When contemporary art tackles the theme of memory, it tends to do so indirectly. Its immediate subject is usually memory’s mediation – typically in photography or film – by which the medium’s unreliability serves as a metaphor for the past’s elusiveness. In Martin Honert’s solo exhibition ‘Kinderkreuzzug’ (Children’s Crusade), a selection of 29 of his key works, the ghost of photographic illusion is very much present. But Honert inverts the more common trope exemplified by Gerhard Richter’s photo-paintings: rather than illusion commenting on the real, Honert asks the real – in sculptural form – to represent the illusion of memory.
Paradoxically, Honert deploys the robust forms of 3D modelling to describe the most ephemeral subject matter – memories of his own childhood. His aim is always mimesis, mostly of quotidian objects, occasionally of mythical creatures, pop-cultural quotes or figures mediated into notations by a child’s drawing. But the sculptures are not effective as trompe l’oeil simulacra. Their language overcompensates for what cannot be defined with a bland and sometimes unctuous resolution and finish, more cartoonish than hyperreal. It remains suggestively unclear whether the expediency of his representation is an intentional conceit or a helpless approximation of an elusive subject.
It is curious, given this fertile gap between scarcity of evidence and the explicitness of the artifice, that Honert’s art is not more concerned with failure. His investment in representational truth as an absolute, non-relativistic value is difficult to reconcile with his idiom’s lack of doubt. Where uncertainty impinges, Honert tends to invent detail to obscure it. Whereas Richter (who taught at Kunstakademie Düsseldorf when Honert was a student there in the 1980s) brushes out descriptive detail to leave his paintings truer to memory’s ambiguities, Honert posits mimetic assiduousness as directly corresponding to the accuracy of its mnemonic link. His belief in this dubious logic can shade into naivety, but at times it meets the childhood innocence of his theme in a magical symbiosis.
At the show’s entrance, two tables face each other across the gallery, differing in that the first – part of Table with Jell-O, Red Upholstered Chair (1983) – has been created from memory; the second – from Foto (Photo, 1993) – from a photograph. Next to the former table is a red chair lit up from within by a reddish glow, evoking the luminosity of memory. We might expect that Honert’s attempt to objectify an evanescence that, by definition, resists being pinned down would seem ironic, but his incontrovertible idiom is oblivious to scepticism or irony. The table from Foto, meanwhile, appears to have been lightly sprayed with charcoal dust to represent the shadows in the photograph on which Honert modelled it. Rather than a critique of photography’s claims to realism, this chiaroscuro registers as a default activity engaging Honert’s representational energies in the absence of a satisfactory object for them to grasp. In this gap between technique and its ostensible object, yearning collects.
Honert’s three-dimensional scrutiny of photography is as close as sculpture comes to raising the dead. He bypasses the contemporary mode of medium-critical self-reflexivity, and deploys the photograph to displace the sculptural image from an object that cannot be directly testified to because it no longer exists, except in its photographic trace. The clunky literalness of Group Photo of Prefects (2012) – a life-sized polyurethane sculptural rendition of a photograph of six teachers at the boarding school Honert attended in the 1960s – is a self-proclaimed weakness that allows us to patronize Honert as a hammy entertainer just long enough for the emotion in the piece to surface. In their boxy suits and with their polished grey skins, the teachers resemble stage props, but they are alarmingly present in a way that pictorial illusion, properly self-professing in the self-reflexive manner, can never be.
Dormitory, Fragment (2010) is another photographic conceit. In this installation, the glowing chair of Table with Jell-O has become an illuminated wardrobe and bed, mimicking a photographic negative. Installed on islands of fake linoleum, the sculptural tableau is far too exposed – to extend the photographic metaphor – to tally with the fugitiveness of the memory it purported to embody: that of a young boy’s loneliness and confinement.
Honert’s painstaking reconstruction of lost experience recalls William S. Burroughs’ definition of paranoia as ‘having all the facts’. Emphatic mimesis erects a wall of observed/invented detail to override uncertainty. House (1988), for example, is a doll-house-sized model of an average German dwelling, appealing and sinister in equal measure, as if meticulous detail, applied to so undistinguished a subject, must be a front for something unwholesome. But Linden (1990), a metre-high model of a linden tree, appears as an expression of unambiguous affirmation, even as its specificity to its subject is ultimately solipsistic, more a record of its own elaborate act of verisimilitude than of the tree that triggered the process. In both works, Honert’s representational zeal – in excess of its referent – becomes the true subject, conveying an emotion, whether of fear or of celebration, which definitively replaces the absent object just as it designates it as definitively absent.