Standing in the foyer of Kunsthaus Hamburg, one could be forgiven for thinking that one had wandered into a garden centre rather than an art space. An empty greenhouse (Flora Klein’s Gewächshaus, 2016) stands to the left of the Kunsthaus’s cashier, and the sound of splashing water spills out from the main hall. Once inside, the source of the sound is revealed as three fountains sitting in a shallow, rectangular pool of water lined with black plastic. The piece, Fontänen (2016) by Johannes Willi, is made through the horizontal layering of ‘pool noodles’ topped with a circular copper plate, out of which the water spurts. These brightly coloured swimming aids immediately bring to mind the very young or – for anyone who has ever witnessed a water aerobics class – the very old. Each stick of bamboo protruding from the fountain also holds a crudely formed clay hand with a cigarette wedged awkwardly between its fingers.
The associations of relaxation and recreation brought up by these works are a fitting introduction to an exhibition which aims to be – as outlined in the first sentence of the press release – ‘an exercise in taking space and constructing a situation’ without feeling like ‘you are in an exhibition’. This is not the only proposition outlined in the exhibition material. The curator, Chus Martinez, has deliberately avoided an umbrella theme for the show and puts forward more abstract links between the four Swiss artists, stating the importance of artworks that ‘merge’, ‘blend’ and ‘enter one another’. This is easiest to see in in the case of Fontänen, which not only has a large physical presence but a sonic dimension too. But try as I might I couldn’t see how the geometric wall-based sculptures of Emil Michael Klein (Untitled, 2008 and 2016), positioned on walls to either side of the fountains, signify an ‘abandonment of form’ – rather, they seem remarkably self-referential and self-contained.
For Martinez ‘unforming’ has a social purpose too. In a familiar ‘our children are the future’ argument, she (polemically) encourages a move away from seeing the middle class exclusively as the universal, intended receiver of art; in lieu of this, Martinez encourages the development of structures – such as labs and campuses – whereby artists and ‘cultural agents’ can work together with no linear ‘consensus between an activity and its reception’. One might see this in Tiphanie Mall’s silent HD-video Untitled (2014): a group of teenage school girls practicing a dance routine in a extra-curricular workshop co-organized by Mall herself and recorded in hypnotic slow motion. Their facial expressions flit between concentration and enjoyment, in stark contrast to her second piece (also Untitled, 2014), whose protagonists remain unsmiling throughout the nine-minute film. Shot in and outside generic malls with the same dispassionate gaze, the men and women filmed wear the uniform of the over-fifties: sensible leather shoes, slacks and quilted raincoats. Both silent films are strangely mesmerizing, particularly with the relaxing sound of splashing water in the background, and seen together it is impossible not to unfavourably compare the happy, able-bodied teenagers with the shuffling OAPs.
On the other side of the wall Mall showed a number of small screens, each with more than seven hours of footage of strawberry plants. As well as mirroring the ‘growing’ metaphor introduced by Gewächshaus (the German word for greenhouse, which literally means ‘house for growth’), the series also makes the largely abstract paintings of Klein positioned near them appear more like foliage and branches. Many of the works in the exhibition work together in this way, which Martinez describes as mixtio (Latin for ‘to mix’) – but it is also just the mark of a well-curated group show.
Many large questions are asked in ‘Undisturbed Solitude’, and while many remain partially answered, the exhibition’s emphasis on the mixing of forms is successful in offering a cohesive combination of works, while avoiding a single conceptual bracketing. But ultimately, despite high intentions, the exhibition can’t avoid also being a presentation of four artists who are ‘young’ and ‘Swiss’ – if in a space that is a pleasure to spend time in, like a visit to the park or an afternoon spent in your local garden centre.