Critics’ Picks

View of “Karl Salzmann,” 2017.

View of “Karl Salzmann,” 2017.

New York

Karl Salzmann

Austrian Cultural Forum New York
11 East 52nd Street
June 29–September 4, 2017

“I’ve been looking for freedom, I've been looking so long,” croons David Hasselhoff in his 1989 single “Looking for Freedom,” which the actor once sang before the Berlin Wall. Decades later, the Baywatch star’s desire for a happy world and personal autonomy remains unsatisfied, lending the cheesily infectious ballad some pathos. A few lines of the chorus are played on a short, booming loop as a part of Karl Salzmann’s exhibition here. The loop inevitably recalls the weaponization of pop at Guantanamo Bay, where music—especially anthems interpreted as jingoistic, like Bruce Springsteen’s hooky anti-Vietnam “Born in the USA,” dripping with satire misread by the interrogators—was used to torture inmates. Hasselhoff’s track emerges from a speaker hidden beneath a pile of wood, the wreckage of a bar that the show’s visitors were encouraged to destroy during the opening (Sorry, the bar is closed, all works cited, 2017). Around this tableau of Bacchanalian destruction is a pair of Roomba-like robot vacuums (Schergen[Henchman]) and a microphone crushed by a vise on a plinth (Kontrapunkt #2 [Counterpoint #2]).

A low hum regularly punctuates “Looking for Freedom”—it is deep and piercing enough to make being in the gallery uncomfortable. The hum comes from a large square speaker, flanked by white flags, at the back of the room (Lautsprecher Monument [Loudspeaker Monument]). If you stand directly in the sine wave’s path, it makes you feel like your head will explode. Standing to the side lessens the intensity and makes it more bearable. In spatializing the experience of sound, Saltzmann suggests how hearing can be reconfigured and turned into something monstrous. And the blank flags are not harbingers of surrender, but eerie reminders of all the violence that toxic patriotism produces: Witness the white nationalism in Charlottesville. The artist’s stark, grim vision is hypnotic, especially during brief moments when the whole room falls silent—every ninety seconds—while a strobe light, an element of Lautsprecher, relentlessly flashes.