What do distressed jeans, bank bail-outs and immunology have in common? After seeing Felix Kultau’s deliberately damaged, slightly retro exhibition ‘Too Big To Fail’ – and with the financial overtones of the show’s title in mind – here’s my guess: each tries to ward off major future disasters by enacting minor damages beforehand (a ripped knee, a loan to climb out of debt, a virus). It’s a contradiction, sure, but a system can be kept from failing by slightly breaking it pre-emptively.
This kind of logic was palpable in Kultau’s distressed light-boxes, sculptures and prints at his second solo show at fiebach, minninger. The pieces took up the motifs of collapse, finance and biology, but also reached elsewhere: pseudo-science, subcultures, design furniture, the consumer ideology. Often the show was goofy and green, stuffed with comic gangrene, as if in a sci-fi B-movie. The black light-bulb affixed to a post in Magic Wand (all works 2012) seemed like a microphone absurdly amplifying the sound of a sleek metal grid it leaned up against. The minimal sculpture Boyz Noize comprised two marble, Zen-garden versions of skateboards, frozen mid-ollie.
Usually, the frayed look is an admission of the Romantic notion that time affects all things, that all shall become ruin. Not so for Kultau, whose industrial motifs and plays of washed-out patterns (like the series of abstract prints, ‘Tarot Sports’) suggest more cultural refuse than natural overgrowth. Kultau playfully scrambles the semantic resonances of various furniture-wood choices (walnut, mahogany, zebrawood), lending some of his sculptures – which often look like home deco options or furniture – a sleek ‘lifestyle’ vibe, as if they belonged in a Reagan-era domestic interior.
‘Too big to fail’ is an American term from the 1980s that originally stood for the necessity to uphold (or bail out) financial institutions; the phrase has more recently become shorthand for the Icarus-like hubris of contemporary banking practices. At first, the title put me off – another Wall Street-related one-liner? – but I relented when I saw the theme’s formal extension in PREDETERMINED (POINT DE RUPTURE). The sculpture is an oversize railway sleeper made of American walnut, split in two upon a thin slab of teal and black MDF. The broken rectangular block doesn’t look like it snapped due to some outside force; more likely, it outgrew itself somehow and burst under the weight of its own expansion (just like a housing bubble).
The bubble motif – those disquieting enclosures that break down as they grow – recurred in the show’s five light-boxes. Graze and Sun Death Flavour (Bailout) looked like vandalized bathroom cabinets where someone had scratched in some phrase – in the latter piece, the word ‘bailout’ in runic font. Fontana/Black Box, a steel-and-glass neon box, looked like a Paul Thek reliquary retrofitted with electrical plugs and a fluorescent ring inside. The light-box Atom Heart Mother looks like a broken, ’60s-era sideboard emptied out and turned into a free-standing diorama of pink and green radioactive moss (actually, layers of aluminium). The work takes its title from a Pink Floyd album from 1970, which befits the contained dystopianism and humoured sulkiness at play – like a teenage stoner in his parents’ basement. The coloured electrical cables jutting from the light-boxes began to seem, to me, like guitar cords slithering out into the wall.
Near the entrance to the gallery, two framed prints displayed the letters ‘ODAL’ and ‘SQUE’, respectively, in seemly, Vogue-style serif. Above these, the artist scribbled a cursive ‘M’ and ‘E’, turning (presumably) ‘odalisque’, or concubine, into ‘modalesque’ (like la mode, ‘modelesque’ or modular furniture). The pair was charged yet subtle, allotting a sensitive irony to a group of works that seemed muscular, even abrasively ‘cool’. These two prints largely redeemed the sleekness of Kultau’s sculptures, bailing them out with refreshing self-awareness: the awareness that the flip-side to Kultau’s own modelesque artistry is the odalisque behind it all, serving the demands of this or that fashion.