Kai Althoff

A narrative thread connects the individual works in Kai Althoff’s exhibition, “Ein noch zu weiches Gewese der Urian-Bündner (A still too soft comportment of the Urian Fraternity), 1999. In a typewritten text, Althoff tells of a fraternity of young men who have made a pact with evil. Youth, desire, and despair determine the otherworldly sphere in which they move, a sphere beyond time and corporeality. A sort of memorial to these boys’ earthly existence, the exhibition contains photos of a harmonious family and of a young, attractive, yet seemingly diabolical man, as well as sculptures in the form of angels, fashioned from wall-to-wall carpeting, supposedly the work of the young recruits. There are also seventeen works made with poster paint on paper, erotically charged depictions of the young men’s grimacing faces and wild brawls. The homoerotic aspect of this male society manifests itself most clearly, however, in ten black-and-white photographs of a young man that were displayed in the entrance area of the gallery. They are a combination of failed fashion photography—in imitation of Richard Avedon or Helmut Newton, for example—and film stills from Hitchcock or Nouvelle Vague productions. The attraction of these works lies precisely in their ambivalent status, at once embarrassingly stagy and moodily evocative.

The young man in the photographs and the figures in Althoff’s drawings as well as the young men on the invitation to the exhibition all possess this combination of sexual allure and deep yet undirected wickedness. In this respect they resemble the hoods from Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), who commit their crimes just for the hell of it. Kubrick’s somber dystopian visions evoke a social reality, but with Althoff a spiritualized, rather transcendental atmosphere prevails, reminiscent of Rudolf Steiner’s 1992 book, An Outline of Occult Science. This comparison is all the more pertinent since according to Steiner the highest spiritual level of the body is the astral body, a concept that reappears in Althoff’s story. Furthermore, the family life we glimpse in the photos—the children paint, play music, go for countryside walks with their parents—suggests Steiner’s idea of an artistically oriented education with highly attentive pedagogy, as practiced in the Waldorf schools he inspired.

From an art-historical perspective, Althoff’s carpet sculptures beg comparison to Robert Morris’s felt pieces. This is not only on the grounds of formal analogies, but also because Morris developed his first Minimalist sculptures (e.g. Two Columns, 1961) from objects he had used in performances, where they essentially functioned as actors. This anthropomorphism is again more pointedly formulated in Althoff’s carpet sculptures. A theatrical, performative impetus reminiscent of Morris’s may also be found in earlier installations of Althoff’s like Modern wird lahmgelegt (The modern is being paralyzed), 1995, or Reflux lux, 1998, as well as in the current show. The pessimistic and disconsolate mood of the earlier installations colors the world of the Urian Fraternity, though in the latter at least a glimmer of hope shines through in the family photos and angel sculptures. The strength of Althoff’s exhibition lies in its ambivalence. For all the melancholy, a significant space is given over to the beauty of remembrance.

Yilmaz Dziewior

Translated from German by Elizabeth Felicella.