Stuttgart

“Kunstler aus Kanada”

A show of East German paintings opened here just a few days before the Canadian installations. The museum is shaped a bit like a dumbbell, with a long corridor connecting two massive rooms, and a strange polarity was created by the two simultaneous exhibitions: between a lost national unity and a lost colony, East meets West. Curator Tilman Osterwold chose to hang the color-photo sequence Standing Up, by Canadians Karl Beveridge and Carole Conde, where the two shows met, in the lounge in the corridor; the piece is about the birth of a labor union in a small-town Ontario factory employing almost solely women. Osterwold’s neat suture sealed the equation the two shows created together by eliding the Eastern-bloc situation with current socialist struggle in Western countries—as if East Germans were merely victims of misguided idealist belief and artists like Beveridge and Conde were unwittingly courting totalitarianism. Despite this abuse Standing Up is an important and necessary work.

Osterwold let his colors show more clearly in the interview that he did with Canadian counterpart Bruce Ferguson for the catalogue. Of Spring Hurlbut’s meticulous plaster surfaces Osterwold says that he “wouldn’t mind doing that, to feel free, to work physically. . . . But when Spring explains to me how she does this . . . I would never do it. . . . None of the other artists have made such detailed preparatory specifications and plans.” To add insult to the injury of “I wouldn’t mind doing that,” Hurlbut (one of three women in an 18-artist show, an inequality that explains Osterwold’s tone of discussing housework) was one of the two artists whose works were far from complete at the opening. In her case it was because the Kunstverein had cut corners in carrying out her “detailed plans,” and three days before the opening, with the work in its final stages, the wall that had been built for her collapsed.

Of the works that were visible at the opening one of the best was Krzysztof Wodiczko’s slide projection on the front of the Stuttgart train station. This is an imposing stone building erected during the First World War; a long arcade connects the functional part of it to an administrative block, which culminates in the clock tower that dominates Stuttgart’s main street. Long after this tower was built Mercedes-Benz stuck a huge blue-and-white rotating version of their symbol on top of it. Stuttgart, like many northern European cities, is largely serviced by immigrant labor. Temporarily familyless, the train station becomes a metavillage for these lonely men.

For two unscheduled evening hours a week during the show Wodiczko projected onto the middle of the station tower a huge pair of well-groomed clasped hands emerging from business-suit cuffs. The hands, nonchalantly positioned as if to protect the private parts of an important man, anthropomorphized the tower: the clock above them became the heart of the beast, and the turning Mercedes-Benz medallion the boss’ all-seeing eye. Below the tower to its right, as if surveilled by it, was another projection on the chunky front of the station’s large main entrance. On either side of the 20-foot-tall doors appeared long arms, thin and bare, fists wrapped around the handles of two battered leather bags. Of his work, Wodiczko writes: “The look, the costume, the mask of the buildings is the most valuable and expensive investment. In the power discourse of public domain, the architectural form is the most secret and protected property. Public Projection is questioning both the function and the ownership of this property.”

The entrance of the museum itself was dominated by General Idea’s Colour Bar Lounge piece from 1979, accompanied by their color videotape Test Tube, from the same year. Even with their spoonful of fashionably right-wing medicine I gag on the sugar of their work, ever witty, never amusing. David Buchan, whose advertising takeoffs about the consumption of the consumer were also here, does the same job of media analysis better and with half the fuss.

John McEwen’s 2-inch-thick flame-cut-steel dog silhouettes faced each other from two opposite corners of the first room. It was necessary to pass through their gaze to look closely at Rober Racine’s Pages Miroirs. In Racine’s fanatical Parc de la Langue Française all the words listed in a French dictionary were cut out to dance on the heads of pins stuck in the ground; here, “mirror pages” were sheets of that dictionary missing the words which Racine had cut out for his “park.” The sheets were mounted on small mirrors so that viewers saw themselves through the holes where the words had been. This could be a visual metaphor for the construction of the self through the institution of language; I doubt it, however—Racine claims to be more obsessed with working than with what he’s working on. His production glorifies a dictionary that doubly oppresses Franco-Canadians, whose language excludes them from interchange with the rest of the continent and who are also rejected by France because they don’t speak “pure” French.

Tony Brown’s piece was a little more explicit about daily life and conditioning: in a black room a model of a suburban home without walls spun on a hidden motor which emitted the mesmeric sound of a fan on a summer night. Onto the model were projected 81 slides, some with short texts, which traced a day from “get up” to “can’t sleep.” This was a kind of Dorothy’s farm permanently in the tornado, in the no-man’s-land between gray monotony and the Oz-like good and evil that only monotony can produce. Lyne Lapointe’s luminous epistemology of memory and consciousness sketched with antique wooden tripods, tarpaulin screens painted with phosphorescent pigment, and electronic flashes is similarly but more subtly didactic.

In Stephen Cruise’s reconstruction of the work of a friend as it came to him in a dream a square of damp earth, surrounded by a lightweight aluminum fence, contained three enigmatic rabbit skins, each stretched on a different-sized upright wrought-iron frame. To one of these was attached a series of wires connected to a stack of what looked like radio receivers, all clicking away. This was the best part—an apparatus giving ceaseless cardiac massage to this shell of a being. But Cruise’s dirt was too clean, and the two irritating footprints in the middle of it turned out to be markers for where he would have liked to put a photograph of his friend, who wisely demurred.

Brian Boigon’s Villa for a Vandal squatted in a small stairway in the middle of the museum. Four portable panels, extended with fencing, insinuated the villa’s walls. Inside, these were spray painted with captioned cartoons—“TV Helicopter,” “Totem Renewal.” Two small glass cases each contained a log of wood, upright, and adorned with such museum paraphernalia as coat-check tickets and painting-hook nails; presumably intended to suggest the joint domain of museum and vandal villa, or the dubiously anthropological nature of a rational show from the New World, they looked more like peculiar things for a vandal to have lying about the house. In the middle of the tiny room a Mies van der Rohe chair faced a broken TV set, with a Flintstones-ish telephone hacked out of styrofoam between them. The latter mannerisms should have been dropped; Boigon’s painted panels were enough in themselves to describe the territorial anxiety of ownership.

In John Massey’s A Directed View (the first two rooms), 1979, an oversized felt fedora hangs at the end of a long room before a rear projection of a staircase seen from above. The hat is suspended as much between dimensions as from the ceiling, seeming unbearably ready to tumble into the stairwell; underlining its duplicity of identity, two theater lights illuminate the hat, throwing two perfect black outlines onto the floor to either side of it. We see in these separate shadows our original relation of distance and attraction to the hat itself. This yardstick is applied disturbingly to the experience of the spectator in the second room. A light behind you as you enter catches you between itself and a mirror at the other end of the room; between light and mirror you are pinned to a stucco oval on a wall with the various shadows and reflections your presence creates, in a bicameral predicament almost identical to that of the hat. But here you are a mappable point on the cosine/sine wave of the tables of your own desire, your every move marking another permutation in the relation.

Martha Fleming