Galerie Christian Nagel, Cologne, Germany
Kai Althoff’s installations, videos and drawings often involve invented stories whose subjects, such as collective consciousness, music and lifestyle, play a crucial part, although in a very hermetic way. While Althoff’s work seems extravagant at first glance, and, in its unconventionality, barely accessible to the viewer, its 70s aesthetic familiar to us through the current revival in fashion and design grants immediate access. For all their underlying absurdity, Althoff’s scenarios never appear implausible. Basically it makes no difference whether one knows the whole story that Althoff has devised for the work in question, but perhaps this is because the story’s primary function is to act as a trigger for his creative activity.
This exhibition ‘Hakelhug’, for example, is not accompanied by an explanatory essay which might enlighten the visitor to the show’s curious title and other obscure references within it. Elsewhere, Althoff has explained that ‘Hakelhug’, is the name of a fictional man who wants to persuade his friends to squat a house in a Cologne suburb. In the exhibition, we see a portrait of this man, which Althoff has made with the help of a record cover and a photocopy machine. He is the bassist from Nektar, a 70s Kraut-rock band whose members lived somewhere near Cologne. Althoff himself is well known as a musician and leader of the band Workshop (their first album, recorded in 1990, could also be described as Kraut-rock). The choice of the central figure tends to suggest a biographical element, perhaps representing the artist’s alter ego. Meanwhile, Althoff has made other records whose styles extend from Kraut-rock to monotonist and completely synthesised music. Sometimes he adapts found acoustic material, combining it with his own instrumental tracks.
The subject described earlier, the squatting of a suburban house, is only implied: what the viewer experiences is an installation occupying the whole space, comprising drawings, sculptures and an acoustic backdrop. Althoff has laid two blue sisal carpets on the gallery floor, and on one of these he has positioned two parallel wooden beams from an old loom. On these beams two glass plates with woollen thread and crocheted strips pressed between them are placed on top of one another. The threads and strips end in balls of wool, stored in a green work-basket. A little figure made from glazed clay sits enthroned on the glass plates. Many other little clay pieces are set out on the second carpet. The statuettes look rather like something made at an evening class. In fact, the figures acquire a certain ambivalence precisely through this combination of an amateurish technique and the contemporary content suggested simultaneously. Bearing Asiatic features, the statuettes link themes such as gender issues and ‘exotic’ otherness, although without showing any striking narrative style. Their tight-fitting clothes and bizarre headgear (which alternates between a crown and a hat) are fashionable elements which reveal Althoff’s interest in contemporary lifestyle.
All the sculptures are turned towards the wall, on which Althoff has directly fastened his unframed drawings. Made from media as divergent as water-colour and felt pen, they include abstract, organic-looking compositions, but also a portrait of ‘Hakelhug’. Elements from nature, such as the branches of a tree or vegetable forms, are depicted repeatedly. In the corner of the space, stands an old tape recorder, from which sounds filter indistinctly into the space. These are the recorded impressions of a forest walk that Althoff used to take regularly with a friend. In addition, he recites his own poems, which also deal with nature. But the sounds are distorted by being played back too quickly or too slowly, making the words hard to understand. In this way, only a vague outline of the actual narrative is given in the exhibition. Nevertheless, one has a sense, an impression of the atmosphere and the setting in which Althoff’s story is based. It is this atmosphere, conveyed to the recipient through sound and vision, that involves one in the exhibition. The formal references to handicraft techniques, crochet and pottery, awaken involuntary associations with one’s own youth. Thus, 30 year-old Althoff’s reminiscences of the 70s, with their echoes of childhood and youth, are, despite the current trendiness of that decade, entirely authentic.
The improvisatory and apparently dilettantish nature of Althoff’s sculptures and drawings, suggests a questioning, a critical analysis, of his own artistic production. In using the forms and techniques of ‘recreational’ art, he brings up the question of the ‘reasonableness’ of his art, thus generating an uncertainty that risks misunderstanding. But, at the same time he considers the relationship between the viewer and the work. By deliberately avoiding refined techniques and smooth, perfect modes of production, Althoff brilliantly walks a tightrope between high and low culture.
Yilmaz Dziewior, translated by Shaun Whiteside