BY Will Bradley in Features | 10 OCT 03
Featured in
Issue 78

Social Work

Pawel Althamer

BY Will Bradley in Features | 10 OCT 03

Pawel Althamer seems to have an uneasy relationship with the idea of the art gallery. You get the feeling that he thinks the most interesting thing to do there is to walk out the door or, as with his 1996 show at the Foksal in Warsaw, to climb out through a big hole he's made in the wall.

A gallery is just a place to bring people, or a place that people might go to for reasons not entirely understood. Althamer is very aware of the codes that govern the art world environment, and he is keen to point out that they need not be obeyed.

This doesn't mean using the gallery to frame something unexpected - Jannis Kounellis' horses or Vito Acconci masturbating under the floorboards - nor does it mean turning the conventions back on themselves, Maurizio Cattelan-style. Althamer is a rarity among contemporary artists, in that he doesn't seem to worry too much about the history of art. He's certainly aware of it - many of his moves have been prefigured by others, often in the Joseph Beuys-inspired Conceptual/Performance art scene of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and his self-portrait sculptures seem to be familiar with an almost medieval iconography - but he doesn't work it. He seems to accept, or to hope, that his art will be seen and thought about by people who don't need that information and who will participate in or try to make sense of it in terms of their own experience and immediate environment. The gallery is one institutional space among many others, a transit area like a hospital waiting-room or a police cell. It's a structure made to catch the fall-out: somewhere you end up contemplating an uncertain future, somewhere you hope not to stay too long.

In this light Althamer's recent show at neugerriemschneider in Berlin radiated a strong vibe of subconscious wish-fulfilment but, as a contribution to the well-established genre of gallery-trashing, it ruled the school, and not only for its completeness (for it was complete and must have demanded much understanding from the gallerists) but also for its aesthetic and its ethic. The attention to detail transformed a straightforward smash-up into a rigorous and precise work of sculpture that concerned both the future and the past. The building was gutted and remade as the kind of desolate, forgotten skeleton that property developers describe as having 'potential' and which every unidentified element of the urban dispossessed instinctively knows belongs to them. A plank raised up on two stones as a half-useful bench and an abandoned, paint-spattered car seat were remnants of some transient human presence, but this was very different from, for example, the carefully layered narratives of Mike Nelson's similarly worked installations. It didn't spin off into another imaginative landscape or make allusive political or historical connections, but, playing off the obvious expectations of an up-market gallery show, it staged the midpoint, the heart, of a wider economic process that made particular sense in Berlin, a city caught between frantic development and creeping bankruptcy. Althamer constructed a facsimile of what, in the cycle of boom and bust, remains constant - what you've got when you've got nothing.

Other actions have provided different ways for Althamer to address what he clearly feels to be a problem: a misalignment in the conventional concept of the gallery show. Participating in 'Germinations' at the Zacheta Gallery in Warsaw in 1994, he provided a woman working as a guard with the creature comforts she was missing - a kettle, a newspaper, a radio, a houseplant and a chair. In Bochum, Germany, he showed a pitch-dark empty room and at the Kunstverein in Frankfurt he invited a group of local homeless people to the opening of the exhibition 'Neue Welt', giving them the appropriate art-fashion outfits and props to pass unremarked among the cognoscenti. The implication is that the gallery is, at best, a place to assess some kind of failure - perhaps that of Modernism to acknowledge a world outside the art space, or that of art to address society's failings even as they are embodied in the art world itself.

Althamer has often asked dispossessed, homeless people to take part in his work and, though it's not done with the stark brutality that, for example, Santiago Sierra employs, and though the relationship is not explicitly exploitative, the same accusations and justifications arise: on the one hand, that the artist is using powerless, desperate people to further his career and ideas, and on the other, that he is confronting difficult issues head-on, highlighting problems for which wider society is ultimately responsible. In Warsaw in 1992 Althamer equipped several local people with official-looking badges sponsored by the Obserwator newspaper. These official observers, all of them homeless and unemployed, sat out on the street and watched the world go by, much as they had done before, but the city around them was subtly changed and these same uncomfortable questions were raised - both about our learnt inability to see the failure of our social and economic systems, and about art's complicity in that. At the Vienna Secession Althamer presented the homeless of the future, dressed in all-white outfits, playing themselves in a dystopian scenario that was partly sci-fi and partly based on the certain knowledge that current European political orthodoxy has no interest in addressing the problem or its causes in any meaningful way. Morally there's no easy way out of this situation - either the homeless are outside the gallery or they're in it; either way they lose and the artist, for all his cultural capital, can't single-handedly make a lasting difference to their lives. The obvious question, at least for an artist who has raised this particular issue so deliberately, is the recurrent one of art versus activism. Not in the sense of the false distinction between 'art' and 'real life', but as the very real choice between immediate, direct political action and the belief that art has a deep, long-term purpose in society that justifies commitment. Althamer seems to find his justification in art's potential to renounce its own authority, to offer nothing more than a dark, empty room or a patch of waste ground, the artist staging his own disappearance in order to insist that you think for yourself.

Althamer has often said that he sees the world as a film in progress, that it's enough just to set up a camera, and that sometimes even that seems unnecessary. For Film (2000) at Manifesta in Ljubljana he employed ten actors to perform, every day for two weeks, in a square outside a shopping centre. Their actions were banal and unremarkable, synchronized but unconnected: a young couple kissing, a boy skateboarding, an old man feeding pigeons, a young man drinking at a café table. An in-the-know art lover would have struggled to spot them, and, in the process, would have experimentally framed and considered plenty of behaviour unscripted by the artist. A passer-by might have eventually been troubled by a sense of déjà vu, but nothing could have been said for certain until the film ended for the day and all the actors simultaneously abandoned their roles and walked away. A self-conscious subversion of the avant-garde dream, art and life merged seamlessly together, but only during working hours.

Criticism of the industrialized emptiness of modern life in the West has shifted in tone as manufacturing industry migrates to low-wage, low-rights economies elsewhere, and images of dead-eyed workers robotically pushing buttons on Ford-ist production lines have been replaced in pop propaganda by a corporate landscape of burger bars, out of town shopping/cinema/bowling complexes and 24-hour cable TV. Film doesn't deal in that kind of bombast - in fact, it's pitched as nothing more than potentially double-take-provoking street theatre - but it still seems to say that if the modern moment - bourgeois freedom - is leisure, then we have voluntarily industrialized this freedom. We reproduce and repeat it, manufacturing it according to some internalized code. Of course there's another level, or several, to the work, not least the way that it pulls all the surrounding activity into its frame. Film raises the possibility that any activity in range could be part of the performance; it's a reverse panopticon. Instead of being unsure whether you're being watched and so policing your own behaviour, you're unsure what to watch and have to observe everything, an art detective trying to apply a law you don't fully understand. Film's dramatization of conventional leisure also, by default, raises the idea of underclass leisure, a different concept of the city where entertainment isn't going to a café and reading the Sunday papers, but seeing if you can set fire to something out the back. Or trashing an art gallery.

It's easy to say that Althamer is concerned with everyday life, but it would be more accurate to say the opposite: he doesn't believe that there is an everyday life. His work for Documenta X involved him, dressed as an astronaut in a homemade space suit, wandering the outskirts of Kassel with a camcorder that relayed his discoveries to a monitor carried on his back. He doesn't find anything dull or mundane; there's a real romantic's infatuation with the magical mystery of it all. What if aliens landed right now and they saw this? What if we all died tomorrow? But, beyond that, he's subtly working with something so obvious we don't see it any more - the individualized, divided character of modern experience. Everyday life is a broken mirror, an empty stage. A lot of Althamer's works are performances on the set of everyday life, designed, as much as anything, to highlight this other performance, the one we're all in all the time and take for granted.

The work Bródno 2000 (2000) is a case in point, a massive collaboration with the inhabitants of a low-rise housing block in Bródno, Warsaw, where Althamer lives. Ostensibly a celebration of the millennium, it involved an intensive local campaign of publicity and persuasion to co-ordinate a communal spectacle. The plan was for the residents to display the number '2000' in lighted windows across the front of the block. As the project took place at the end of February rather than on 1 January, it was clear that its real agenda lay elsewhere, but this didn't seem to undermine the participants' enthusiasm. When the appointed hour drew near (and I have to admit that I am relying on eyewitness accounts), the block came to life: not just lights going on and off, but people hanging out of windows shouting down to the spectators outside, 'Is this right?', people running round to the next-door flat telling them they'd got it wrong - even a temporary kiosk selling snacks to the assembled audience. An all-round effort to make the project work, and it did.

Photographs record the surreal sight of a Warsaw housing block lit up as a giant '2000' billboard, but the result looks for all the world like some amateur Photoshop experiment, or a state-sponsored PR exercise. There are plenty of narrative side-effects - the half-dozen lights that aren't on, or that are on when they should be off, are suddenly charged with pathos, a TV dinner alone, a 'well, they always kept themselves to themselves' interview with the serial killer's next-door neighbours - but the outcome is obviously less important than the process. The point is that, if close and harmonious community spirit were the inner-city norm, there'd be nothing in any way remarkable about Bródno 2000. Paradoxically, it's probably only the fact that the project was so unlikely to succeed that made it extraordinary enough to capture the residents' attention in the first place.

But if such co-operation towards a pretty abstract goal is possible, then what else might be? This is a key question, and pressing it offers a whole new angle on Althamer's activities. Actions that have easy interpretations as a critique of art's relationship with society at large shift in tone and meaning when you realize that they are intended not only to illustrate but also to have effects. Althamer is, ultimately, interested not in reducing art to an instrumental social or political process, but in interfering with the way we think and behave on a deeper level. His continuing interests in figurative sculpture and psychedelic drugs point to an ambition of re-enchantment, the desire for art to cease being a game played out on a field of its own making and to become a potential point of connection between individuals, a door into a parallel world where the rules can be changed. Althamer's methods - Andrzej Przywara of the Foksal has described him as a 'director of reality' - and the diversity of his practice make new sense when you see them not as ways to evade the levelling effect of art world discourse but as attempts to crack the façade of normality that allows Western society to hide from itself.

The concept of the artist as shaman, presiding over contemporary rituals, has surfaced many times in the 20th century, and Althamer has long been intrigued by the idea - he even travelled to Mali in the early 1990s to spend time with the Dogon people, famous for having had their star-worshipping religion misrepresented by dodgy anthropologists as evidence of ancient extra-terrestrial contact. In 2002, in a former church, now a gallery, in Lucca, Tuscany, he had two young men take turns at being symbolically crucified on a wooden cross he had built for the purpose. A deconsecrated church, or a church reconsecrated to the secular religion of art, made the venue for the restaging of the central event of the Christian faith. It's blasphemy, of course, and for his transgression the artist will certainly be tormented for eternity after his death, if he isn't hunted down in this life. But, aside from the evident, even heavy-handed, underlining of what's been lost, you get the feeling that Althamer, at least, believes that art is one of the few activities vying to fill the God-shaped hole that might offer a way through, rather than an end in itself.