Nikolaus Lang

Australian Centre for Contemporary Art

Nikolaus Lang is a West German artist who has been working for the last three years in Australia. His works reenact an evident fascination with primitive culture, archeology, and science. Lang’s origins are firmly in the process-minded ’70s; affinities might be drawn with Robert Smithson or, more recently, Anne and Patrick Poirier and Lothar Baumgarten. All these artists assemble the illusion of recovered knowledge; their work hinges on that apparent availability, and the fact of its denial is significant. Legibility and moral education become visual tropes as well as commitments; thus, the ambivalence that some observers have felt toward an art concerned so seriously with imaging the exotic. But while the Poiriers’ work mimics antiquity and simulates ruins, and Baumgarten’s imitates the ethnographic display, Lang focuses on the natural history museum, and his chosen place of research is the Antipodes.

His three enormous sand paintings, which leaned against the gallery walls here, are literally landscapes; to make them, Lang ripped away sections of cliff face from colored sand deposits on a South Australian beach. The thick clay layers are glued onto cloth, then stretched onto a network of twigs. On the opposite walls of the gallery, the artist arranged an ascending line of dog and kangaroo carcasses. In front of this collection, on the floor, were other skins from dead animals; these all rested on various found objects—a toy plane, a cow horn, a ploughshare. In Peter’s Vision after the Three Week March in Chains, 1987, the lines of fissured sand sweep backwards with the sharpened perspective of theater. The title refers to the capture, forced march, and death of an aborigine wrongly accused of the murder of a white settler. The biblical resonances of this title and others here imply a line of free association; despite the absence of any recognizable image, a multitude of moving objects, caught and momentarily held still, is suggested by the blurred streak of mineral color. The blankness of the overall exhibition may be seen as the refusal of the artist to declare his hand. But Lang’s determination to attempt a scientific invisibility using arte povera means is at variance with his implied political concerns.

Charles Green