David Hammons

David Hammons’ African-American version of the “Stars and Stripes”—a green, black, and red flag—billowed over the portal of the Salzburger Kunstverein, lending the building the air of an embassy. In a place like Salzburg, where the culture-intoxicated bourgeoisie comes to see great opera and theater, an exhibition offering work by a black artist gives rise to expectations of utter otherness,which will hopefully manifest itself in the form of charmingly “different” cultural artifacts.

But Hammons, a bit of a killjoy, defeated such expectations. Only one picture in this show, in fact, made explicit reference to the “black other.” Tellingly enough, however, this portrait of a black woman is the work of Salzburger Rafaela Toledo, who with this painting commemorated her friendship with a woman writer stationed in postwar Salzburg during the American occupation. Hammons borrowed the picture from the artist and hung it on a red-and-gold patterned wall in a darkened, box-shaped room that had the aura of an haut-bourgeois salon. If the portrait included local references in its intersection of the historical and personal, a more general one was made through the use of music in the three other parts of the installation. There the Salzburger public found its beloved opera, as Verdi’s La Traviata played in tandem with the crushing noise of a cement-mixer. This musical construction site, a desperate tour de force, recalled an absurdity of present-day Salzburg—the reconstruction of a house, destroyed fifty years ago, in which Mozart once lived.

When the sounds of Verdi and the machine receded, rap music emerged from an amplifier concealed by leaves on the seat of a swing made of tree-trunks and gilded chains. Was the American music meant to suggest playfulness, and the European the opposite? Perhaps the trees and leaves stood for the natural, and the cement-mixer for that which is hardened and unnatural? This would be too simple, too black and white, as it were. After all, you could as easily argue the opposite: the rap-playing swing was immobile, whereas the “opera machine” spun. Hammons’ show was characterized by an effort to shake up rather than reinforce cultural stereotypes. For example, in the dark interior of a cabin built into the corner of the room, one found a sky full of fluorescent Christ figures made of cheap plastic: not Afro-art, but wall-to-wall Euro-kitsch.

The concurrent exhibition of Hammons’ work at Christine König in Vienna, which consisted of both old and new work, perhaps made more aggressive use of stereotypical notions about ethnicity. Here, in Double Cross, 1990, a white-painted globe with two rose wreaths, Hammons evoked the imperialism of Christianity, just as African Stand, 1991, five African masks lying on a scale and on the floor, pointed to the dangers of selling out black culture; it was impossible, however, not to note the irony of Hammons’ making such a critique given the market-bound presentation of his own art.

Basketball Installation, 1995—which also recombined elements of earlier works—was less explicit. A highly charged narrative was set up between a tree trunk, a basketball hoop, an African vessel containing a new basketball, and a wall dirtied with marks made by an old one. The basketball was present on the wall only as a trace, seeming to pass through an imaginary voyage in space and conjuring up fast-moving bodies in a game that, for Hammons, is paradigmatic, as it embodies the transformation of a white “game plan” by black experience and skill.

Christian Kravagna

Translated from the German by David Jacobson.