Olaf Breuning


As you felt your way around the dark rook, the silhouettes of a jungle very gradually emerged on the wall. Glowing green eyes, a campfire, and flashlights flickered into view, lending the gathering of man-apes an appearance that was threateningly enigmatic yet, thanks to its evident fakeness, ironic. In Apes (all works 2001), the latest installation by the New York—and Zurich-based Swiss artist Olaf Breuning, the program of light and sound, which ranged from guttural humming tones to belching, was self-activated. Somewhere between primeval vision and spooky carnival ride, recalling the 1968 film Planet of the Apes, the spectacle ensnared its observers, heaved them onto the theatrical stage, and even allowed them to become potential participants. Our gaze soon enough picked out the light machines and the many cables, so it was far from a deceptively real simulation. And yet the funhouse effects were utilized to evoke real emotional responses.

Likewise, in the large-format photographs, which Breuning often displays in tandem with his installations and performances, as he did here, the visible method of construction is an equally essential component of the given pictorial composition. Three group portraits, Primitives, Cavewomen, and Skaters, refined and expanded the thematic radius of the exhibition to include idealizations of human and evolutionary history. Lie his installation works, Breuning’s photographs draw from the most varied sources. Images from fashion, art, advertising, cinema, and television are mixed and combined; in the process, the borders between high art and pop art are entirely erased. Diverse symbolic worlds flow into one another without their elements claiming recognition as quotations. This “zapping” produces images that are new at first glance, yet also seem familiar.

Breuning’s photographs, however, attempt neither to postulate a rigid and autonomous counter-world nor to expose existing images as a surrogate reality. Alternative worlds seem completely out of the question today anyway, because “the image” and images of the world have long since lost their connection. Instead, Breuning stages a virtuosic game of clichés and codes. For the glossy photos on exhibit, this means that a longing for historicity and for myths of originality is met in an affirmative way. Even silly-looking bundles of wood can indicate short raffia skirts, though they don’t even manage to cover the boxers of the four half-naked young men. Hollywood methods and stereotypes are used to construct an image of “natives” in which the media-produced idea of authenticity is adopted and produced anew. These constructions are the result of various combinations of codes and are predicated on a purely additive approach. Probably for this reason, the grim figures in these pictures often recall those of Dutch group portraiture.

Breuning is in no way calling the truthfulness of images into doubt. There is no moralistic finger pointing here; rather, Breuning demonstrates how the simplest means suffice to evoke in us deep-seated feelings or even ideas only made possible by our familiarity with a reality created by the media.

Philipp Kaiser

Translated from German by Sara Ogger