Paul Chan, Sade for Sade’s Sake, 2009, video projection, 345 minutes. Installation view.

Paul Chan, Sade for Sade’s Sake, 2009, video projection, 345 minutes. Installation view.

“Before the Law”

Paul Chan, Sade for Sade’s Sake, 2009, video projection, 345 minutes. Installation view.

WHAT IS THE CONNECTION between Fritz Cremer’s O Deutschland, bleiche Mutter! II (O Germany, Pale Mother! II), 1961, and Paul Chan’s Sade for Sade’s Sake, 2009? The former, one version of which stands at the memorial site of the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, is a bronze sculpture of an exhausted woman with downcast eyes, while the latter is a projection more than five hours in duration that shows silhouetted figures engaging in copulation, masturbation, and rape. And is there any link between Giacomo Manzù’s spare figure of Catholic interiority Cardinale in piedi (Standing Cardinal), 1949–51, and Andreas Siekmann’s series of drawings “Dante und Virgil gehen durch die Welt” (Dante and Virgil Walk Through the World), 2011—a maximalist spatial essay on the political economy of European border regimes?

No, on first glance, the “post-war sculptures” and the “spaces of contemporary art” of this exhibition’s subtitle have little or nothing in common, although both have been brought together in Kasper König’s final exhibition at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne after twelve years as its director. (The show is organized with the curator Thomas D. Trummer.) The sculptures, largely dating from the mid-1940s to the early ’60s, are self-contained and rely on genre-specific traditions to make their arguments. They illustrate the attack on the human condition in the twentieth century by materially wounding, cutting open, dissecting, distorting, abasing, or mutilating figures based on the human body, and they draw their life from the pathos that attends the harm inflicted on this traditional form.

Reading postwar modernism’s aesthetically programmatic formal break with the past as a reaction to the (anything but programmatic) breakdown of civilization—a problematic interpretation, to be sure—is nowhere more widespread than in the discussion of midcentury sculpture. Contemporary art, on the other hand, constructs and establishes its language and its genre anew in every individual work, or at least in every artistic project. Inserted between the political and existential realities of human experience, further abstractions intervene—cultural differences, critical theories, crises in art—and are visibly subjected to an artistic process.

Hoping to make these two historical practices collide more radically, and to rethink the fundamental question of the relationship between art and the representation of injustice, König makes a leap: He dispenses, for the most part, with the transitional period, the epoch between an existentialist postwar sculpture that might still be satisfied with distorting and dislocating the symbolic body, might still believe that simple and immediate interventions of this sort could provide access both to art and to its object, and a contemporary art that is not framed by genre and that cannot seem to gain access to an object without extensive research and preparatory studies. This middle term, this intervening period, is that of the counterculture generation—in other words, König’s own age group, whose representatives are almost completely absent here, leaving a startling gap between the children and the grandparents. Indeed, although they do not feature in König’s show, one could summon any number of representatives of this intermediary stage—Edward Kienholz, for example, or Duane Hanson—who would link Reg Butler’s distended body parts (Figure in Space, 1957–58), Germaine Richier’s delicately calibrated aggression toward surfaces and unities (Le Griffu [The Clawed Being], 1952), or Giacometti’s torn-off leg (La Jambe [The Leg], 1958) to the spaces of contemporary art, a stage, moreover, that is represented in abundance even in the permanent collection of the Museum Ludwig.

But invoking such intermediaries in a developmental daisy chain of humanist art maturing from the pathos of existentialism to increased political engagement to the self-reflexive panoramas of contemporary art would have obscured the main concerns of the exhibition. These appear starkly as two groups of questions, almost as theses: 1. Can contemporary art learn from its postwar grandparents, and should it even try? That is to say, is pathos still possible, and to what extent is it necessary, in contemporary art? 2. How important is the (vertical) human figure—after abstraction, after horizontality—in the context of an art that makes political arguments? And what is the status of the figure’s implied survival in spaces whose dimensions still seem to invoke it without representing it? Yet the exhibition’s framing of these questions inevitably creates one further question, one that interrogates the very premise of the show: Should the vanquishing of a certain humanist pathos not itself still be defended, as an advanced state of affairs?

The examples of the art of the immediate postwar period in the show make clear that it established a new grammar of indignation and despair even as it spoke to the proximity of body and subject. But many of the site-specific, monumental works here have never before addressed an audience that has come only for the sake of art itself—for art’s distance from everyday existence. At the Mauthausen memorial site, Cremer’s statue is not surrounded by other art. Transposed to today’s museum, such midcentury sculptures—quite apart from the strange effect produced by their directness of approach, including their sometimes unbearable semantic freighting with obvious material associations (e.g., rough surfaces) and the immediacy of their relation to their subject (“Mankind” itself)—begin to exert a certain pressure on more recent works that are conceived with infinitely more complexity, even if, as in the case of Siekmann or Chan, their pathos is set at a comparable volume. The ambivalent feminist humor in Monica Bonvicini’s installation about skin and surface in art and architecture since Leon Battista Alberti (I Believe in the Skin of Things as in That of Woman, 1999/2011) seems less ironic in this context. One might even—and no doubt against the artist’s intention—read the piece to be as sincere as the rhetoric of postwar sculpture. Such flashes of unintended clarity are not always disagreeable, but they have their limits.

After all, the counterculture’s objections to existentialism were not without justification. The Shoah and the atomic bomb were not only shattering the human condition, but were also concrete and quite different crimes within specific political contexts; their undisputed impact on humanity cannot be conceived of or represented without their respective historical dimension. The first postwar generation could not yet do anything other than articulate its shock at the destruction—as Ossip Zadkine did with the statue he made in reaction to the bombing of Rotterdam (La Ville détruite [The Destroyed City], 1947), shown here. And a slightly later generation could only present political perceptions as social symptoms, resulting in positions like that of George Segal, (exemplified here with The Restaurant Window I, 1967), whose metropolitan figures have been reduced to proverbial anonymity. But a world in which life is reduced to its exchange-value is not populated by such heroic figures, however reduced and anonymous; in fact, it is colorful and garish, as we can see every day on television.

Along with Bruce Nauman, and to a certain extent Joseph Beuys, Segal pops up here after all as a generational link, a lonely relay racer whose job it becomes to ferry something of the postwar grammar of pathos into the present. William Kentridge willingly takes up this baton, bringing it to bear in the ostentatiously hand-drawn style of his animations (Felix in Exile, 1994). The other side of such pathos is Vater Staat (Father State), 2011, by Thomas Schütte, which reminds some of Kafka’s gatekeeper in “Before the Law,” the story that gives this exhibition its title, but in fact would fit better in The Lord of the Rings: That’s how anachronistic and otherworldly—at best ironic—this work appears in its unshaken belief in the continuing validity of an antipatriarchal critique of the state in the era of post-Fordist global capitalism. But perhaps the decisive diagnosis of the show is that the great desideratum for contemporary art lies in its relationship to affect, which remains unresolved after the successive replacement of postwar pathos by concrete indignation, by the euphoria of counterculture, and most recently by irony. What sorts of feelings or moods should political art, or even any sort of serious art, engage with today?

The show’s second thesis, the question of verticality, is particularly interesting in this regard. It is here posed most clearly in a piece by Zoe Leonard, Tree, 1997/2011. For this work, Leonard had a tree sawed down and then mounted upright as a sculpture, propped up and held in place by all sorts of metal collars, cables, and moorings. Is this standing, this raising up, and the associated metaphors of uprising and insurrection—sculpture’s secondary means (after the body, its wholeness or its wounding) of linking traditional genre to political metaphor—still useful for current attempts to formulate political dissent? Can we imagine an assembly not composed of an accumulation of upright individuals? Is democracy a surface of verticals?

For “Zwölf” (Twelve), 2000–2001, Candida Höfer photographed the twelve existing casts of Rodin’s Burghers of Calais, in public squares and museums; the work also inspired Paweł Althamer’s collaborative sculpture Bródno People, 2010, which turns its figures into a procession of gleaming silver citizens who represent all sorts of pop-cultural fantasies. The question then becomes: How much can the old ideology of representation help combat the attractions in today’s hegemonic models of the surprised, shamed, euphoric body? Whether this older mode of restoring political dignity to human figures—and above all groups of figures—is possible and desirable as an antidote to the emptying out of the same human figure in voyeuristic mass culture is perhaps not only the crucial question of this exhibition but also one that has no answer. It may be that all art, in encountering this problem, must ask itself what kinds of direct paths between affect and articulation, between reflection and revolt, it can still rely on—or whether the first task of art today is to blast away those very connections.

Diedrich Diederichsen is a Berlin-based critic and a professor of the theory, practice, and communication of contemporary art at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna.

Translated from German by Oliver E. Dryfuss.