Pawel Althamer

The Nicola Trussardi Foundation always chooses public spaces in Milan for its exhibition venues, and thus Pawel Althamer’s solo show was installed in the frescoed neoclassical rooms of the Palazzina Appiani, Arena Civica. Napoléon personally presided over the opening of the Arena in 1807. This exhibition, curated by Massimiliano Gioni, was the first large-scale museum show in Italy for Althamer, who was born in Poland in 1967. Three years ago Althamer won the Vincent van Gogh Biennial Award for Contemporary Art in Europe, and he has already taken part in some of the most important international exhibitions. In Milan, Althamer continued his staging of himself, his endless obsession with and need for self-portraiture, and his representation of his body in search of a soul; the spirituality that pervades his oeuvre is patent. This was a portrait of the artist as everyman: An enormous Althamer, in the form of a seventy-foot-long balloon, was positioned above the Parco Sempione, across from the entrance to the Arena.

In his new works, Althamer seems to abandon the archaic and primitive, almost carnal and visceral dimension of his self-portrait sculptures. Now, like a shaman, he transforms himself and family members into monuments that are like characters in a fairy tale, figurines in a family crèche. Amid the greenery of the park, Althamer confronted the nakedness of human life and the precarious relationship between flesh and spirit, strength and fragility. Made from basic materials such as hay, hemp fiber, wax, animal entrails, hair, and skin, his sculptures appeared before the viewer like a large family: his daughter, Weronika, 2001, whose birth is described by the artist in one of the eight videos in the show; his pregnant companion, Matejka, and his newborn son, shown in the disturbing form of a fetus with Althamer’s face (Matejka with Son, 2006); and the artist himself, depicted as a child holding his old, wrinkled undershirt and rag teddy bear (Self-portrait as a Boy, 1993) or projected some thirty years hence, as a man in his seventies, as embodied in a flesh-and-blood look-alike found through a casting call in Milan (Self-portrait as an Old Man, 2001).

The variegated path through Althamer’s creative production ended with a projection of videos he made in collaboration with artist Artur Zmijewski. These documentaries of Althamer’s experiments with drugs and hypnosis capture him in altered states, sometimes hallucinating. This desperate search for self-discovery through mind and body never lapses into psychodrama. In the video Magic Mushrooms, 2003–2004, Althamer confesses his belief that “laughing is the most powerful thing. . . . We are proprietors of the world. We have been created to have it.” With this awareness, he continues his journey through experience.

Paola Noé

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.