Albert Hien

Museum Am Abteiberg

Albert Hien’s installation in the large exhibition hall here was a strong one. This monumental sculptural “image,” in aluminum sheet metal with visible seams, emitted a literal and figurative energy. An ominous gas flame burned from the chimney of a crudely built shiplike structure, while from leaning towers issued the sound of flowing water. A sort of windmill apparatus—actually, it was more like a child’s whirligig—rotated on a housing. The ship sat as if about to take off on a segment of a bridge which lifted it high into the air. Everything in this fragmented installation was physically askew, and it all seemed patched together just enough to keep it from falling to pieces. No step in the construction process was hidden. In the scant light of the exhibition hall, the bright metal shone only where it was directly illuminated; the rest receded into semidarkness. Every irregularity, every seam played its own game with the light and became a potential focus of energy, along with the loud and soft sounds of the elemental fire, wind, and water.

Hien, a Munich artist, is among the most significant of the young sculptors now emerging in Germany. At the 1982 Documenta, given an inappropriate space in the cellar next to Hans Jürgen Syberberg’s Parsifal room, he exhibited a construction identifiable (but only barely) as an image of an airplane. So far, all his images in sculpture have dealt with flying and with ships. The elements of air and water—inextricable, of course, from travel by plane or boat—are always references, as are accompanying architectural and functional objects: lighthouses, propellers, bridges. The allusions to function are always clear, but are always negated by the unusableness of the objects, their ruined, skewed quality. The sculptures have a definite powerful presence.

This installation was particularly successful. The thin sheet metal and crude construction emphasized the undisguised hollowness of the sculptures. After a while the gas flame and its sharp hiss, along with the ceaseless rush of the water, created a feeling of vertigo in the spectator, a feeling the whir of the whirligig did little to mitigate. It was eased, however, from another source—the humor of the work, and its fairy-tale quality. It evoked the dream of freedom through flight, of escape in the adventure of the sea. At a time when we are threatened with the death of the oceans, and of the heavens too, that connotation may have been ironic, but our dreams of infinite sea and sky are probably irrepressible. And if not even dreams are possible, aren’t we adrift anyway? This simple yet complex nexus of ideas is certainly one impulse behind Hien’s work. The ease with which his sculptures enter the “useless” territory of the dream, the way these seemingly functional objects teeter between the instability things have in dreams and the instability dreams have in reality—these fluxes and flows charge the sculptures with energies that point far beyond their material existence.

The viewer may have been disoriented by the dim light of the room, the orchestration of sounds and natural forces, and the crooked postures of the structures in this installation, but the basic situation was always clear. The work hid nothing; everything about it could be easily explained and described. This simplicity and transparency were the links between the work and its effects. Hien calls these objects “tools”; they obviously aren’t intended for literal use, but they do work to liberate dreams, yearnings, and desires from the rationalism that eats at the contemporary human psyche. The obvious handmadeness of Hien’s objects is important here for its role in the resistance to excess technology. Hien is no do-gooder dogmatist, however, but an artist who plays with possibilities, explores them to the limit. His structures surely lean and tilt because the straightforward solution isn’t easy to come by. “Let phantasy rule,” was the revolutionary slogan of 1968; "let dreams rule’’ could well be Hien’s. Yet since dreams can be sold as hollow promises, Hien tries to create an unstable balance between desire and the impossibility of satisfying it.

Annelie Pohlen

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.