in Opinion | 01 NOV 10
Featured in
Issue 135

Altar Modern

New approaches to evoking the idea of death

in Opinion | 01 NOV 10

Philip Pichler, Untitled, 2010. 

Is art becoming spiritual? At the open house at the Academy of Fine Arts, Hamburg, last June, some first-year students – Jasmin Böschen, Pola Fendel and Lisa Horning – showed mini-collections of small-scale works, crowded on top of each other like so many relics. At the Rijksakademie’s ‘Open’ event in November last year, some installations looked downright devotional, from the flickering candles in Melanie Bonajo’s The Grand Exploring Soul and the Point Where History Failed (2009) to the coin offerings scattered around Frank Koolen’s Lucky Jack’s (2009).

My favourite work in Hamburg was Philip Pichler’s Untitled (2010): the roof of a bus shelter turned into a wishing well with golden coins glowing auratically in the sun. Invisible to commuters waiting in the shelter, the installation could be seen only if one happened to wander out on the academy's fourth-floor balcony and look down. More than wishes, Pichler’s coins suggested the zillions in public money handed out by governments to save banks while the public itself could only dream of such assistance from above – and dream in vain, as many who lost their livelihoods ended up in these and other types of shelters.

Such installations recall Thomas Hirschhorn’s perishable monuments to late writers, such as his Ingeborg Bachmann Altar installed at Berlin’s Alexanderplatz subway station in 2006. The many delicate items remained intact, despite thousands of passers-by, from daily commuters to nocturnal revellers. Even vandals did not strike. Hirschhorn’s monument possibly had more authority and autonomy than public property because most people saw it as a makeshift memorial to someone who had died on that spot. There’s nothing like death to incite reverential distance.

In contrast to Hirschhorn, the younger artists did not memorialize the dead, and they opted for altar-like displays in an exhibition space, not a public space – except Pichler. His coins were not sacrifices, while Koolen’s Lucky Jack’s was named after a casino. Both artists seemed to explore the magical force of money, beyond purchasing power. Tossed coins represent a profanity of the religious sacrificial altar as well as the cult of capitalism. What good is money thrown away and unable to circulate?

Bonajo’s candle-lit objects – masks, stained-glass windows made with coloured tissue paper, an electric kettle – formed a ‘global mega culture, where the collectiveness of everything is increasing’, according to the artist. Fendel crowded into a corner more than 50 small drawings, photographs and private mementos, while Horning installed twice as many photographs, figurative drawings and paintings like wallpaper, from ceiling to floor. In a presentation more reminiscent of a shrine than a museum, Böschen placed framed drawings and photographs of a body over each other instead of treating the picture frames as untouchable and impassable borders.

As Böschen’s overlapping frames suggest, the sacred cult value proper to religions may be infringing upon the secular exhibition value proper to museums, although such an infringement does not always involve a religious faith. Walter Benjamin famously made the distinction between cult value and exhibition value, while noting how German Idealists confounded these polar opposites in the profane idea of beauty. Consider the ritual of art lovers in the 18th century travelling to Florence – or these days, to the Venice Biennale (next year the Vatican will have its first national pavilion). Today, celebrity culture confounds a cult value of followers (fans, rss feeds, Facebook friends) with an exhibition value of visibility (paparazzi shots, Flickr, YouTube). The aura is no longer Benjamin’s sense of ‘distance, however close’, but thrives in mobility, omnipresence and instantaneous proximity.

While the works at the Rijksakademie and the Hamburg academy drew on both cult and exhibition values, I don’t believe the artists were extolling celebrity culture, beauty or religion. These works had a singular presence without uniqueness – it’s hard to ignore, or to individualize, piles of objects. For me, they gained authority and autonomy by evoking the idea of death instead of dead people. In a global mega culture where the collectiveness of everything is increasing, death can distinguish an art work from everything else.

Another hint lies in Seth Price’s essay ‘Dispersion’ (2002), which examines how our culture of online sharing frustrates the monumental model of public sculpture. Situated at a singular point in space and time, traditional public sculpture requires direct communal experience, which the Internet makes obsolete. Since collective experience is increasingly based on simultaneous, distant and private experiences, sharing physical space becomes a monumental pilgrimage for any sculpture, not just public sculpture. Younger artists – digital natives thriving on circulation – may view any object that stays put at a singular point in space and time like a tossed coin: out of circulation, if not dead. While mourning direct communal experience, these artists may view death as the last way to bring people physically together.