A retrospective can be a classic way of making sense out of something seemingly senseless. Without a doubt the mid-career retrospective of Cologne-based artist Lothar Hempel at Le Magasin, entitled ‘Alphabet City’, fell into this category. Over the last decade Hempel has managed to establish a flexible discourse, following his outspoken rejection of ‘rationalism and logic’.
As a result his work faced the challenge of conceptual ambiguity, making it easy to be overlooked by history’s critical canon. A substantial survey of his oeuvre is therefore a timely way to acknowledge that, in retrospect, everything is done for a purpose.
With ‘Alphabet City’ failure is turned into an accomplishment. The miscommunication of clear-cut ideas appears to be the main objective, demonstrating how Hempel’s artistic production masks its conceptual point of departure instead of communicating it. The artist says his work ‘doesn’t have a beginning or an end’ and describes his creations as ‘situations that have a dreamlike quality’. This not only generates an openness to a large variety of interpretations for the viewer but also engenders an artistic production that is predominantly geared towards its own assemblage: visual references to Greek tragedy, dance, politics and historical eras are juxtaposed with ready-made artefacts and references to sculpture, yet their presentation seems the only thing that is binding them. The overall image remains scraped together, demonstrating that Hempel’s dream is constructed out of the harsh necessities of display.
The posters, paintings, photographs, sculptures and videos that Hempel selected with curator Florence Derieux for ‘Alphabet City’ individually illustrate their inherent mannerism. Sharp silhouettes rule the black and white images of his dancing figures. Their two-dimensionality is enhanced by their inclusion in collages or as blown-up free-standing elements. The wooden frames that support them are for everyone to see and meticulously demystify their illusory impact. Regarding their apparent link with theatrical dramaturgy and expression, Hempel's dancers represent more of a bodily control of creativity instead.
In his photographs Hempel changes the eye colour of music icons Iggy Pop (Renaissance, 2006) and Joy Division front man Ian Curtis (New Dawn Fades, 2003) to pink and blue, interfering with the black and white origins of the images and their sentimental significance in contemporary pop culture. The paintings shown in ‘Alphabet City’ depict free-standing theatrical characters, elegantly shaped en silhouette in front of a monochrome background. Their manner of depiction reflects the exhibition’s general sensibility: their bodies are segmented, built out of individual shapes and colours, and are controlled by the analytical eye of the artist.
Despite the apparently decisive nature of these works, however, Hempel reveals underlying doubts about his processes in the texts that accompany a large part of his work (both within the exhibition and its catalogue). These read like diary extracts, frequently dated and always written in the first person. Charged with a sense of melancholia and expectation – as though the protagonist is hoping to retrace a lost memory – these texts have overtaken their dreamlike quality entirely and represent instead the frustration of waking up. Their fragmented and open structure resonates an echo of a dream followed by the sense of powerlessness at not being able to capture the full capacity of its original impact. Preoccupied with the obvious limitations of reconstructing this lost impact, some texts start to rationalize every hint of euphoria: the sun turns out to be a fake one, mysterious fog is made by a smoke machine and a heightened state of emotion is caused by a mind-expanding drug.
It is this gap between memory and the attempts to describe that memory to the outside world that consistently returns in Hempel’s oeuvre. As in the classical story of Icarus – also the title of a video work from 2002 – men can control their destiny only to a certain degree. Every attempt outside their limits results in having to go back to the drawing board. Hempel shows us that it is hard work to find a balance between creativity and the demands of the public demeanours of art. Yet it is this imbalance that seems to operate as his inspirational fuel. Hempel’s artistic production is laden with high hopes and expectations that draw audiences into his unique and experimental manner of storytelling.