The exterior of the Deutsche Guggenheim, which occupies a corner of the Deutsche Bank building on Berlin’s epic boulevard Unter den Linden, sports a green sign which says “ALMECH” in an italicized cartoony font. Inside the single large exhibition hall that makes up the Deutsche Guggenheim is a glass box opposite the admissions desk. At the far end of the space in a diagonally opposite corner is another glass enclosure. To the left is a growing army of figurative sculptures. To the right, rebar armatures of figures await completion.
For the exhibition, Polish artist Paweł Althamer collaborated with his father’s plastic manufacturing company Almech. Back in the Warsaw suburb of Wesoła, Adam Althamer’s small factory has the Deutsche Guggenheim’s sign on it’s façade. The figures are portraits, of sorts, of Deutsche Bank, Deutsche Guggenheim and Guggenheim Foundation employees as well as museum docents, security guards and visitors. The first glass cube contains a waiting area and workshop where the participating subjects’ faces are cast in plaster. Visitors can see the process taking place and view the casts, in various states of completion, resting on shelves.
At the far end of the exhibition space, in the second glass cube are two plastic extruding machines invented by Althamer’s father. Once finished the faces are attached to the metal armatures and are "fleshed out” with polyethylene plastic in the other workshop. On a regular schedule Polish workers operate this art factory. They arrive at 10am; faces are cast between 10:30am and 2pm. 1:15 to 2:15 the workers take lunch and clock out at 6pm. I visited the exhibition in the evening after the workers had gone home. The atmosphere was that of a traditional exhibition with sculptures standing on view and the workshops operating as art installations. Simultaneously it had the feel of a factory without its workers. The machines sat idle, the armatures waited for their faces and plastic and the waiting room waited for people to come in and wait.
The figures themselves feel like they are waiting. Ghostly they stand, lay and sway as though they are the spirits of the dead, restlessly gathering together waiting to move on to the next world. All their eyes are closed, a result of the process of casting life masks that makes them appear to collectively walk through a world of dreams we the awake and alive do not see. The plastic, a translucent white, comes out of the machines in a thin limp tube, but when stretched, wrapped and wound around the metallic superstructure, it looks like a mesh of bubblegum, rags or sinew. The figures bear an eerie resemblance to the plasticized cadavers of Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds or the partially unwrapped remains of mummies. Conversely they also call to mind Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Theresa (1647-1652) and the “wet drapery” style of ancient Greek sculpture. There is an unsettling contrast between the extreme realistic detail in the faces and the crude approximations in plastic strips of the rest of their bodies.
Althamer is known for marrying two very disparate ways of making art—the very material practice of sculpture and the very immaterial practice of performance, participation and collaboration. But in this case I wonder if this is really a performance. Are the workers laboring over Althamer’s sculptures performing? I went back to the exhibition for a second time to see the factory in full swing. The artist was present overseeing the process and adding plastic pellets into the extruding machines as three workers created a sculpture of a figure in a wheel chair being launched into the air by a woman in an elaborate Victorian dress. It was clear the figures were evolving, becoming more elaborate and complex as the workers became more familiar with the materials and process.
There was a close resemblance to visiting a natural history museum and being able to look into the labs where paleontologists scrape away at dinosaur fossils. Fossils that become part of the museum’s collection and are placed on view for future visitors. But as we visitors stood and watched them work through the glass, it was also like a zoo. The artist and his studio assistants put on public display. So it was definitely performative, in a real and problematic way, as opposed to choreographed theatricality.
It would seem the Almech project is engaged in a certain aesthetics of labor. It is almost tautological, we come to watch the workers make the artwork that we will see in the gallery. There is also a compression and display of the artistic chain of production. Even when the workers have left the site of production, the exhibition hall is still the site of consumption for viewers. In the reading room (and posted on Deutsche Guggenheim’s YouTube channel) a video plays showing Althamer working on a prototype at his father’s factory in Poland. All mystery surrounding the artistic process has been removed and yet these deeply compelling figures emerge.
~Erik Wenzel, an artist and writer living in Berlin.
(Images: Paweł Althamer, Preparations for Almech, Wesoła, Poland, 2011; Exterior of the Deutsche Guggenheim; Courtesy Erik Wenzel; Installation View; Liza; Courtesy neugerriemschneider, Berlin / Foksal Gallery Foundation, Warsaw)