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Issue 202

From a World-Worn Dragon to a Shy Troll: Artist Peter Wächtler’s Lugubrious Loners

At the heart of Wächtler’s work at Bergen Kunsthall, is a notion of narrative, however fractured, fugitive, misleading or opaque

BY Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith in Reviews | 26 FEB 19

A ten-minute, stop-motion animation, Untitled (Clouds) (2018), was the star turn in this typically downbeat but subtly modulated orchestration of works by Brussels- and Berlin-based artist Peter Wächtler, which also featured a variety of sculptures in ceramic and bronze, several mid-size watercolours and a suite of prints. Evidently developed with this exhibition in mind, the works on show all dated from 2018 or 2019, while the whole ensemble was suffused with a pride in traditional craftsmanship across its range of disparate media. Presented on a large freestanding screen in the most cavernous gallery of the Kunsthall’s four-room enfilade, Untitled (Clouds) is silent but subtitled, and was looped alternately in English and Norwegian. 

The sole protagonist is yet another of Wächtler’s lugubrious loners in exile from the realm of fantastical or folkloric creatures. This time around, it is a world-worn dragon with ratty locks and a straw hat who perches and broods or flaps morosely to and fro against a desolate backdrop of craggy wasteland and roiling skies. He does so in the wake of some indeterminate apocalypse, which seems to be a source of irritation as much as awe. ‘Thunderdome has fallen,’ the dragon portentously informs us near the beginning. ‘At least, I think it has,’ he adds, ‘Nobody tells me anything.’ Cranky, self-involved and given to gnomic pronouncements about belonging (‘The bird is in the birdhouse. The pig is in the pighouse.’) as well as reminiscences of bygone camaraderie, the dragon wavers between hubris and despair: ‘I am SO Thunderdome right now’ segues into ‘Jesus, I miss the kids.’ The film is both laugh-out-loud funny and surprisingly touching.

Peter Wächtler, Untitled (Clouds), 2018, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and dépendance, Brussels, Lars Friedrich, Berlin and Reena Spaulings Fine Art, New York; photograph: Thor Brødreskift

Next door is home to two small, dark, plinth-based bronze figures. One is a flamboyant bat, standing rightways up, who greets visitors just inside the exhibition entrance with a dramatic flourish of his unfolded wings as he inclines his head to doff his straw boater. The other is a seated, cross-legged troll who has retired shyly under a rude cowl of animal hide. Complementing this enigmatic choreography of occlusion and display was a sequence of four large-scale drypoint etchings, closely hung on one wall, depicting a locomotive engine and three carriages on a stretch of rail track. Ranged around the other walls, like prized trophies, were four glazed ceramic fountain pens, roughly cast and the size of a caveman’s club, each a different colour and a slightly different shape. The respective titles of these two series, ‘Wide Open Country’ and ‘Writer’s Block’, conjured a debilitating combination of stalled movement and stunted creativity or communication.

Peter Wächtler, Snowy Owl 2, 2018, glaced ceramic, 48  × 74  × 55 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Lars Friedrich, Berlin; photograph: Thor Brødreskift

One room up again was a congregation of five snowy owls in glazed ceramic, mired in snow atop their individual plinths. Depicted in varying degrees of stagey agitation, their piercing yellow eyes united them in an air of comic apprehension. The last room accommodated a bronze model of an empty shed and three watercolours recalling old-school illustrations for a volume of folk legends. A final flourish of two fictive texts, which appeared on the gallery walls where one might ordinarily expect some rudimentary exegesis, reaffirmed the intimations throughout the exhibition that, at the heart of Wächtler’s work, is a notion of narrative, however fractured, fugitive, misleading or opaque. While the overall title, ‘Franky’s Theme’, summoned the spectre of a schmaltzy score for an unnamed film that probably doesn’t exist, the show itself offered the tantalizing, if illusory, prospect of piecing together from its diverse components some semblance of the elusive ur-saga from which it might be imagined to derive.   

Peter Wächtler, ‘Franky's Theme’ runs at Bergen Kunsthall until 31 March 2019.

Main image: Peter Wächtler, Writer’s Block 4, 2018, glaced ceramic, 20  × 100 × 20 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Lars Friedrich, Berlin; photograph: Thor Brødreskift

Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith is a critic and occasional curator who teaches at University College Dublin, Ireland.