Space Experiments:
Seven artists versus architecture at the Hamburger Kunsthalle

Hamburger Kunsthalle: The Absurd Beauty of Space
Supported by Deutsche Bank

Among the best-known projects of the architect Oswald Mathias Ungers (1926- 2007) are the famous Torhaus, or Gatehouse, on the grounds of the Frankfurt trade fair; the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum in Cologne; and the Galerie der Gegenwart, a new Hamburger Kunsthalle building completed in 1997. The director of the Hamburger Kunsthalle, Alexander Klar, recently invited seven artists to take a productive and critical look at Ungers’s thinking and design for the exhibition The Absurd Beauty of Space, sponsored by Deutsche BankSeven Artists vs. Ungers is the subhead of the show. The museum building, a cuboid made of light limestone, is intended to be a “resonance space” for artistic and curatorial interventions that attempt to grasp this environment in all its dimensions—as a physical entity, as well as an expression of cultural practice and social orders. It is also about the “absurd” notion that not only the artifacts exhibited in the museum can be “beautiful” or aesthetically appealing, but also the space itself. Expressly for this show, all of the windows in the building, which are otherwise concealed by exhibition installations, were exposed for the first time.

Ungers is known as a theoretician of the “second modernity” who stands for thoroughly rational, geometric, timeless design. He derived his buildings uncompromisingly from basic shapes such as the square, circle, cube, and sphere. While he has been admired by his famous students, including Max Dudler, Hans Kollhoff, Rem Koolhaas, and star architect Zaha Hadid, his critics accuse him of “quadratism,” embodying a search for clarity, purity and regularity that is at odds with today’s social needs. But Ungers was consistent throughout his life: “For me, the only value of architecture is architecture,” he once said. “It is purposeless.”

But at the very beginning of the exhibition, Helga Schmidhuber's installation ARCHE endemisch shows how questionable this supposed neutrality is. She has the well-known preparation of walrus “Antje” enthroned amidst specimens of flora and fauna like the guardian of an animal ark with endangered species. The paintings, at first abstract and then painted over in figurative form, literally throw the purist space out of balance, opposing Ungers’s geometry with organically proliferating forms. The Berlin artist Claudia Wieser takes the exact opposite path, corresponding with the clarity of the room. Her huge, polished cube literally reflects Ungers’s architecture. At the same time, however, Wieser counters the architectural purism with other modernist traditions with glazed ceramic tiles and vases: applied art, the decor of the Wiener Werkstätte, enjoyment of the ornament.

Other artists, such as Dana Greiner and Dominik Halmer, also react critically to the architecture in their multimedia and immersive spatial installations. The spectrum ranges from collage-like spatial structures to video projections that are precisely tailored to the space and involve the visitors choreographically. The works of Franziska Reinbothe and Jan Albers break down the boundaries between painting, sculpture, and architecture. They react to Ungers's grid-like formalism and bring coincidence, destruction, and time into play. The brightly colored Caribbean environments of the Venezuelan artist Sol Calero invite visitors to interact with seating arrangements, tropical potted plants, and a currency exchange bureau. They question clichéd notions of identity, nationality, and exoticism, while simultaneously designating the museum as a space for postcolonial discourse. One has to get involved in this exhibition. But in its diversity, the creative confrontation between art and architecture allows visitors to truly experience the controversial museum space in new ways.

The Absurd Beauty of Space
Seven Artists vs. Ungers

Until March 7, 2021
Hamburger Kunsthalle