Heinrich Dunst, About A B order (detail), 2013, mixed media, eight parts, overall 9' 2 1/4“ x 18' x 9”.

Heinrich Dunst, About A B order (detail), 2013, mixed media, eight parts, overall 9' 2 1/4“ x 18' x 9”.

Heinrich Dunst

Heinrich Dunst, About A B order (detail), 2013, mixed media, eight parts, overall 9' 2 1/4“ x 18' x 9”.

It may seem far-fetched to describe a visit to a Conceptual art exhibition as an Alice in Wonderland experience. If the effect of Heinrich Dunst’s show was somewhat dizzying or disorienting, it was not because the artist had somehow given up his practice of translating discourse into (often quite monosyllabic) artworks. Rather, the feeling of having stepped through the looking glass arose from the way in which the exhibition seemed to adhere to a definition of sense that bordered on the nonsensical.

The exhibition as a whole was thoroughly choreographed. It started off with wall works and gradually expanded into space, superficially obeying a hierarchy of media, from language to painting and through sculpture to installation. Yet these categories were blurred, and most attempts at labeling an individual work—and its material—would have been futile. Take the first piece, with the dry and cunning title Wand­arbeit (Wall Piece; all works cited, 2013), consisting of a giant filmstrip and an inventory of words, such as WALL, SHOE, FILM, TEXT, and IMAGE. The film, however, was a digitally printed image of a film; the words were painted on the wall. Now, were they images or signs? Or were they just self-referential: a table of contents, the work’s and the show’s inventory?

And what exactly was About A B order? An architectural intervention? A manual on how to deconstruct painting? This two-sided, freestanding cardboard wall features its title and a sketch-like painting on its front; behind it, something like the three-dimensional model of a still-life painting: a large table in raw canvas, with, on top, a pair of shoes, a book, a cube, a black square painted directly onto the canvas, a circle made out of black felt, and what seemed to be a maulstick. Again, were we supposed to see these objects as things in their own right, as a catalogue of (modernist) painting, or as the constituents of a painting and thus abstractions?

This is where the Alice effect took over, where conventional expectations and viewing patterns started getting more and more distorted. It continued with works such as Bodenarbeit (Floor Piece), an assortment of pedestals in all shapes and sizes alongside a detergent box and a giant cucumber and tuna cans that in different ways translated the kinds of questions that About A B order raises concerning its own ontology into sculpture. Rauminstallation (Space Installation), a harshly lit room whose floor was covered with painfully pink polystyrene boards of a sort normally used for insulation, had an almost nauseating feel to it. And that was fully intended. The setup of this Conceptual wonderland—with its support of evasive, enigmatic characters—took its intellectual inspiration from Gilles Deleuze’s seminal treatise The Logic of Sense (1969). In it, the philosopher celebrates Lewis Carroll’s distorted worlds and cannibalistic approach to rational language. To put it simply, sense (or non-sense) does not exist per se for Deleuze, but is being produced while we think and speak. We therefore live in a world where everything is in flux, where we can’t rely on any metaphysical foundation, least of all our own identity. Dunst’s exhibition was a bold and successful attempt to translate this Deleuzian proposition into the realm of art, to give it a visual, tangible form. This parade of hybrid objects and vexing images slowed down our intellectual processes so that we could observe how we think and classify. It challenged intellectual and linguistic abilities that derive from the axiom that “A” can never be “not-A.” In the Deleuzian universe as seen by Dunst, “A” can be anything.

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