BY Holger Liebs in Reviews | 03 MAR 03
Featured in
Issue 73

Stefan Kern

Spruth Magers Projekte, Munich, Germany

BY Holger Liebs in Reviews | 03 MAR 03

As you entered the gallery, the first thing you saw was a five metre-high wooden sculpture, painted white. From one angle Untitled (Seesaw) (all works 2002) looked like an open book, from another like a seagull's outspread wings. In fact the piece is a fully operational see-saw, which the viewer was invited to use. This proved a difficult test of one's sense of balance - it was much easier just to lie down, like in a rocking chair, and use your body to set the sculpture gently in motion. Undeterred, a number of visitors left dirty black footprints behind as records of their attempted balancing acts.

In the adjacent room, suspended from a pillar, was a mobile structure made of steel, wood and Perspex, reached by an ordinary industrial ladder. This was Untitled (Tree House Square), whose outlook platform, with its massive railing, effectively added a mezzanine floor to the gallery. The fluorescent lighting used to illuminate the work from beneath had a dematerializing effect that was reminiscent of some of Philip Johnson's buildings, yet the resulting illusion of floating on air was negated by the massive solidity of the platform itself and by the heavy tubing and metal clamps with which it was attached to the pillar. In fact, the way the structure swayed gently as you shifted your position was rather like being amid the branches of a tree as they tremble in the wind. From the way it creaked and groaned under the weight of human bodies it was clear that this minimalist tree house was putting great strain on its anchoring - indeed, cracks had already started to appear in the pillar. If the piece was intended as a reflection on a utopian habitat, this idea was quickly undermined by the increasing insecurity one felt with every step taken across its floor.

The three other works on show similarly play on the tension between sculpture and design. The title of Kern's wooden Privileg-Skulptur (Privilege Sculpture) is an oblique allusion to its function. 'Privileg' was the brand name of a refrigerator produced in the German Democratic Republic, now distributed by the Siemens Corporation. The work resembles a three-seater bench with arms, and on the middle seat is a white Privileg fridge filled with soft drinks. Untitled (Milk Table) consists of a table, along whose sides ran undulating lines made up of semicircular shapes that, taking up the theme of the title, are evocative of a cow's udder. The third piece, Untitled (Wave), is in a sense a hybrid of the two previous works. Its angular cut-outs and bucket seats again hint at a piece of furniture, while at the same time suggesting a schematic rendering of the breaking wave of the title.

Kern's works can be viewed with aesthetic detachment - purely as objects in space that, like the see-saw, function as an obstruction or, like the tree house, serve as a room-filling installation. Yet the invitation to use these objects implies not only experiencing them but also depriving them of their aura. Despite their white paint surfaces, which suggest delicateness, the pieces are designed as elements of an adventure playground where the viewer is free to make use of them. Instead of exhibiting full-scale aluminium castings of wooden models, as he had done previously, Kern put the models themselves on view. This reduced both the illusion of perfection and the viewer's reluctance to interact with the objects - witness the footprints all over the white paint. Who's going to stand by and watch when they see lots of people leaping on to the stage and having a go at the balancing act?

Compared to the archetypal Minimalist object, Kern's works are suffused with an additional level of desire; they invite the viewer to play with them or simply lounge around on them. But as they did so, visitors were forced to adapt to the wobbling, rocking or unwieldy shapes, and unwittingly became part of a slapstick comedy routine. As in the pre-ergonomic era of 'good design', they experienced their bodies as the imperfect entities they are, compelled to shed all decorum in order to assume a casual posture.