New York

Peter Wächtler, Untitled, 2013, still from the 14-minute, color, HD video component of a mixed-media installation additionally comprising an ink-and-color-pencil drawing on Xerox.

Peter Wächtler, Untitled, 2013, still from the 14-minute, color, HD video component of a mixed-media installation additionally comprising an ink-and-color-pencil drawing on Xerox.

Peter Wächtler

Goethe-Institut Curatorial Residencies Ludlow 38

Peter Wächtler, Untitled, 2013, still from the 14-minute, color, HD video component of a mixed-media installation additionally comprising an ink-and-color-pencil drawing on Xerox.

How do we describe our everyday existence? Colloquially, we might cheekily use the term rat race. In his first US exhibition, “B.A.C.K.,” German-born, Brussels-based artist Peter Wächtler seemed to take up this idiom, presenting a cartoon that addresses the nuanced emotions that shade the experience of daily life and stars a beleaguered, vest-wearing rodent. Untitled, 2013, smartly encodes quotidian routine and the slippages therein with a recursive structure—time may progress, but outfits and countenances don’t.

Set in a stone chambre de bonne with peeling wallpaper and warping floorboards—a red Oriental carpet and a tossed-aside liquor bottle serve as lifestyle indicators—the animation shows the stuporous protagonist vacantly performing his everyday “leisure time.” In a sequence about one minute long, the rat lumbers home at night, trips on his rug, and dislodges a precariously placed bowling ball from his desk, predictably conking himself on the head. Soon, he recovers and climbs into bed. After some tossing and turning, the sun rises all too quickly. Our protagonist labors out of bed, replaces the bowling ball, and hulks off-screen—presumably to a job—only for the Sisyphean scene to repeat again and again.

Throughout the video, Wächtler provides a voice-over. Breaking the first thirty seconds of silence, he reads evenly, if slowly, with a tinge of the forlorn. “How I learned to drive a car,” he begins. His solemn but steady voice utters memories, improvised recollections, and other scraps of information. “How I try to go on and just can’t make it any further and how I still have this photograph of you in my locker that all my colleagues know of,” he says midway through, causing a whiplash of pseudobiography, each line veering further into fantastical tragicomedy. Marked by the beat of his inhalations between lines, Wächtler’s vignettes traipse through various pasts, lived or imagined, possible or not.

Production and consumption day in and day out can sap one’s motivation to continue on, instilling a feeling of being hemmed in by and folded into the arbitrary structures of life. Yet within daily routines, humanness creeps in nonetheless: Midway through the video, our workingman breaks the cycle by sleeping through an entire day. This gray zone is summarized by Henri Lefebvre: “The days follow one after another and resemble one another, and yet—here lives the contradiction at the heart of everydayness—everything changes.” In Wächtler’s work, this notion manifests via minor imprecisions in the scene, a product of the cartoon’s handmade quality (a route differing from the one taken by Wächtler’s peers Jordan Wolfson and Helen Marten, who outsource the production of their animated works). For example, color temperature oscillates from frame to frame, the protagonist’s lazing about is just a bit too staccato, and the edges of the animation cels are often visible. The pervasive downtrodden malaise is further complicated by a spirit of whimsy, one recalling Amelie von Wulffen’s watercolors of anthropomorphic fruits.

Near the end of Untitled, Wächtler breaks out into a somber, beautifully strained Teutonic take on Bruce Springsteen’s 1979 workaday ballad “The River.” Shockingly, his appropriation of American folk tragedy comes across without any echo of camp. In line with karaoke sung at the end of an overlong night out, Wächtler’s earnest rendition of a pop-culturally specific curiosity quickly evolves into catharsis in the face of the unfair, boring, and long gone.

Beau Rutland