Inspiration, Incarnation, and the Dream of an Inspired Corporation
Pawel Althamer´s commissioned work “Almech” now allows the Deutsche Guggenheim to experience one of the most exciting and radical transformations of its history. He has turned the exhibition space into a factory workshop that manufactures life-sized sculptural portraits of the show’s visitors. Monika Szewczyk introduces the artist and his extraordinary project for Berlin.
||On reviewing several works and some recently published materials about Polish artist Pawel Althamer, a curious pattern of interpretation rises to the surface. The emphasis falls on his sustained questioning of art’s social engagement, particularly via collaboration. Among other activities, he has led a weekly ceramics workshop for an association of people with multiple sclerosis called the Nowolipie Group since the 1990s. For his ongoing project Common Task (2008 —), he has initiated several transcontinental escapades with his neighbors from Warsaw’s Brodno neighborhood; bearing their gold space suits, they have chartered flights to Mali in search of connection with the Dogon people, who may have had contact with intelligent extraterrestrials, as alleged in Robert Temple’s 1976 study The Sirius Mystery; to Brasilia, Brazil; to Oxford; and to the Atomium in Brussels. Lastly, there is the palpable legacy of Grzegorz Kowalski’s sculpture studio at the Akademia Sztuk Pieknych (Academy of Fine Arts) in Warsaw, especially the task assigned to the students, "common space, private space," which casts art as a form of nonverbal conversation. All are crucial to understanding Althamer’s work, but listing them says little about the glue that cements the social bond among the participants in his collaborative works.
In search of some answers, I was particularly drawn to the series of interviews with Althamer by Artur Zmijewski, which were published in Drzace ciala (2008) and recently translated as Trembling Bodies (2011). Both artists trained in the same art academy, in the famous Kowalnia, a nickname for Kowalski’s studio, which incidentally rhymes with kopalnia, Polish for "mine" or "excavation site". Both are also fellow travelers on a journey of sustained inquiry into the social potential of art—a journey that can be linked to the social sculpture of German artist Joseph Beuys, who prefigures Althamer’s self-perception and influence as a shaman of sorts, a connection also noted by critic Claire Bishop.
Indeed, what struck me most about these interviews—something glossed-over in many essays on Althamer’s work and something that also distinguishes him from other artists engaging with collaborative practice today—is the centrality of and sober insistence on several taboos of contemporary art: the artist believes that a spirit or "wiser self" is using the body named Pawel Althamer as a temporary residence (til death do them part). Moreover, he finds confirmation of this notion through various out-of-body experiences that have occurred since his childhood; and there are his conversations with God in or through nature. He has also conducted psychedelic experiments. In a series of eight videos called So-Called Waves and Other Phenomena of the Mind (2003–04), a collaborationwith Zmijewski, Althamer was filmed under the influence of everything from mushrooms to truth serum to LSD. If, for Althamer, these experiments are one important vehicle for achieving these altered states and realizations, they are not the only one. Still, reference to the artist’s trips is perhaps the most convenient outlet for those who cringe, as this writer did, when confronting his sincere beliefs in universal harmony and the power of love.
Althamer has asserted that art is a means to communicate the loss of these blissful conditions. Though his statements "If I remained in this state, I would have felt no need to express myself through sculpture" (from a 1993 interview) and further "My interest in figurative sculpture stems from a fascination with divine creation" (from 1997) could be dismissed as the building of an artistic mythos for the sake of self-promotion, it is interesting to consider the artist’s particular notion of "self." In the interviews, one sees that he has a very strong sense of self, but not an individualistic one. Rather the self is a kind of common consciousness that can change addresses and sometimes floats freely. While, like many critics, I am tempted to hurry past Althamer’s unavoidable enthusiasm for New Age realizations, it may be necessary to linger on this X factor. His sense of the soul and/or true self not only provides context for his protean practice; indeed, the almost entirely figurative sculptures begin to look like bodies in wait for souls or even—especially in the case of the groupings—a collective spirit. But also, any discomfort felt at the artist’s insistence on spirituality might also bring into sharper relief the zombification or soullessness of (many discussions on) contemporary art.
Put another way, Althamer’s approach provokes the question of whether the only spirit around is what sociologists Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello call the new spirit of capitalism, a kind of religious belief in the tenets of the free market, among them the logic of profit for individual gain: in Poland, and in a very palpable way, this spirit battles with another dominant spirit, one defined by the Catholic Church. (If organized religion has any purchase these days, it is precisely because it pits itself against the capitalist spirit.) Althamer’s view may be seen as a third way. The emphasis on journeys, both inward (as in the trips documented in So-Called Waves...) and outward, including those involving the artist and his collaborators in venturing abroad for the various segments of Common Task may be seen as paving this uncommon path. His is a protracted experiment in changing addresses. In this approach, the unanswered question remains: what difference does the address of a given spirit make? What happens, for instance, when the Deutsche Guggenheim on Unter den Linden switches addresses with the Almech plastics factory on the outskirts of Warsaw?
The Almech plant has not been financially successful of late, but it remains viable partly due to its new role as an extension of Althamer’s studio, an economic development that speaks volumes about the vital role that contemporary art must negotiate in an era marked by the transition of small industry from manufacturing for the general market to manufacturing for the art market. In Poland, as in China or the former West (the area that was considered the West prior to the collapse of the East-West Cold War divide), art is a curious refuge for enterprises that would otherwise the migration of these places affect the people, including their spirits, working in them? Some people working at Almech will move to the Deutsche Guggenheim; people being the spiritual addresses of much interest to Althamer and perhaps of most importance. Although at first the places may seem to be diametrical opposites, both Almech and the Guggenheim have roots in family businesses. To what extent the spirit of the family enterprise (or of the global franchise, seeing as this is what the Guggenheim has become and what Almech’s move to Berlin hints toward) will infuse each corporation remains to be seen. Althamer’s choice to use Almech’s technologies of plastic-bottle construction alongside plastic casts of the faces of the employees involved further emphasizes the corporation’s capacity for creating art and people. Their bodies are constructed with long plastic strips, Almech’s basic material, that somewhat resemble the bandages we see on zombies in movies or on participants in the proliferating zombie parades; given the small wheels, on which even the reclining figures find themselves, the overall effect edges toward a smoother transportability and even a sense of ethereal fun.
There seems to be an allegory of the, perhaps alienated, contemporary human worker embedded in the tender human faces and the zombie bodies, which make up the sculptures that will be manufactured by Almech and Guggenheim employees at the new Almech plant on Unter den Linden and the new Deutsche Guggenheim outside Warsaw. Besides unraveling these allegories, as one might the bandages of a zombie, it may be worthwhile to look at the closed eyes of the cast faces and consider what they dream of.
Pawel Althamer: Almech
October 28, 2011 - January 16, 2012
Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin