Simultaneously announcing the title of Monty Richthofen’s solo exhibition and giving a hint of the droll social commentary to come, Cheap Hedonism (2021) – a red canvas daubed in sloping, black letters with the titular phrase – hangs in the gallery’s foyer. While it might be his first show at Berlin’s Dittrich & Schlechtriem, Richthofen, who is also known by his Instagram alias Maison Hefner, has already garnered a significant following on social media for his experimental performative project ‘My Words Your Body’ (2017–19), in which he tattooed his unique brand of nihilistic poetry onto willing participants – with the final product revealed only at the end of the session.
In the first half of the gallery’s subterranean space, Richthofen, an obsessive journaler, has installed framed groups of handwritten notes, transcribed in blue or black ballpoint pen onto individual squares in varying shades of cream. Written in the artist’s distinctive uppercase scrawl, they range from comical, uncouth puns (‘BETTER DAYS 2 CUM’ and ‘VICTORIA’S UNKEPT SECRET’) to statements tinged with cynicism or emotional trauma (‘REPAINTING THE WHITE HOUSE WITH THE BLOOD OF INEQUALITY’ and ‘DON’T WORRY I CAN BREAK MY HEART BY MYSELF’).
Observing the installation in its entirety, a paradox of sorts emerges between the nature of Richthofen’s writings and their curation. The notes are messy, and the handwriting is often difficult to read, with words and letters falling into one another or crossed out completely. Seemingly spilling onto the page quickly from mind to pen, with little thought given to their presentation, these writings act as a visual representation of the artist’s unfiltered musings. However, here – displayed neatly in rows and contained within acrylic boxes – their formal presentation renders Richthofen’s vulnerabilities and inner thoughts seemingly less raw and immediate than when he posts them on his Instagram feed.
The show culminates in a 20-minute immersive light and sound installation, created in collaboration with sound designer Yasmina Dexter and media artist Elias Asisi (If This Is You Who Am I, 2022–23). Spray-painted over seven lightboxes, Richthofen’s stream-of-consciousness musings continue, yet here sections of the text have been obscured. While the central And Then There Was You (2022) remains partially legible, I Was Told Home Is Where The Floor Is (2022) and If This Is You Then Who Am I (2022) become impossible to make sense of. By blacking out his texts, Richthofen regains a certain sense of control: he is no longer so exposed, so directly confrontational with the viewer.
Recorded as a voice note and sent to Dexter to develop into an accompanying soundtrack, Richthofen’s recital of the text reverberates, distorted and indistinct, through the space. It flows in and out of comprehension, suspending us between comfort and unease, toying with notions of pleasure and pain. The sounds are both muffled and immediate, like hearing the crashing of a storm while cocooned in a safe place. Bridging the gap between text and sound, the lights behind each box have been programmed by Asisi to pulsate to the rhythm of Richthofen’s voice, giving the appearance of moving images, and affecting our perception of the work as the text becomes bigger or smaller with each pulsation.
After the content overload of the show’s opening installation, the second half of the exhibition induces a moment of reflection. The closing question, ‘If This Is You Then Who Am I’, lingers in the mind, inviting our participation: how should we respond to Richthofen’s apparently soul-bearing revelations? Resisting easy consumption, the experience of this multimedia installation can’t be reduced to a simple Instagram post. Instead, ‘Cheap Hedonism’ offers Richthofen – and his audience – a potential way out of social media’s dopamine-driven feedback loop.
Monty Richthofen’s ‘Cheap Hedonism’ is on view at Dittrich & Schlechtriem, Berlin, until 4 March
Main image: Monty Richthofen, And Then There Was You, 2022, acrylic on four light boxes with two-channel sound installation with Yasmina Dexter, light design by Elias Asisi, 190 × 760 × 10 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Dittrich & Schlechtriem. Photograph: Jens Ziehe