable, not to a sublime of nature necessarily but to that of the social, the psychological and of imagined worlds. 

Continuing my Orpheic descent, I entered the 3rd floor gallery that contained individual sculptures: many portraits and figurative studies, and a couple of works made in collaboration with community groups. The use of organic and bodily materials here (hemp, hair, animal intestines, wax, a human skull, feathers, grass) induced a visceral reaction. These sculptures were not just representations of the body but were also body. The direct connection between the works’ material composition and my own materiality blurred the distinction between their body and my body, between their objecthood and my subjecthood. In this collapse of distinction the work asked again, ‘Where do you stand?’ or ‘What is it to stand between?‘or even in Althamer’s words, ‘What are you looking for…open yourself’.

Later, in the final gallery space in the level below, I would encounter a further exploration of ‘openness’ and how it happened by occupying a standing in between. But before heading downstairs, I came across two seated figures among the many standing figures in the 3rd floor gallery. While standing figures, denote readiness and alertness indeed for bipeds like us, the act of standing is a dynamic activity that requires continual muscular adjustments in order to maintain balance the seated (not reclining) figure has often alluded to thinking or pause particularly pointing to context or to a psychological or imaginary space beyond the present figure. In Self Portrait In A Suitcase (1996), the seated figure accentuated the lived condition of the artist as well as the life of everyday objects. The opened suitcase, like a popup book of sorts, in itself invoked the question: what do I pack/unpack? Implicit in this was the further question: what should I pack or what is worth packing? Of course no answers were meant to be offered, but the moral dimension of the question asked in this work was echoed in many of Althamer’s works throughout the exhibition.

The second seated figure unlocked for me the idea of the journeying subject and the mythic narrative in this body of work. Self Portrait as the Billy Goat (2011) was a sculpture of a goatperson from a popular Polish comic character Koziołek Matołek, who Althamer had also dressed up and travelled as in live work in Brazil and Mali. The comic series recounted the adventures of Koziołek Matołek who was a bumbling billygoat character travelling to a town where he could have his hooves shod. However, Althamer’s mischievousness and humour, if it was meant to be apparent, was overwhelmed by the serious tone of the show and the poignancy of the sculpture itself. More Minotaur than Rupert the Bear, and more tragic than ridiculous, the work depicted a contemplating monster. As with Rodin’s The Thinker which was originally envisaged to adorn the pinnacle of his work The Gates of Hell, a pause is called for at the cusp or milestone in order to consider certain choices or possibilities of hope, horror, past, future, chaos, judgment, redemption, and self-knowledge – all good Dantean stuff.

And it was indeed a realm of the dead that I had descended to as the lift doors opened to the final gallery space in the exhibition. Venetians(2013) was created for the 55th Venice Bienniale and comprised many grey figures in a variety of body positions spread throughout a space cast in a half light. The face of each figure had been cast from real people. Each with eyes closed they resembled a death mask. Together they were a ghostly throng reminiscent of the frozen figures of Pompeii or of the sleeping figures that adorn stone sarcophagi. In the maze that these figures created, viewers navigated as moving figures themselves.

Set at the corners of the same space, large screens played the video work So Called Waves and Other Phenomena of the Mind (2003-04). The videos showed Althamer participating in experiences aimed at producing altered states of consciousness, e.g. taking drugs and medication, undergoing hypnotherapy. Within the hellish or underworld context of Venetians, these activities took on the character of ordeal or spiritual trial even. Perhaps within the strongly allegorical tone of the exhibition, there was an attempt to reclaim these banal modern day forms of mind altering as rite. Returning to that earlier online interview, Althamer said: ‘Body can be a key to the spiritual world … I think I am digging in my body because the soul is in my body [laughs hysterically]’. Again his words understate the complex opinion he has as evidenced in his visual work about the kind of body that acts as key and possibly how. It is a body that stands actively in thought at the edge of itself and at the border between the political and imaginary. In this space, it is capable of being both subject and other, and hence is also capable of empathetic relation to others. As such, ‘soul’ appears or resonates in the body and is made available to be found. In this way, Althamer’s challenge ‘Open yourself’ is a not only a challenge to have an open mind, but also a challenge to place one’s body in a position where this or his kind of ‘digging’ is possible.

I left the exhibition via the lift. The doors opened on the ground floor and the solitary singer was still there, this time crooning a jazz number. I looked at her and saw that as a street performer, she was someone who ‘figured’ in both aesthetic and social or political worlds, as did I.

Main image: Pawel Althamer, Venetians, 2013 (photo: Jack Tan)

Aurora Corio