I didn’t know Helena Huneke. I’d seen a few of her works in various group shows and read her writings here and there in different publications. But I do know, to varying degrees, some of the friends and acquaintances with and for whom she made her art – and helped put together this untitled exhibition at Halle für Kunst Lüneburg. Following her death in 2012, it’s hard to write about this exhibition, the first major solo show of Huneke’s work. It’s hard not to write a first-hand account or obituary, with so little clarity of hindsight. Hard not least when one takes into account the cruel logic of the art world: once again, it is stupid death that draws attention, writes the text, constructs art history. Not life.
This show offered a cross-section of Huneke’s life’s work. There were two of her early sculptures, made for a diploma project at Hamburg’s University of Fine Arts (HFBK) in 1995: deconstructed and fragile everyday objects, a stool with a carpet runner instead of a seat (the seat on the floor in front of it), and another with an ornate but crude-looking backrest (Geschichtenerzähler and Voyeuse, Storyteller and Voyeuse, both 1995). At the entrance, a kind of swallow’s nest hung in a corner (title and year unknown), cobbled together out of a tub, wooden laths and pieces of fabric. In front of the window was a shoe-topped sculpture made of a pair of two-metre poles with a brown cape buttoned around them (Das Gewand, The Robe, 1999).
More sculptures and objects (some of them with unknown titles and dates) stood on a long shelf along the gallery’s end wall, including a thing slightly resembling a hat, made out of a lampshade, a jacket and a scrap of cloth with a playing card stuck on the front. Or this other thing with roller skates underneath, wooden laths on top, and another jacket. The overall impression was one of both insolent aggression and great fragility: fabrics, often dirty and crumpled; worn items of clothing without people, themselves a little anthropomorphic, almost alive, but spent, in a state of decay.
Then there were the painterly works, most unframed, more loose sheets than stretched canvases; a whole series of works on paper; and four vitrines full of ephemera. Scribbled drawings, fragmentary texts, invitation cards, collages, photographs of exhibitions, artworks and people, assembled materials from performance scripts to recipes. In the mid-1990s, every Tuesday Huneke turned her Hamburg apartment into a restaurant for friends (‘NÄCHSTER DIENSTAG RESTAURANT / an alle, die mich kennen’ – NEXT TUESDAY RESTAURANT / to everyone that knows me’), the same apartment she would transform into ‘Galerie Balduin’ for occasional exhibitions.
For Huneke friends and kindred spirits clearly occupied an important place. At the end of the 1990s, the artist was part of Hamburg’s Akademie Isotrop, an alternative art school and later art collective whose members included artists like Birgit Megerle, Markus Selg, Stefan Thater, Susanne M. Winterling and Jonathan Meese: a tight circle (‘I’m loyalty’ was written on a scrap in one of the vitrines). Huneke’s intimate writings reveal a great sensibility for what it is to be an artist, and for gender concerns (‘So don’t come to me later with your stigmatized breasts!’). Huneke wrote with both tenderness and commitment, linking the private and the public. She often sounds angry, as when she writes ‘artists are not objects of speculation’. Her writing has a ragged quality to it, wrung from a restless identity constantly struggling with itself and its circumstances.
Looking back through these small, ephemeral exhibits, it is hard not to associate, as Huneke herself did, the fragility of her artworks with her life. And yet Huneke’s works as gathered together in this show still spoke to an unexpected and irrepressible energy, for letting things flow rather than standing still. Is that assumption right? I don’t know, I didn’t know her. But that’s how it seems.
A photograph showed a dog kennel sculpture, its roof covered in fabric. According to the handwritten inscription under the picture, the work is called Hundehütte (Dog Kennel) and was probably made sometime in the late 1990s. The inscription continues: ‘Owned by Herbert Volkmann’. Volkmann, a fellow artist, died last year, two years after Huneke. The artwork, a mangy dog kennel. Its documentation, a blurry photograph. Its provenance proof of two deaths. An artwork that, strictly speaking, no longer belongs to anyone; it may no longer even exist. Death hand in hand with death. Though I’m not personally affected, somehow it does affect me tremendously. It is right and important that this exhibition took place.