New Museum | February 12 – April 13, 2014
“Paweł Althamer: The Neighbors”—the first major survey of the Polish artist’s work in the United States—is a checkered exhibition that vacillates between anarchic energy and pious political correctness. Marrying an object-oriented, craft-based sculptural practice with strategies of collaborative authorship and social engagement, Althamer views his sculptures as a pretext for community building. “I am not a sculptor,” the artist declares in an interview with curator Massimiliano Gioni in the exhibition catalogue. Rather, Althamer prefers to see his sculptures as “totems” that “connect people” and “create a common narrative.” Due in part to how the artist frames his practice, the aesthetics of Althamer’s work are typically eclipsed by their politics, which have been alternately characterized as both altruistic and self-congratulating. For some, Althamer’s method of working with disabled and disenfranchised constituencies—such as his long-term collaboration with the Nowoloipie Group, a ceramics collective comprised of patients living with multiple sclerosis—is more exploitive than benevolent, merely serving to cement the artist’s do-gooder brand and boost his moral (and therefore cultural and economic) capital. For others, he is viewed as an established artist who unselfishly mobilizes his visibility to hack the system of conventional art exhibition and display. In the case of this current exhibition, Althamer stipulated that street musicians would play in the lobby, and that the institution would run a coat drive for the nearby Bowery Mission for the duration of the show. While I am inclined to view this as evidence of Althamer’s ultimate philanthropy, I also recognize that both readings of his practice are, to some extent, true.
In the past, Althamer’s collaborative projects have ranged from the pragmatic and ameliorative, such as building a sculpture park in his lower middle class Warsaw neighborhood of Bródno, to the willfully absurd: lobbying to turn the façade of 11-story apartment building into a colossal statue of Jesus Christ. In the well-intentioned but conceptually flat-footed participatory installation “Draftsman’s Congress,” a reprise of his contribution to the 2012 Berlin Biennial, Althamer’s vision of collaboration is at its most literal. Here, Althamer transforms the fourth floor space into an institutionally sanctioned graffiti hall, inviting visitors to tag the walls and floor with materials provided by the museum. “In this project,” reads the press release for the work’s Berlin debut, “authorship, hierarchies of expertise, and qualifications are blurred into an enterprise of illustrating excess, which is free and open to all.” While all that might sound good in theory, in practice, this goofy transliteration of Beuysian democracy results in a happy-go-lucky palimpsest of illegible scrawl, complete with hokey drawings of unicorns, naked women, and half-baked affirmative slogans to the tune of “everything is possible, just believe in it!”
Althamer is at his best when he sheds the mantles of dematerialization and authorial abstinence and works alone or with specific collectives to resuscitate that old workhorse of a medium: figurative sculpture. The standing male nude, a tradition as old as Polykleitos, undergoes an uncanny revival in Althamer’s life-size nude “Self Portrait” (1993). Sculpted in the round from wax, hair, hemp, and animal intestines, this jaundiced and bespectacled effigy of the artist elicits both sympathetic identification and Shelleyan horror. Made with the same materials adopted from the ancient sculpting traditions of rural Polish communities, Althamer’s portrait of his then 8-year-old daughter “Weronika” (2001)—complete with glass eyes and blonde eyelashes made from human hair—has the haunting, hyperreal presence of Degas’s waxwork dancers. Originally exhibited in a barn alongside the child’s drawings, the sculpture shows the girl dangling a feather from a fishing-pole, her prepubescent body delicately sutured together with twine. The monumental aluminum sculpture “Sylwia” (2010), a reclining female nude made with the Nowolipie Group, boasts a defiant, almost paleolithic crudeness. A water spigot indicates one of the figure’s nipples; tiny humanoid figurines recline in the tangled sprawl of her hair. Each member sculpted a different part of Sylwia’s recumbent body, a working method patently evident in the raw, disjointed appearance of this piecemeal ur-goddess.
The fetishism of these life-size sculptures is tempered by a series of dioramas, which, rather than elicit some primordial past, meticulously reconstruct the minutiae of everyday life. In the eerie, Kienholz-like “Self-Portrait in a Suitcase” (1996), an awkwardly oversized puppet of the artist hunches over a scurvy-inducing meal of sausages and bread. The work could be read as a self-deprecating riff on Duchamp’s portable one-man museum “Boîte-en-valise,” but here the artist’s suitcase is imagined not as an archive of mechanical reproductions, but as a pathetic dollhouse fleshed out in meticulous and heartbreaking detail: an old pizza box in the trashcan, a dingy water glass, a cracked bathroom mirror, a model airplane dangling from a shelf. In the panoramic installation “Mezalia” (2010), created in collaboration with artist Paulina Antoniewicz and filmmaker Jacek Taszakowski, another likeness of Althamer stares out the window of a shabby apartment littered with miniature Polish newspapers onto a pastoral landscape populated with toy boats, weeping willows, and rustic farmhouses. To the far left, reality—or at least modernity—encroaches on the idyllic tableau by way of a vandalized highway overpass and a trio of unsightly Warsaw condominium towers.
Downstairs, the folksy charm of Althamer’s craft-oriented sculptures gives way to overwrought biennial conceptualism. A group of some 90 sculptures commissioned by the 2013 Venice Biennale entitled “Venetians” is perhaps the best-known work included in the exhibition. It is also the most viscerally unappealing. Plasticized masks cast from the faces of Venice’s lumpenproletariat of migrant workers, street vendors, cleaners, and waiters are grafted onto skeletal armatures executed in a uniformly industrial grey. The wonky, disarticulated musculatures are draped with gelatinous, colonic ribbons of extruded plastic, giving the overall unnerving effect of an army of sinewy spaghetti men and women. While the ethical implications of the piece fit neatly into a social realist tradition of representing underrepresented or otherwise subaltern communities, its aesthetics are inscrutable and bizarre. Half cyborg, half phantom, Althamer’s “Venetians” evoke any number of CGI clones, drones, zombies, skeleton mercenaries, and other standard-issue varieties of undifferentiated, digitally reproducible cannon fodder that have populated the fantasy and science fiction blockbusters of the last decade. For an artist so committed to sculpture as a social medium, Althamer’s subjects are oddly evacuated of subjectivity, drowned in an anti-aesthetic of studied abjection.
Also on the second floor are four screens that loop sections from So-Called Waves and Other Phenomena of the Mind (2003 – 04), a series of videos made with artist Artur Zmijewski. The videos document Althamer’s attempts to expand his consciousness by playing with his daughter, undergoing hypnosis, and hallucinating on hashish, peyote, and mushrooms. “Man, the angels keep flying!” a blissed-out Althamer exclaims at one point. As this body of work attests, observing someone else get high when you’re stone cold sober is hardly a model of social collaboration, nor does it make for particularly interesting art.
Althamer may not think of himself as a sculptor in the traditional sense, but given that his work is on display in one of the city’s most prominent contemporary art institutions, it would be myopic and irresponsible to limit the conversation to neighborly goodwill. In fact, the strongest works in the show—the uncanny sculptural portraits and dioramas—are those that register the specificity and materiality of individual social bodies, rather than invoke “the social” as a palliative against a gluttonous art market or a convenient shorthand for progressive politics.
CHLOE WYMA is a writer and associate art editor at the Brooklyn Rail. A Ph.D. student in art history at the CUNY Graduate Center, her recent essays appeared in the Rail, Dissent, and the New Inquiry.