Henning Bohl’s second solo show at Johann König, ‘Cornet of Horse’, comprised a series of 16 sculptures, all made in the same distinct manner to resemble functionless tables: the ‘table tops’ consist of wooden canvas stretchers, on which the artist had placed various boards; the legs are mostly made out of ‘Schultüten’ (which roughly translates to ‘school cones’) – cardboard cones which are usually filled with sweets and given to children in Germany and Austria on their first day of school. Some of the cones Bohl uses are brightly coloured, others are patterned with typical kids’ motifs: horses, cats, cars, Star Wars characters, dragons. With the frames balancing precariously on the cones, the sculptures felt rickety, almost as if they could collapse (though sturdier legs are in fact hidden inside). In pieces such as Pioneers or MTV cribs crib (all works 2011), the board forms an arched roof, giving it the impression of a fragile hut on cardboard stilts. Bohl’s repeated, basic construction elements – cones, wooden stretchers and boards – also evoked another childhood memory: a modelling kit.
Bohl’s works could be seen as making nonchalant use of the stripped-down elements of painting extended into three-dimensional space, while also playing with the notion of art as interior design by literally converting paintings into tables. But central to this exhibition was the artist’s economical use of the gallery: only four of the sculptures were shown in the large main space, each accompanied by a single plain white cardboard cone, which acted as a kind of location marker. The remaining 12 could be found in a smaller space at the end of the main room. Here they stood cramped, packed and densely stacked, almost as if the room were a storage space guaranteeing a constant supply for the front room as each of the works was sold. Bohl referred to the front gallery as the ‘show room’ and the back space as a ‘garage’ – applying terms from the world of car dealing to the one of art dealing.
As much as ‘Cornet of Horse’ was originally an attempt to expand the painted field into sculptural space, it ended up being as much a play on the meaning of the very concrete space in which the show took place. This focus on the exhibition context was even more apparent considering that Bohl showed the exact same group of works in his recent exhibition at the Kunstverein in Hamburg, even giving the same title to both shows. In Hamburg, the series was shown together with older works: a typical institutional show with a clear retrospective character – which left Bohl’s table sculptures to be perceived as the latest result of his ongoing artistic production. At Johann König, the same works were presented without a supporting or narrative context, leaving the impression of mass-produced objects ready to be sold.
Bohl sites this repetition as a means of tackling today’s steady pressure on artists to constantly produce new works and to come up with fresh ideas for each exhibition. Where others might produce multiple pieces in the same vein, Bohl calls his strategy of re-showing exactly the same works ‘self sampling’. According to Bohl, this allows the artist to gain time for the more important things in life – things not related to art. This self-sampling might be understood as an attempt to embrace exhaustion as a critically valuable strategy and a form of artistic critique. But isn’t this too simple a way out of the economic and creative pressures of the art-world system? Bohl’s strategy is a self-reflexive one, concerned more with the modes of production than with the actual works produced. All that was needed to make the same works function in a different context was a small twist, a ‘weak tweak’, and a consciously lazy joke. Just give everyone what they want: give the institution its retrospective show, give the gallery its sales exhibition. If it’s already ironically distanced – even better. All that was left here was the quiet purring of efficiency.