Doing a jigsaw puzzle calls for the virtues of patience and stamina: checking piece after piece to see if each one fits. A little modesty comes in handy too, since the result is limited to one specific picture, with no possibility for free creativity. There’s an interesting duality – if not a touch of mockery – when the puzzle involves putting together an image of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Tower of Babel (1563), since this painting addresses the very different virtues of arrogance and excess.
Such a puzzle was included in Hans Schabus’s show Arbeiterstrandbad (Workers’ Lido). This title – a tribute to the centenary of the eponymous Viennese bathing facility –already alluded to a jigsaw’s inherent blend of work and leisure. Yet in his work Der Turmbau zu Babel (The Tower of Babel, 2012), Schabus showed, not the front of the puzzle, but its reverse side: a monochrome, pale green surface. He thus drew attention to another dual reference that ran through the show: figuration and abstraction. For the artist, the two elements are not an either-or opposition, nor a question of artistic or even cultural sophistication. Instead these elements influence each other, leading or following by turns.
This conviction was exemplified by two other works. Köpfe (Heads, 2012) is a series of roughly worked, angular wooden objects which were nicely hung along the length of the gallery space. These objects are in fact traditional Sri Lankan masks left in a half-finished state; their final form is just emerging while their original state – abstract, quasi-minimalist – can still be seen. The reverse is true in Faust (Fist, 2012): collages displayed in the gallery’s back room. Abstraction follows figuration in these works; their networks of lines and patches of colour – superimposed on photographs of clenched fists – are based on human shapes. A stack of empty puzzle boxes stood nearby on the floor; each box had a round hole cut in the middle, as if it had been drilled through vertically. This negative manifestation of an architectural form evoked not only the tower of Babel but also Schacht von Babel (The Shaft of Babel, 2003). For this spectacular intervention, Schabus made a vertical shaft under his studio by tunnelling down through the floor.
In this exhibition, as in many previous ones, the artist created a network of references which met at specific points and were loosely connected to his artistic activity as well as to the medium of sculpture. But a certain modesty hung over this network, which was missing the direct, often physical intervention that has become his trademark. Instead of big installations with excavations and piles of material – hard work! – this show was a small, ordered display, which provided access to his conceptual cosmos in a compact form.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell