In a 2010 interview with German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, Sylvester Stallone revealed that the first thing he does every morning is sweep up the straw that has fallen off his Anselm Kiefer paintings. This anecdote about Rambo’s humility came to mind when I was walking around Inge Mahn’s show at Galerie Kadel Willborn, Düsseldorf. On the floor beneath almost every work are scatterings of dust and granules of plaster – sometimes more, sometimes less. Mahn’s preferred material – crudely mixed, uncoloured plaster, which contains visible particles of dust – imbues her objects with a certain brittleness. But this fragility goes beyond material alone, extending into the composition of the sculptures. Balancing Ball (2017) comprises an upturned chair, its four inverted legs supporting a large sphere. The precarious assemblage is held in place by a thin string, which prevents the chair from falling. Directly opposite is Balancing Chair (2017), the same set-up but in reverse: a large ball rests on the floor, a chair balanced on its spherical cap. The wobbly ensemble is not secured in any way.
This delicate fragility is further evidenced by Standing Curtains (2017), a series of seven freestanding plaster columns in the shape of curtains that are distributed throughout the gallery’s main room. The almost ceiling-high monoliths, which Mahn makes by smearing plaster onto raw sackcloth, freeze and fix the loose sway of the curtains’ folds; in spite of this, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the sculptures might fall on me as soon as someone opened the door and let in a gust of wind. This impression is likely by design: the works are balanced, but remain at the mercy of external forces, which at any point could upset the equilibrium and destroy them once and for all. Visitors, too, run the risk of becoming such an external force, or are convinced as such.
Approach the curtains and it will become clear that Mahn’s focus is on shape and not the treatment of surfaces. This explains her use of plaster, the standard for props and models, which captures ideas in a raw, prototypical state. The works appear as if executed quickly (and with the artist’s own hands), only to be allowed to crumble away once more: less fully formed objects than provisional sketches.
Mahn’s earlier works, especially her contribution to Harald Szeemann’s documenta 5 (1972), Schulklasse (Class, 1970), a row of plaster elementary school desks, shoulder more narrative. At Galerie Kadel Willborn, this aspect of her oeuvre is represented by Column in Boots (2016), which delivers on its title’s promise: a broken column of whitewashed plywood; a pair of black rubber boots peeking from under its base, as if it were alive. Mahn’s visual pun, which recalls the work of Erwin Wurm, refers to the idea of the column as a supportive structure, quipping that, when it is no longer required to stand, it might as well walk. And here we loop back to the curtains – purposeless, they stand frozen, when they might as well collapse to the floor.
When Mahn playfully undercuts the notions of the supporting column or the suspended curtain, when she operates within the domain of structural equilibrium, she positions her work at the point where balance tips into its opposite – and vice versa. It should therefore come as no surprise that in such unstable times, after so many years of obscurity, Mahn is being appreciated once more, with her repertoire of chairs, curtains and columns, many of which are set up to support one another, irresistibly reminding of the ease at which it can all come tumbling down.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell
Main image: Inge Mahn, 2018, installation view, Kadel Willborn, Düsseldorf. Courtesy: Kadel Willborn, Düsseldorf; photograph: Simon Vogel