In The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936), John Maynard Keynes describes the human element of the economy as ‘our rational selves choosing between the alternatives as best we are able, calculating where we can, but often falling back for our motive on whim or sentiment or chance.’ The terms ‘whim’, ‘sentiment’ and ‘chance’ appeared in Kathi Hofer’s installation “The state of long-term expectation” restated (all works 2013) printed on three simple white coffee mugs as well as in a photograph of the same three cups (Whim, Sentiment, Chance). Referring to personal longing as well as to the unpredictability of the future, these words also set the tone for the Austrian artist’s first solo exhibition at Galerie Senn, which alluded to the desires and fears of individuals trying to thrive within neo-liberal societies. Considering its mid-January opening, as well as its subject, the show was aptly titled ‘New Year’s Resolutions’.
In “The state of long-term expectation” restated, which formed the centrepiece of the exhibition, Hofer turned the symbolic idea of the empty container into material form. Seemingly setting the scene for an office party, the artist arranged an array of neatly gift-wrapped boxes, white mugs and clear plastic desk organizers on four non-descript office desks. Positioned to form a square, the desks transformed the gallery space into something more like a meeting room. On one of the mugs – all of which Hofer designed herself – the name ‘John’ was printed in black letters. Although this was an obvious reference to Keynes, it also suggested our desire to personalize, and thus animate, even cheap, everyday objects. Boxes of various shapes and sizes were adorned with bows and wrapped in paper decorated with polka dots, roses, hearts and stars in colours ranging from pale turquoise to gold. These mysterious gifts were paired with mugs bearing corporate catchphrases like ‘re-evaluation’ and ‘long-term prospects’ in different typefaces, colours and font sizes. Whereas the mugs were clearly personal and personalized possessions, the wrapped boxes – desirable things to be handled and exchanged with others – introduced a tension between individual aspirations and social relations. The installation, however, certainly did not portray a sentimental picture of desires projected onto inanimate objects. The slogans on the mugs – for instance, ‘It would be foolish, in forming our expectations, to attach great weight to matters which are very uncertain’ – often disturbed the careful equilibrium that the arrangement of the objects conveyed. All of these phrases were taken from Keynes’s writings, yet the workaday environment suggested their displacement from Keynesian economic theory to contemporary, everyday lives.
Four framed photographs hanging on the surrounding walls took their titles from words and phrases printed on the mugs. They showed a selection of the items from the installation, arranged and reproduced as still lifes with a high-gloss, Christopher Williams-like aesthetic. The two-dimensional reproductions, however, foregrounded the works’ auratic qualities rather than their use-value – a reminder that objects in an exhibition are never gifts but items for possession. In the second room of the gallery, High Potential I–V imitated the style of classical portraiture. Each of the five photographs showed a colourful party decoration – either in semi-profile or frontal view – hanging against a white backdrop. Referencing the hyperbole of contemporary management-speak, the works’ titles contrasted with the whimsical paper objects they depicted. They hinted at individuals’ fragile positions in the workplace and at our repeated, annual resolutions to ‘do more’.
Hofer’s ’New Year’s Resolutions’ represented our constant negotiations between personal ambitions and collective expectations. In that sense, the final piece in the show was an almost painful – if slightly too obvious – reminder that some things may always be just out of our reach. Consisting of a stack of wrapped boxes, Gifts was positioned at the bottom of the stairs to the basement gallery. It could be seen from above, yet not accessed.