BY Natalie Haddad in Features | 01 NOV 10
Featured in
Issue 135

In the Dark

Kai Althoff’s enigmatic installations, performances and paintings resist easy answers in their explorations of sexuality and spirituality

BY Natalie Haddad in Features | 01 NOV 10

In the mid-1990s, Kai Althoff was part of a generation of artists (including Cosima von Bonin and Michael Krebber) engaged in multi-disciplinary practices – from art shows to music festivals – in his native Cologne. By the end of the decade, he began to make a series of increasingly introverted and existential shows that established him as a painter, but also raised critical questions of spirituality and sexuality. Althoff’s 2001 show ‘Impulse’ at Anton Kern Gallery in New York included four paintings of Christ, one a faint pencil drawing that disappears into an ether of grey epoxy resin, with only the crucifix in colour (Untitled, 2001), paintings of solitary figures and, more often, groups of men in ominous situations. In another untitled painting from 2001 the conflicted morality of Germany’s early 20th-century history is unfurled in the dark blue suits and pale, scarred faces of two young men and the tenebrous presence of an onlooker in the shadows.

The recurring scenes of groups, especially hierarchical male ones, are less inquiries into group dynamics than renderings of an experience for the viewer to enter. For his 2005 exhibition ‘Solo für eine befallene Trompete’ (Solo for an Afflicted Trumpet) at acme in Los Angeles, this experience moved from two-dimensional painting to consume nearly the entire gallery. ‘Solo für eine befallene Trompete’ was a large-scale installation that reconfigured the gallery space as a Victorian house of spirits. It comprised feminine antiques – mostly dolls, furniture and ribbons – and gauzy fabrics and ephemera such as socks and comic books, together with the artist’s paintings and drawings, hung on the walls or propped against furniture.

Untitled, 2007. Oil, lacquer and dispersion on cloth, 99x92 cm. Courtesy: Gladstone Gallery, New York, and the artist.

Gender and sexuality were the pretexts for the exhibition. In an essay for its 2006 re-installation at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Althoff cites Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s film The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972). He writes that the film is so ‘beautifully artificially set in speech and looks’ that the ‘deep sadness’1 of the subject matter (unrequited homosexual love) can possibly be overcome, and he describes in the essay, an elliptical prose-poem, the urgency of unrequited or impossible love in the film and the exhibition, and the spiritual force pulsating through the objects and the space, the expression of a satanic presence. The objects in the exhibition are intended to overcome the afflicted self by reflecting a more perfect mirror image. To use Friedrich Nietzsche’s term for moral man, they serve to overcome the reactive subject through their (presumed or projected) love for him – the subject desires to be among and ‘repaired’ by his things.

In an Artforum review of 2006, writer Bruce Hainley criticized what he saw as the installation’s failure to commit to any excess. He compared Althoff with ‘netting-and-veil queen[s]’ such as Jack Smith and Bruce Conner. His claim was that Smith’s project of ‘Scheherazade nuttiness and nightshade queerness’ established its own realm of otherness, while Althoff’s installation simply iterated tropes of queerness in its effeminacy and of installation art in its format; the work is ‘“gay” in its signs, although risking no definitive signification’, thus its failure to both commit to an identity or viewpoint and to create something ‘new’.2

In On Nietzsche (1945), Georges Bataille writes: ‘Definition betrays desire. Its aim is the inaccessible summit. But the summit eludes any attempt to think about it. It’s what is. Never what should be’.3 Pressed by an interviewer on the symbolism of Petra von Kant and her lover Karin as surrogates for male homosexual relationships, Fassbinder replied: ‘They are two women, and that’s what they’re supposed to be.’4 To state that Althoff’s exhibition ‘risk[s] no definitive signification’ is to mistake definitive signification for the complexity of a human being. The artist is the artist – not Jack Smith, not an archetype – and that’s what he is supposed to be.

Among the paintings in ‘Solo für … ’, one depicts an upscale apartment interior in which men and women are bound and gagged as two men look on (Untitled, 2004). A dusk cityscape in the background and a moody indigo palette lends the painting a perverse air of sophistication, while two strips of yellow electrical tape cut across the canvas and fetishize a lifeless hanging woman in the foreground. The exhibition’s current of evil emerges in the painting as the misogynistic extreme of hetero-normative masculinity: subjugation through both sex and class by a crowned man. The tape, which might have been a formal device for another artist, is both protection and confinement for the weaker sex. If enmeshing femininity with male homosexuality marked both as immoral, its aim was to question the moral basis of the identification, less in the logic that calls homosexuality ‘wrong’ than in the structural logic that needs an ideological identification to align with a presumed audience (for instance, the contemporary art viewer or the queer artist); one that fails to see its own reflection when it calls the ‘wrong’ one ‘wrong’. (Art world liberalism is predicated on ‘enlightenment’.)

Kai Althoff and Brandon Stosuy 'Mirror Me'. Dispatch, New York, 2009. Installation view including works by Kai Althoff and Lionel Maunz. Courtesy: Dispatch, New York.

In the summer of 2009, Althoff reprised the themes of ‘Solo für eine befallene Trompete’ with Mirror Me, a collaborative ‘exhibition in three movements’, with music writer Brandon Stosuy, culminating in a three-hour performance at the New York gallery Dispatch. Mirror Me was based on Varg Vikernes, founder of the 1990s Norwegian black metal band Burzum. Vikernes became a cult figure after killing his bandmate Øystein Aarseth (aka Euronymous), in 1993. He was released from prison in 2009. For the exhibition’s first two movements, Althoff and Stosuy invited other artists to fill the gallery with works, including a video by controversial musician and writer Peter Sotos (infamous for his books on serial killers and sexually violent crimes) and ritualistic props by artist Lionel Maunz.

For the performance – the third movement – the gallery was painted turquoise on one side and beige on the other and bifurcated by a mirrored Perspex sheet. Althoff installed his own paintings and ephemera and Stosuy brought in black metal records and related media. The evening included live music from the Brooklyn-based black metal band Liturgy. Viewers were let into the space in twos and threes while Stosuy received a tattoo on one side and Althoff – in a bespoke turquoise suit, a wig and what began as a black and white painted face, until sweat muddied it – assumed the role of the dandyish transgressor in contrast with Stosuy’s stoic metal fan; he greeted guests with hugs, mocked Stosuy and visitors in German and English, and received penance for his persona in what became a sort of inverted and fragmented liturgy of sacramental references.5 (If Althoff’s act in Mirror Me had comedic aspects, they were a foil to the conventions of humour in much the same way as, say, Andy Kaufman panhandling on Late Show with David Letterman: when the protocols of the environment are breached, the social exchange is destabilized, and uncertainty leads to discomfort.)

Colliding with real moral questions of sexual guilt and the exaltation of a self-proclaimed satanist who left his bandmate dead with 23 wounds, one issue the exhibition raised was that of self-punishment. The Christian paradigm of penitential self-punishment is predicated on purification. If submitting to the will of another is a means of deifying the other, it creates a holy relationship for both. We presume that Vikernes would want the artist dead based on his anti-gay rhetoric. (As Stosuy has pointed out, Aarseth was rumoured to be gay.) By approving the death sentence, however, the artist grants Vikernes the authority of a god and locates his own value precisely in his acquiescence to the authority. Self-punishment is therefore also a mode of control that succeeds by destabilizing a power centre. Total submission to an aggressor undermines the act of aggression by removing the surface of resistance. A printed and recorded dialogue between Althoff and Stosuy, which was available to read at the performance, addresses issues of sexual preference and race through a language of moral sickness and purification. By unironically indicting himself as sinful through a cycle of transgression and punishment, expressed in the performance and the dialogue, the artist’s gay, bi-racial dandy (Wynton Marsalis was invoked in the show as the inverse to Vikernes) pulls the rug of righteousness out from under both Vikernes’ neo-Nazi and the secular art establishment. Althoff further derails the terms of rational communication, as he derails Stosuy’s rationality, through his use in the dialogue of poetic phrasing, and awkward shifts and punctuation. When Stosuy discusses the disparity between the media creation and the ‘real’ Vikernes, he responds, ‘I thought of him as such, that if he was to set up a new world I will not be in it / I will have to go / For I am sick.’

By the final movement of Mirror Me Vikernes was little more than a figurehead to rub up against. Given the context of a contemporary art gallery, he was, in part at least, the butt of a joke that began with his transition in prison from an angry youth to a middle-aged rocker riding on his reputation. But the reality of his history – of murder, church burnings and Burzum – was equally a laceration of any social structure, including the gallery, that attempts to dominate something by laughing at it, or naming what it is. Althoff’s work offers no stability or solace. Instead, it suggests that any effort to turn uncertainty into certainty can only fail. It undoes certainty because it understands that it can be undone. It fails to stall at ‘what is’.

Natalie Haddad is a writer based in Los Angeles, USA.