For his commission for the Deutsche Guggenheim – a showcase for contemporary artists to create work funded by a powerful bank – Paweł Althamer might have been relied upon to throw a spanner into the system. (His first Berlin solo show created a simulacrum of the interior of another plush Berlin gallery as it would have looked if it had been trashed and burnt-out.) And he has done so, by superimposing a rival system that does what the original strives to do: provide a populist spectacle worthy of Deutsche Bank’s investment – but self-reflexively.
During the preparations for ‘Almech’, Althamer oversaw the production of plaster facial casts of some of the Guggenheim’s staff, curators and exhibition visitors, as well as Deutsche Bank executives and clients. These faces were grafted onto mummy-like bodies made of ‘bandages’ of white plastic ‘fleshing out’ a basic steel armature. Althamer’s constituent sculptural materials – plaster and plastic – are produced in separate workshops at either end of the museum, partitioned from the rest of the space by prefab glass walls. Polish workers in ‘Almech’ overalls, whom Althamer has brought to Germany for the duration of the show, labour in their sealed-off workshops, as much a part of the sculptural scenario as their products. During working hours, the gallery thrums with the sound of plastic being extruded. The distinction between plaster (ancient) and plastic (modern), and the segregation of their production, creates a dichotomy between the causal representation of individual physiognomies and the expressionistic language of the figures to which they are attached. The faces’ verisimilitude, in stark contrast to the outlandish bodies, makes them a sculptural punctum, catalyzing fantasy into specificity.
As so often in his recent work, for all its interactive, democratic zeal, Althamer is telling a personal story, interweaving and conflating two of his abiding themes – autobiography and cultural displacement. The machinery used to create his sculptures has been transplanted from his father’s plastics factory, Almech, located in a small town on the outskirts of Warsaw, along with the ‘Almech’ sign, received in Berlin in exchange for one that usually adorns the Deutsche Guggenheim’s facade. Althamer has also transported an eviscerated portable toilet, which he stumbled across on the streets of Warsaw into the show. Its melted forms – which he gave an overall spray of white paint, to claim their arbitrary dissolution as chosen artifice – must have suggested plastic’s potential for sculptural transformation. Within the show, the white-washed wreck provides its own fictional slant on the scenario the sculptures occupy: is it a crashed spacecraft out of which these extraterrestrials have emerged, or are the figures flayed zombies with ribbons of plastic flesh hanging from their frames as they loiter in a post-apocalyptic landscape? The worldliness of Althamer’s conceit – casting art as a form of industrial production – proves to be a springboard for an array of transcendental narratives. And yet, if the plaster workshop – with masks lined up on steel shelves – could be seen as a Cronenbergian laboratory of cyborg replicants, the facial casts it produces, using the technology of the death mask, remains irreducibly particular. Objective record meets wild surmise. Synthetic (plastic) is pitched as organic (flesh); functional process as theatre. A bespectacled middle-aged German male is given the penitential air of a medieval ascetic by the addition of a lean, rippling torso and a plastic cowl. Step back from such details, and the functional workshops double as factory stage sets within the quotation marks of their glass walls, transforming actual artistic production into an image of itself.
It might be Althamer’s gracious concession to his hosts that a traditional art form they would recognize as suitable for their commission (figurative sculptures) is presented as the goal of Almech’s industry. And yet, the sculptures overcompensate for the occasion, extending conformity to their remit into the extremity of satire. With angels’ wings and streaming white capes, they gesture towards a camp revamping of religious art, their satiny plastic bodies resembling the guttering wax of church candles more than Carrerra marble. One seated female figure cradles a doll like an infant Jesus. Eyes closed, as though in religious ecstasy, these effigies cast the Deutsche Guggenheim’s long hall, with its lofty ceilings, as a church dedicated to Mammon, the false god of riches. The cluster of science-fiction metaphors – the sculptures as zombies, aliens or Frankensteinian cyborgs – proves to be merely the first rung on a ladder leading to a higher realm of transcendence, but one no less mired in the kitsch of pop culture. Meanwhile, Althamer’s agility allows him to evade any singularly ironic intent. First puncturing the gallery’s aura of German art establishment capital by presenting it as a mere Polish production facility, he goes on to create sculptures that could be seen as the most thoroughgoing incarnation of populist art – as well being seeds of subversion, gently mocking the institution’s philanthropic pretentions