PRINT May 1986


IN A RAW BARE ROOM at the last Documenta exhibition, in Kassel, West Germany, in 1982, stood a sloppily constructed sculpture of gutterlike lengths of metal propped up on uneven legs so as to assume, on careful inspection, the rough outline of an airplane. Water poured from a pipe to run in a stream through this system of gutters, like a source of energy or power. The creator of the work was Albert Hien, a Munich-based sculptor born in 1956, making him one of the youngest participants in Documenta 7—to many, a complete unknown. Despite its interest, this installation of his was poorly attended—it received a somewhat unfavorable placement, in the basement of Documenta’s Fridericianum building, and next door to Hans Jurgen Syberberg’s installation on the Parsifal theme, with its musty smell of dead leaves. Since then, however, Hien’s work has drawn attention to itself in several solo and group shows at both private and public institutions in Germany and abroad. The artist can be counted among the foremost young sculptors working today, and not just in Germany.

Johannes Cladders has written that “the world can be amusing, or playful, and also ironic and self-mocking. The comic and tragic are of course incompatible, and yet they are actually very close neighbors, so close that they can become the other at any given moment. In Albert Hien’s work this bipolar world has achieved equilibrium:· Then he adds, ”Nonetheless, Hien really turns the world as we know it upside down."1 Here Cladders touches on a fundamental quality of Hien’s work, the internal contradictions that make it so conceptually elusive. Perhaps the easiest way to begin is to deal with these clashing elements. Except in the work from 1980 to 1983 (especially the 1983 pieces made when the artist was living in Italy), the medium Hien employs most frequently is sheet metal, usually aluminum. This is a commonplace substance, but its surface is capable of a rich luster. One of aluminum’s most ubiquitous industrial applications is in the production of aircraft, and the image of the airplane is another consistent feature of Hien’s work, along with other modern forms of transportation—zeppelins, ships, occasionally trains. Even today these vehicles have retained a certain aura, evoking old dreams of travel, of conquering space, despite the catastrophic accidents and life-threatening military or terrorist air strategies that we witness today, to the point of pattern. The paradigm for these dual symbols of liberation and technology, and of the extension of technology’s arrogant will to power over the world, is, of course, the story of Icarus. These issues are basic in Hien’s art.

Hien has said that he wishes to present his vehicles as “destroyed by the very conditions of their existence.”2 Thus a ship lies stranded on dry ground, or collides with a lighthouse; an airplane crashes into water; a bicycle lies crumpled around an architectural column. Do these images join the widespread visual signals that we have entered the end of the era of models of Modernist progress that promised us paradise on Earth? Or is it just the opposite: do they represent the spark of a vision for a different concept of human progress being kindled amid the chaos that engulfs our alienated, profit-crazed, suicidal society? Despite his evident consciousness of the destructive threat imposed by our technological world, Hien is not really aligned with the young generation that is disillusioned with all that the dream has come to stand for, including even beloved symbols of international progress. He has not decided to do battle with the spirit of invention and the industrial complex that exploits it. The program of self-destruction enacted in some of his pieces notwithstanding, his work is an affirmation, a contribution to the revival of the dream of the inventor.

One could say that Hien unites the figures of the child, the inventor, and the dreamer with that of the antagonistic witness to a world increasingly disintegrating into an incoherent patchwork of specialization, a world in which people are alienated from the products of their own making. This union, which the progress specialist rejects, is held together by the artist’s skepticism and scorn for the perversions that come erroneously disguised under the label “progress.” His inspiration is not the linear progress of material civilization but the utopian goals of which certain artists and inventors dream in order to change and give form to a present that they experience as unsatisfactory, and not easily cured. The dream signifies a creative freedom which this century’s vertical, material philosophy of progress has by and large destroyed. But the utopian dream is often also a will to conquer It springs from the same source as the kind of ambition that seeks to rule, to impose itself on the world. Hien’s consciousness of the buried egocentric dangers of utopian models is clear from the complexity and depth of his constructions.

In his earliest works, in 1980, Hien staged a series of purposefully unsuccessful attempts at flight involving devices made of papier-mâché, and then arranged the photographic documentation of these efforts in the outline of an airplane on the floor. That same year he built airplane sections out of papier-mâché, painted them gray, and combined them with found objects and photographs to form an airplane shape lying on the floor and, in the tail fin, running up the wall. The piece was constructed with no great precision, and could have been taken for an image of the parts of an aircraft strewn about after a crash but for its careful underlying order.

In 1983 Hien lived in Rome for a while, and, influenced by the architecture of the place, began to work in marble. The city’s monuments to power—its triumphal arches, statuary, the Colosseum—and the stone they are made of seem to have suggested to him a way to deal with the unacceptable side of humanity’s will to conquer, the hunger for rule and control (and profit), which has manifested itself in all times and all places. In Hien’s sculpture, the artist/inventor’s and the autocrat’s ambition confront each other. His works from this period comprise an architecture of fragile constructions of rough marble, hooked up electrically in different ways; adding bridges, fountains, lighthouses, tunnels, and other monuments of progress to his iconography of vehicles of the modern age, an age drunk on acceleration, he ended up with a critique of the equation of progress with what’s bigger, grander, faster—a monstrously useless, chaotic whole, in which each part obstructs the other. Incorporating the elements of air, fire, and water, and fed with energy from electrical outlets and gas pipes, these pieces create the illusion of a living system while clearly betraying their own hollowness.

After making these architectural allegories of lust for domination, Hien began to picture the earth itself as the site of that sinister struggle for power. Transatlantik, Transatlantique, Transatlantico, 1985—here as in other titles, the use of multiple languages has a poetic, rebellious ring—is a monumental relief in rusted sheet metal of the American and European continents. Old rain gutters representing international traffic routes connect the two forms, and a ship, a zeppelin, and a train move along these lanes, like pawns in power plays. (It may be recalled, in passing, that the idea of building a train tunnel between the two continents was at one time seriously entertained.) At last year’s São Paulo Bienal Hien installed his version of Earth’s hemispheres, the southern half a dome with three gas-powered volcanoes spouting fire, the northern inverted, balancing on its curved surface, and crowned with three dormant smoke stacks, emblems of its shut-down factories. A bridge stretched from the northern hemisphere toward the southern, but failed to reach it. In the south, the earth at least still spat out energy, while Hien showed the north as exhausted. The two worlds remained separate, and the bridge that never made it, a deceptive statement of progress, left each half to its fate.

For Hien, the emphasis on material progress has failed to actualize the dream of true human progress, and one might conclude that in consequence his work reflects deep depression over the horrors of today’s reality. Still, when Hien talks of the symbols of Western civilization’s advance being “destroyed by the very conditions of their existence,” he doesn’t end there, but goes on to discuss “the great dream—paradise, grand illusion, intoxicated dream, upside-down world.”3 Dreams that have been exploited and perverted by the mania for progress still have a home in the “upside-down world,” which in Hien’s work symbolizes more than just our insane movement toward mass destruction. It also incorporates ideas that, despite their deformations, continue to aim for a better world. And it encompasses those intoxicating powers that turn the world as it is upside down, reversing the conditions of everyday reality, setting the self-satisfaction of “what is” ablaze, and igniting the spark of creativity within our world of pragmatic reason.

Certain aspects of Hien’s sculptures have the quality of objects made by children, objects whose forms echo and compete with the constructions of the adult world without trying to achieve their utility Where adults produce functional objects, children compensate with their imaginations. (This goes for devising means of destruction as well as of creation.) Hien’s sculptures are always obviously “useless,” stapled or bolted together in clearly nonfunctional ways. His materials are unpretentious, contemporary, and ubiquitous; sometimes they are used, marked and stained by the passage of time, and when they are factory fresh they are of a kind everywhere available. The infrastructure necessary to synthesize the elements of water, air, and fire is also easily come by; and occasionally the pieces incorporate ready-made items such as metal watering cans and funnels. The affinity between Hien’s work and what a child might make gives his sculptures an air of cheerfulness. Some of the elements in his installations have the air of bigger versions of a child’s models—the sloppy mode of construction, the absurdly out-of-proportion sizes of the various parts, and, above all, the pieces’ illogical, “upside-down” placement—but the large bulks of the artist’s sculptures, and the complexity built into the imagery, immediately distinguish them from children’s inventions.

A ship hangs on the wall and rains water from its stacks into three funnellike floor objects (Champagne, Spumante, Sekt [Champagne, champagne, champagne, 1985]). An airplane and a lighthouse hang like mobiles in cagelike structures whose bases contain a stranded ship and a derailed locomotive (Giardino dei Mostri [Monsters’ garden, 1983]). Three ships spitting water from their smokestacks wedge together to compose a fountain (Bermuda-Triangel, 1983). Rather than propelling a ship forward, wind, driven by fans, blows from its hatches; the ship itself hangs upside down on the wall (the installation in the Museum Folk wang, Essen, in 1984). A model of the Colosseum is accompanied by the taped sound of gurgling water, a mocking aural reference to the work’s title, Blick ins Colosseum während einer Seeschlacht (Peek into the Colosseum during a sea battle, 1984); the viewer who looks into the amphitheater, built from metal washtubs, sees only a tiny boat lit from above by small colored lamps. The strange appeal of Hien’s sculpture can be described only approximately through reference to its details; it really emanates from an ambivalence between what is actually present and what is a construction of fantasy. The work oscillates in its atmosphere, presenting itself now as a childlike wargame, now as an ominous threat. The comic, sometimes sarcastic reversals and the exaggerated sense of artificiality set up a liberating chaos of meaning from which new concepts can be born.

If one had to take an art-historical approach, one could say that the experience of Hien’s work demands the description “expressive” while the artist’s disjunctive combinations of elements recall the Surrealists, even if the incongruity is less a consequence of the objects themselves than of their positioning. The works’ media reflect the Nouveau Réaliste spirit of experiment with materials from outside art’s traditional discourse, and Hien infuses them with poetry, as arte povera does. It is by no means only the monstrous hammer of Hammerwerk (Foundry, 1985) that recalls Claes Oldenburg. What does this mean if not what we already know—that through encounters with past inventions, a free artistic temperament can still ignite a new idea? With that new idea in mind, however, one may explore Hien’s parallel interest with other contemporary artists. He is not the only one to be fascinated by travel and transport (one thinks of Reinhard Mucha, for example), by the objects and materials of our outmoded industrial order (Tony Cragg, Bill Woodrow, and numerous others), or by the rediscovery of the model as a correlative for the dream.

The contradictions in Hien’s sculptures are reinforced by their settings, which often strike a solemn, ceremonial note. In a 1984 show at Mönchengladbach’s Städtisches Museum am Abteiberg, for instance, the space was bathed in an eloquent semidarkness. The hiss of a gas flame, the whir of a large whirligig form, and the taped sound of rushing water immersed the installation’s fantastic landscape of massive yet clearly hollow forms in a vibrant instability, upsetting the viewer’s sense of balance. In an ornate, stately room in the Palazzo Cuttica, in Alessandria, Italy, in 1983, Hien made an enormous aluminum ship ride along a runner of red carpet (called a “bridge” by German rug dealers, incidentally). The comic and the tragic are often neighbors, both in everyday life and in art; people can make jokes out of the most solemn events, and there is something pompous and funny in the very idea of aspiration Hien’s work pokes fun, yet its satire is ameliorated by the sculpture’s feeling of strangeness, and of strength.

These images are aggressive, even in their material: the sharp edges of the metal, and the crude joints, remind us of wounds. The deliberate disproportion between the works’ boastful size and their empty hollowness, the disjunctions they suggest between progress and our drift toward death—these are what makes the work jarring, powerful, and whole. Hien’s sculptures are above all beautiful. Stemming from the vision of the child, the inventor, the artist, the creative human being, they comprise images of human hopes, comedy, tragedy, and yearning. The work is full of the poetry of dreams—the intact dreams of childhood and the broken ones of adulthood. The forgotten song of paradise echoes in this “upside-down world,” along with the knowledge of all the times from Icarus on that our attempts to fly to it have failed.

Annelie Pohlen is a writer who lives in Bonn, and contributes regularly to Artforum.



1. Johannes Cladders, Albert Hien, Mönchengladbach: Städisches Museum am Abteiberg, 1984. The catalogue for Hien’s show at the museum that year.

2 Albert Hien, statement in Kunstforum International no. 79, Cologne, February 1985, p. 140.

3. Ibid.