Kassel

Josh Kline, Creative Hands (detail), 2013, silicone, commercial shelving, LED lights, 36 1/2 x 26 x 15 1/2". From “Speculations on Anonymous Materials,” 2013–14.

Josh Kline, Creative Hands (detail), 2013, silicone, commercial shelving, LED lights, 36 1/2 x 26 x 15 1/2". From “Speculations on Anonymous Materials,” 2013–14.

“Speculations on Anonymous Materials”

Josh Kline, Creative Hands (detail), 2013, silicone, commercial shelving, LED lights, 36 1/2 x 26 x 15 1/2". From “Speculations on Anonymous Materials,” 2013–14.

“Speculations on Anonymous Materials” was the first exhibition held at Kassel’s Fridericianum under the museum’s new director, Susanne Pfeffer. Its title is programmatic, taking up terms that have recently gone viral in the debates on aesthetics. Speculation and material are traditionally conceived as near antonyms. To speculate is to think about God, infinity, and the absolute—in short, speculation is metaphysics—while materials are a matter of physics. But with the current buzz around “speculative materialism,” all this seems to have changed. The French philosopher Quentin Meillassoux, in particular, has argued that materialism should no longer close itself off to speculative thinking. And so people also speculate—as was the case in this exhibition—about the visual materials that flood the anonymous networks regulating the flow of information and capital today, and about the resistive potential of subversive actions such as those attributed to the Anonymous movement.

Many of the works on display conspicuously addressed the human body. Yet they were made by artists of a generation that grew up with computers; that body is no longer, as it had been since Kant, the origin of perception in a definable space-time continuum. It is instead subjected to incessant internal and external purgation and trimming—to optimization efforts. Bewilderingly, many works, not all of them compelling, were about such topics as the alleged purity of mineral water or about various cleansing agents: Among these were pieces by Pamela Rosenkranz, Josh Kline, and Timur Si-Qin, who skewered bottles of Axe, a men’s shower gel, with a samurai sword and let the contents congeal into Pollockesque splotches on the floor. Si-Qin explicitly invokes Meillassoux to describe his “aesthetics of contingency,” by which he means something like a steady flow of materials within semi-stable structures.

With bodies everywhere, there are, of course, plenty of hands. Interacting with touch screens, they opened the door to the digital realm. Kline, for example, used a 3-D printing process to portray his friends’ hands holding their favorite objects, such as cans of stimulant drinks or smartphones. The Berlin-based, Yugoslavian-born artist Aleksandra Domanović made 3-D prints (“The Future Was at Her Fingertips,” 2013) of the so-called Belgrade hand, the first prosthetic hand with sensory capacities, which was constructed in Yugoslavia around 1963. The hands were set on bases and shelves like fetishes, and the viewer got an intimation of what Graham Harman (another “speculative materialist” philosopher) means by “object-oriented ontology”: We—our hands—have long lost our dominant power over the digital world of objects. What would have been called “alienation” in post-post-Marxist parlance is now described as desubjectivation: The human subject’s relation to the object is merely one among many.

Ed Atkins’s video Warm, Warm, Warm Spring Mouths, 2013, revolved around a crucial issue: What happens when computer-animated human characters acquire language? Is the human being turned into code? A bronze sculpture, Mansudae Overseas Project, and a video, 5, both 2013, showed that the Austrian artist Oliver Laric is concerned with something similar, while Ryan Trecartin’s video Item Falls, 2013, quirkily twisted the problem: Its characters are debating the possible use of a computer-animated horse when a real horse walks into the room. Although much of the work in this exhibition was half-baked and diffuse, the show’s repeated examinations of the reflective processes by which we make a world pervaded by technology our own revealed that one thing is very clear: Something is afoot, a shift that’s not only changing the way we engage with objects but that also compels us to revise the classical avant-garde belief that something new can be made by restarting from scratch. Then again, hasn’t the new always been merely a mutation of what’s already there?

Noemi Smolik

Translated from German by Gerrit Jackson.