The story so far: you've forgotten what year it is. You've been travelling for a long time and you feel a little bewildered. You're walking down a street when a door to a theatre swings open. You enter, feeling like a trespasser but curious nonetheless. The theatre is deserted, full of echoes. It looks as if the play has finished and everyone has gone home and the stage - empty and expectant - is about to be transformed into something else. You wander around, look at the sets (which, as you have no idea what the play's about, look like sculptures), at the lights, at the scattered residue of itinerant human occupation, searching for clues as to why you might have been so wordlessly invited in. Pink and yellow perspex sheets hang from the ceiling, momentarily dazzling drab corners with flashes of colour. Snapshots of people you don't know have been left in a dressing room, along with an undated diary which you read. You feel perplexed and slightly mesmerised by the situations and people the unknown author describes - dreamy travellers and post-apocalyptic landscapes, puzzling exchanges and dysfunctional gestures. It's impossible to tell whether this scenario is a work of fiction or of fact, whether it's heartfelt or obliquely manipulative of its audience - which is what you have unwittingly become. Walking down a hushed corridor, odd scraps of paper with indecipherable messages blow across your path. On one wall, someone has pinned a delicate, inscrutable drawing. There's a whirring projection in a dark corner. The people in it smoke a lot and seem subdued, their melancholy thoughts - about silence, birds, love, violence - float as subtitles, beneath them. All of the windows in the theatre are either boarded up, or part of a set: as if they've become the idea of windows - structures which let in nothing but their own expressive duplicity. Experienced individually, perhaps none of these things would amount to much. Experienced together, associations begin to hum, as potent as they are unavoidable. You become more and more aware of a charged atmosphere of anticipation: the building and the objects that inhabit it so silently seem to be waiting for something. Which they are. Without participants, a theatre - like an empty gallery - is simply another blank-faced building. But blank-faced buildings don't exist in the strange world of Lothar Hempel: absence isn't the same as emptiness. If they're blank, it doesn't mean they're vacant. It means they're resisting your gaze, hiding something, waiting for someone to bring it to life.
All spaces demand some form of participation from the people who move through them, but none more self-consciously than theatres and galleries - places where things mean other things and words wrestle with other words. Halfway houses between the world and its reflection, they are as haunted by the past as they are obsessed with their potential: buffers or channels between perception and the objects or places we need to interpret it. By proposing the gallery space as analogous to the constantly changing space of the stage, Hempel emphasises how flimsy, even interchangeable, the structures integral to the development of any form of representation are. 'Art has played itself out and must become theatrical to preserve itself - its objects must become performance like to have effect and meaning' wrote Donald Kuspit. 1 Hempel suggests a similar, if less dogmatic system. If Modernism expunged context for the sake of content, he does the opposite - cramming images so full of references and ideas that it's difficult to know where to start looking at them.
Trying to make sense of Hempel's most recent New York installation, 'America Disappears, the Smile Remains', is like trying to unravel the complicated mind of a talented teenager: it changed its mind, medium and look at every turn, seemed to enjoy telling stories as much as it did in withholding the ending, wanted to be a performer but was too shy, was preoccupied with travelling and romantic love and shot through with a atmosphere of stoned disorientation and amplified reverie. It gave you the sense that although the outside world may be exciting, it's also intrusive and best experienced at that most transitional time of day, twilight. None of which, I hasten to add, is a criticism. (After all, Rimbaud was a teenager). It made something new and positive out of the remnants of that which has all but disappeared: the idea of both art and America as an homogenous entity.
A magazine cut-out of a girl with an axe, mounted on MDF, peers through two tall faux-stage sets. On top of one sits a cartoony sculpture of a Gorilla's head. Titled Leave All the Rest Behind (1999), the work is cryptic, to say the least. What's to be left behind? Who or what are 'All the rest'? Categories? Logic? Precedents? People you don't like? (Girl with axe to grind? Gorilla warfare?). Who knows? Who to ask? This semantic confusion played conceptual tag with the installation opposite it: A Simple Story (1999), another large, speckled MDF cut-out, this time of boy on a semi-legless red-eyed pony with a large light bulb glowing in its shoulder - a sombre, dappled resurrection permanently stilled in the act of emerging from the floor. Images might complement words, and words might refer to images, but nonetheless, their relationship is usually a difficult one - both need to speak a second language in order to understand each other. Hempel's titles-as-proposals (for example, A Clear Almost Singing Voice, 1997, Black Ebb, Hot Flow, 1997, Loose Laughter, 1999, Only the Smile Remains 1999, Akin to Shadows, 1999) reflect this conundrum: refusing to clarify exactly what they're proposing while cultivating an atmosphere of associations. They're like poetic pokes in the eye to anyone who assumes titles exist to explain - rather than extend - the meaning of the work.
Cut-outs of desolate shacks, vague foliage, large plywood people and mysterious titles hang around Hempel's shows like mute, brooding extras in an uprising that refuses to state its agenda. Intricately drawn, they often glow with electric bulbs, have holes in unexpected places, and are full of allusions to impermanence - shadows, smiles, songs. It's possible to look at them from any angle - you can walk through them, look through them, get behind them. Like sets, they split the exhibition space into a series of obliquely interrelated images - movement, youth, stories, escape - activated into changing colours by the simple pink or yellow perspex sheets which hang from the ceiling like internal windows. Implying a world outside the gallery, these huge faces stare beyond you with a self-absorption that can make you look over your shoulder - what could they possibly see that you can't? Casual photographs of people you've never met are pinned to the back of these structures and beg the question - who's looking at who, and why?
Hempel's retro-futuristic drawings and collages - usually untitled - veer between vague abstraction, pop-saturated images from magazines, fragile line drawings of disaffected, often deformed youth, and a kind of Boys Own obsession with men in uniform. Their confusion emanates a very late 20th-century feeling: a conflicting mix of potential and unease; that for every statement and every image holding centre stage, its opposite is waiting in the wings to contradict it. Areas of abstraction, for example, are toughened up by their proximity to a hard-eyed girl; a soldier is softened by his seemingly random relationship to a fey youth; a self-portrait abstracted with a patch of bright blue. There's nothing hard sell or slick about these images - they're often a little grubby and as determinedly casual as a doodle. This is drawing not as a manifesto, but as a registering of the passage of a restless imagination: an imagination cluttered with possibility and unhindered by reason.
Hempel has spoken of being a teenager in Germany in the late 70s and early 80s, overwhelmed by the feeling that the end of society as he knew it was imminent. His development of a visual language that might appropriately express a feeling of renewal through the destruction of old forms is echoed in Robert Morris' writing of the early 80s: 'An emotional weariness with what underlies them [Modernist forms] has occurred. I would suggest that the shift has occurred with growing awareness of the more global threats to the existence of life itself.' 2 Emotional weariness particularly suffuses Hempel's two screen video Deuce (1996-99) - a love story, a road movie and a study in political malaise. One screen is saturated in blue (a study in reverie), while the other one, which is red, casually tells a story: 'Recently we fell into the habit of blowing up bridges after we had crossed them. We simply took pleasure in studying the bridge for a while and discovering the weak point and then making it collapse with the smallest amount of explosive but it turns into an addiction.' Indifference bleeds into violence in the same way that boredom can facilitate change. Interspersed with intimate revelations and aphorisms ('intuition suddenly matters', 'one sees that all is transparent') and accompanied by the music of Hempel's band Trinkwasser, the film meanders without conclusion, a frustrated exploration ennui, unfocussed need and deferred desire.
Lengthy stories - pinned to the wall like drawings - read like diaries, and although unspecific about time, intimate a post-apocalyptic atmosphere that seeps into your understanding of Hempel's other work. These scenarios function like unstructured chapters in a never-to-be-finished novel: populated by young people who need to find different ways to survive and who are constantly on the move, their only baggage a pile of metaphors, as mesmerised by each other as they are by the world they find themselves moving through. Their tone is not so much anxious about the unnamed disaster they have survived as filled with the joys of renewal and a heightened awareness of the beauty of the world: 'I don't need your film anymore, she tells me. I keep my eyes open, I'm continually on the move and the film I see is what goes on around me. She laughs, and for a moment, I almost envy her.'
If all the world's a stage, sometimes life can feel like a stage you're going through. Hempel's theatricality, predicated on the belief that an audience will actually work as hard as he wants them to, is earnest, unsceptical and more than a little idealistic. He treats the world like a giant ready-made on the move, encouraging art - as an object, an idea or a style - to dematerialise into different realms. It's an approach which reflects a greater disintegration - that of knowing what art should do or be anymore, apart the one thing it's always been - a medium for change and an often conflicting fusion of ideas and images. Alluding to the stage, but exploiting the absence of performers, he asks nothing less than that the viewer become at once actor (an improvisational one at that) and spectator, taking an active role in the interpretation and creation of meaning - a meaning which emerges in his work in a way comparable to the way it emerges in life: as flashes of intuition, moments of clarity and usually inconclusively; through the fragments, connections, signs and sounds of our environments.
1. Donald Kuspit, 'The Ars Moriendi according to Robert Morris', The New Subjectivism: Art in the 1980s, UMI Research Press, 1989